Yankees Notebook: Starting Pitching Highlights Strong Week

The New York Yankees had another strong week to start the season. They took two of the three games against the Philadelphia Phillies and two of three against the Baltimore Orioles. With a 6-3 record, they are near the top of the American League East Division, trailing the Tampa Bay Rays, who are on pace for a 162-0 season (having yet to lose a game).

The strong start is nice even with the games carrying little significance. After all, the cliche is that you can’t win a pennant in April but you can certainly lose one. The Yankees at 6-3 have not lost one, not yet at least. However, what stands out is how the Yankees are winning.

Specifically, the starting pitching has stepped up and carried the team through two weeks. Yes, the lineup is also playing at a high level but the rotation has been the highlight of the season so far, a big surprise considering the narrative entering the season.

Yankees Rotation Fuels Big Week

Once again, Gerrit Cole showed why he’s the ace of the staff and a favorite to win the Cy Young Award. In the series finale against the Phillies, he pitched 6.1 innings and allowed only one run and three hits while striking out eight batters.

What stood out however was his willingness to use four pitches but continue to heavily rely on his fastball, throwing it 61 out of the 103 pitches. This season, Cole has used the fastball on 61.6% of his pitches, the highest mark in his career and a major leap from 51.9% which was last year’s mark. Cole has established himself as a four-pitch pitcher that keeps batters guessing. This season, he’s shown that when he needs an out, one way or another, he can and will go to the fastball. It’s led to great results early on as he’s only allowed one run in 12.1 innings pitched and struck out 19 batters.

His game against the Phillies was nothing extraordinary. That’s what makes him special. Cole took the mound and outdueled Phillies ace Aaron Nola in another remarkable game to help the Yankees win 4-2. Cole’s dominance on the mound is expected, even anticipated and it allows the Yankees to stay on track in a long 162-game season.

Cole’s dominance and strong starts are taken for granted. Jhony Brito‘s aren’t. He started the series finale against the San Francisco Giants and tossed five scoreless innings. So naturally, the Yankees sent him back to the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Rail Riders the next day. After spot starting, he did it again on Saturday against the Orioles. This time, he allowed a run but otherwise pitched five strong innings.

Unlike most started in the rotation, Brito isn’t a fastball first pitcher. Instead, he relies heavily on his change-up and his sinker, making him comparable to Logan Webb more than the Yankees’ arms. Brito has used both off-speed pitches 55.1% of the time and it makes him a valuable starter. Aside from opposing batters being forced to adapt to his pitching compared to the rest of the rotation, his arsenal forces weaker contact. Only 26.9% of his pitches are hard-hit and behind a reliable Yankees field, he can continue to put together strong performances.

With injuries plaguing the rotation in spring training and to start the season, the Yankees needed a pleasant surprise in their rotation. Brito has been that and then some. While he’ll likely be sent down to the minors in the coming days, he’s made a strong case to remain in the rotation moving forward.

Wrapping up the weekend, Nestor Cortes had a strong day on the mound to help wrap up a series victory over the Orioles. He pitched five scoreless innings before allowing two runs in the sixth. That’s one way of saying he was dominant until he needed to be pulled and he gave up a few runs to remove doubt about whether he should continue pitching.

It’s always an irony when the rotation becomes a strength of the Yankees. They are known for power and generally are seen as a team that is carried by its lineup. The lineup hasn’t let them down, averaging 4.88 runs per game. However, the Yankees have been carried by a rotation that many overlooked and saw as a weak point entering the season, especially with the injuries to Carlos Rodon, Frankie Montas, and Luis Severino.

Through two weeks, the rotation has held up fine. More importantly, the starting pitching has allowed the Yankees to win every series of the season thus far.

Judge Continues To Deliver

What stands out about Aaron Judge, aside from his power, is his uncanny ability to put together great plate appearances. Rarely does he have a bad showing at the plate. Even when Judge strikes out, he often works the count and forces pitchers to beat him rather than him beating himself. His on-base percentage (OBP) reflects that as he had a .425 OBP last year and has a career OBP of .394.

But back to this week. He walked five times in the last six games. Additionally, he also had three hits in the five games where he was struggling to drive the ball but instead settled for some base hits. Judge wasn’t getting his pitches but he still kept the line moving and continued to provide that spark to the top of the batting order.

Then came the big day at the plate to wrap up the weekend. In the 5-2 win on Sunday, he had three hits with two of them being home runs. Judge was sitting on the high heat and made the Orioles pay twice with big blasts to center field and the deep part of left field.

After a minor power outage, Judge hit two homers in the weekend series. He now has four on the season. So all is good in the world again for Yankees fans.

Stanton: Appreciate Him While You Can

Giancarlo Stanton is one of those players that is tough to fall in love with. Just when the fans begin to cheer him and assume he is the most valuable player on the team, he goes 0-4 at the plate or worse, gets injured. His tenure with the Yankees has had highs and lows with the lows often leaving the fans frustrated and booing him to the dugout (then of course, demanding that the Yankees trade him in the offseason).

This week had all the highs. Stanton had six hits including a moonshot homer in the Saturday game. Since the Orioles moved the fence back in left field in Oriole Park at Camden Yards, few hitters have homered over that wall. Judge and Stanton both did this weekend. To start the season, he’s been arguably the most valuable hitter in the lineup slashing .286/.333/.643 with his three home runs.

So, where does this leave the fans and the Yankees altogether? Is it time to buy into the hype? Is Stanton poised for a career year where he wins his second MVP and leads the Yankees in all significant hitting categories? The best bet is not. However, in these good times, it’s important to appreciate what he brings to the lineup. For now, he can carry the Yankees but it’s not a given he’ll be doing so next week. The bottom line is that Stanton brings excitement but forces everyone to proceed with caution.

Other Notes From the Yankees Week

Gleyber Torres had a big week at the plate. With eight hits and 12 total bases, he won the Player of the Week honors. Torres is the hitter in the lineup that can particularly take advantage of the new rules. Not only is he continuing to put the ball in play but he can focus on his power and not worry about hard contact turning into easy outs.

The bullpen is dealing with injuries and the absence of some key relievers is already taking a toll. Friday’s 7-6 loss saw the bullpen allow three runs in the sixth and seventh inning while Sunday’s win saw an eight-inning run cut the lead to 5-3. The big task for Aaron Boone is finding the relievers that can get the ball to Clay Holmes to close out games in the ninth inning. Holmes hasn’t missed a step but with the injuries, the rest of the bullpen has and it’s showing in the recent games in the late innings.

The Yankees head to Cleveland this week to face the Guardians and then return back to Yankee Stadium for the weekend to host the Minnesota Twins. Both teams are off to strong starts and look like promising teams in the American League, making them tough tests to the Yankees’ strong start.

Main Image: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

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