NEW YORK — It has taken a $278 million last-place finish for Hal Steinbrenner to finally conclude there’s something rotten in the Yankee hemisphere. Not so rotten to change Brian Cashman’s title as the eternal Yankee GM, but rotten enough for Hal to bring in a consulting firm to examine all the elements of Cashman’s analytics department.
In particular, Hal wants to know what’s the value of the hitters’ exit velocity if they can’t hit the ball consistently. (See: Giancarlo Stanton), and what’s the value of pitchers’ velocity if they can’t control the strike zone? It’s the way that the Yankees and so many other clubs are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on analytic apparatuses that measure pitchers’ velocity and spin rates and hitters’ bat speed. And for what? At the same time, they’re not teaching pitchers how to pitch, hitters how to be selective and the basic fundamentals of baseball.
Along with the over-emphasis on analytics, Cashman lost his way from all the principles of putting together a team that he’d been taught by Gene Michael. In particular: Left-handed hitting for Yankee Stadium, disciplined, selective hitters with high on-base percentage, above average defense at every position, strong on fundamentals. The 2023 Yankees are none of those things. Playing most of the season with only one left-handed hitter in the lineup, heading into the weekend they ranked 26th in the majors in on-base percentage, next-to-last in hits and batting average (.228), last in doubles, 25th in run scoring percentage and are tied for the fifth most runners thrown out on the bases (14).
It’s going to take a while to undue this mess of a team Cashman’s analytics eggheads created and it’s going to especially need an infusion of talent coming through the system — and not more money splashed on long-term free agent contracts. The Yankees’ player development department has been largely impotent in recent years, plagued by the same analytics paralysis that exists with the big club — the absence of teaching the basics of baseball amid the all-consuming obsession for velo.
But there are glimmers of hope in the Yankee system.
In addition to announcing his attentions to bring in an outside company to “take a deep dive” in Cashman’s analytics and baseball operations departments, last week Hal took matters in own hands and ordered the call-up of the Yankees’ top two prospects, switch hitting center fielder Jasson Dominguez and left-handed-hitting catcher Austin Wells. At the same time the Yankees waived center fielder Harrison Bader and released third baseman Josh Donaldson with some $6 million still owed him — both of them symbols of two more Cashman deals gone bad.
It remains to be seen how the two kids fare, but at this point, with the season a Cashman-declared disaster and a bad boring team on the field, Hal decided there was nothing to lose by giving them a month of major league experience and Yankee fans a glimpse at the future. In the Gene Michael heyday, the Yankees had a switch hitting center fielder by the name of Bernie Williams, and from the time he signed a record-tying $5.1 million bonus four years ago, the 20-year-old Dominguez has been touted as a similar power and speed talent. He got off to a terrible start at Double-A Somerset this year, then figured it out at midseason, earning a promotion to Triple-A Scranton where he hit .419 with 10 RBIs in his first nine games.
And then in his first major league at-bat Friday night, Dominguez hit a two-run homer off the Astros’ Justin Verlander.
As for Wells, the Yankees’ first round pick in the 2020 draft, scouts all seem in agreement that his power bat (16 homers in 96 minor league games this year) will play in the majors but that his work behind the plate needs further burnishing. But I’m sure in Hal’s mind, who would the fans rather see right now: A young left-handed power hitting catcher or more of .113-hitting Ben Rortvedt, the darling of Cashman’s analytics department?
And speaking of left-handed hitters in the Yankee system, there’s a 24-year-old catcher/first baseman, Ben Rice, having a breakout season at Double-A Somerset, raking at .332 with a 1.080 OPS as of Friday over three levels, who scouts are finding intriguing. Taken as a flyer on the 12th round of the 2021 draft out of Dartmouth, Rice missed the first month and a half of the season with an oblique pull before taking off. Said one scout: “I really like him. This year he’s found power. He’s a good catcher but his arm is not that strong. The guy can hit and he’s got good plate discipline. I can see him on the Yankees at some point next year as a backup catcher and first baseman and DH.”
The Yankees’ No. 1 prospect, 6-6, 235-pound corner outfielder Spencer Jones, is also left-handed but right now there’s too much resemblance to what presently plagues the Yankees — he’s not very athletic and strikes out more than three times more than he walks. Like we said, it’s going to take some time for the Yankees to get back to the Gene Michael visage and whether he realizes it yet, Hal Steinbrenner is going to soon have to come to grips with eating the remaining years of Stanton’s contract. They cannot continue to have Stanton, who epitomizes all that is wrong with the makeup of this team, clogging up the middle of the lineup.