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You expect things to go well for the New York Yankees. If hope springs eternal, then envy does also — mostly among the 29 other fan bases. Over the past few years, though, the Yankees have repeatedly run into their own sort of obstacles, and their own form of disappointment.
Their playoff exits under Aaron Boone have been crushing. Their offseason choices under legendary GM Brian Cashman have ranged from the typical Yankees swagger to what some would call a more restrained, holistic approach and others did call half measures. Their expectations have remained the same: Win the World Series. And it hasn’t happened in a while now.
Yet just when mortality was seeping into the pinstriped, the 2022 club came along. This team is playing so well that it is shattering expectations — elating the Bronx and demoralizing the AL East. Halfway through the season, 81 games, the Yankees are 58-23. If you did the quick math, yep, it comes out to a 116-win pace that would tie the all-time record.
Seemingly everything is going right for the Yankees. To maintain this pace — heck, to maintain anything close to this pace — they need everything to keep going right. That’s far from a given, so it’s worth considering the biggest reasons the Yankees have raced out to a historic first half, and whether they are likely to remain true.
Reason No. 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’s having a contract year for the ages after turning down an extension offer this spring. Take your pick of impressive feat. His 29 homers are top of the heap in MLB, and put him on track to chase Roger Maris’ single-season homer record (61) that still stands for the Yankees and the American League.
On the more surprising side of the ledger, he has taken on more defensive responsibility, starting more than half his games in center field and holding his own. 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 is betting against his power, that’s for sure. Statcast metrics show that Judge is more consistently hitting fly balls that consistently turn into homers for him because, you know. The challenge for Judge will be to remain patient and take his walks as pitchers get even more skittish. That, and staying 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 have mostly vanished. After losing more days than any other team to leg injuries — hamstrings, calfs, knees — from 2018 to 2020, and suffering a good bit in 2021, too, the Yankees are one of the healthiest teams this season. The hitters who have taken 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 company would have drawn it up.
Then there’s the starting rotation. Luis Severino came into 2022 having started 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 have each made at least 14 starts. The Yankees are the only team in the majors with five such starters. That speaks not only to health, but effectiveness.
Will it continue? Well, probably not like this. Odds are one or two starters will need to skip a start or take a rest at some point. Injuries are just a reality across a long season. The good news is the Yankees appear to have solid pitching backup waiting in the wings, including JP Sears, who has given up one run in 15 1/3 innings in the majors this year. Waiver wire treasure Matt Carpenter is the best depth piece on the offensive side, but expect some additions on that front at the trade deadline.
Reason No. 3: Whatever is happening with the baseballs
Whether it’s via luck, strategy or pure strength, the Yankees have been particularly well-equipped to mash a baseball that has contributed to depressed offense around the league. While the ball’s liveliness has seemed to wax and wane with the heat and humidity, the Yankees’ bats have stayed hot all year.
Part of that undoubtedly stems from Yankee Stadium’s short porches and the Yankees lineup’s abnormally powerful sluggers. If a change in the ball subtracts 5 feet off a fly ball, let’s say, it’s less likely to affect exit velocity monsters like Judge and Stanton.
Still, they stand out by the metric home runs per fly ball, which measures what it sounds like. Typically, it gives you a bit of a look at how well someone is hitting the ball, and also a reality check on how lucky they may be getting. Likely because of the ball, only 40 of the 147 hitters with 200 plate appearances in each of the past two seasons have a 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 the Yankees are getting a more-than-healthy dose of power and good fortune. Especially in the summer months when every park is sweltering and the ball is flying more freely, the Yankees will probably have a less pronounced edge.
Reason No. 4: Jose Trevino
The Yankees entered the season without an apparent edge behind the plate. Their offseason maneuverings sent out Gary Sanchez and eschewed a class of star free agents, including Carlos Correa, in favor of defense-first plans at shortstop and catcher. Jose Trevino came into the spring as the third catcher in the picture, behind Kyle Higashioka and trade acquisition Ben Rortvedt, but the 29-year-old who played 89 unremarkable games for the Rangers in 2021 has won the job and the spotlight.
First, he has the defense: Trevino ranks as the best framer in baseball by both Baseball Prospectus and Statcast calculations.
Turns out, Trevino also always had a penchant for contact, running better-than-average rates even while logging lowly lines in sporadic playing time. This season he has maintained that, striking out only 15% of the time, and added some occasional pull power. His seven homers have already almost doubled his career total, and they have often come in big spots. In Win Probability Added, which measures contributions as they move the needle within a game, Trevino is outpacing stars like Nolan Arenado and Pete Alonso.
Between his importance to the pitching staff’s success and his timely hitting, Trevino might be the most important Yankee under 6-foot-4.
Will it continue? The framing excellence should carry on unabated. His contact skills also look pretty entrenched. He probably won’t keep bopping homers at the absolute best moment all year, but consider the Yankees’ bet on elite defense a winner.
Reason No. 5: A pitching staff that wins while losing
The Yankees’ 10 walk-off wins are a sign of a resilient team and a charmed season, but they also speak to increasingly rare bullpen depth. You know about the sinker-slinging sorcery of closer Clay Holmes, and perhaps about the evaluation and development mastery that keeps the Yankees’ pitching coffers stocked. But the unsung heroes of many walk-off and come-from-behind victories are the pitchers who dutifully kept the other side at bay while behind.
Entering Tuesday’s games, the Yankees had thrown 171 innings while trailing, and posted an incredible 2.16 ERA. Most teams just don’t have enough faith in their starters to let them keep rolling after falling behind, don’t have enough strong relievers to throw quality arms while losing — part of the reason so many MLB games have spiraled out of control with position players eventually taking over in blowouts. The next best team, the Dodgers, has a 3.24 ERA when trailing.
Will it continue? It's partially a matter of the health issue. The Yankees have gotten length from hurlers like Taillon and Montgomery even when run support has been lacking. They have gotten quality innings from relievers up and down the roster. Keeping the talent level up across the board factors in to their consistent ability to threaten late.
Right now, they are firing on all cylinders, running out All-Star caliber performers at a dizzying array of positions. Even in the seventh inning of a game they're losing. So when you say the Yankees are never out of a game, it’s true. It’s just not all because of Aaron Judge and his merry band of muscular marauders.