The 2023 MLB season is in full swing. Two months of baseball are in the rearview mirror and the divisional races are starting to heat up. The New York Yankees had a rocky start and were 15-15 at the start of May. However, they have picked up the pace and are 34-24, leaving them only a few games behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the division.
The Yankees season has been somewhat expected but also a bit surprising. For a team that hasn’t had a losing season since 1992, the expectation was that they’d figure things out after a sluggish start. That said, there have been some surprises on the roster and some interesting takeaways from the first two months. The first and most obvious takeaway from the season is that they go where their best player goes.
4 Takeaways From Two Months of Yankees Play
Judge Continues To Carry the Yankees
Aaron Judge was out of the lineup with an injury from April 27 through May 9th. In that stretch, the Yankees went 4-6 and fell (for a brief time) into last place in the American League East Division. Since his return, they have gone 14-7 and have looked like the best team in the American League.
It’s an exaggeration to say that one player makes all the difference. Judge doesn’t singlehandedly turn the Yankees into an elite team but his presence makes a significant difference. His 18 home runs, .679 Slugging Percentage, and 114 total bases inject power into the top of the lineup and make the rest of the batting order better as everyone hits behind the league’s most feared slugger.
The past week was a reminder of how Judge can take over games in a sport that limits the individual’s ability to do so. Judge had a three-hit game on Memorial Day with two of his hits clearing the wall for homers. To add to the night, he robbed a home run with a leaping catch to catch a fly ball that only his frame could get to, proving that he can win in the field and at the plate. By the end of the series, Judge had three home runs, four hits, and four walks including one in the ninth inning with two outs (the Seattle Mariners weren’t going to let him beat them).
He is proving that last season wasn’t an oddity and that he is perfecting his skills to become baseball’s best player. The power hitter has optimized his strength, plate discipline, and strike zone awareness to not only power the ball regardless of where it’s thrown but become the league’s best. The Yankees have Judge back in the lineup and he’s leading the team back to the top of the division and the league as a whole.
Cole is Great But Needs Help
The story early on in the season is that the Yankees are carried by Judge and Gerrit Cole while the rest of the roster struggles. To a point, that is correct. Judge and Cole have a combined 4.7 WAR and they have led both the lineup and rotation but the team has also seen Anthony Rizzo, Nestor Cortes, and a handful of others step up to make them a competitive team. The Yankees are top-heavy and their rotation is carried by one starter in particular. The question is if that is sustainable.
The short answer is no. Cole is having a Cy Young-caliber season, allowing only 26 runs in 73.2 innings pitched while tossing 79 strikeouts but he needs help in the rotation, especially considering his recent starts. In his last game, he allowed six runs in six innings including two home runs while the game before that he allowed five runs in five innings. The bottom line is that he will have his rough starts and the rest of the rotation needs to step up to assure that pitching doesn’t become a weak link.
Fortunately, Cortes has been putting together a respectable season. He’s allowed 35 runs in 59.1 innings pitched while striking out 59 batters. Likewise, Clarke Schmidt has progressed into a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Then there’s the drop-off. Luis Severino has only pitched in two games this year while Carlos Rodon, the prize offseason addition, has yet to play in a game this year.
The Rodon issue is particularly laboring since he was supposed to put the rotation over the top but the lingering injuries have made the offseason seven-year contract look like one of the worst in baseball. The backend of the rotation will make or break the Yankees and so far, it’s held them back.
Volpe Continues to Live Up to the Hype
At this point, rookie Anthony Volpe has settled into the shortstop role. It’s almost taken for granted that he will be the mainstay in the position and a reliable contributor every day. It’s easy to overlook how impressive it’s been for Volpe to not only settle in but put together a strong season so far.
His hitting numbers are underwhelming. He’s slashing .194/.272/.358 and has become a back-half of the lineup type of player. That said, he has eight home runs and is contributing everywhere else on the field. Volpe is 13-0 when it comes to stolen bases and his speed on the basepaths has allowed him to score 23 runs. Moreover, his play at shortstop has made him one of the better defensive players on the team. Volpe has a lot of room to improve and will have to step up at the plate soon but the Yankees have gotten what they’ve asked out of the top prospect.
The Yankees Bullpen is Still Fine
The Aroldis Chapman era ended with a whimper and it finally made the bullpen a question mark. It was good last year but at times, felt pieced together. This year, the bullpen is being carried by Clay Holmes, who was their top reliever last year, and Michael King, Wandy Peralta, Albert Abreu, and Ron Marinaccio. It looks pieced together again but it’s anything but.
The Yankees have Holmes in the designated closing role but otherwise, they have gone after the Rays model. It’s not about roles as much as situations. If a left-handed lineup is facing the Yankees late, Peralta will get his fair share of innings. If they need two innings to get the ball to Holmes, they’ll often rely on Abreu and Marinaccio to piece it together. Additionally, the bullpen often rides the hot or rested arm, allowing one reliever to pitch two innings one night while another goes two innings the next. At times, they look like they are using the bullpen arms on the fly but this year, it’s been by design the whole time.
Other Takeaways From Yankees First Two Months
The back half of the lineup remains a concern. While Judge continues to lead the scoring, the lineup drops drastically after him. Only three active batters in the lineup have an OPS+ over 100 and the Mariners exposed this weakness in the series finale by shutting out the Yankees.
Sure, the Yankees will improve when Giancarlo Stanton returns to the lineup. Likewise, when Harrison Bader returns from the injured list, the batting order will look like one of the best in baseball. This leads to the next problem. The injuries have piled up and have made the Yankees roster look depleted. They invested in players that had a high risk of getting hurt and players with injury reputations. So far, it’s exposed the roster as they can’t field a fully healthy roster.
This leads us to the final point about players that have been the glue of the roster this year. While Judge is the leader and is carrying the Yankees, Gleyber Torres is putting together a strong season at the plate. Likewise, catcher Jose Trivino has been the steady hand behind the plate to not only control the game but upgrade the team defensively. The Yankees have dealt with injuries but Torres and Trivino have been able to keep them afloat.
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