Four months ago, the New York Yankees were entering the 2015 season surrounded by more negativity and uncertainty than at any time since the early 90s.
The team missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, and was still saddled with the burdensome contracts largely blamed for that fact. They failed to make a real headline acquisition in the offseason, and Masahiro Tanaka, the previous offseason’s prize and a legitimate rotation ace, had an elbow that’s viewed as a ticking time bomb. There was an inevitable media circus descending on the Bronx in the form of Alex Rodriguez’s return from a yearlong suspension. The Captain himself, Derek Jeter, had finally retired from baseball, leaving the Yankees faceless for the first time in nearly 20 years.
If you’d avoided baseball news or numbers for the last four months, you probably wouldn’t be surprised if, given all of those circumstances, the Yankees were 10 games back in the AL East and headed for a sub-.500 season. Then you’d have been forgetting the most important detail at hand: these are the New York Yankees, and while no franchise in sports is immune to a down year or two here or there, the Yankees are in the process of proving that they really are the sports world’s closest thing to an immovable object.
This because, despite all of the misfortune and turmoil outlined above, the Yankees just entered the All Star Break at 48-40, 1st in the AL East by 3.5 games, and trending up. How have they done it? Here’s a look at everything that’s gone right so far.
The Starting Rotation Was Rock Solid
The Yankees’ rotation was a genuine question mark at the outset of the season. Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda were widely viewed as the two best starters available, and yet both dealt with injuries in 2014. CC Sabathia is in clear decline, but frankly too expensive for manager Joe Girardi not to keep starting. Newcomer Nathan Eovaldi was known as a flamethrower who had never managed to turn his talent into appealing stats, and Adam Warren was a homegrown product slotted into the rotation to pitch until Ivan Nova returned from injury.
Well, those five men wound up combining for a 32-23 record in the first half of the season. Tanaka, Pineda, and Warren all boast sub 3.70 ERAs, and Eovaldi leads the team with nine wins. And if that weren’t strong enough, the rotation’s depth just got a boost when Nova returned for four starts before the break — despite going 1-3 in those starts, Nova has looked terrific, posting a 3.42 ERA in the process.
The Bullpen Was Even Better
If the Yankees have one strength that clearly sets them apart from most of their competition, it’s the bullpen – and really, it hasn’t even been at full strength for most of the year.
One of the most significant moves of the offseason for GM Brian Cashman was bringing in closer Andrew Miller to handle the ninth inning, and allowing homegrown David Robertson to walk away in the process. That decision resulted in the Yankees getting a compensatory draft pick for Robertson, and Miller, before sustaining a minor injury, was every bit as good as Robertson had been, mounting 18 saves to just one loss en route to a 1.53 ERA. Meanwhile, setup man Dellin Betances, who did most of the closing once Miller went down, has an identical ERA, with seven saves and a 5-2 records.
Representing New York Yankees pic.twitter.com/gAirEvfiOk— Dellin Betances (@DBetances50) July 13, 2015
But it’s not all about the back end of this bullpen. In the middle innings, the duo of Chasen Shreve and Justin Wilson has been outstanding. In just under 70 combined innings pitched, these two have let up just 42 hits and 18 earned runs, striking out 39 and walking 27. They’ve been responsible for just one loss, and both have sub-3.00 ERAs. And recently, they’ve been joined in the middle innings by Warren (who’s slid back to the ‘pen now that Ivan Nova is back) and homegrown youngster Bryan Mitchell, who’s off to a strong start.
What an impressive inning by Bryan Mitchell out of the pen— Matt Kardos (@mattkardos) July 12, 2015
Cashman’s Gamble Paid Off
As mentioned, the Yankees didn’t make a headline addition in the offseason, and that meant that Cashman was more or less gambling on the middle of his lineup – consisting of a number of players perceived as aging, overpaid sluggers – to deliver more offense than it did a season ago. Banking on the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Beltran had a lot of Yankees fans tearing their hair out all winter — but now, Cashman sort of looks like a genius.
Rodriguez, McCann, and Teixeira, in particular, look jointly rejuvenated. The trio smacked 54 home runs in the first half of the season, compiling 168 RBIs and an average slugging percentage of.504 to propel the Yankees to the second best offense in the MLB, per ESPN’s rankings. The team’s 409 runs in the first half are second only to Toronto’s incredible 486, and a huge portion of that production came from the same former stars so many viewed as old and overpaid.
In the end, the offensive resurgence in the Bronx comes down to a few pretty simple ideas for the Yankees. To begin with, Cashman knew that his sluggers were either returning from suspension or finding their groove. He also knew that the top of his Yankees lineup, featuring Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury (who’s also just returned from injury) would get on base, often. It’s really pretty simple: both ideas have proven correct, and the result has been a lot of runs.
Things Are Looking Up
The best news of all for Yankees fans is that the positive factors outlined above are ongoing. The Yankees managed the second best offense in the league with Ellsbury sitting out for much of the first half, and kept their pitching respectable, if not stellar, with Nova and Miller missing significant time. The team will enter the second half fully healthy for the first time all season, and if things stay that way for long, the Yankees are perfectly capable of gaining significant separation atop the AL East, and entering the playoffs as a true contender once more.
[Image via Getty Images]