Anatomy of a winning streak: How the Yankees have become MLB's hottest team
The Yankees have won eight straight games. Here's how they've done it
The New York Yankees are the hottest team in baseball. Monday night they beat the Chicago White Sox (NYY 7, CWS 4) for their eighth consecutive win, which is the longest winning streak by any team in baseball this season -- no other club has won more than five games in a row -- and New York's longest winning streak since a 10-gamer in June 2012.
Thanks to this winning streak, the Yankees currently boast a plus-23 run differential, the best in baseball. They rank second among all teams in runs scored per game (5.15) and fourth in runs allowed per game (3.38), so they're playing well in both phases. This eight-game winning streak has had a real impact on their postseason chances. From FanGraphs:
Coming into the season the Yankees had a 15.9 percent chance to make the postseason, according to the projections and depth charts at FanGraphs. Two weeks in, they are up to 39.9 percent, fourth highest in the American League. Improving your odds 24 percentage points in two weeks is pretty great. No, the Yankees won't keep winning forever, but these eight wins are in the bank. They can't be taken away.
What, exactly, has propelled the Yankees to this eight-game winning streak? Well, as I mentioned earlier, they're both creating runs and preventing runs well, and yes, there's a little luck involved too. The Yankees aren't being carried by one or two players. It's a team effort. Here are the biggest reasons the Yankees are now the hottest team in MLB.
The starting pitching has been great
It always starts with pitching, doesn't it? Five games into the season the Yankees were 1-4 and their starters had a 7.59 ERA and 1.88 WHIP in 21 1/3 innings. Not once in those five games did a starter record an out after the fifth inning. The Yankees were getting low quality innings from the starters and they were taxing the bullpen. That's a bad combination.
The eight-game winning streak started in New York's sixth game of the season, and since then their starters have pitched to a 2.77 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 52 innings. Only once in those eight games did the starter fail to complete six full innings -- rookie lefty Jordan Montgomery went 4 2/3 innings in his MLB debut Wednesday because he was on a pitch limit. Now the rotation is providing quality innings and bulk innings.
Oddly enough, staff ace Masahiro Tanaka has been the Yankees' worst starter in the early going. He was one of the AL's top hurlers last year, but control issues have hampered him early. Erstwhile ace CC Sabathia reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher last year and has a 1.47 ERA in 18 1/3 innings and three starts so far. He has been the club's most reliable starting pitcher.
Their most electric starter has been Michael Pineda, at least during this eight-game winning streak. He retired the first 20 batters he faced in the home opener April 10, then Sunday night he chucked seven innings of two-run ball. Pineda is both talented and unpredictable. He'll dominate one start and blow up the next -- he allowed four runs in 3 2/3 innings in his first start of the season, so yeah -- though these last two times out, the good version of the man they call Big Mike showed up.
The bullpen has been great too
We all know about Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, who form arguably the top setup man-closer combination in baseball. Having those two at the end of the game sure makes life easy for manager Joe Girardi. The rest of the bullpen has been very good too, however. Tyler Clippard picked up a save Saturday when Chapman and Betances were unavailable due to their recent workloads, and rookie righty Jonathan Holder has yet to allow a run in five appearances.
Adam Warren, who never quite fit in with the Chicago Cubs last year before being traded back to the Yankees, and Bryan Mitchell competed for rotation spots in spring training and opened the regular season as multi-inning relievers. Mitchell allowed his first run of the season Sunday. Warren allowed his first run Monday after retiring the first 22 batters he faced this season. Those two have combined to allow two runs and six base runners in 13 1/3 innings spread across nine appearances.
Chapman and Betances get all the headlines and deservedly so. They've combined to allow one run with 17 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings. Bullpens are not a two-man show, however. Not these days. Bullpen depth is crucial and the Yankees have gotten strong work from supporting cast members like Clippard, Holder, Warren and Mitchell. The Yankees are second in bullpen ERA (1.36), third in bullpen WHIP (0.96) and fifth in bullpen strikeout rate (10.7 K/9) in all of baseball thanks to their relief depth.
Judge is living up to the hype
This spring MLB.com ranked 24-year-old Aaron Judge as the 42nd-best prospect in baseball, though his MLB debut did not go too well last season. The Yankees called him up after trading Carlos Beltran to the Texas Rangers and installed him as their starting right fielder. Judge hit .179/.263/.345 (61 OPS+) in 27 games before suffering an oblique injury. He's a massive human listed at 6-feet-7 and 275 pounds, and pitchers took advantage of that big strike zone -- Judge struck out 42 times in 95 plate appearances (44.2 percent) in 2016.
All throughout the minors Judge's history has been get promoted to a new level, struggle initially, then adjust and rake. He spent the offseason working with the Yankees' hitting instructors and the result is a .275/.356/.650 (175 OPS+) batting line with four very long home runs. Statcast says Judge is responsible for five of the 12 hardest-hit balls in MLB this season. The man is as strong as that 6-7 frame would lead you to believe.
Judge has gone 9 for 25 (.360) with four home runs during the eight-game winning streak, and he also became the first Yankee to be intentionally walked using the automatic intentional walk rule. Pitchers are aware of the damage he can do at the plate and his at-bats have become must-see television for other players around the league.
Judge is always going to strike out a bunch because he's so darn big, though he has been able to cut his strikeout rate down to 28.9 percent. That is still higher than the 21.7 percent league average, but Judge's strikeout rate is no longer untenable like it was last season. The Yankees are in the middle of a youth movement and Judge is one of their most prized young players. He has lived up to the hype this year.
Well-paid veterans are producing
The Yankees know a thing or two about veteran players not living up to their big-money contracts. They released Alex Rodriguez last year and ran out the final season of Mark Teixeira's contract. There have been countless others over the years.
Last season the Yankees ranked 22nd among the 30 teams in runs per game (4.20) largely because their veterans disappointed. A-Rod and Teixeira dragged down the offense, and others like Starlin Castro, Chase Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury did not give the Yankees nearly as much as expected. They were OK at best.
Castro, Headley and Ellsbury have given the Yankees what they've paid for this season, and that's big production. Check out their performances:
During 8-Game Win Streak
.270/.300/.433 (93 OPS+)
.365/.389/.538 (157 OPS+)
12 for 32 (.375), 3 2B, 2 HR
.263/.330/.374 (88 OPS+)
.326/.367/.435 (124 OPS+)
8 for 27 (.296), 4 SB
.253/.331/.385 (91 OPS+)
.395/.509/.605 (212 OPS+)
10 for 27 (.385), 2 2B, 1 HR
Ellsbury in particular has helped the Yankees with his lineup versatility. He has started games not only at his customary leadoff spot, but also in the cleanup spot and the No. 5 spot. Ellsbury doesn't fit the traditional middle-of-the-order run-producer mold, but the Yankees have bounced him around and he has produced everywhere he has been in the lineup.
Obviously these three won't play this well all season -- I suppose Castro, who is still only 27, could be figuring things out as he enters what should be the prime of his career -- but they're crushing the ball right now and helping the Yankees win games. They didn't do that much last season.
Part-timers have stepped up
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this eight-game winning streak is that the Yankees have done it without Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius, their starting catcher and starting shortstop. Sanchez injured his biceps taking a swing and landed on the 10-day disabled list the day before the winning streak started. Gregorius has not played at all this season due to a shoulder injury suffered during the World Baseball Classic.
Backup catcher Austin Romine has taken over behind the plate and gone 7 for 21 (.333) with two doubles, one homer, four walks and three strikeouts during Sanchez's absence. Ronald Torreyes has taken over for Gregorius at short, and while his .250/.250/.425 (85 OPS+) batting line is underwhelming, he has come up with some clutch hits. In fact, his two-run triple last Sunday could easily be considered a turning point for the Yankees.
That triple drove in New York's first two runs of the game. They would eventually complete the comeback and win that game to kick off this eight-game winning streak. Torreyes might be hitting .250, but his 10 RBI are second on the team behind Judge, who has 11.
Furthermore, fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks has already swatted three home runs in his limited time, including two in one game last Thursday. His two home runs accounted for all three runs the Yankees scored in their win that night. Hicks his contributed off the bench in a big way already.
Losing Sanchez and Gregorius, arguably the Yankees' two best position players, could have been devastating. Instead, their replacements have played well and helped not only keep the team afloat, but also thrive. The Yankees are getting some nice production from unexpected sources in Romine, Torreyes and Hicks.
Plain old luck
Is it better to be lucky or good? It doesn't matter, because the Yankees have been both during this streak. At one point last week they went 1 for 30 (.033) with runners in scoring position during a three-game span, yet they won all three games because A) They've been hitting home runs; and B) The other team kept making mistakes. Carlos Martinez gift-wrapped the Yankees two runs Saturday with a wild pitch and an error, for example.
The Yankees haven't played the best competition during this winning streak -- they've played their past seven games against the struggling Tampa Bay Rays, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox -- but you can only play who is on the schedule. Besides, one of the reasons the Yankees have played only one postseason game the past four years has been their inability to beat the teams they're "supposed" to beat. The Yankees have played well during this winning streak and they deserve a lot of credit. They've also benefited from some sloppy play by their opponents. No doubt about it.
Coming into this season I thought the Yankees had the widest range of possible outcomes among all 30 teams in baseball. If the kids like Judge and Sanchez and Greg Bird perform well and the pitching holds together, they could absolutely be in the mix for a postseason spot. But if the kids stumble and the pitching falls apart, a win total in the 70s is not out of the question.
Early on, the Yankees have gotten great work from their pitching staff and Judge, as well as several key veterans and bench players, and it has helped them put together this winning streak. There are still 149 games to play, so this is far from over. If nothing else, the 2017 Yankees sure seem to be a heck of a lot more interesting and exciting than the 2013-16 versions. Those teams were mediocre and boring.
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