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Dellin Betances (Rob Carr/Getty)

Dellin Betances (Rob Carr/Getty)

Entering the 2017 MLB season, the New York Yankees were expected to be rebuilding, not in playoff contender. They weren’t supposed to be in first place in the AL East a quarter of the way through the season. They weren’t supposed to look this good this soon. Well, guess what? They do.

Entering a weekend series against the Oakland Athletics, the Yankees sit at 27-17, good for first place in the American League East. It’s also the second best record in the AL, behind only the Houston Astros, and fourth overall in Major League Baseball.

It’s been a surprisingly hot start for these young Yankees, so of course people are going to wonder one thing: can they keep it up? They certainly can and I’m going to tell you why.

Lack of Pressure

If there’s one thing that’s different about this Yankees team as opposed to the teams of the past, it’s that there is not nearly as much pressure facing this young club. The Yankees success over the past 20 years has been based on paying through the nose for proven stars. Sure, they had their own star players brought up through their system like Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera, but they also brought in a lot of big names like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, CC Sabathia, and several others. With those big contracts, comes high expectations. For the most part, they lived up to the hype, but in more recent years, the Yankees lack of youth has hurt them.

Because of their struggles to make the post-season in recent years and the fact that they were big time sellers at last year’s trade deadline, most people didn’t see the Yankees as playoff contenders coming into this season. I think that took a lot of pressure off these young players and has helped them flourish. Everyone knows how hard it is to play in New York, especially for this storied franchise. Some players just need a year or two to get themselves adjusted and once they do, they can really succeed.

There are a few great examples in this team right now. Didi Gregorius had some huge shoes to fill when he replaced Derek Jeter and he struggled in his first year as the Yankees’ new shortstop. However, his play over the last two seasons has been All-Star caliber. He’s one of the league’s best defensive shortstops, something the Yankees knew he could be when they traded for him, but he has also evolved as a hitter. Over 97 at bats this year, Didi is slashing .330/.359/.474 with five doubles, three home runs, 13 runs scored, and 17 RBI. Since returning from the injury he suffered during the World Baseball Classic, he’s been tearing it up.

Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks are both great examples as well. Neither of them played as well as they could have last season (their first years in the Bronx), but this year, they’ve been two of the team’s best hitters. Castro has been scorching hot so far this season, as he’s batting .328 with 10 doubles, seven homers, 31 runs, and 27 RBI. He’s been one of the best second basemen offensively, as he’s first in average, third in OPS (.866) and second in WAR (1.4). This comes after hitting .270 last year with a .733 OPS and a 1.3 WAR for the entire season. There’s no doubt he’s been one of the most crucial players to the Yankees’ success.

Hicks is a bit of a different story. He came into the season competing with Aaron Judge (more on this monster later) for the starting right field job. What’s crazy about this is that the right field position was widely considered to be the weakest offensively for the Yankees. But back to Hicks, he’s been a revelation. When the Yankees acquired him from the Twins last year, they knew he was a young guy who had room to grow. He was among the best outfielders defensively last year, showcasing an unbelievable arm and excellent range, but his bat was well behind his fielding ability. He eked out a .217/.281/.336 slash line last season with eight home runs in 327 at bats. This year, in just 103 at bats, he’s got a .291/.426/.573 slash line with eight home runs. So he’s tied his home runs from all of last season and we’re only 44 games into this season, while also increasing his efficiency across the board. His .999 OPS and 1.7 WAR this season are also both eye-popping numbers and career highs for Hicks. I doubt that he’ll keep up this type of production, but he’s hard to deny the fact that he looks like a completely different player at the plate. He’s more disciplined and the changes in his swing have completely transformed him. It’ll be interesting to see if he can continue this level of play and earn more playing time down the road.

My point is, at least in the case of these three guys, is that sometimes it takes a year or even two to adjust to playing for the Yankees. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with it and these guys seem to be handling it much better the longer they’re with the team. Now that the pressure is off, these guys can just play their game and do it to the best of their abilities.

The Rest of the Offense

Gregorius, Castro, and Hicks are all playing like All-Stars, but what about the rest of the lineup? Well, for starters, the Yankees as a team are one of the league’s most dominant teams offensively. They lead the AL in home runs (69), on base percentage (.346), slugging percentage (.453), OPS (.799), and runs scored (241, 5.5 per game). They’re also second to only the Boston Red Sox in batting average by .004 (.267). They’re also tops in the league in stolen base percentage (31 for 37, 83.7%), for good measure. They’ve been highly productive offensively and they’re showing no signs of slowing down. To get a real idea of how good the Yanks’ offense has been, I’m going to take a look at each player that is key to the rotation (not including Gregorious, Castro, or Hicks as I’ve already discussed what they’re bringing to the table) and break down their performance and their value to this team.

  • Jacoby Ellsbury: To say Ellsbury has been a disappointment since the Yankees signed him to a monster seven-year, $153 million contract back in 2014 would be an understatement. In his final year in Boston, he slashed .298/.355/.426 with nine homers, 53 RBI, 92 runs scored, and 52 steals. The Yankees were hoping to get similar production, but it hasn’t worked out to this point. In his first three years with the team, Ellsbury has a combined .259 average, with just 32 total home runs, 208 runs scored, and 80 steals. Now, Ellsbury has never been known for his power (even though he did have a 32 homer, 105 RBI season back in 2011), but he simply hasn’t brought the same level of batting average and speed that the Yankees were hoping for at the top of their lineup. This year, though, he’s been better than in the last three years. He’s batting .281 with 19 runs scored and eight stolen bases. His OBP is also a solid .349 and he’s chipped in four homers. I think he can still play even better than this and I’m sure a lot of people would agree, but at this point, I’d take these numbers from him over an entire season. Unfortunately, Ellsbury suffered a concussion after colliding into the outfield wall last night and was placed on the 7-day DL
  • Brett Gardner: Gardner, like Ellsbury, is a guy that has been around a long time and hasn’t played to the best of his abilities with any type of consistency. He goes through stretches (like the one he’s on right now) where he dominates and then he slumps. For example, Gardy hit just .205 with three doubles and two home runs in April. In May, he’s hitting a whopping .350 with four doubles, seven homers, and he’s added a triple for good measure. His nine home runs so far this season have already topped last year’s total of seven. He’s really just a streaky hitter who will frustrate you to no end because you know how good he can be. Right now, he’s playing great and the Yankees simply have to hope he can play more like May-Gardner than April-Gardner.
  • Chase Headley: After an incredibly hot start, Headley has really come down to Earth. In 83 April at-bats, Headley slashed .301/.402/.494 and hit three home runs. In 72 May at-bats, he’s slashing a paltry .152/.175/.236 and has not homered. Headley’s great start was clearly the outlier as he’s really been nothing more than a solid hitter throughout his career. Fortunately for the Yankees, he played well when they needed it, as Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorious both missed most of April and now Headley can just return to his role as a veteran who hits near the bottom of the lineup and plays solid defense.
  • Matt Holliday: After seven years with the Cardinals, the 37-year-old Holliday signed a one-year deal with the Yankees. Turns out that it was a great move by Brian Cashman. Holliday has been much better than expected as the Yanks new DH. He’s currently hitting .275 with a .370 OBP. He’s shown good power with eight homers and 28 RBI so far this season, so he should continue to provide a strong presence in the middle of the lineup. His .870 OPS is the highest it’s been since 2013. Now that he’s just a DH and doesn’t have to play the field, it should allow Holliday to stay healthy and more consistent at the plate. He’s a career .302 hitter, so I wouldn’t doubt him keeping up this type of production, or even improving on it.
  • Gary Sanchez: It’s hard to judge Sanchez’ season to this point because of how much time he missed with a bicep injury, but he’s been pretty good since returning. In his 20 at-bats before the injury, he hit just .150 with one homer. Since returning, he’s been hitting .305 with three home runs and nine RBI. He’s also got a pretty good .405 OBP and an .890 OPS since his DL stint. Obviously, people were very, very high on Sanchez after erupting in his rookie year, but he’s still having an excellent season. We shouldn’t expect him to hit .300 with 60 home runs like he was on pace for had he played an entire season last year, but hitting close to .300 (probably somewhere in the .270-.290 range) with around 30-40 homers is definitely not out of the question. Sanchez is the future of this team and his presence back in the lineup is huge for this ball club.
  • Aaron Judge: My goodness, is this guy exciting or what? Nobody and I mean NOBODY expected this kind of dominance from Judge. The 6’7” monster is taking the league by storm. Judge came up late last season and struggled mightily. He hit a couple homers in his first week, but spent the rest of his first MLB action striking out. He struck out in half of his at-bats last year. HALF! That’s awful. I personally thought he needed more time in the minors and I was concerned that he would never live up to his immense potential because of his struggles to make consistent contact. However, he went on to win the starting right field job from Aaron Hicks and now he’s showing why. He’s currently tied with perennial MVP Mike Trout for the league lead in home runs with 15. His OPS of 1.098 ranks sixth in the majors. He’s also shown better plate discipline and has made more consistent contact. He improved his average from .179 to .315 and he raised his OBP from .263 to .420. Everyone knew he had the raw power to be a good hitter some day, but no one could have expected this type of production so early in his career. He’s also shown some ability defensively too. His arm strength is unreal and he’s shown some great range as well. If he keeps this up, he’ll be talked about for MVP all year. Even somewhat of a regression could still see him getting an All-Star nod. It’s truly exciting knowing Judge is going to be around for the long haul and he’s really been a big part of speeding up the rebuilding process.
  • The others: Other guys who have been part of the rotation include Greg Bird (who is currently on the DL), Chris Carter, Ronald Torreyes, and Austin Romine. Bird really struggled before going out, but the Yankees still believe he can turn his season around and so do I. He’s a talented guy who has a great swing; it’s just going to take some time for him to get it together. Carter is an all-or-nothing hitter who is filling in a first base for the time being. He’s going to hit home runs, but he’s also going to strike out a ton. Torreyes has actually been a solid hitter with a .286 average. He did a good job as the starting shortstop when Didi was out and also fills in at second and third if Castro or Headley needs a rest. Romine was great behind the plate and was actually hitting really well in April when he was starting in place of the injured Sanchez. His .314 average in April was excellent, but he has just two hits in 25 at bats in May, so he’s really been struggling since Sanchez returned. Hopefully Sanchez stays healthy.

The bottom line here is that when the Yankees are healthy, or apparently even when they’re not, their lineup is one of the best in baseball. They’ve been consistently scoring runs and racking up long balls. They have a great combination of contact, speed, and power and I see no reason as to why their offense can’t keep this up.

The Rotation

The current starting rotation is the area of the roster that will make or break the Yankees. So far, they’ve done a really good job and, as surprising as it is, I think it can continue or even get better. Here’s the thing, though. While the Yankees have 22 quality starts this year, their starters’ combined ERA sits at 4.33 which is seventh in the AL and fourteenth in the majors. The problem is that when it’s bad, it’s really bad. I’m going to do my best to evaluate the five starters: Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia, and Jordan Montgomery.

  • Masahiro Tanaka: Tanaka, the ace of the rotation…yeah, sure. He’s supposed to be their best starter, and yet, he’s been their worst. His 6.56 ERA is unbearable. His K/9 (7.31) is the worst of his four year career. He’s already allowed 13 home runs this season. For some reason he just doesn’t appear to have the same stuff he’s had in his time in the majors. Despite his terrible numbers, he still has a 5-3 record. The reason for that being that he’s had five excellent starts and four horrible ones. In his first two starts of the season, he allowed 10 runs in just 7.2 innings. In his last two starts, he allowed 14 runs in just 4.2 innings. I felt gross just typing that last sentence. 14 runs in 4.2 innings! My goodness. In his five starts in between (all wins), however, he was brilliant, allowing just 11 runs in 35.2 innings. He’s not the strike out machine he was in his first two years and he may never get back to that, but there’s still time for him to turn around this rough start. There’s no doubt that he hasn’t been the “ace” this year, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be.
  • Michael Pineda: Pineda has been the Yankees ace this season. His numbers are great: 5-2 record, six quality starts, a 3.35 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP, and a 10.23 K/9. He’s been bitten by the long ball a bit, as he’s given up 11 home runs, but other than that, he’s been dominant. If he can cut back on the homers he allows, he could be one of the best starters in baseball. He’s always had this type of potential, too. He’s always had great stuff (especially his slider) and good control; he’s just been maddeningly inconsistent. He seems to finally be putting it together. He might have some bad games, but I think the sample size this season has been big enough that Yankees fans can be confident in him going forward. Great stat for Pineda: he’s racked up 61 strikeouts and allowed just nine walks this year.
  • Luis Severino: I think Severino is the Yankees’ future ace. He struggled mightily last season to the tune of a 3-8 record and a 5.83 ERA. This year, though, he’s really turned it around. He’s only 3-2, but his 3.11 ERA is best on the team, at least among the starters. He’s also got a great K/9 at 9.98 and an excellent WHIP at 1.05. This youngster (he’s still only 23 years old) has great stuff and appears to have a bright future. He, like Pineda, just needs to remain consistent. The Yankees must feel great about both of these guys right now and hopefully can get this type of play from them the whole season.
  • CC Sabathia: Here’s the grizzled vet of the rotation. Sabathia had a really good year last season and was looking to build on that, but a few bad starts have held him back. His 4.62 ERA isn’t awful, but it’s also not great. He doesn’t have the speed on his fastball to be a great pitcher anymore, but his slider is just as good as ever. He’s got a 4-2 record, so he’s been good enough for the Yankees to win when he pitches and that’s all that matters.
  • Jordan Montgomery: Montgomery is a relative unknown and no one still really knows what to expect from this kid over the course of the season, but he’s been pretty solid so far. He won the fifth spot in the rotation in spring training and hasn’t looked back. He’s got a 4.30 ERA in his eight starts. He’s not an overpowering pitcher, but he has solid control and does a good job of limiting damage when he gets into trouble. The Yankees could certainly do worse in their fifth starter.

I would say the Yankees rotation, other than Tanaka, has performed admirably this season and they’ve been better than expected. I think Tanaka will turn his season around, however, so as long as Pineda and Severino don’t regress, the Yankees can actually have a good rotation for the first time in years.

The Bullpen

This is the strength of the club right here. The Yankees bullpen is among the league’s best without a doubt. Their bullpen ERA currently sits at third in the majors at 2.92 and their combined K/9 is also third at 10.33. Their bullpen is carried by a few guys, though, in Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, and Aroldis Chapman, who is currently on the DL. Adam Warren has also been very good, but his last couple outings have been rough. Jonathan Holder, Chasen Shreve, and Chad Green have also been pretty good, but don’t get used as much as the other four guys.

Chapman is one of the best closers in baseball and had notched seven saves before going down with a shoulder injury. He was dominating before his final two outings, when he allowed four of his five earned runs on the season. His ERA currently sits at 3.55, but it was at 0.79 before those last two games. Anyone who watches baseball knows how good Chapman is. His fastball has broken records as he can hit 105 mph, but routinely touches 100 mph. He’s also added an absolutely filthy slider to his repertoire. After winning a championship with the Cubs (after the Yankees traded him to Chicago for Gleyber Torres), the Yankees signed him back to a five-year $80 million deal. Once he returns from his injury, he’ll prove to be worth that money.

Dellin Betances might be the best non-closer relief pitcher in the majors. He’s currently rocking a miniscule 0.57 ERA and an incredible 16.66 K/9. He also has four saves filling in for Chapman. This is no surprise, either, as Betances has been this good for a while. His ERA over the last three seasons coming into this year was at 1.93, so this guy is the real deal. He’s also routinely been among the league leaders in K/9, thanks to his nasty curveball and his high 90’s fastball. There’s no question that this guy is one of the best relievers in the majors right now and he’s a crucial part to the Yankees success.

Tyler Clippard, Chasen Shreve, Jonathan Holder, and Adam Warren have all pitched at least 12 innings and sport an ERA under 3.00. Clippard has been surprisingly good, allowing just three runs in 19.2 innings, good for a 1.73 ERA. Shreve has dazzled with a 0.75 ERA while Holder and Warren are sporting ERA’s of 2.84 and 2.96 respectively. These six relievers are the real backbones of this bullpen and they’ve been impressive all season.

The Bottom Line:

Look, there’s no reason why the Yankees can’t keep up their current success. After a 1-4 start, they’ve won 26 of their 39 games. Their offensive has been consistently productive and their starting rotation has given them enough quality starts to maintain this type of record. They’re also a young team filled with guys who are built for the long haul, and while they could regress due to their lack of experience, they have enough proven guys to hold it together.

I think this team is exceeding expectations, not because they have players who are overperforming, but because they have good players who underperformed in recent years. Luis Severino and Michael Pineda have always been highly touted as guys who could become aces. Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks are more comfortable now in their second year in the Bronx. Jacoby Ellsbury looks like he may have his best year as a Yankee.  Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are ready to take over as the faces of this team. Simply put: the New York Yankees are for real.

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