Thoughts following an exciting April

The Yankees sit here on May 4th, 2017 at the top of the American League East, a position that Yankee fans are pretty familiar with. It is how they got there, however, that should have Yankee fans even more excited and have the rest of the league nervous. It has been well documented on this site about the patience that is required with young players and the ups and downs they will go through but if this April is any indication, there is a monster rising in the Bronx and it may arrive sooner than we all thought.
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The Yankees finished April with a 15-8 record, with their 16-9 good enough for a two way tie for first with the Baltimore Orioles as of Wednesday, May 3rd. The Yankees currently sit alone at the top of the division. This is almost the exact opposite of the beginning of last season, when they found themselves with a 8-14 record, good for last place in the division. This season is obviously different due to the amount of young players the Yankees have on their roster, but Brian Cashman and the front office are never unclear about their expectations; they want the team to compete for the playoffs and beyond every year and getting off to a good start in April is absolutely crucial to making that happen. There is a long way to go but these Yankees have put themselves in a much stronger position to achieve their goals, but its how they got to this point that's most important.

The Yankees have gotten contributions from all over the roster to start this season but the elephant in the room is obviously Aaron Judge and the historic start he has gotten off to. He has become absolute must see TV every night and looks to be a completely different player than the one I suggested may find himself in Triple A if he didn’t get off to a good enough start. Judge is doing it at the plate and in the field, displaying all of his impressive tools. For April, Judge batted .303 with a .750 slugging percentage and a 1.161 OPS with 10 home runs and 20 RBI. This is a far cry from the player who struck out in more than 40 percent of his plate appearances throughout the second half of last season. In addition to his success at the plate, Judge has been good in the field as well. He has played a fine right field and has made several highlight plays including home runs robberies and gunning down Jose Bautista at third base on Monday night. If you have been following Judge’s rise through the minors then this type of dominant display should not surprise you, but given how he looked at the end of last season, the fact that he was able to improve his game so much in a short period of time should really scare the rest of the league.

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The rise of Aaron Judge definitely calls back to the spectacular display Gary Sanchez put on at the conclusion of the 2016 season but despite their good start to the season, the Yankees have also had regular run ins with the injury bug as well. First it was Didi Gregorius and Tyler Austin in spring training. Didi’s injury didn’t linger though and he made it back to the team this past weekend. We haven’t heard much of anything about Tyler Austin and his supposed six week injury since it happened around 10 weeks ago. After that it was Sanchez himself, who struggled through five games before being placed on the DL with a bicep strain. Gary seems poised to return to the team this weekend in Chicago but even with this important piece set to return to the lineup the Yankees will not yet be whole. 

Greg Bird has had a rough start to the season and was just placed on the DL with a bruise on his ankle. Bird looked great this spring tearing up the Grapefruit League on his way to a .451 batting average with eight home runs and 15 RBI but a foul ball off the ankle in the final days of the spring seemed to knock his season off track. He didn’t look comfortable at the plate at all throughout April and although the Yankees defended him to the media, they finally conceded on Wednesday that something was wrong. Bird’s struggles and his injury were the latest in a list of key contributors that could have knocked the Yankees’ season off course from the beginning but they have managed to come through it fine to this point. As good as they have been so far, this Yankee team has not yet been whole and we can only look forward to when they are.

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It is these injuries, however, that have allowed others to shine. The injury to Didi forced Ronald Torreyes into service as the everyday shortstop and Torreyes responded well, posting a .313 batting average and driving in 13 runs in April. He also played sparkling defense, committing just one error for the month. Torreyes’ ability to play multiple positions and his improvement from last year has proved very valuable to the team so far and I’m sure it will continue to do so as the season progresses. Another player that has responded well after being pressed into service is Austin Romine. We know Romine as a career backup but he has been playing every day since Gary Sanchez went down and has performed above expectations. For the month of April, Romine batted .314 with 16 hits and eight RBI and didn’t commit any errors in the field as well. Quality backups like these two are how good teams survive injuries and the efforts of Torreyes and Romine have not gone unnoticed so far this season.

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In addition to the quality play off the bench the team has been getting, there are regulars who have gotten off to much better starts than last season. The most notable of these is Chase Headley who as you probably remember, was absolutely dreadful to start last season struggling to a .150 batting average for the month of April, with just nine hits and two RBI. He has gotten off to a far better start this season, posting a .301 average with 25 hits, eight RBI and three home runs for the month. Last year he didn’t hit his first home run until May 12th  and didn’t drive in his eighth run until May 15th. Headley’s improvement has been remarkable and very important to the Yankees’ strong April. He’s always been upfront and honest about his struggles and it is good to see him have some success since many of us (myself included) had a very negative view of him coming into this season.

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Another player that has experienced a remarkable turnaround from last season is Aaron Hicks. Hicks has many tools but struggled mightily last April, batting just .087 in 25 plate appearances with zero home runs and two RBI. Our own Andrew Natalizio wrote about Hicks being a strong candidate for a bounce back season and so far he has been proven right. Through the first month of this season Hicks batted .295 with four home runs and nine RBI in 57 PAs. Hicks received more than double the plate appearances in April 2017 compared to April 2016 and the Yankees are reaping the benefits. With Brett Gardner struggling out of the gate and Jacoby Ellsbury’s average start combined with the nicks and scrapes he is prone to, Hicks has been receiving regular playing time and putting together a much better body of work because of it. In addition to Headley and Hicks, another player worth noting for their performance is Starlin Castro who batted .352 with 16 RBI and five home runs including a dramatic, game tying home run against the Orioles on April 28th. If Starlin continues to perform like this he may not only be the MVP of the team, he will definitely be in consideration for MVP of the league.

The last major factor in the team’s success so far has been the work of their pitching staff, most notably their starting rotation. The Yankees bullpen has been a strength of their team in recent years and the same can be said so far this season with this year’s group being anchored by flamethrowers Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. It is the work of the starting rotation, however, that has improved dramatically from last season. The Yankees put together a starting rotation that could be described as high risk- high reward with the injury concerns of Masahiro Tanaka and an aging CC Sabathia combined with the volatility of Luis Severino and Michael Pineda. The added element of rookie Jordan Montgomery contributed more uncertainty but through the first month of the season, this group performed at a high level and provided some hope that they could be a strength of the team going forward.
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As of Wednesday, the starting rotation had a combined ERA of 4.00, amassing a 12-6 record overall. It has been Pineda and Severino leading the way with ERAs of 3.14 and 3.86 respectively with Sabathia and Tanaka coming along behind them with ERAs 4.34 and 4.46 respectively. Through the first few times through the rotation, Tanaka was the weakest of the group but he has shown flashes of being the ace we know he is and over time he will round into form and lead this staff. CC Sabathia continues to give the team great effort with what he has. He is no longer a power pitching ace but he has shown the ability to pitch and be effective with diminished stuff at this point in his career. Though he has struggled in his last three starts, Sabathia's start to the season was still encouraging. Jordan Montgomery has shown flashes of effectiveness so far but needs to work on efficiency and pitching deeper into games. He doesn’t have dominant stuff but so far he has shown that he can use what he has to get big leaguers out. This group seems to have great chemistry. Everyone on the team has been very supportive of their fellow teammates so far this season and barring some bad injury luck I believe they are positioned to be a reliable group for this team as they chase the playoffs.     

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The 2017 Yankees have had a very successful start to their season but it was a month far different than what we have been witnessing in recent years. The high priced stars are largely gone and they have been replaced with a talented group of young players. Although these youngsters will go through their ups and downs as the season goes on, this April has provided plenty of reason for hope in the short and long term. They appear to have their cornerstone players in place in Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge with quality players surrounding them all over the diamond. 

The team is built around these young players but has also benefited from the addition of solid veterans like Matt Holliday and Chris Carter. All of these factors have contributed to the team’s strong start and combined with a veteran manager who protects his players, I believe the team is positioned to compete for a playoff spot this year. This April was one of the most fun months of baseball that I’ve watched in many years and it looks like we’re going to get to watch a lot more like it going forward. Time to sit back and enjoy the ride, there’s plenty of season left to go.    

Article by: Matt Graziano

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