You expect things to go well with the New York Yankees† If hope lasts forever, so does envy – usually among 29 other fanbases. In recent years, however, the Yankees have repeatedly run into obstacles of their own and their own kind of disappointment.
Their playoffs under Aaron Boone were crushing. Their off-season picks under legendary GM Brian Cashman ranged from: the typical Yankees swagger to what some would call a more understated, holistic approach and others called half measures† Their expectations have remained the same: Win the World Series. And that hasn’t happened in a while.
But just as mortality was seeping in the pinstripe, the 2022 club came along. This team plays so well it shatters expectations – elated the Bronx and demoralizing the AL East. Halfway through the season, 81 games, the Yankees are 58-23. If you did the quick math, yes, it comes out at a pace of 116 wins that would match the all-time record.
Looks like all is going well for the Yankees. To keep up this pace – well, to keep anything close to this pace – they need everything to keep going well. That’s far from a given, so it’s worth thinking about the main reasons the Yankees raced to a historic first half, and whether they’re likely to stay true.
Reason #1: Aaron Judge
Let’s get the pun out of the way: Yes, Judge is by far the biggest reason for the Yankees’ success. He is have a contract year for the ages after turning down an extension offer this spring† Take your pick from an impressive performance. His 29 home runs top the MLB and put him on track to chase Roger Maris’ single-season home run record (61) that still stands before the Yankees and American League.
On the more surprising side of the ledger, he has taken on more defensive responsibility, starting more than half of his games in midfield and standing his ground. Add it all up and Judge is thoroughly in the mix for an AL MVP award and to post one of the best individual seasons in baseball.
Will it continue? No one bets against his power, that’s for sure. Statcast stats show Judge more consistently hitting fly balls that consistently become home runs for him because, you know. The challenge for Judge will be to be patient and take his walks as pitchers get even more skittish. That, and stay healthy.
Reason No. 2: A multitude of healthy ligaments and muscles
Ah yes, the soft tissue problems that plagued New York for the past few seasons are largely gone. After losing more days than any other team to leg injuries – hamstrings, calves, knees – from 2018 to 2020, as well as suffering a lot in 2021, the Yankees are one of the healthiest teams this season† The batters who made the most plate appearances in order are Judge, Anthony Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres. That’s pretty much exactly how Cashman and the company would have set it up.
Then there is the start rotation. Luis Severino came in 2022 after starting three games since 2018. Jameson Taillon missed 2020. Nestor Cortes…had 16 MLB career starts in his career. And yet, along with Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery, they’ve each made at least 14 starts. The Yankees are the only team in the majors to have five such starters† This is not only about health, but also about effectiveness.
Will it continue? Well, probably not so. Chances are one or two starters will have to skip a start or rest at some point. Injuries are just a reality over a long season. The good news is that the Yankees appear to have a solid pitching backup in the wings, including JP Sears, who has given up one run in 15 1/3 innings in the majors this year. Waiver wire estimates Matt Carpenter has the best low end on the offensive side, but expect some additions on that front by the trade deadline.
Reason No. 3: No matter what happens to the baseballs
Whether through luck, strategy or sheer strength, the Yankees are particularly well equipped to mash up a baseball that contributed to league-wide depressive fouls† While the ball’s vibrancy has seemed to increase and decrease with the heat and humidity, the Yankees’ bats have stayed warm year-round.
Some of that no doubt stems from the short porches of Yankee Stadium and the abnormally powerful sluggers of the Yankees lineup. If a change in the ball subtracts 5 feet from a flying ball, say, it’s less likely to affect exit speed monsters like Judge and Stanton.
Yet they are distinguished by the metric home runs per flyball, which measures how it sounds. Usually it gives you a bit of an idea of how well someone is hitting the ball, as well as a reality check of how lucky they are. Probably because of the ball, only 40 out of 147 batters with 200 at bats in each of the past two seasons have higher HR/FB this season compared to 2021. But five Yankees — the five central lineup pillars with the most at bats — are among the top 13 risers†
Will it continue? It’s safe to say that the Yankees are getting a more than healthy dose of strength and luck. Especially in the summer months when every park is sweltering and the ball is flying more freely, the Yankees are likely to have a less pronounced lead.
Reason No. 4: Jose Trevino
The Yankees went into the season without a clear edge behind the plate. Their off-season maneuvers sent Gary Sanchez out, eschewing a class of star free agents, including Carlos Correa, in favor of defense-first plans at shortstop and catcher. Jose Trevino came in the picture as third catcher in the spring, behind Kyle Higashioka and trade takeover Ben Rortvedt, but the 29-year-old who played 89 stealthy games for the Rangers in 2021 has won the job and the spotlight.
First, he has the defense: Trevino scores like the best framer in baseball by both Baseball Prospectus and Statcast Calculations†
Turns out Trevino has always had a penchant for contact too, with better-than-average rates even while logging low lines in sporadic playtime. This season, he’s held up to that, hitting just 15% of the time and a little extra pull every now and then. His seven home runs have already nearly doubled his career tally and they have often taken big places. In Win Probability Added, which measures contributions as they move the needle within a game, Trevino outshines stars like Nolan Arenado and Pete Alonso.
Between his importance to the success of the pitching staff and his timely at bat, Trevino is arguably the most important Yankee under the 6-foot-4.
Will it continue? The framing excellence must continue unabated. His contact skills also look pretty deep-rooted. He probably won’t keep hitting home runs all year round at the absolute best moment, but consider the Yankees’ bet on elite defense a winner.
Reason No. 5: A pitching staff that wins while losing
The Yankees’ 10 wins are a sign of a resilient team and a season of charm, but they also speak of an increasingly rare bullpen depth. You know about the sinker wizardry of the poet Clay Holmes, and… perhaps about the mastery of evaluation and development that keeps the Yankees’ pitching bags stocked?† But the unsung heroes of many victories who have run from behind and come from behind are the pitchers who dutifully kept the other side at bay as they sat behind it.
In Tuesday’s games, the Yankees had pitched 171 innings trailing and racked up an incredible 2.16 ERA. Most teams just don’t have enough confidence in their starters to keep them rolling after falling behind, don’t have enough strong relievers to throw quality weapons while they lose — part of the reason so many MLB games are out of control walked with position players eventually taking over in blowouts. The second best team, the Dodgers, has a 3.24 ERA when trailing.
Will it continue? It is partly a matter of the health problem. The Yankees have gained length from pitchers like Taillon and Montgomery, even in the absence of run support. They’ve been getting quality innings from relievers up and down the roster. Keeping up with the talent across the board affects their consistent ability to threaten late.
Right now they are firing on all cylinders, exhausting All-Star caliber performers in a staggering number of positions. Even in the seventh inning of a game, they lose. So when you say the Yankees are never out of a game, it’s true. It’s not just because of Aaron Judge and his merry band of muscular looters.