NEW YORK — The danger for any newly eliminated postseason team is in going too far in its internal analysis of what went wrong, and in seeing fatal flaws that must be swiftly and aggressively corrected when, in reality, those are just the way baseball goes sometimes. Did the New York Yankees lose the American League Division Series, in other words, because they were a decidedly lesser team than the Boston Red Sox across four games? Or did they lose because of outfield dimensions?
That’s an oversimplification of the questions the Yankees now face, of course, but as they pick up the pieces from Tuesday night’s 4-3 loss in Game 4 and head into a difficult and pivotal offseason, amid their painful self-evaluation will be this underlying notion:
If Gary Sanchez’s dramatic ninth-inning blast to left field had been hit at Fenway Park, instead of Yankee Stadium, it would have cleared the Green Monster for a go-ahead grand slam instead of dying at the warning track as a long, high out. And for that matter, if Christian Vazquez’s drive to right in the Red Sox’s half of the fourth inning was hit at Fenway, it would have been caught for an out rather than leaving the park. Either twist of fate could have saved the Yankees’ season.
“If that was on the road, it’s probably a home run,” Yankees third baseman Neil Walker said of Sanchez’s towering flyball. “If it was the right field, it’s probably a home run. That ninth inning was a synopsis of our season, if you ask me.”
The flaws-versus-fates questions hang over every good team that sees its season end in October, but they seem particularly acute for the 2018 Yankees, who spent the better part of six months chasing the Red Sox in the AL East, only to lose the division by eight games, then spent the better part of four nights in October being outpitched, outhit and outmanaged by them.
But are the Red Sox significantly better than them? Or did they simply enjoy better health across 162 games, then simply outplay them for these last four? Do the Yankees need to get better, or do they need to play better when it matters most?
“You’re always chasing utopia,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “We’re chasing greatness here. . . . Obviously, we have some decisions, a lot of things that are going to happen between now and next year. But I think we’re right there knocking on the door to be that. I mean, we’re very close to being a championship club right now. We’ve just got to improve on the margins in every facet.”
At some point, the quest to improve on the margins must almost certainly include some self-examination from Boone, a first-year manager in 2018, over his pitching moves in Games 3 and 4. In two critical games, the second of which had the Yankees facing elimination, he was slow to pull his starting pitcher and deploy his bullpen — the clearest and most acute advantage the Yankees held over the Red Sox. Boone’s choices didn’t lose either game for New York, but they stood out in this era of bullpen supremacy and were picked apart at length in the media.
A year ago, Boone was in the ESPN booth doing color commentary. As a rookie manager, he surely has room to improve, and before Game 4, he seemed to acknowledge that.
“You always kind of work through things or play out things differently [in your mind],” Boone said, “because a lot of times decisions you make are not just black and white: ‘This is what we’re doing in this spot.’ They’re decisions [in which] you understand [there are] a couple of different ways you could go that makes some sense. You evaluate those, and think about those, and hopefully analyze [and] sharpen the process as far as [how] those decisions are made. And then you move on and hopefully always continue to grow.”
The primary personnel decisions the Yankees face this winter are fairly standard. They have pending free agents in starters J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia and relievers David Robertson and Zach Britton. They hold a club option on veteran outfielder Brett Gardner. They will almost certainly target starting pitching this winter, though it is not a particularly deep free agent class.
The Red Sox, of course, will be shopping, too — Boston had the highest payroll in the majors in 2018 — and the Yankees can only hope they do better vis-a-vis their archrivals in the talent marketplace than they did over the past 10 months.
In December, after the Yankees traded for Giancarlo Stanton, the Red Sox signed J.D. Martinez. Stanton struggled in his first season in the Bronx. Martinez became an MVP contender in Boston. In July, the Yankees acquired Happ for their rotation; the Red Sox picked up Nathan Eovaldi. Happ, after a fine showing in the second half of the season, lasted just two innings against the Red Sox in a Game 1 loss. Eovaldi, in Game 3, pitched seven sterling innings.
Some of the Yankees’ personnel questions are deeper and require more self-examination. What happened this season to Sanchez and Greg Bird, two young players considered franchise cornerstones who performed below expectations? How can they coax more production out of Stanton — the hulking slugger and highest-paid player in the game who is also a strikeout machine? In one of the most critical at-bats of the Yankees’ season, in Tuesday night’s ninth inning, he struck out against Kimbrel, giving a lifeline to a laboring pitcher who desperately needed one.
“I have to put the ball in play there,” Stanton told reporters Tuesday night. “I have to get a pitch over the plate and keep the line moving. . . . I’m going to use this for fuel for next year. I think we all are.”
The Yankees hit more homers than any team in history in 2018, 267 of them, but in Games 3 and 4 they were held without one — the first time since early April that had happened in consecutive games at home. The Yankees were 4 for 26 (.184) in the series with runners in scoring position, managing only one extra-base hit. Did the Yankees’ hitters choke? Are they too dependent on power? Did the Red Sox’s pitchers shut them down? Or are sudden, team-wide slumps just part of baseball?
“You’re always chasing to be the most complete hitter you can be,” Boone said, “to be the best base-running team. . . . That [means] better in every aspect: better at getting on base, better at slugging, better at putting the ball in play.”
In 2017, as the Yankees were in the midst of a rebuilding effort — or as close to it as the Yankees were willing to get — the “Baby Bombers,” as they became known, surprised many in the sport by winning 91 games and advancing to Game 7 of the AL Championship Series before falling to the Houston Astros.
But this year, expectations were higher, and in many ways the Yankees met them, winning 100 games despite injuries to Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Jordan Montgomery and others. Their deep bullpen — arguably the best ever constructed — gave them the sense they could take down the Red Sox in the playoffs, despite losing the division to them by eight games.
That the Yankees fell short is cause for reflection and self-evaluation over these next few months. But is this a franchise that needs to make massive changes? Or do the Yankees just need to go back to a point in time before Tuesday night’s ninth inning, and bring the left field fence at Yankee Stadium in another five feet? On such fleeting, fantastical questions are championships won and lost.