Pain and Pinstripes

The Yankees are miserable in the playoffs. Is it their fault, or just bad luck?

October 24, 2022


In 2003, I was in Ireland for the World Series, and I walked a mile and a half each night with a friend to the house of a man we barely knew but who had a satellite TV, where we would stay up to ungodly hours in the early morning to watch an annoying young pitcher named Josh Beckett and the Florida Marlins beat the Yankees. Six years later, I lived in New York and went to a pair of playoff games as they went on the only World Series run of the A-Rod years, beating the Phillies in six. This will not endear me to anyone, I recognize that, but that six-year gap between World Series appearances seemed like a lifetime. (This is what happens when you're a former spoiled teen who came of age in the late '90s golden age.)

Today, in 2022, we are now at 13 seasons and counting without another World Series appearance. That's not unusual in the world of professional sports, but what is unusual is that in those 13 seasons, the Yankees have made the playoffs ten times. If the playoffs were just run by random chance, a flip of the coin, there's a high probability they would have at least one World Series in that time. When you consider the fact that their record has usually put them ahead of even other playoff teams, it's frankly astounding.

In the years since 2003, the Yankees are 12-14 in playoff series (that's counting the 3-0 World Series year of 2009), and a horrific 1-6 in the ALCS round, including the emphatic beatdown they just received by the Astros.

So, what the hell is happening here?

It's tempting to just look at the playoffs as a pretty random assortment of low-sample size results. The regular season lasts for 162 games, and there are times within that season when every single World Series winner has looked like trash. If you go through a trash stretch in the playoffs, well ... that's lights out. It can happen to even very good teams—the Dodgers, like the Yankees, seem to have miserable postseason luck—and there's not much you can do about it. This phenomenon obviously just gets worse with more teams in the playoffs. In the early days of baseball, the "playoffs" were just a single round, with the AL pennant winner playing the NL pennant winner in the World Series. Now, there are 12 teams, which just leaves more room for randomness. In the past 10 seasons, only five World Series winners have had the best regular season record in their league.

Baseball, too, is subject to strange postseason results more than most sports. Sure, a hot goalie in hockey can lift the occasional mid-tier team to a Stanley Cup, and the one-game playoff format in the NFL has led to some surprises, but baseball is the most volatile of all in short stretches, and while great hitters can feast on bad pitching and propel a team to a strong record over the course of the regular season, the pitching is better (starting and bullpen) in the playoffs, and it's fundamentally a different kind of game.

Here's the problem with the luck explanation: The Yankees lose the same way every single year. Bad hitting, bad hitting, bad hitting. The power hitters with low averages who populate their lineup inevitably start striking out a lot more in the postseason, and they lose close, low-scoring games. The Astros series went exactly according to script, with losses of 4-2, 3-2, 5-0, and 6-5. Yet again, the best offense in the American league, by runs scored, produced a paltry nine runs in four games, most of those coming in the last game. It was exaggerated this year, with a .161 batting average through eight games prior to the end, but the general story is the same. And here's an interesting stat:

Only three hitters with a better-than-average batting average! The fact that the Yankees scored the most runs in the American League shows that batting average really doesn't matter in terms of run production, which analytics has been telling us for years. But maybe that should come with an asterisk—maybe it doesn't matter in the regular season. Billy Beane's famous quote that "my **** doesn't work in the playoffs," validated by the 2-11 record in playoff series under Beane, might be more important and truer than we thought.

The Yankees were just 15th in batting average in MLB, but first in home runs. The Astros and Phillies were no slouches in the home run department, at 4th and 6th, but both had better team averages than the Yankees.

Again, this is just more proof that analytics is correct when it comes to the regular season. But perhaps there hasn't been enough analysis done on what kinds of teams actually win in the playoffs. When Billy Beane said it was his job to get the Athletics to the playoffs, it was understandable—they were a low-budget team, and just making it was enough. The Yankees consistently have one of the highest payrolls in the sport, and—spoiled as it sounds—making the playoffs 10 of 13 years while only reaching one World Series is just not good enough.

In short, bad luck absolutely plays a part, but the Yankees front office should take a measure of the blame here. For all the money spent, they continue to produce offenses that are humiliated in the playoffs, and it's only getting worse.