Yet for all their spending, the Bronx Bombers, if you can even call them that anymore, are barely over .500 at 37-33 and drawing plenty of scrutiny over their free-spending habits. The Yankees spending big on players is nothing new. The organization has had one of the two highest payrolls in eight of the past 10 years, including this one. The outliers were 2018, when the Yankees had the sixth-highest payroll, and 2017, when they were third. The problem is that for all that money, they’re receiving relatively little production in return. In fact, this season has a lot in common with similar bloated payrolls over the years, years in which the Yankees bet on past or unsustainable production from a player rather than reasonable future expectations.
Part of the core issue is age, and it’s important to understand how players, especially hitters, change over time and what drives their performance. For example, more than half of the players who have qualified for the batting title since 1901 have seen a peak in their individual wins above replacement (WAR) production between the ages of 25 and 29. Only 24 percent of players see their peak after the age of 30. In other words, players over 30 can be considered past their prime. Considering players need six years of MLB service time to reach free agency and three-fourths of MLB rookies are between 22 and 26 years old over the past decade, you can see how this has a big impact on free agent spending.
But there are other factors of which MLB clubs should be mindful before handing out big contracts, including metrics such as batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which can point to seasons largely influenced by luck, good and bad. For example, players with an unusually high BABIP one year (at least 10 percent better than the major league average), as a group, see their batting average drop the following year, while those with below-average BABIP see an increase. Committing future dollars to players past their prime or who were beneficiaries of good fortune are recipes for disaster. Over the past 10 years, the Yankees have pretty much written the cookbook for bad spending habits.
In 2013, New York had the second-highest payroll in the majors ($238 million) after signing 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda, 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki and 34-year-old Kevin Youkilis. They also doled out one-year deals to familiar faces in Andy Pettitte (41 years old) and Mariano Rivera (43).
Suzuki was traded to the Yankees in 2012 and promptly contributed with a .322 average and .794 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He had a robust .337 batting average on balls in play during his first, short stint in pinstripes, a high number even for one of the better hitters in baseball history. In 2013, Suzuki’s BABIP declined to .285 and his on-base percentage dropped to a then-career low .297. Youkilis, known as a Yankees killer during his days with the Red Sox, hit two home runs in 28 games before ending his major league career in 2014.
Overall, the average age of this New York free agent class was 36.4 years old, the second oldest of this decade, trailing only the 2012 Arizona Diamondbacks (average age of 36.5). The net result was a 85-77 record and a third-place finish in the AL East.
A year later, General Manager Brian Cashman spent lavishly on Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, bringing the payroll to $214 million. Ellsbury had a career year in 2013 at 29 years old but followed the trend of other major league players and faltered in his 30s, batting .264 with a .716 OPS from 2014 to 2017 (5 percent lower than the league average over that span), missing over 100 games during that time and ultimately ending his baseball career.
McCann, also 30 years old in his first year with the Yankees, batted .235 with a .731 OPS for three seasons in the Bronx, average production for a premium price. The 37-year-old Beltrán battled a bone spur in his right elbow that limited his production to a .233 batting average with a .301 on-base percentage and a .402 slugging percentage, all career lows. He would bounce back a bit in 2015 (.276/.337/.471), but his overall production was average for MLB. New York finished 84-78, second in the East but with no playoff spot.
In 2015 and 2016, the payroll was over $200 million, too, yet there were no big-name free agents acquired because the money was already committed elsewhere. The team managed a single postseason appearance over those two years, a 2015 wild-card loss to the Houston Astros. Fast-forward to 2021 and we are still seeing the same problems in roster construction and asset management.
As a team, the Yankees are batting .234 with a .703 OPS, which rank 19th and 14th, respectively, in the majors this year.
The problem contracts of 2021 start with LeMahieu. The second baseman was re-signed to a six-year, $90 million contract in 2020 after he led the majors in batting average for the second time in his career. However, LeMahieu got lucky last year. Based on the exit velocity and launch angles of the balls he put in play, we would have expected him to bat .298 with a .469 slugging percentage in 2020, not .364 and .590.
That wasn’t the only red flag. His rate of barrels, hits on the sweet spot of the bat, was cut by more than half from 2019 (7 percent) to 2020 (3 percent). In other words, he was seeing better results at the plate despite not hitting the ball as well as he did a year earlier. That also should have signaled the Yankees’ front office that there was a lot of good fortune going his way last season. And as you would expect, the 32-year-old has regressed, batting .261 with a .343 slugging percentage in 2021.
Stanton is also a cautionary tale of adding a player after a peak year. Stanton, at 27 years old, hit a major league-high 59 home runs in 2017 for Miami before the Yankees brought him to the Bronx. New York saw him hit a respectable 38 home runs in 2018, but in 2019 and 2020 he played 41 of 222 games. He is 8 for 40 with 15 strikeouts since he returned to the lineup May 28 after a stint on the injured list for a quadriceps injury. He does, however, have three home runs over his past three games.
Compared with some of the other big deals, Gary Sánchez’s contract may not stand out, but he still isn’t delivering much of a return. Sánchez was signed to a one-year deal worth $5 million in January with the hopes he would rebound from a lackluster 2020 campaign that saw him hit .147 with a career low .618 OPS. He has improved but only to a slash line of .229/.333/.452.
With such a bloated payroll, it’s difficult to have the depth necessary to adjust to in-season injuries, and there have been three key injuries that have sent ripple effects throughout the roster.
Kluber was solid for New York this season, including a no-hitter in May, but exited his next start with tightness in his throwing shoulder and was subsequently moved to the 60-day injured list. A pair of injuries to Luke Voit forced LeMahieu to move to first base — a position that lessens his impact in the field — while Rougned Odor took over at second base. LeMahieu earned two defensive runs saved at second base this season, while Odor has cost the team three runs at the same position. An injury to Aaron Hicks not only pushed Gardner into center field and Clint Frazier into left, it robbed New York of one of its few hitters who can bat left-handed.
Without Hicks, New York’s current roster features only three other left-handed hitters: Odor, Gardner and Tyler Wade. Odor is batting .173 against right-handed pitchers in 2021, creating runs at a rate that is 42 percent lower than the league average after adjusting for league and park effects. Gardner is batting .227 vs. lefties and Wade is a career .198 hitter. As a result, the Yankees have the platoon advantage in less than 43 percent of their plate appearances this season, the second-worst rate in baseball. Former Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez also correctly pointed out a right-handed dominant lineup will result in more double plays. New York has grounded into a double play a season high 64 times in 2021.
Among the 24 instances since 2011 in which a club spent $200 million or more, the Yankees have five of the seven worst performances in terms of wins above replacement produced. That includes this season, which projects to a 31.3 WAR for 2021, an optimistic number when you consider how awful the offense has been. Back of the envelope math estimates the Yankees will be worth 16.2 WAR by year’s end, a number that would barely edge out the Chicago White Sox’s production during 2020’s 60-game season.
You can’t blame the Yankees for spending so much money. There is no salary cap, and they are one of the most valuable franchises in sports (according to Forbes) in one of the biggest sports markets in the world. And they have gotten some good production for their money with recent playoff appearances. That said, they could be getting a lot more bang for their bucks, and after years of a low return on investment, the team may want to reexamine its strategy.