The Yankees headed up to Canada for the weekend toting with them the overwhelming best record in baseball and a winning percentage which, if they can sustain it, would be the highest in their glorious history. We’ve seen enough, and are far enough along in the season, to believe these .750 Yankees are real (For the record, the 1927 Yankees were 110-44; .714 and the 1998 Yankees 114-48; .704.) and we’ll have an even better idea if they can be historically real after next week when they play three games on the road in Tampa Bay and four games at home against the Astros. The only question we have is how this has all come about, especially after last year when the Yankees were one of the worst fundamental and defensive teams in baseball and GM Brian Cashman was under heavy criticism for having put together one of the most dysfunctional Yankee teams in memory.
Number one is health. Other than Aroldis Chapman, who wasn’t pitching well anyway, the Yankees have so far not been felled by any significant injuries, particularly the starting rotation in which none of the five starters — Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery and Luis Severino — has had to miss a start due to injury. Moreover, they’ve been a model of consistency: In their combined 61 starts as of Saturday they’d yielded more than three earned runs in only seven of them. Yankee pitchers as a whole have given up the fewest runs in the majors (187), the fewest in their first 64 games in franchise history.
The Yankee starters took a combined ERA of 3.00 and WHIP of 1.01 to Toronto which, according to the Elias Bureau, were significantly better than their three deepest and best rotations of all time. The 1953 Yankee rotation of Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat and Whitey Ford had a combined 3.02 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. The ‘77 rotation of Ed Figueroa, Ron Guidry, Mike Torrez, Don Gullett and Catfish Hunter (3.72 and 1.26), and the ‘98 Yankee tandem of Andy Pettitte, David Wells, David Cone, Orlando Hernandez and Hideki Irabu (3.72 and 1.23).
While the pitching has obviously been the driving force in this two and a half months of Yankee dominance, there will obviously be innings issues down the road for Cortes in particular (whose previous season high was 93 last year). But there is sufficient depth in Clarke Schmidt and close-to-returning Domingo German that Cashman probably won’t have to mortgage prospects for another starter at the trading deadline.
As it is, Cashman deserves credit for turning a mess of a Yankee team in 2021 into this runaway train in ‘22 with just two trades that didn’t cost a whole lot in return and brought shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa from Minnesota (allowing Gleyber Torres to move back to second base) and catcher Jose Trevino from Texas to bolster the defense at the two most vital positions. Jettisoning Gary Sanchez in the Kiner-Falefa deal was a big part of that. “I have to believe just finally ridding themselves of Sanchez and all his drama behind the plate has played a huge part in the Yankees’ pitchers’ performance this year,” a rival AL exec said to me Friday. “The Yankees are doing everything better in the field this year, catching the ball, making the big plays, curtailing the opposing running game. It’s night and day from last year.”
And two other really under-the-radar trades by Cashman last year that brought Clay Holmes from Pittsburgh and lefty Wandy Peralta from the Giants, along with his 2017 deal with the Marlins for Michael King — all of them at minimal cost in terms of return talent — have reaped the second-most effective bullpen in baseball, even without Chapman.
Offensively the Yankees are leading the majors in homers, second in OPS and third in runs per game (5.00 as opposed to 4.2 in ‘21). They are still heavily reliant on the home run, however — 39-7 in games they’ve homered as opposed to 9-9 when they haven’t. So the theory prevails: If you want to beat the Yankees, you’ve got to keep them in the ballpark. Much as Yankee fans love all those Aaron Judge home runs, if they’re paying attention, the real story behind this year’s record-chasing Yankee team is pitching and defense.
IT’S A MADD, MADD WORLD
What is turning out to be one of the worst seasons in Tigers’ history hit another low last Wednesday when they were clobbered 13-0 by Tony La Russa’s floundering White Sox and in the process had to resort to not one but three position players to get them through the game including Roger Clemens’ son Kody, a rookie utilityman who surrendered three hits, a walk and an unearned run in his pitching debut. Without question the most disappointing team in baseball, the Tigers were projected to contend in the AL Central after five years of tanking and having signed Javy Baez to that splashy six-year/$140M contract to play shortstop. Instead, the Tigers went into the weekend 24-40 ranked last in the majors in runs, homers, RBI, OPS, walks and stolen bases. Their entire infield, including Baez (.188) is hitting under .200, and that sigh of relief you just heard was Steve Cohen thankful his baseball people ignored the pleas of Francisco Lindor to sign his pal for second base. Not sure who you blame for this Tigers pratfall but have to wonder if the bloom is off A.J. Hinch’s rose. …
Has anyone realized that that the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies coming up on July 24 also happens to be Barry Bonds’ 58th birthday? How fitting. …
New Baseball Book of the Week: It’s been 19 years since Rickey Henderson stole his last base or scored his last run, which means there’s a whole new generation of fans that never saw him play. Say what you will about him — and there’s been a lot from both sides — Henderson, the all-time leader in runs scored and stolen bases, is one of the greatest players of all time. He was also one of the most complicated, but we can now thank the esteemed sports journalist Howard Bryant for delivering the definitive biography “Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original” (Mariner) to sort it all out on this both dazzling and mercurial star. Make no mistake, even though Rickey cooperated with Bryant (for a while) this is no sugarcoat book. As exemplified by two of his previous books on baseball “Shut Out” (on race in Boston) and “Juicing the Game” (the expose on steroids in baseball), Bryant is not afraid of tackling difficult subjects. And in “Rickey” he gives equal treatment to the good (Henderson’s game-changing abilities on the field), the bad (his often polarizing presence in the clubhouse and dismissiveness to the media) and the ugly (the lurid allegations of sex abuse by his sister). “At first, Rickey was all in when I approached him about writing this biography,” said Bryant, who covered Rickey as a player both in Oakland with the A’s and New York with the Yankees, “but as we started getting closer to the personal, family stuff, he suddenly shut it off and said he needed to be paid for his cooperation. I haven’t talked to him since. Fortunately his wife Pamela, with whom I had a good relationship and who believed in the book, stepped in and helped me tremendously. From the beginning she told Rickey ‘people want to celebrate you’ and since he got in the Hall of Fame that’s exactly what’s happened.”