Two-and-a half months into the 2021 season, the New York Yankees are 38-33 with a zero run differential. Exactly as many runs scored as runs allowed (281 apiece). The Yankees started 5-10, then went on a 23-9 run, then skidded to 5-13, and are now 5-1 in their last six games. This has been a very streaky team. No doubt.
Two weeks ago we looked at Luis Severino's first rehab start and the Yankees' struggles on the bases and against AL East rivals. Here are three new notable Yankees trends.
Last season was a disaster for Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez. The two-time All-Star hit .147/.253/.365 with 10 home runs in the 60-game season, and lost his starting job to backup Kyle Higashioka in the postseason. There was some speculation the Yankees would non-tender Sánchez in the offseason, though that never really made sense, and the Yankees indeed kept him for 2021.
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The first few weeks of this season were up and down for Sánchez. He went 9 for 34 (.265) with two home runs in his first 10 games, then ran into a 1 for 21 (.048) skid. On April 27, Sánchez was sitting on a .182/.308/.309 batting line, and manager Aaron Boone announced Higashioka would get start getting more playing time.
"He's just earned more playing time. Simple as that," Boone told reporters, including MLB.com's Bryan Hoch. "He's done a great job. His improvements over the last couple of years on both sides of the ball have been strong. I think the way he's played here at the onset of the season have earned him some more opportunities."
Higashioka had two hits, including a home run, the night Boone anointed him the starter. He started seven of the next 11 games as well, and Sánchez was relegated to backup duty. During his time on the bench, Sánchez worked with hitting coach Marcus Thames to simplify his swing, particularly cutting down on his stride to better allow him to catch up to fastballs.
"We wanted to simplify my swing in a way that would allow my hands to come out faster. I really like the adjustments we've made to make my swing more simple and more at the ball. We've got to keep on working," Sánchez told reporters, including Ryan Dunleavy of the New York Post, last month. "It's definitely tough (to make adjustments during the season), but you have to do it. If I don't make the adjustment, what's going to happen to me? I don't know. You have to understand that if what you are doing is not giving the results you want, then it's time to take action."
Those adjustments led to Sánchez closing his stance and shortening his leg kick. Here's a before and after look. On the left is Sánchez on April 29, and on the right is Sánchez on May 16.
Sánchez takes a step to close his stance, and his front foot no longer hangs for a moment before he sets it down and goes forward with his swing. Everything is more compact, and the result has been a hot streak on par with the best stretches of Sánchez's career. Since May 27, he owns a .344/.408/.719 line with six home runs in 20 games. He has five homers in his last 10 games.
"I'm just happy for him because he's worked so hard. He's just kept his nose down," Boone told reporters this past weekend, including CBS Sports. "Obviously he lost some playing time about a month ago and just kept working. He's been a great teammate. He's worked really hard on both sides of the ball."
Over the weekend Sánchez launched a long home run into the Yankee Stadium left field second deck against Chris Bassitt, and had two loud opposite field doubles against Sean Manaea. The second double turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead, and the Yankees eventually won by the same score ( ).
Thanks to the hot streak, Sánchez has wrestled the starting catcher's job back from Higashioka, and he's also assumed the cushy No. 3 spot in the lineup between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Sánchez is at his best when he wears out right field, and the two opposite field doubles Sunday are more encouraging than any mammoth homer pulled to left.
"I just looked for a good pitch to hit. For me, I was just trying to stay in my zone and looking for a fastball there, and yeah, I was able to connect there on that at-bat," Sánchez told reporters, including CBS Sports, about his game-winning double Sunday. "... When I have the ability to hit the ball the other way, I feel like that's when my swing is at its best."
Sánchez has raised his season batting line to .237/.340/.480, which is 27 percent better than average once adjusted for ballpark, and it is far better than the .223/.304/.382 league average catcher. This was unthinkable a month ago, but Sánchez is in the All-Star mix at this point. More importantly, he's again a key contributor for a Yankees team trying to make up ground in the AL East.
"The major-league season can be such a grind. It's hard to make real significant mechanical changes, and he's made those,'' Boone told reporters, including CBS Sports. "He had that big leg kick he would hold in the air, and think it was destroying his timing and causing him to miss some pitches he should be on."
The Yankees are finally whole in the bullpen. Last weekend they welcomed Zack Britton back from the injured list following surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow in spring training. Britton spent about six weeks rehabbing and waiting for the incision to heal, then made five minor-league rehab appearances (4 1/3 innings) before being activated.
"I was definitely nervous. It's been a while since I pitched in front of a packed house. It was good to get one out of the way," Britton told reporters, including Dan Martin of the New York Post, following his season debut. "It made a lot of sense for me if (I had surgery when I did and) I returned and I could pitch normally with no break in September. I hope to be strong into September and into the playoffs."
In three appearances Britton has allowed one hit and two walks in three scoreless innings, and five of the eight balls he's allowed to be put in play have been on the ground. That's typical Britton. He is the game's preeminent ground ball pitcher and he's getting the same movement on his sinker. Velocity? Not so much. Here is Britton's game-by-game sinker velocity since 2019:
Britton did not have a normal spring training and he also contracted COVID-19 over the winter, which threw a wrench into his offseason throwing, and he only made five rehab appearances before rejoining the Yankees. It's not a total surprise his sinker velocity is down. Britton is building arm strength and I suspect his velocity will tick up in the coming weeks.
That said, Britton was unavailable Sunday despite not pitching Friday or Saturday. Boone said Britton was dealing with soreness without elaborating, and attributed it to him still building up after elbow surgery. I can buy the general soreness excuse, though Boone would not be the first manager to undersell an injury, so Britton's health and velocity are to be monitored going forward.
"He was just heavy today. It's just him working on the mound, him working to get back. Just decided before the game let's try to stay away from him with the off-day (Monday) and feel like we should be good," Boone told reporters, including CBS Sports. "He could have pitched, but felt like he's still going through that buildup of spring mode, getting some of that soreness out of there. Just felt like it was best to stay away from him today."
The bullpen has been the Yankees' strength the last few seasons and Britton adds to a deep setup crew with several different looks ahead of closer Aroldis Chapman. They have a ground ball lefty (Britton) and a ground ball righty (Jonathan Loaisiga), a strikeout lefty (Lucas Luetge) and a strikeout righty (Chad Green). New York has a reliever for every situation now that Britton has returned.
Coming into the season, our R.J. Anderson ranked righty Deivi García the No. 1 prospect in the Yankees' system, noting he has the "stuff and the athleticism to start." García made his MLB debut last year and pitched to a 4.98 ERA in six starts and 34 1/3 innings (it was a 3.73 ERA outside one six-run, three-inning disaster start), and he even threw a postseason inning as an opener.
García turned only 22 last month, and because he's so young and has limited Triple-A experience, the Yankees sent him to Triple-A to begin the season, and penciled him as their No. 6 starter behind veterans Gerrit Cole, Domingo Germán, Corey Kluber, Jordan Montgomery, and Jameson Taillon. He was called up to make a spot start on April 26 to give everyone else rest.
Despite Kluber going down with an injury and Taillon posting a 5.59 ERA through 13 starts, the Yankees have opted against giving García a look in the rotation. That's because he's allowed 25 runs (24 earned) in eight starts and 27 1/3 innings at Triple-A. The 33 strikeouts are good, the 23 walks are not. García's last three starts have been especially rough:
- 13 runs and three home runs in 6 2/3 innings (17.55 ERA)
- 8 walks and 5 strikeouts
- .406/.537/.781 opponent's batting line
"There's nothing we know of physically. It seems like he's a little out of his delivery and a little rushed," Boone told reporters, including Dan Martin of the New York Post, when asked about García's struggles last week. "... He just seems a little inconsistent with his delivery. That's messing with some confidence and conviction and ability to execute pitches consistently. That's what we saw the last time he pitched for us."
An inconsistent delivery is nothing new for García, who rotates quite a bit and shows his number to the batter before delivering the ball to the play. When he over-rotates, he has problems throwing strikes. Last year García was sound with his delivery and had a 4.1 percent walk rate in MLB. In 2019, it was an 11.1 percent walk rate in the minors, and this year it's 17.6 percent in Triple-A.
"It's not a major overhaul. It's the tiniest thing," Doug Glant, García's pitching coach in Triple-A, told Conor Foley of the Scranton Times-Tribune last month about García's tendency to over-rotate and fall out of sync with his delivery. "... And so that was he was really good about (the work). I mean, we were at it the next day."
The work has not had the desired impact and García is essentially a non-option for the Yankees at this point. They're sticking with Michael King as their No. 5 starter with Kluber sidelined, and Nestor Cortes Jr. is serving as the long man in the bullpen. Before the season, I'm guessing the Yankees would have said they want García to fill those roles had you given them a truth serum.
It's also important to remember development is not linear. García is still only 22 (he is four months older than Vanderbilt's Kumar Rocker, arguably the top pitching prospect in the 2021 draft class) and he already has a handful of MLB starts to his credit, which puts him ahead of the curve compared to most his age. An adjustment period, after especially a weird pandemic season, is not the most surprising thing.
That all said, García is pitching so poorly in Triple-A that the Yankees can't count on him as anything other than emergency option. Kluber is still early in his rehab work and Luis Severino , delaying his return. New York's rotation depth has thinned out in a hurry, and unless García straightens himself out and soon, the Yankees will have to look to the trade market for help.