Only six days remain in the 2021 regular season, and the New York Yankees currently occupy a postseason spot. They're sitting in the top wild-card spot, one game up on the Red Sox and two games up on the Blue Jays. .
Two weeks ago we looked at Giancarlo Stanton's outfield play, Gio Urshela's strikeout problems, and Chad Green's home run issue. This week we're going to highlight a few reasons the Yankees were able to remain in the postseason race despite a sluggish start that saw them sitting on an 41-41 record through 82 games.
1. Judge and Stanton are healthy
From 2018-20, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton played only 441 of 768 possible regular season games, or 57 percent. Only 132 times in 384 team games those three years were they in the starting lineup together, or 34 percent. When they played, they were productive, but Judge and Stanton did not play often enough their first three years together.
This season has been a different story. Judge and Stanton have largely stayed healthy -- Stanton missed 13 games with a quad issue in May and Judge missed nine games with COVID-19 in July -- and they've been excellent. They've been New York's two best hitters this season and it's not particularly close either. Their numbers:
Judge and Stanton has been especially productive down the stretch, hitting a combined .302/.366/.602 with 33 home runs in August and September. Stanton in particular has been on a rampage the last few days. He went 7 for 12 (.583) with three home runs and 10 RBI this past weekend in Boston. That includes his titanic go-ahead grand slam Saturday.
The Yankees are scoring only 4.40 runs per game, 18th most in baseball, so the offense has underperformed just about all year. Not Judge and Stanton though. They've kept the offense afloat all season, or at least until Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo arrived at the trade deadline to provide support. Stanton and particularly Judge will deservedly receive MVP votes this year.
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2. Nasty Nestor
Fun fact: The Yankees went into Monday's off day leading the American League in ERA (3.72). Gerrit Cole has been dynamite, , and Jordan Montgomery has been a reliable No. 2. Jameson Taillon made every start up until a recent ankle issue and has turned in a league average-ish season following his second Tommy John surgery.
The rest of the rotation has been a bit up in the air. Domingo Germán was up and down before dealing with a shoulder issue of his own. Andrew Heaney has been a non-factor (or worse) since coming over at the trade deadline. The back of the rotation has been unsettled., then spent three months on the injured list with a shoulder problem.
Enter Nestor Cortes Jr. The former Yankees draft pick (36th round in 2013) returned to the club on a minor-league contract this past offseason and he's been a godsend, pitching so well in 13 starts and he's likely to get an ALDS start should New York qualify for the postseason and win the Wild Card Game. Check out his numbers as a starter:
Cortes has been home run prone, sure, though Statcast says he has an expected 3.31 ERA based on the quality of contact he's allowed (exit velocity, launch angle, etc.). This isn't a guy performing way over his head. Cortes added some velocity over the winter (he's more 91-92 mph now rather than 88-89 mph) and turned his curveball into a slider, and he's as funky as it gets.
There are tangible reasons to believe in the new version of Cortes, specifically the velocity uptick and new slider. He's also fearless on the mound and has big-league confidence. Cortes pitches like a guy who throws 98-99 mph rather than one who tops out at 94 mph. He's an uncomfortable at-bat for opposing hitters and he helped keep the Yankees afloat during Kluber's injury.
3. Gardner's revival
When the Yankees re-signed stalwart Brett Gardner over the winter, they did so expecting him to serve as their fourth outfielder. Then Aaron Hicks needed season-ending wrist surgery in May, forcing Gardner to take over as the everyday center fielder. It did not go well either. Gardner took .194/.310/.304 batting line into the All-Star break and looked to be nearing the end of the line at age 37.
The second half has been a much different story. Gardner is hitting .257/.359/.423 since the All-Star break, and now the Yankees can't take him out of the lineup. Luke Voit, last year's MLB home run champ, has started only three of the last 10 games and 10 of the last 26 games because Gardner's played so well, and the Yankees need the DH spot for Gallo, Judge, and Stanton.
Gardner remains an above-average defender, so even when he wasn't hitting he was still saving runs with his glove. Now he is hitting though, and he brings a speed element to a lineup that is otherwise station-to-station. Gardner's provided several big hits these last few weeks and he's an important clubhouse leader. He's stepped up at an important time.
4. Bullpen additions
The Yankees have had to remake their bullpen on the fly this year. Multiple injuries limited Zack Britton to 18 1/3 mostly ineffective innings before season-ending Tommy John surgery, and Aroldis Chapman has not been his usually dominant self since May. Chad Green has struggled with the long ball, and ace setup man Jonathan Loáisiga has been out with a sore shoulder since Sept. 3.
To reshape their bullpen, New York's front office make three pickups that flew under the radar. They first traded the popular Mike Tauchman to the Giants for lefty Wandy Peralta on April 27, then shipped two infield prospects to the Pirates for righty Clay Holmes on July 26. And finally, the Yankees added lefty Joely Rodríguez in the Gallo trade with the Rangers at the deadline.
Holmes (4.93 ERA with Pirates), Peralta (5.40 ERA with Giants), and Rodríguez (5.93 ERA with Rangers) all had unimpressive numbers with their former teams. With the Yankees, they've been indispensable:
That is full season's workload for a reliever and those three have combined to be a notch below truly elite. Holmes and Peralta regularly see high-leverage work in the late innings, and Rodríguez has been a dominant left-on-left specialist (lefties are hitting .196/.286/.214 against him). Holmes has been a revelation. He has one walk in 24 innings with the Yankees after walking 25 in 42 innings with Pittsburgh.
Holmes, Peralta, and Rodríguez really picked up the slack while Chapman and Green worked through their issues the last few weeks. Those two have been better of late, and Loaisiga is expected to return this week, and Luis Severino returned from Tommy John surgery in a bullpen role last week. The bullpen was in crisis mode last month. Now the Yankees have an abundance of options.