Four months into the 2021 season, the New York Yankees are 56-49 with a minus-6 run differential. They've won 15 of their last 23 games to climb to within three games of the second wild card spot, and according to FanGraphs, no team improved its postseason odds and World Series odds with its trade deadline additions more than New York.
Two weeks ago we looked at Gleyber Torres' power, Nestor Cortes Jr.'s success, and Anthony Volpe's breakout season in the minors. Here are three new notable Yankees trends.
Rizzo's first impression
It's tough to make a better first impression than Anthony Rizzo has made with Yankees fans. The Yankees added Rizzo and Joey Gallo at the trade deadline to address their lack of lefty thump, and in his first four games in pinstripes, Rizzo has gone 5 for 11 with two walks, two hit by pitches, and two home runs. He's struck out once.
"When you get traded to the New York Yankees, you get to put this uniform on and go from one historic franchise to another," the former Cub told reporters, including MLB.com's Bryan Hoch, following the trade. "It's just an amazing feeling and opportunity for me to come in here and play for the Yankees, in this lineup, in New York City. You just can't ask for more as a player."
Offensively, Gallo is essentially a brute masher who walks, strikes out, or goes deep in nearly 60 percent of his plate appearances. Rizzo's offensive game is more nuanced. He's a high contact hitter -- his 15.3 percent strikeout rate is well below the 23.6 percent league average -- who uses the entire field and crowds the plate. Rizzo takes control of the at-bat away from the pitcher.
Beyond the offense, Rizzo is an excellent defender, particularly around the bag, which will help a below-average defensive team. Rizzo checks all the intangibles boxes as well. He's always been a popular teammate and playing for a big-market team in a postseason race won't scare him. Rizzo has proven he can deal with the pressure of being a centerpiece on a title contender.
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"I think he's shown throughout his career not only he's a great player, but he's been really good in big spots when it matters most," Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including the Associated Press, over the weekend. "I don't think there's any question he elevates his game a little bit. We've certainly seen that the first couple of days here. He's highly motivated to play for a championship again."
As expected, Rizzo received a hero's welcome in his first home game as a Yankee on Monday, and the Yankees fans corner of the internet is already thinking about an extension. The Yankees are focused on 2021 and 2021 only right now -- "We added Rizzo for this stretch drive. This is all about the 2021 effort. We haven't daydreamed into the future at all," GM Brian Cashman told reporters, including the New York Post's Dan Martin, after the trade -- but it goes to show how much Rizzo has produced already, and how quickly he's endeared himself to fans.
"We know what he's capable of doing and the approach he takes every at-bat," longtime Yankee Brett Gardner told reporters, including the Associated Press, over the weekend. "Just the energy he brings to the ballpark every day ... It's great to have him on our side. He keeps coming up big for us."
Odor's hot streak
Long before the bringing in Gallo and Rizzo, the Yankees attempted to address their lack of lefty power with longtime Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor. They acquired Odor less than a week into the season -- Texas is paying the vast majority of his salary this year and next -- and he was the same ol' Rougned Odor in April and May. He hit .180/.266/.342 in his first 34 games in pinstripes.
Odor has been a different hitter since early June, however. He's been one of New York's best hitters, in fact. Going into Monday night's season-opener with the Orioles, Odor had hit .282/.342/.536 with seven home runs in his previous 33 games. He drove in 20 runs in those 33 games and had numerous important late-inning hits.
"He's a great teammate and a great competitor," Boone recently told reporters, including Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News. "... He's a great guy that likes to play baseball and compete with his teammates and likes to see his teammates do well and is interested in helping them as much as he wants to help himself ... Couple that with the fact that he's been productive for us, he's been everything we could have hoped for."
The recent hot streak has raised Odor's season batting line to a respectable .231/.303/.439 -- that is a tick better than league average once adjusted for ballpark -- and, for what it's worth, he's been strong in the field as well. Statcast's Outs Above Average rates Odor as one of the best defensive second baseman in baseball this year. I'm always skeptical of a few month's worth of defensive stats, though Odor rating well is better than the alternative.
Odor's hot streak stems mostly from better swing decisions. Being aggressive in the strike zone has never been an issue for him. It's more about laying off pitcher's pitches and getting himself into better counts. Given his track record -- we have over 3,000 plate appearances telling us Odor is not particularly disciplined -- it remains to be seen whether this hot streak lasts. For now though, it is happening and it's helping the Yankees win games as they look to move into postseason position.
"I've been feeling pretty good," Odor told Ackert. "I'm just trying to help my team to win when they give me the opportunity to play the game. And let's say I feel really good at the plate and our team is feeling really good too at the plate."
A new-look middle relief crew
The Yankees overhauled their lineup with Gallo and Rizzo at the trade deadline, and they also added inventory to the rotation with Andrew Heaney. Cashman remade the middle of his bullpen a little bit last week, acquiring righty Clay Holmes from the Pirates and lefty Joely Rodríguez from the Rangers in the Gallo trade.
Combined, Holmes and Rodríguez pitched to a 5.32 ERA and put 108 runners on base in 69 1/3 innings with their former teams. Those aren't exactly numbers that suggest they will reinforce a bullpen that has blown an awful lot of winnable games the last few weeks. Why did the Yankees target Holmes and Rodríguez, then? This is why:
- Clay Holmes: 72.9 percent
- Aaron Bummer: 72.1 percent
- Emmanuel Clase: 69.9 percent
- Richard Bleier: 67.0 percent
- Framber Valdez: 65.8 percent
- Victor González: 61.4 percent
- Joely Rodríguez: 61.1 percent
(MLB average: 43.2 percent)
That is the ground ball rate leaderboard the last two seasons (min. 40 innings). Holmes and Rodríguez are two of the best ground ball pitchers in baseball, and not seen on that list are Zack Britton (69.0 percent in only 30 1/3 innings) and Jonathan Loaisiga (59.6 percent). The Yankees suddenly have four of the game's best ground ball pitchers in the bullpen.
In their first few days with the Yankees, Holmes and Rodríguez have lived to their billing as worm killers. The two have combined to face 22 batters as Yankees: nine ground outs, four fly outs, three strikeouts, three line drive singles, two pop outs, one walk. They combined for two scoreless innings in New York's comeback win against the Marlins on Sunday.
"For Clay to come back out after yesterday's outing and be really pitch efficient was big," Boone told reporters, including Matthew Roberson of the New York Daily News, following Sunday's game. "Joely comes in and blows up a bat on the first pitch. We feel like those two guys are going to be important pieces of our bullpen. It worked out perfect."
Targeting two extreme ground ball pitchers at one trade deadline -- and adding them to the two extreme ground balls already in the bullpen -- is not a coincidence. The Yankees are emphasizing grounders, perhaps in response to the foreign substance crackdown reducing spin rates and thus strikeout rates. Now they're focusing on ground ball pitchers who don't rely on spin.
Of course, ground balls are not necessarily a good thing with New York's infield defense. Gleyber Torres is a second baseman masquerading as a shortstop, and overall, the Yankees rank 27th among the 30 teams with minus-12 defensive runs saved on the infield. Emphasizing ground balls with that infield defense doesn't seem like the best idea.
The Yankees are banking on two things. First, they expect to infield defense to be better with Rizzo, which is reasonable given his glovework. And second, even with a shaky infield defense, ground balls are preferable to fly balls, which more easily go for extra bases. They're trading a few more ground ball singles for less damage on fly balls with Holmes and Rodríguez.