The New York Yankees lineup is dependent on Aaron Judge. Specifically, it’s dependent on him playing at an MVP level and making everyone in the lineup better. Unfortunately, he’s been injured and the results speak for themselves. The Yankees have scored 10 runs in the last four games. The last time they scored five runs or more in a game was the 15-5 barnburner against the Boston Red Sox (they lost that game by the way).
Entering this series against the Seattle Mariners, the script was clear. They needed their pitching to step up to secure the series. With the lineup struggling, the starters delivered to secure a 3-1 victory and a 4-2 win to take home back-to-back games.
The Yankees have been led by their starting pitching this season. With the lineup looking hapless, the pitchers have kept the team above .500 and in the Wild Card race in the American League. The question is if this is sustainable. More importantly, can the Yankees remain a contender with a great pitching staff but an awful lineup?
Cole Continues To Carry The Yankees
Gerrit Cole had another remarkable start. On Tuesday, he pitched 7.1 innings and allowed only one run while striking out eight Mariners. What stood out in the start was his usage of the slider, a pitch he throws 21% of the time but used for 28 of his 105 pitches. The pitch resulted in multiple swings and misses and quick strikeouts to allow for a strong outing.
Cole’s bread and butter this year has been his fastball. The 98-mile-per-hour high heat is what can blow batters away and allow him to control games. However, his slider has started to become the putaway pitch. It drifts away from right-handed batters and forces ground-outs on left-handed hitters. While Cole will still rely on his fastball (throwing the pitch 56% of the time) his secondary pitch is what makes him a Cy Young-caliber pitcher.
This season, Cole has carried the Yankees. Aside from the strong starts every five days, he’s stepped up on a team that has otherwise struggled. His 3.3 WAR leads the Yankees and his performance on the mound has kept the team competitive. In a season where the lineup hasn’t been great, Cole makes the team postseason worthy.
The Rotation Is Coming Into Form
Jhony Brito returned from his injury stint to pitch Wednesday night’s game. He pitched a gem. Ok, maybe a gem is an exaggeration but he tossed 5.2 scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and one walk while striking out three.
The 25-year-old has had plenty of highs and lows on the mound this year. In his previous start, he allowed four runs in four innings. This season, he’s allowed 28 runs in 40.1 innings pitched. However, in his first start in over a month, he showed he is ready to take off. His outing proved that he can take up the final spot in the rotation and remain a reliable contributor.
The best thing about Brito stepping up is that the rotation suddenly looks like a reliable one, one that can carry the Yankees. Domingo German and Luis Severino have struggled at times but have both stepped up to become solid middle-of-the-rotation pitchers. Clarke Schmidt has pitched poorly for most of the season but has improved in recent starts. Schmidt has allowed only six runs in his last three starts and only nine runs in his last six, bouncing back from an awful April and early May.
Eventually, Carlos Rodon (fingers crossed) will pitch for the Yankees. He finally threw a ball on a mound in a game. granted it was a few innings with the double-A club (Somerset Patriots) but that is progress for a pitcher that was doubtful to return this season. If Rodon is back in the rotation, he puts this pitching staff over the top. He’s the pitcher that can make the Yankees’ rotation a legitimate one that nobody would want to face. This is of course if he stays healthy which still feels like an uphill battle.
The Bullpen Rounds Out The Yankees Pitching
The rotation has stepped up specifically in the last two games but the bullpen has been remarkable all year. The Yankees don’t have leads often but when they do, closing out games has felt easy.
The Yankees have had a great bullpen since the Mariano Rivera days and it seems like he’s blessed the team with a good bullpen. Since he’s retired, they’ve gone from David Robertson, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances to Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, and Adam Ottavino to Wandy Peralta, Michael King, and Clay Holmes.
This year’s group is led by Holmes who has not only been the closer but the most valuable in the bullpen. His 1.2 WAR, 179 ERA+, and zero home runs allowed are all best in the bullpen and his sinker remains one of the best pitches in baseball. As the setup relievers, Peralta has been the pitcher capable of coming into a game at any point to pitch a scoreless inning, allowing only 10 runs in 28 innings pitched while King has put together a remarkable year as he’s allowed only 12 runs in 38.1 innings pitched.
The pitching staff stepping up has made the Yankees a formidable team. It’s something many of us weren’t expecting when this season started but it’s how things are turning out. It’s oddly similar to the 2019 season. That year, the lineup was a disaster with too many swing-and-miss hitters and not enough plate discipline. Instead, the Yankees reached the postseason on the backs of Cole, Nestor Cortes, and a reliable rotation. It’s something that makes it easy to believe that this team can figure out a way to compete even without a great lineup.
Is This Sustainable?
The bottom line is that the Yankees can only go so far with a hapless lineup. This lineup is not only bad but looks like one of the worst in baseball when Judge isn’t in it. Think of this. The Yankees only have three batters with an OPS+ over 100 and that includes Judge. Without him, their leader in that category is Anthony Rizzo at 118.
The Yankees with no run support can make the postseason, maybe, as a Wild Card team. But, they would be eliminated rather quickly by a team that not only has a great pitching staff but a lineup that can put up a few runs on Cole and the others.
Fortunately, the expectation is that this won’t be the lineup the Yankees have in October. For starters, Judge will return from his toe injury. His return immediately makes the lineup average. On top of that, Giancarlo Stanton, the definition of a boom or bust hitter, has been all bust at the moment but eventually looks to start to become the powerful presence everyone anticipates (so it goes with him). Lastly, the Yankees won’t shy away from making a few moves at the trade deadline. This year, it will be about adding contact to the back half of the lineup and they will be sure to do that if the lineup remains a liability.
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