In his quarter of a century as a general manager, Brian Cashman has never fired a coach during a season.
But has he ever faced a crisis quite like the offensive one the Yankees have been dealing with for the past five weeks as the meekness of an Aaron Judge-less lineup has imperiled their season. So the Yankees are at least contemplating if changes should be made, and how could that not include discussions about hitting coach Dillon Lawson?
As recently as June 21, when asked about the Yankees’ overall hitting and Lawson’s security, Cashman defended his second-year hitting coach, noting that the organization has an “ecosystem” of what they value offensively and how it is taught throughout the system. Thus, one person is not solely responsible for the ups or downs.
But the downs have been so pronounced to increase organizational discomfort with the status quo. To not seriously consider if change could jump-start the feeble attack would be negligent. The first half concludes Sunday afternoon, and the first round of the draft concludes Sunday evening. Cashman will be in Tampa with Hal Steinbrenner and many of his top lieutenants for the draft. So they will all be together during the All-Star break, a traditional time of reflection on big-issue matters.
Cashman was en route to Tampa on Saturday and did not want to comment about the status of anyone on the coaching staff.
When he did on June 21, as part of a broader defense, Cashman mentioned that Lawson and his assistant, Casey Dykes, were in charge last year when the Yankees averaged 4.98 runs per game, second in the majors. But even that offense was carried substantially by Judge. For all of 2022, Judge had a 1.111 OPS and the rest of the Yankees were at .708, but in the second half it became even more singularly driven when Judge had a 1.286 OPS and the rest of the Yankees a .652 OPS.
Yet, there were no substantive changes to the lineup made in the offseason. Andrew Benintendi and Matt Carpenter both left in free agency (neither is performing well in 2023). Judge, of course, was retained on a nine-year, $360 million deal and through his June 3 injury was again concealing problems elsewhere. But since he sprained his right big toe crashing into a lower cement support in Dodger Stadium, the Yankees offense has been abysmal.
Overall for the season, their .230 average was tied with the Royals for the second-worst in the majors through Friday, and their 4.38 runs per game were 19th. On-base percentage is up in MLB from .312 in 2022 to .320 this year. Yet, the Yankees’ .299 would be their worst since 1968 — the Year of the Pitcher.
But it is since June 4 that the results have specifically cratered. The Judge-less Yankees had the lowest batting average (.214) and on-base percentage (.284), and have scored the second fewest runs (107) while going 13-16 through Friday.
The strongest defense of Lawson is that so much of the problem centers on veterans who perhaps should be able to self-correct better or have outside hitting gurus to lean upon. If DJ LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo had even been average in this time, the Yankees offense would not be dreadful. But among those with 80 plate appearances from June 4 through Friday, LeMahieu had the fourth-worst OPS in MLB (.472), Stanton sixth-worst (.495) and Rizzo 12th-worst (.529). Josh Donaldson was hitting .130 in that period.
But the overall offense under Lawson’s guidance remains poor — the huge regression of Oswaldo Cabrera, for example, has been crippling to these Yankees. Perhaps most condemning to the current hitting coaches is that the best Yankees hitter in this current Judge-less period has been Anthony Volpe (.838 OPS), and his improvement comes from studying tape with Yankees Double-A catcher Austin Wells, not a Yankees instructor.
Cashman has long established that he does not want to change managers or coaches during the season. And complicating this decision whether to do anything with Lawson, Dykes or first-year hitting assistant Brad Wilkerson is that philosophically the organization is committed to pulling the ball in the air. Thus, it is not like they could just reach down and grab someone who would be coming from a different pulpit. The hitters, in general, liked working last year with assistant Hensley Meulens, but he left to be Colorado’s hitting coach. So there is no ready, obvious replacement.
Yet, it is hard to ignore that the Yankees improve the output of many pitchers when they join the organization, especially relievers. They are not having the same success with hitters. When asked about Lawson’s impact in that area June 21, Cashman said:
“He knows his stuff, plus I know how the whole ecosystem works, so whether it was when [hitting coaches] Marcus Thames was here or Kevin Long or even back to [Chris] Chambliss, they weren’t the end all be all. You had coaching clinics taking place. You had data support. You have your veteran presence that has their own style, and it is just partnering with them. Nothing is different now.”
But what is different is three more weeks of bad offensive info since Cashman offered that sentiment. What is different is the growing organizational discomfort with this. Is this enough to motivate Cashman to do what he has never done in his long tenure?