Maybe it took Saturday to convince you, the six first-inning runs followed by 11 unanswered after the Red Sox gave London a show. The last 16 pitches on Wednesday could’ve done it as well.
That’s how long it took for the Yankees to turn their first ninth-inning blown save in almost three weeks into their 11th win in their last 12 games, capping a 9-1 homestand.
“Our mindset all year is to dominate every series and win every game,” Aaron Judge said after beating Toronto, 8-7, in a game New York trailed 5-0 after two defensive innings and in which it stayed away from two of its best bullpen arms, Tommy Kahnle and Aroldis Chapman. “We’ve got the club to do that.”
After losing back-to-back games to the White Sox on June 13-14, New York trailed Tampa by a half-game in the AL East. The Red Sox were just 5.5 behind them and in the midst of winning a season-best six straight and 8 of 9.
That Red Sox hole is 10 games after that barmy affair at London Stadium on Saturday, 17-13 being the sort of thing that won’t be forgotten, certainly not once the oral histories start rolling out. New York’s won 7 of 8 against the playoff-aimed Rays, Astros, and Red Sox, making them 23-14 against teams with a better than .500 record.
Saturday, combined with the Jays sweep, puts them 31-14 at home, 26-7 against the AL East, and with an 85 percent chance to win the division according to Fangraphs.
All this from a team actually behind its pace of a year ago — they’re 53-28, versus 54-27 in their 100-win 2018. To be expected, of course, when their projected Opening Day lineup played exactly zero of those 81 games, getting probably as close as it will in the Toronto series (after which, promptly, Giancarlo Stanton got hurt again).
This weekend in The Big Smoke figured to be an offensive bonanza, given the super ball MLB’s using now and the goofy dimensions that had real-life video game character Luke Voit all but licking his lips in the run-up to Saturday. (He went 4 for 4 with three doubles before leaving injured.)
It also will be a Twitter-enraging love note to the Yankees, given the national broadcasters and the patent absurdity at what New York’s been able to do in the season’s first half.
Dellin Betances and Luis Severino haven’t pitched a single game. James Paxton missed a month. CC Sabathia and Domingo German might have a 12-year age difference, but each missed two weeks.
Aaron Hicks missed six weeks. Troy Tulowitzki played in five games. (Five more than Jacoby Ellsbury!) Greg Bird, 10. Miguel Andujar was done for the year after 12. Didi Gregorius missed the first 61 games.
Aaron Judge missed two months and has fewer plate appearances than Eduardo Nunez. The aforementioned Stanton will, in all likelihood, have one home run on Aug. 1.
We could keep going. Instead, let’s try to figure out how exactly they’ve done it.
DJ LeMahieu has easily been their best hitter
Two years, $24 million. That’s what it took in free agency for the Yankees to acquire their offensive spark this year, a former batting champion whom Colorado deemed inferior to Daniel Murphy. (Who, it should be noted, is rewarding them with the worst offensive season of his career.)
Just calling LeMahieu an offensive spark, though, doesn’t quite explain what’s happened to him in pinstripes. New York’s had offense from everywhere — the first team since 2000-01 not to be shut out for 163 straight games, an MLB record 30 straight with a home run. The soon-to-be 31-year-old, however, is on the short list of American League hitters (with Alex Bregman, Carlos Santana, Xander Bogaerts, and perhaps even Rafael Devers) who’d be up for MVP consideration if Mike Trout opts to quit baseball tomorrow and follow his passion for meteorology.
Not bad considering he doesn’t even have a set position in Aaron Boone’s lineup, instead bouncing around the infield to spell Voit at first, Gleyber Torres at second, and fellow surprise fill-in Gio Urshela at third.
“It’s just been a lot of fun,” he said in London. “I like the way we’ve played and to be able to contribute to that has been a lot of fun.”
He’s done more than merely contribute. He’s starting the All-Star Game at second base for a reason. Entering Saturday, LeMahieu’s .478/.500/.701 line in 77 plate appearances with runners in scoring position was baseball’s best. His 4 for 6, with a double and five RBI, was his 34th multi-hit game, including 14 of the last 21, a testament to his ability to go to all fields. (Devers led the Red Sox with 32, followed by Bogaerts’s 25.)
Yankee Stadium has done LeMahieu well, to the tune of a .957 home OPS that’s better than all but his 2016 (when he hit .348 and won that NL batting title) at Coors Field.
“He’s out there to rip your heart out,” Boone said earlier this month, New York’s baseball ops having deemed LeMahieu an undervalued offensive talent over the winter. “He plays with an edge. I think he does love being in this environment.”
A bullpen of redundancies
We noted the other day the obvious problems of overwork in the Red Sox bullpen, Alex Cora simply not having enough arms to trust in relief. In high-leverage spots, he generally has four people to turn to: Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, Ryan Brasier, and Marcus Walden. Their success has been, well, less than hoped for.
Boone also typically leaves high-leverage work to four guys: Offseason addition Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, Chapman, and Kahnle. Despite chasing the best record in baseball, those four headed to London with a combined 140 appearances and 132 innings — 14 2/3 innings less than the Boston quartet.
They also, however, have been nails. New York’s lost just four games it’s led going into the seventh, the same number the Red Sox have lost leading going into the ninth.
“That versatility that has me excited right now, because they’re all a little bit different,” Boone said in February, when he still thought Betances would throw for him at least once before July. “We’ve got a lot of really good pitchers, but I think they complement each other really well.”
Chapman’s fastball is still renowned, even if Jordan Hicks in St. Louis has replaced him as baseball’s top fireballer. Britton’s sinker remains a grass destroyer, with his getting eight ground balls for every shot in the air this season. Kahnle actually has the highest strikeout rate of the group at 13.4 per nine innings, but it’s been Ottavino who’s been the biggest difference maker of anybody.
Leaning on one of the nastiest sliders in the game, one he throws more than 40 percent of the time, hitters’ solution has been to hope Ottavino walks them — he’s drawing the lowest swing rate in the league. With 24 walks in 35 1/3 innings, it’s working somewhat, but No. 0’s Saturday was a good barometer for what he’s been doing. Two hits and a walk allowed, but no runs, his 33rd scoreless outing in 37 games.
That’s an impossible standard to maintain, and that 1.49 ERA figured to climb, but his work up to now’s done nicely to cover Betances’s extended absence.
The starters have been … fine
Yankee starters prior to Saturday were a collective 10th in ERA at 4.13, 17th in FIP at 4.52, and were allowing the ninth-most hard contact of any team according to Fangraphs. They weren’t expected to be exemplary, especially getting nothing from Severino until after the All-Star break, and they haven’t been, with Saturday’s starter Masahiro Tanaka easily the best of the bunch even after his two-out, six-run debacle.
Thing is, they’ve done enough given the offense and the bullpen.
Sabathia, J.A. Happ, and Paxton have been hit-per-inning pitchers with ERAs north of 4.00. (In Happ’s case, well north.) New York won eight of the 26-year-old German’s first nine starts, but his 2.60 ERA ballooned from there and a hip issue will end up costing him about a month, it appears.
You’d absolutely be right to consider Boston’s rotation superior to New York’s, but the latter’s numbers have been better between the lines, and the Yankees have won an MLB-leading 16 games in which its starter failed to throw a quality start — at least six innings, allowing three or fewer earned runs. And they’ve lost just two of the 26 quality starts they have received, which is one way to obscure having the ninth-worst total in that category.
They have, to put it simply, found a way again and again in 2019. Much like their rivals did a year ago.