A couple of hours before first pitch every game day, my phone dutifully buzzes to announce the Yankees’ starting lineup. Back during spring training, even when I wasn’t watching the games, I would still take a look at the batting order and marvel. More than once I caught myself saying, “Man, this offense is going to be really good.”
For the past twenty-five years, the Yankees have always been really good, and most years they’ve fielded one of the top two or three offenses in the sport. You know, Bronx Bombers and all.
But this year seemed like it might be different. I found myself wondering about preposterous possibilities. Sure, D.J. LeMaheiu had led the league in batting average and on-base percentage in 2020, but what might happen if Aaron Judge’s name was on the lineup card behind him 150 times? What if Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton stayed healthy? What if Gary Sánchez hit even .250 with 25 home runs? What if Clint Frazier built on the quiet success of last season and blossomed into a star?
All baseball fans are overly optimistic in March, but none of those hypotheticals seemed unreasonable back then. None of those things even seemed unlikely.
Well, we know what happened. The Yankee bats waited a few weeks to fly north after spring training, and the result was nothing anyone could’ve expected. On most nights through April and into the first weekend of May, manager Aaron Boone submitted a lineup card with three or four hitters batting below .200 because he simply had no better choices. A recent string of games against some of the weaker pitching staffs in the league has restored some confidence and allowed the Yankees to even their record at 14-14, but there are still concerns up and down the lineup.
We’re three days into May and Gleyber Torres hasn’t hit a home run. Aaron Hicks is hitting far less than his weight, Clint Frazier is no doubt wondering if he might be headed back to Scranton, and while there is a Yankee catcher with an OPS over a thousand, his name is Kyle Higashioka, not Gary Sanchez.
Perhaps inexplicably, I remain a Sanchez supporter, but after teasing us with home runs in the first two games of the season, Sanchez has managed just eight hits and a single RBI over the 17 games since that promising start. The player often referred to as the best pure hitter in the organization now has an OPS (.619) that is lower than Higashioka’s slugging percentage (.706). Every single Yankee season preview devoted a paragraph or two to the Mystery of the Kraken, and most observers marveled that a player as gifted as Sanchez could see his skills completely evaporate during what should’ve been the prime of his career. The Yankees are 6-12 in games when Sanchez starts behind the plate, and 8-2 when he doesn’t. At this point, Higashioka is the best catcher in pinstripes, and everyone knows it.
Oh, but there’s good news, and it abounds from the mound.
Everything begins with Gerit Cole, and even though anyone reading this already knows that he’s been the best pitcher in the American League this season, he’s probably been even better than most people realize.
Cole’s “worst” game was the season opener, in which he pitched a pedestrian five and a third innings, allowing two runs while striking out eight and walking two. It wasn’t a bad outing by any stretch, but his five starts since then have been ridiculous. In 32.1 innings he’s yielded just 19 hits and 4 earned runs, but that isn’t the amazing part. He’s posted 54 strikeouts while walking just one batter; over his last three starts those numbers are 33 and 0.
We’re only five weeks into the season, but we’re clearly watching something historic. The most dominant season by a Yankee starting pitcher in my lifetime was Ron Guidry in 1978. (I was nine years old that October when I created a Ron Guidry costume for Halloween; none of our neighbors in Naperville, Illinois, had any idea what I was doing.)
Should Cole approach Guidry’s legendary season — 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 248 Ks — he would cement himself in Yankee lore forever, but the Cole-Guidry comparison is about more than just numbers. When Cole is pitching at home and finds himself in a two-strike count with two outs in an inning, the Stadium crowd will rise to its feet in anticipation, bridging four decades with a tradition that stretches back to June 17, 1978, the day when Guidry struck out 18 California Angels. Unlike any Yankee starting pitcher since that season, including Clemens and Sabathia and Cone and Pettitte and Mussina, Cole is a flamethrower who seems to have the ability to overwhelm any hitter any time he wants. If you haven’t already begun to plan your week around his starts or schedule your DVR to record his games, it’s time to start.
If there’s been a pitcher more dominant than Cole this season, albeit in smaller doses, it’s been closer Aroldis Chapman. Last year we were constantly reminded that Chapman had lost velocity, but that’s no longer a concern. His fastball is regularly topping out in triple digits, and he’s added a sinker that also hits the century mark. If none of that seems fair as you read from behind the safety of your computer screen, just imagine standing in the batter’s box. Chapman has faced 35 hitters in his ten appearances, and struck out 24 of them. He hasn’t allowed a single runner to get past second base. There are certainly those fans who will withhold judgment until they see him duplicate this in October, but Chapman has shown enough to allow me to move past his playoff disappointments.
Built largely around the dominance of Cole and Chapman, it’s been the Yankees’ pitching, not the hitting, that has kept the team afloat and finally allowed them to climb all the way back to an even 14-14. The staff leads the American League in strikeouts, ERA, and strikeout to walk ratio. The top three arms in the bullpen — Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Chapman — have combined for a preposterous stat line: 43 IP/56Ks/8BBs and an ERA of 0.83. The starting rotation behind Cole has also been rounding into form, with Corey Kluber, Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon, and Domingo German all posting excellent outings this week, highlighted by Kluber’s eight shutout innings on Sunday, a dazzling performance that gave him his first Yankee win and the 100th win of his career.
I doubt that things will continue exactly as they are. We’ll begin to see more from the offense (Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have shown encouraging signs), and it’s possible that Gerit Cole might walk a batter at some point, but if we forget the record for a moment, there’s a lot to be happy about after these first twenty-eight games. In fact, I’d argue that if April had gone as expected, with the offense outslugging the opponents on most nights to cover for mediocre pitching performances, we’d all be more worried than we are right now.