Brief Thoughts on the Yankees’ First Month
May 6, 2022
BRIEF THOUGHTS ON THE YANKEES’ FIRST MONTH By Patrick Gunn May 6, 2022 *** The Yankees are off to about as strong of a start as a fan could ask for. They hold the best record of the league through Wednesday (18-7), the second-best run differential in the league (+49, second to only the Dodgers), and have just ended an 11-game winning streak. New York has flipped their vibes from last season, maybe even since the start of Spring Training quickly. Here are some brief thoughts about what has gone right for the Yankees so far and what to follow in May: A KING IN THE BRONX? Michael King is quietly having one of the best seasons of any pitcher in the league in a stellar bullpen. He’s stuck out 39.7 percent of batters he’s faced while only walking 4.8 percent and leading the pitching staff in FanGraphs WAR (or fWAR) at 1.2. That includes the entire starting rotation. King performed well in the bullpen last year, when he had a 2.33 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 38.2 innings compared to a 5.47 ERA as a starter. However, he’s never had a stretch like this at any level. And his peripheral statistics are in-line with his achievements – he’s at least 90th percentile or higher in whiff percentage, barrel rate, xERA, xwOBA, and strikeout rate. The massive jump in strikeout rate is certainly a part of that – his career percentage is just 24.4%. That, plus a significant drop in his walk percentage (8.1% for career) suggests King may see a downturn. Not to mention he’s still giving up a ton of hard contact (45.7%, a higher rate than last season) with an uncharacteristically low barrel percentage (2.9%, down from a career 6.5%). Now, he still can be an excellent reliever for New York. Maybe not with an ERA under one, but still an effective pitcher. King is getting a fantastic spin rate from his fastball (89th percentile) when he uses it up in the zone. That complements his sinker and curveball. King’s curveball, in particular, has been a revelation. He went from using it 10.3% of the time in 2021 to mixed results (.546 xSLG, .373 wOBA) to a quarter of the time this year with the opposite (.231 xSLG, .166 wOBA). He has made a tangible change to his arsenal that’s confounding hitters. Even if his barrel rate increases, King should be a strong high-leverage, multi-inning reliever. A NOD TO THE ROTATION: Now, King isn’t the only pitcher thriving in New York. The rotation has been excellent. By fWAR, the Bombers have the sixth-best staff in the league, behind only the Mets, Brewers, Dodgers, Blue Jays, and Giants. They are in the top ten in strikeout percentage (24.1%), third in walk percentage (a measly 6.1%), and top ten in xFIP (3.35). That’s all with Gerrit Cole struggling through three starts and Luis Severino having some rough innings over his last two starts. Jameson Taillon (1.9 BB%), Jordan Montgomery (2.88 FIP), and especially Nestor Cortes Jr. (32.0 K%) have turned their backend of the rotation into a strength. All the Yankees need is some more length, which to be fair, nearly every team is starting slow (NY is 14th in rotation innings so far, middle of the pack). Also, Cole will get better as he’s shown over his last few starts and experience will only help Severino as he regains his form. Yes, Cortes will probably see his strikeout rate drop, and Taillon will certainly walk more batters. Still, both pitchers had such strong showings last year that it’s fair to give them some leeway. The rotation has held up its end of the bargain and then some so far. LINEUP PEAKING NOW… MOSTLY The Bombers have started to shake off some of their rust in the past few weeks. Anthony Rizzo D.J. LeMahieu had carried the lineup before Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa got going. Remarkably, the Bombers’ position players are second in the league in fWAR to the Mets (as of Wednesday’s statistics), so maybe they’re playing better than we expect. The Bombers are amongst the league leaders in isolated power (.176) and that’s with lighter power hitters like Hicks, Kiner-Falefa, and the catcher’s spot. Rizzo (9 home runs), Judge, (9) and Giancarlo Stanton (5) are leading that group. The Bombers are remarkably second in the league in pure OPS (behind the Rockies and again, per Wednesday’s statistics). But they also are second in weighted on-base percentage (also behind the Rockies) Also, they’re still raking, as they’re second in the league in hard contact percentage behind the Astros. It also helps that second of the Bombers’ regular players have a wRC+ above 100, including Josh Donaldson, Hicks, and Kiner-Falefa. The only starters lagging in that group are Joey Gallo, Gleyber Torres, and the two catchers. Gallo is striking out too much (41.1 K%, which is above his 37% career average) but he’s still mashing when he makes contact (90.8 average exit velocity), so he just needs some time and better luck. Torres is more of a question mark given his inconsistency over the last two seasons and sparse playing time. And the Yankees took a leap of faith at the catcher spot and landed hard on the ground. Still, this is a team that can score by putting the ball in play, walking, or just hitting the long ball. Not to mention they’ve had much-needed improvement from LeMahieu, Hicks, and Rizzo plus some solid at-bats from Kiner-Falefa. Maybe they aren’t Murders Row, but the Bombers can score. SOME QUESTIONS FOR THE STRETCH RUN… - Is Gleyber Torres permanently on the bench? - Does Cashman make an upgrade offensively at catcher? - How long until Gallo returns to form? - What more can we expect from Donaldson? - Will Chad Green and Jonathan Loáisiga return to 2021 form?