Musings on Yankees’ maddening day game struggles

When the Yankees’ offense faltered against Bruce Zimmermann on Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice that it felt oddly familiar. No, I’m not talking about the Yankees’ inability to consistently subdue the lowly Baltimore Orioles, a defining trait of the 2021 that continued to rear its ugly head in 2022 (at least in the first week of the season). Rather, I’m referring to the fact that the Yankees keep shrinking when the lights are out.

Last season, the Yankees were utterly inept during daytime games, posting a dismal 25-34 record and a 69-win pace; in night games, for comparison, they were 67-36, a 105-win pace. During the day, they were one of the worst teams in baseball, ahead only of the Orioles and Texas Rangers in the American League; At night they were the best team in the AL. So what happened?

Start with the team-wide splits from 2021, courtesy of Baseball Reference. Notice that the top image hits splits while the bottom one pitches splits.

It’s evident that the Yankees struggled on both the plate and the mound in the daytime games last season, with no other division offering nearly as big a difference in performance. The difference is especially noticeable on the plate, with the team’s .778 OPS in night games roughly matching that of the Boston Red Sox, while its .635 OPS during the day would have been worst by more than 30 points in the AL. Additionally, the Yankees pushed to 4.9 runs/game at night (would rank 5th in the AL), but during the day that number dropped to 3.4 runs/game (would be worst by 0.4 runs in the AL).

What was driving this offensive drop while the sun was out? The chart below shows day/night OPS splits of 2021 Yankees players, with the players with the highest OPS on the left and the lowest on the right. Note that those splits for Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo also included games with the Rangers and Cubs.

It’s clear to see that although almost every member of the Yankees lineup hit better at night (with the exception of Gallo, Rizzo and Clint Frazier), the two worst offenders were Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. In fact, “Big G” was particularly bad during the day, as only 4 of his 35 home runs came in matinees, while his .618 OPS in that stretch meant he was about the equivalent of David Fletcher (71 OPS+) and Elvis Andrus (73 OPS+) in these competitions.

While Judge’s performance waned, it was at least from an otherworldly level – he scored as well as Juan Soto at night – to above average when he put up the offensive numbers of around Andrew McCutchen and Austin Meadows during the day. Still, the Yankees were struggling to put together consistent runs back in 2021; That Judge and Stanton weren’t at their best in day games certainly didn’t help.

Things were a little more complicated on the mound, as several Yankees pitchers — including Jameson Taillon and Nestor Cortes — fielded better during the day than at night. However, last season’s Yankees’ two main pitchers, Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery, struggled in those spots, and they had 23 daily starts together (first pitcher is Cole’s Splits, second is Montgomery’s).

Finally, there’s your answer to the Yankees’ struggles in day games over the last year. Baseball Reference has Judge, Cole, Montgomery and Stanton as four of the top five Yankees leaders in last season’s WAR (Jonathan Loáisiga finished fourth). FanGraphs ranked them first through fourth. When your best players aren’t playing well, it’s hard to win ball games, and last season the Yankees’ top players, both on the mound and on the plate, played significantly worse during the day than they did at night.

Of course, what we really want to know going forward is: ‘should this be a problem going forward?’ While it’s impossible to know for sure, it was probably little more than coincidence that all four players last season struggled so badly during day games, which is probably the kind of weird coincidences that happen in baseball when small sampling is involved. All four players have performed at their best day and night throughout their careers. Chances are they’ll repeat that feat, turning 2021 into an odd runaway while making day games a lot more tolerable for the Yankees going forward.

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