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  • Writer's pictureAndy Singer

Progression Isn’t Linear And Other Things To Consider

By Andy Singer

April 14th, 2024

Photo Credit: Charles Wenzelberg, New York Post

It’s an incredibly good time to be a Yankee fan. I’ve said that multiple times in the first two weeks of the season, but that’s only because it bears repeating. My sense is that most Yankee fans did not have high hopes for the beginning of this season. More to the point, many Yankee fans have had a sour taste in their mouths about the team dating back to the second half of the 2022 season, and the 2023 season only served to increase the acrid nature of that taste. Even for those that weren’t overtly negative about the team’s chances in 2024, I think it’s fair to say that many in that category had a general sense of malaise about the team. When that context is considered, the team’s performance during this season’s hot start is even sweeter.

Those general performance-based feelings would be enough to make the start of this season fun, but there are other factors to consider as well. The Yankees have managed a 10-3 start against one of the toughest opening schedules in baseball, which is great in and of itself, but they have also done it despite the following:

  • Their ace, Gerrit Cole, is on the 60-Day IL with an elbow injury after winning the Cy Young Award last season.

  • Their best player, Aaron Judge, hasn’t gotten going yet offensively, and really hasn’t been a major factor in their success yet this season.

  • Their second-best player last season, Gleyber Torres, hasn’t found his best performance at the plate yet.

  • One of the Yankees' exciting off-season acquisitions, Alex Verdugo, is sitting squarely on the Mendoza Line despite the fact that he was acquired to make tons of contact from the left side of the plate.

  • The bullpen has been cobbled together from all over the place as the crew has been dealt a bevy of injuries (Kahlne, Loaisiga, Trevino, Effross) while being worked heavily in the first two weeks as the starters slowly up their pitch counts.

Through all of that, the team has been one of the best in baseball. How, you ask? Obviously, it's never just one thing (and having a generational player like Juan Soto covers for a lot of eyesores), but the emergence of the second wave of Baby Bombers deserves significant credit for this season's successes. Anthony Volpe, Oswaldo Cabrera, Austin Wells, Luis Gil, and Clarke Schmidt have been critical components of the team's ability to win games so far.

Anthony Volpe stands out as possibly the best player on the team in the early going. He totally re-tooled his swing this off-season, shortening his bat path so that his bat gets to the zone quicker and stays through the strike zone longer. This allows Volpe to shoot the ball to all fields, something he wasn't able to do even as an all-world prospect in the minor leagues. These mechanical changes have improved Volpe's contact rate and whiff rates significantly so far. Despite some concern that this approach would sap some power from Volpe's game (admittedly, mostly my concern), he has proven that when the situation calls for it, he can still put enough charge into the ball to drive balls into the gap and over the fence. Most critically, his approach at the plate has taken at least two steps forward. Volpe has drastically improved his swing decisions, chasing significantly less at breaking balls out of the zone, which puts him in more hitters counts where he can do damage. Defensively, Volpe has been even better than last year's Gold Glove performance, and he seems to have adjusted his infield positioning slightly to cover for his sub-par arm.

Oswaldo Cabrera is another guy who has made rather large changes to his swing to unlock more performance. Cabrera's swing is shorter most of the time, and he has largely eliminated most of the significant uppercut bat path that has been apparent in his swing since he was in A-ball. Cabrera's early season performance has largely allowed the Yankees to survive yet another injury to DJ LeMahieu, who the Yanks were seemingly counting on to man the hot corner. While Cabrera likely will settle into a much lower batting average than the mid-.350 range and he will likely always struggle against left-handed pitching whether he switch hits or not, he is very clearly a worthwhile player to carry on a championship caliber roster.

Austin Wells hasn't quite gotten going yet, but the signs are all there. Wells' performance in Spring Training was good enough to convince the Yankees to give him the majority of playing time behind the plate over Jose Trevino, even choosing to catch Wells on the occasional day game following a night game. Wells has a sweet left-handed swing, and though he has just 3 hits to show for his early season swings, he continues to hit the ball hard consistently, and the underlying stats and video show that he's gotten fairly unlucky early on. Wells' bat hasn't been in doubt by many, but what many people (myself included) have doubted is his ability to perform defensively behind the plate. Wells has been a very pleasant surprise back there. By my eye, he is vastly better than he was in previous seasons behind the plate, and the early metrics back-up my eye test. He grades positively as a framer, is quick to exchange and release the ball from the crouch, and he seems to have developed a rapport with the pitching staff. He's a big body, so he'll likely never be a decent blocker back there, but in the aggregate, I think he's at least a slightly below-average defender at catcher, which is significantly better than anyone projected. As a bonus, Wells runs surprisingly well for a catcher, and has been a really good baserunner thus far, something few teams get out of their starting catcher.

Luis Gil had become something of a forgotten man prior to the start of the season. Gil's stuff was electric when he first came up in 2021, though it was clear he needed more development time if he had any chance of starting. An elbow injury in 2022 followed by Tommy John Surgery removed Gil from view, and many assumed he'd resume his march towards an eventual role with the Yankees by getting some development time at AAA. Gerrit Cole's injury necessitated a competition for the 5th starter spot, one Gil surprised even the Yankees by winning. His early season performance has been excellent, even if he hasn't yet provided length. Gil's stuff is as good or better than it was prior to elbow surgery, and in addition to his electric fastball and slider combination, Gil has developed a change-up that allows him to get through a lineup more than once more effectively. Gil's second start this season demonstrated the growth he's experienced. Gil managed to work into and out of trouble against a potent Blue Jays lineup, mixing pitches and showing maturity. In 2022, even prior to his injury, Gil would have allowed that start to snowball into a poor outing, but in 2024, he kept the Yankees in the game and finished with 8 strikeouts. Gil has been nothing short of a revelation so far.

Clarke Schmidt has flown under the radar due to some middling numbers. However, he has done exactly what you want from a back-end starter: he's kept the team in games and he battles to do it. Schmidt has navigated some tough lineups without his A-level stuff so far, and he's come away from those outings by basically performing to the back of his baseball card. If this is what he does without his A-stuff, then we should be excited by what he can do when that stuff re-emerges.

More to the point, all of these guys have been points of criticism people have used to ding the Yankees' player development in the last couple of seasons. Some of those criticisms had merit, and are aspects of the organization the team has sought to fix (namely a shift in hitting philosophy), but I also believe that the malaise about the next group of Baby Bombers goes deeper. The last wave of Baby Bombers largely disappointed Yankee fans due to under-performance and unmet promises. That occurred for a variety of reasons, but the lack of success that group experienced seems to have psychologically scarred many Yankee fans. In fact, I found it really surprising that many didn't project any progression from young Yankee prospects from last year to this year, but I really do believe the scars of the last decade live a bit too strong in many minds.

Far too often, we think of baseball progression in linear fashion. You start in rookie ball, progress to A-ball, then subsequently AA, AAA, and the Majors. That all feels like climbing a ladder. The reality is that progression is anything but; there are bumps, dips, curves, and surprises as skills build, even at the big league level. That's why good player development staffs don't just rely on stats: they take holistic measures of players using stats, biometrics, video, scouting assessments, and other means. Just because a player's first trip through the Majors is fraught with struggle doesn't mean it will be that way forever. Even the good times will have bumps in the road. This group of young Yanks has the talent to be highly successful, clearly remain coachable to get the most out of their sizable talent, and seem poised to fight through the bumps in the road to be good big league ballplayers. Yes, it's a good time to be a Yankee fan.

17 Kommentare

12. Apr.

It is very difficult to complain about the Yankees start, so let's enjoy and focus on all the positives. I have concerns, but right now the Yankees are rolling!

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Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
12. Apr.

It's great to be old and a Yankee fan.

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Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
12. Apr.
Antwort an

It was a riff on the Waite Hoyt quote (at times attributed to DiMaggio). I agree the old part mostly is bad (internally). But on the plus side, it means I have great memories not just of the 1995 to 2003 teams, but the '76 to '78 ones as well.

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12. Apr.

I like Wells' swing and his offensive potential

and wonder whether the Yankees would be wise

to use him in trade

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12. Apr.
Antwort an

given the offensive potential of the team's middle infielders and current CFer, is a catcher who can hit but not throw well, a necessity or a luxury?

I wonder whether the team might be better off with a good, young, two-way 3B

and a stronger defender at catcher...especially as the Yankees have a couple of other good prospective catchers.

I agree that a catcher who can really hit is a real difference-maker..... but a superior and really valuable catcher MUST defend well.

only if Wells is good at taking instruction and demonstrate the ability to suppress base theft will he be a great asset as a catcher.

as is, he's really just a back-up player

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12. Apr.

Great peice, Andy. I have little doubt that Judge, Verdugo and Torres will bounce back in the next dozen games or so, and the offense will continue to be strong. It is a nice surprise that the rest of lineup picked them up during a 10-2 start. However, i have serious concerns on the rotation, especially sans Cole. Stroman and Rodon are inconsistent and injury prone, and over the next 150 games, that will be a problem. Cortes and Rodon looked sharp against the pitiful marlins, i need to see that in the summer heat against the O's, Rangers, Astros, etc. But, it is a good time to be a NYY fan. I'm just not sold on a 10% sa…

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12. Apr.

Once Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, and Alex Verdugo become the hitters they are capable of being, this will be an even more scary lineup. Looking forward to seeing what Austin Wells becomes once he finds his power stroke. When he was with the Red Sox, Alex Verdugo had a habit of frequently dropping the "F" bomb in post game interviews. I see he has brought that habit with him over to the Yankees. As hard as Luis Gil throws and the fact that he throws as hard as he does makes me wonder if there is more possibility of injury in the future. I like him best as a starter, but I am wondering: Can Luis Gil be th…

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Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
13. Apr.
Antwort an

If the guy paid $16 million (40%), I could imagine they would carry him, at least for a while, on the balance, particularly if they were charging him "interest." Alternatively, the gamblers could have believed Ohtani was behind it based on a lie told to them by Ishihara. And it's still possible that Ohtani was knowingly involved. We have to wait to see what the Feds release when Ishihara pleads.

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