Finding a second gear after a sizzling first act

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

There are always certain phases of the major league season. The highs and lows, the streaks and skids, fluctuating from month to month and week to week.

Unlike last season, the Yankees began 2017 on fire. The start seemed reminiscent of 2010, when the team got off to a roaring start coming off a championship. The funny thing about that 2010 team is they didn’t soar to a division title. They struggled. They blew their early division lead, gained it back and then lost it in the final weeks of the season, settling for a wild card.

I don’t mean to make a straight side-by-side comparison between the 2010 Yankees and the current squad, but the lesson is important: There are going to be lulls in the season and the team can’t let up, allowing a division rival to sneak ahead. This year, the Yankees likely won’t be overcome by a pesky Rays squad, but the Orioles and Red Sox are enough to handle.

And in April, the Yankees handled them well enough. They split their six games with the O’s and took both contests with the Sox. Considering they had to face AL Cy Young favorite Chris Sale and started 0-2 against the O’s, that’s a strong result.

It was all part of a magical month where everything seemed to go right. Aaron Judge, Starlin Castro, Chase Headley, among others, put up surprising numbers en route to a 15-8 record. The only thing perhaps more eye-catching was the rotation, which consistently worked deep into games despite most assuming it would be a liability going into the season.

That’s the catch: It wasn’t supposed to go that way. One would have assumed coming out of the spring that if the team caught fire early, it’d be on the backs of Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and a knockout bullpen alongside Masahiro Tanaka as the ace. Well, Sanchez and Bird got hurt. Tanaka was off on Opening Day and despite a 5-3 record, hasn’t looked quite right since. The bullpen was quite good, perhaps even better than expected, but it was overshadowed and not asked to perform many herculean tasks.

And now that we’re late in May, phase two is well underway. The team is 6-8 in their last 14 dating back to May 8 and have seen some stinkers out of the rotation. Castro and Judge have looked more Earth-bound recently and Headley has crash landed. Early expectations have proved more prescient with the bullpen carrying a bigger load, Tuesday’s blown lead notwithstanding. Sanchez has taken off and so has Brett Gardner, who seems to have found the hitting stroke that earned him an All-Star appearance just a few seasons to go.

Despite this sub-par stretch, the Yankees still hold a 2.5 game lead in the division over the Orioles, 3.5 on the Red Sox. That lead is actually their largest this season.

But the team has an upcoming stretch that could help define them. After this homestand with the Royals and Athletics wraps up, they play 13 straight games in division, including six with the O’s and three with the Red Sox, all condensed into two weeks. You’re not going to win the division with a good two weeks, nor are you going to lose it with a lousy fortnight.

(David Banks/Getty Images)
(David Banks/Getty Images)

Yet this is the time when the Yankees need to begin figuring out who they are long-term, finding that second gear that can help carry them throughout the summer. The 11 wins by five or more runs have been nice and so have the standout starts from guys like Luis Severino and Michael Pineda, who would have castoffs this offseason if certain sections of the fan base had their way. But is this young crew really going to dominate all season? Is this team actually arrived ahead of schedule and not just showing glimpses of 2018 and beyond?

The team’s diverse set of skills in the lineup serves them well if sustained success is indeed in the cards. If, let’s say, Matt Holliday and Judge going into month-long slumps, the team can rely on hitters like Gardner or Didi Gregorius to carry them in a different way, not needing to pound home runs game-by-game.

It doesn’t hurt to have that sturdy backbone of a bullpen, which may end up as the defining positive for this team. Even with Aroldis Chapman out, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard and co. are a force that can hold down most leads. With a few quality long relievers, the team can withstand a few 4-5 inning outings and keep the team within striking distance.

Or maybe the rotation with a rejuvenated Tanaka can lead the way. With Jordan Montgomery and CC Sabathia as strong back-end starters, perhaps Tanaka, Severino and Pineda can carry the team every five days and enable more winning streaks.

So that second gear doesn’t necessarily have to look all that different from the first one. It can be a continuation. But in order for the Yankees to sustain their early success, they’ll need to figure out just what makes this team special and utilize those defining characteristics in the crucial weeks ahead.

“The Judge’s Chambers” is awesome, so of course people are complaining about it

Uh oh, fans are having fun. (Elsa/Getty)
Uh oh, fans are having fun. (Elsa/Getty)

When the Yankees returned home from their road trip Monday, a new feature at Yankee Stadium awaited them. The team unveiled a new 18-seat cheering section for Aaron Judge in right field named, for obvious reasons, The Judge’s Chambers. His name is just so damn punnable. People have been showing up to games in robes and wigs the last few weeks. Now they have a dedicated section.

Personally, I love it. I am for anything that injects some life and excitement into the ballpark. My only complaint is The Judge’s Chambers is kinda hidden. It’s tucked under the second deck in right field. Maybe move it over a section or two so everyone can see it? Otherwise it’s a great idea. The Yankees give out robes and styrofoam gavels, and everyone has a grand old time.

Naturally, some people don’t like the new ballpark feature. Many people, really. I’ve seen folks on Twitter and in the RAB comments say it’s too soon. It’s a distraction. So on and so forth. Billy Witz said it’ll become a punch line if Judge doesn’t keep hitting. Mike Mazzeo said the Yankees are “guilty of overhype.” Michael Kay said on his radio show he couldn’t imagine something like “Jete’s Seats” in 1996.

While I respect those guys and their opinions, man I couldn’t disagree more. The Judge’s Chambers is not about Aaron Judge or the Yankees. It’s about the fans and having fun. I know people like to think the Yankees hold themselves to a higher standard and wouldn’t stoop to such gimmicks, but come on. Have you seen the ballpark? It’s half-empty every night. Things have changed. It’s time for a new way of thinking.

These are the facts. One, The Judge’s Chambers is not a money grab because the Yankees are giving the 18 tickets to youth groups and other programs. Two, Judge is an extremely humble and down to Earth kid. (You should read this.) I couldn’t be any less concerned about this going to his head. And three, have you noticed how much fun the fans out there are having? YES showed a clip yesterday with a bunch of kids going nuts in The Judge’s Chambers. How is that bad?

What’s the worst case scenario here? Judge stops hitting and The Judge’s Chambers looks silly, so the Yankees remove it? I think the franchise will survive. It’s not like they wouldn’t hear constant reminders about Judge flaming out anyway. (See: Maas, Kevin.) Should they wait until Judge plays a full season? Okay. But why not wait two years? Or five? Or until he wins a World Series just to be safe? Why is any of that a better time than right now? We can always come up with a reason not to do something. Doing it is the hard part.

The Yankees are full speed ahead with their youth movement and Judge is at the center of that. He’s a great two-way player who represents the franchise well is an already very popular. The Yankees should foster that popularity and fan excitement. It helps improve the relationship between the team and the fans. The Yankees wouldn’t have had “Jete’s Seats” in 1996? Well, maybe they should have. This is baseball. It’s a game and it’s a fun. Don’t take it so seriously.

Thoughts following Gleyber Torres’ promotion to Triple-A

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

Later tonight, top Yankees prospect Gleyber Torres is expected to play his first game with Triple-A Scranton. He was promoted from Double-A Trenton on Sunday. (The RailRiders were off yesterday.) I was planning to write something about the Torres promotion and what it all means, and it kinda morphed into a thoughts post, so here are some thoughts.

1. On a scale of 1-10, my level of surprise over the quick promotion is about a six. Surprised, sure, but not completely stunned. Torres is a special talent and those dudes have a way of moving up the ladder quicker than you’d expect. “More than ready. There was nothing left for him to do (in Double-A),” said one scout to Erik Boland. “Just a complete all-around hitter. Instincts far ahead of his years. There’s nothing he can’t do,” said another. Even Keith Law, who hates every Yankees prospect, says Torres is ready for Triple-A. Still, as of seven weeks ago Gleyber had never played above High Class-A. Now the Yankees — and everyone else, apparently — have deemed him ready for Triple-A. It’s not often a player this young makes nothing more than a pit stop at Double-A. The Yankees aren’t even going to let him go through the league twice. Rather than see how Torres adjusts once teams develop a book on him, they’re going to see how he adjusts to the best pitching he’s ever faced in his life at Triple-A.

2. Back in February I used MLB.com’s scouting grades to find prospects similar to Torres, and the vast majority were not nobodies. They were bonafide MLB stars. Not role players or solid regulars. Stars. Two of the most similar, Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts, started their age 20 seasons at Double-A like Torres. Here is how their age 20 seasons played out:

  • Correa: 29 games in Double-A, 24 games in Triple-A, 99 games in MLB.
  • Bogaerts: 56 games in Double-A, 60 games in Triple-A, 18 games in MLB.

The Astros moved Correa very aggressively during his age 20 season and he wound up winning AL Rookie of the Year. The Red Sox moved Bogaerts a little more slowly, though he quickly took over as their starting third baseman in September and played the position throughout their run to the 2013 World Series. I don’t think that sort of timetable is out of the question for Torres. I could see him making his MLB debut later this season. Torres is a special talent, though this aggressive timetable is not unprecedented. Others like Correa and Bogaerts have done it in recent years, and they’ve thrived.

3. Sorting out the playing time at Triple-A Scranton won’t be an issue. Generally speaking Torres has been playing three games at shortstop, two games at second base, and two games at third base each week, and I expect that to continue going forward. “He is a shortstop learning second and third. This is the best way to prepare him to provide protection in case we need him in the majors,” said Brian Cashman to Joel Sherman. Tyler Wade has been playing all over the field as well — he’s played every position other than pitcher, catcher, and first base this season — so squeezing him and Torres into the same lineup will be a piece of cake. Rob Refsnyder will probably end up seeing more time in right field and at first base (and at designated hitter) to accommodate the extra infielder. If anyone loses playing time, it’ll be Ruben Tejada, the veteran journeyman on a minor league contract. Not a young player with the potential to be something more than a spare part for the Yankees going forward. The ability to move Torres and Wade around means they can coexist easily. If the Yankees had kept both at shortstop full-time, well, then that would be a problem, but that’s not the case.

4. Speaking of the RailRiders, holy cow is their lineup fun now. I mean, it was fun before, but now it’s really fun. This is the batting order Scranton manager Al Pedrique will probably run out there going forward:

  1. Tyler Wade
  2. Gleyber Torres
  3. Dustin Fowler
  4. Clint Frazier
  5. Mike Ford
  6. Rob Refsnyder
  7. Mason Williams
  8. Kyle Higashioka
  9. Ruben Tejada

Goodness. The guys will rotate positions, but those are the names. (Mark Payton will play a bunch too, likely rotating with the outfielders and at designated hitter.) Torres and Frazier are two of the top 30 prospects in baseball, and both Fowler (FanGraphs) and Wade (Baseball Prospectus) managed to sneak onto the back of some top 100 lists this spring. Usually it’s exciting if a minor league affiliate has two guys like that on the roster. Scranton now has four, and it’s extra exciting because they’re at the highest level of the minors. They’re knocking on the door of the big leagues. Without question, the RailRiders are one of the most talent-packed teams in the minors. (Just for laughs, compare Scranton’s lineup to the Orioles’ Triple-A lineup. Chance Sisco is the only legit prospect the O’s have at Triple-A. Yeesh.)

5. As it stands, third base is really the only place to play Torres should the Yankees call him up at some point later this season. They’re not going to call him up only to use him twice a week as a bench player. If he gets called up, he’s going to play. Starlin Castro has been the team’s best non-Aaron Judge hitter so far this season, so he’s not sitting. Didi Gregorius has played well since returning from his shoulder injury, so he’s not going to sit either. That leaves third base, where Chase Headley has crashed back to Earth, burned up in the atmosphere, hit every tree branch on the way down, and landed in a pile of dog poop since his insane start to the season. I don’t think Headley is truly this bad, nor do I think he’s really as good as he was earlier this year. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Still, he’s the obvious candidate to lose playing time to Gleyber. The Yankees showed last season they’re willing to sit well-paid veterans in favor of young prospects. Brian McCann, who was more productive than Headley and had more years and more dollars left on his contract as well, lost his catching job to Gary Sanchez. Mark Teixeira‘s playing time was reduced to make room for Tyler Austin. Headley losing playing time to Torres would not surprise me at all. Aside from occasional spot starts at short and second, third base is the only spot to get Gleyber in the lineup regularly. Castro’s and Didi’s (and Headley’s) performances have made this an easy decision for the Yankees.

6. One argument against calling up Torres later this season, even if he is tearing up Triple-A, is service time. Call him up at any point this year and Gleyber will become a free agent during the 2023-24 offseason. Wait until the middle of next April and his free agency gets pushed back to the 2024-25 offseason. We’re talking about gaining control of his age 27 season here, a peak season. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason not to call Torres up this year, but it is something to consider. If the Yankees stay in the race and they consider Torres an upgrade over Headley, they absolutely should call him up and put the best team in the field. I am 100% in favor of that. But, if they fall out of the race and don’t have much to play for down the stretch, perhaps waiting until next April to call Torres up to gain that extra year of team control might be a smart move. Then again, the Yankees have probably done enough already this year to ensure they’ll be in the postseason hunt just about all season. It would take a colossal collapse to be out of the race come August. Manipulating service time and getting that extra year of control makes sense for any team. If Gleyber is ready though, I say call him up. It’s not like the Yankees wouldn’t be able to afford to keep him down the line anyway.

Thoughts following Aroldis Chapman’s shoulder injury

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The (first place!) Yankees have suffered their third notable injury of the still relatively young 2017 season. After playing without Gary Sanchez (biceps) and Didi Gregorius (shoulder) in April, the Yankees placed closer Aroldis Chapman on the 10-day disabled list yesterday with left rotator cuff inflammation. He’ll be shut down at least two weeks, and Brian Cashman acknowledged Chapman could miss a month. That bites. Time for some thoughts.

1. Chapman admitted yesterday his shoulder has been barking for a few weeks now, including during that ugly outing in Boston, but he pitched through it and assumed it would get better with treatment. It sounds kinda dumb and risky — why pitch through discomfort in your throwing shoulder?!? — but my guess is this sort of thing happens all the time. Stick any pitcher in an MRI tube and you’ll find some inflammation or tendinitis. No one is ever truly 100% during the season. Chapman said it wasn’t until Friday that the discomfort became too much to bear, which is when he finally said something. It’s pretty amazing he was still getting his fastball up into triple digits even with a balky shoulder — since the Boston game, Chapman has thrown roughly one-quarter of his fastballs at 100+ mph, topping out at 101.6 mph — which is another reminder this guy is a physical freak. He’s so strong and athletic that even a bum shoulder couldn’t stop him from throwing harder than, like, 99% of all pitchers.

2. I absolutely believe Chapman’s current shoulder woes could be the product of his postseason workload last year. The World Series hangover phenomenon is very real. Chapman threw a lot of intense innings last season — he threw 73.1 total innings in 2016, one out short of his career high, and he did that despite being missing April with his suspension — and also had a much shorter offseason. More work, less time to recover. Chapman wouldn’t be the first pitcher to suffer through a World Series hangover and he won’t be the last. I’m not saying Cubs manager Joe Maddon was wrong to ride Chapman so hard during the postseason. I would want Joe Girardi to do the exact same thing in that situation. It’s just that the workload happened and Chapman may be dealing with the consequences now. The Yankees were well aware of the risks when they signed him. Hopefully spending a few weeks on the disabled list will knock this all out and Chapman will feel as good as new when he returns.

3. It goes without saying the Yankees should be ultra-cautious with Chapman and I’m sure they will be. He is six weeks into his massive five-year contract, and they don’t want to push him too hard and risk a potentially minor injury turning into something more severe. It’s better to lose Chapman for a few weeks now than many weeks later, you know? Chapman said yesterday what he feels now is similar to what he felt in 2011, when he missed roughly six weeks with shoulder inflammation. I guess that’s kinda reassuring? He’s been through this before and knows what to expect, plus, when he returned from the disabled list in 2011, he showed no ill-effects. He went back to being a flame-throwing monster on the mound. Still, aside from the Greg Bird situation, the Yankees are almost always conservative with injuries, especially with pitchers, and I’m sure that will be the case here. Chapman is too important and owed too much money to rush him back.

4. Girardi confirmed yesterday Dellin Betances will take over as the closer and that doesn’t surprise me at all. When faced with similar situations in the past, Girardi has typically bumped everyone in the bullpen up a notch on the depth chart, and that’s what’ll happen here. I know Betances struggled as the closer last September — weird how everyone seems to have forgotten he was nails as the closer in August, isn’t it? — but I believe that was more workload related than role related. Betances has been throwing high-leverage innings for the Yankees for more than three years now. No reason to think he’ll suddenly stop getting outs because he’s pitching an inning later than usual. Losing Chapman bites because he’s great and the Yankees will be without a top notch reliever. They won’t suffer in the ninth inning though. Betances will be fine. The difference will show up in the middle innings, when someone like Adam Warren won’t be available because he’s taken over as the seventh inning guy.

5. That all said, I wonder whether it would be smart to let Tyler Clippard close rather than Betances. Clippard could start the ninth inning fresh with no one on base, allowing Betances to remain a setup man and potentially put out fires in the seventh inning on occasion. Clippard could do that too — he’s gotten four outs twice in his last five appearances — but, frankly, Betances is the more dominant pitcher, and I’d rather see the Yankees avoid bringing Clippard into an inning with men on base given his extreme fly ball tendencies. That’s asking for a multi-run homer, especially at Yankee Stadium. Clippard as closer and Betances in the fireman setup role may be the most optimal bullpen deployment. Then again, Betances has hit a wall the last two Septembers, so maybe limiting him to one-inning closer outings now allows him to remain effective deeper into the season. Hopefully Clippard and Betances (and Warren) are lights out and who pitches when isn’t a big deal. I just worry we’re going to see seventh or eighth inning leads evaporate with Betances sitting in the bullpen, being held back for the save situation.

My Obligatory Derek Jeter Post

The Captain circa 2009. (Paul Bereswill/Getty)
The Captain circa 2009. (Paul Bereswill/Getty)

In 1995, I began my Yankee ‘career’ in earnest with a love for Don Mattingly. As an 8 1/2 year old–or thereabouts–I cried when Mattingly retired, still not exactly sure what that term meant beyond knowing I couldn’t watch him play anymore. The next year, though, someone else came along to begin his actual Yankee career in earnest: Derek Jeter.

While Jeter never occupied the coveted space as my ‘favorite player’ during the most recent Yankee dynasty–Bernie Williams held that spot; I even copied my batting stance after his–it’s impossible to say that he and what he has come to represent aren’t greatly responsible for the fact that I became and still am a rabid fan of the Yankees.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

As I grew older and became a different fan than I was in my elementary, middle, and high school years, my view of the team, of baseball, and even of Jeter himself changed. Your team didn’t win the World Series every year. Jeter wasn’t a perfect player. And part of that still carries over; this week of All Jeter All the Time is definitely a bit of overkill, considering he just retired in 2014.

The celebration, though, is warranted. Jeter is one of the most accomplished and most successful players in the history of the game and that applies to his place with the Yankees just as much. At some point, it became the cool thing to do to try to knock Jeter’s game down a peg or two, but that, in the end, just leads back to an easy appreciation for the player he was.

In the course of his career, Jeter became so overrated–the intangibles, the winning, the ‘mystique and aura’–that he was underrated on the field. His defense was never great, sure, but as a shortstop, he racked up an offensive career that corner players might kill for. In his 20 year career, Jeter had only two seasons in which he came to the plate at least 500 times and failed to be a league average hitter.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Necessarily, I’m a completely different fan of baseball now than I was when Jeter came to prominence. I’m more critical, more analytical, less wide-eyed, and less idealistic. I certainly understand the game better and in a more nuanced way and that goes for Jeter himself as well. But when I think of Derek Jeter, I think of my fandom as a kid. It was pure. It was always optimistic. It was always hopeful. At times, I miss that attitude towards the game. That is Jeter’s legacy to me, even beyond the great hitting and all the winning. Jeter–at a game I attended in 2014–thanked the fans for keeping him young. Talking about him and his career, no matter how old I get, will always make me feel young. Thanks for a great ride, Derek. Can’t wait to see you in Cooperstown.

Yankees-Astros has the makings of a budding rivalry

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Teetering near mediocrity for 3-4 seasons has left the Yankees with few true rivals. But there may be a budding rivalry in the opposing dugout this weekend.

Since the Yankees last played a multi-game playoff series in 2012, the team has hovered near .500 and played fewer truly intense games. The exception would be in-division. The games against the Blue Jays the last two seasons have had fans on the edge of their seats, particularly after the Jays made moves at the 2015 trade deadline. The Orioles’ emergence since 2012 has led to a few interesting regular season series. The classic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry still exists, but I doubt anyone would consider it near its peak. David Ortiz’s retirement really drives that home.

The Bombers have had rivals outside the division in the past, particularly during the 1996-2012 period of constant contending for titles. The Mariners at the turn of the century. The Indians before them. The Angels and Tigers each beat the Yankees in the playoffs multiple times and it created a bit more importance for those series, particularly the Angels games. Anaheim was always the team that had the Yankees’ number in their 15 years of contention and it was brought to the surface in three playoff series over an eight-year span.

Ultimately, that’s probably the best way to create a rivalry: Close playoff series. If two teams play multiple tense series in a short time span, it can lead to regular season series that mirror the same character of a postseason series.

In that regard, the Astros and Yankees already have step one out of the way. The two players who hit home runs for the Astros in that 2015 Wild Card Game have moved on from Houston, but we still have both starting pitchers: Dallas Keuchel and Masahiro Tanaka.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

And I think that a potential rivalry can pivot on the abilities of Keuchel. His tormented the Yankees in 2015, both in the regular season and one postseason game. The Yankees kinda sorta maybe got to him in his two starts last year and then he looked like Cy Young for four innings on Thursday before grinding out the fifth and sixth innings. It seemed that to be a fait accompli that Keuchel would wiggle out of his self-made jams and get a lead to the Astros’ bullpen. Just like how the early 2000s Yankees-Red Sox rivalry rose to new heights with Pedro Martinez on the mound, Keuchel can take that role on. He’s imperfect with less intensity and flare on the mound, but he gives the Yankees a nemesis, a hurdle either in a regular season series or in the postseason. With that, perhaps he’s more similar to 2009-10 Cliff Lee than 1999-2004 Pedro, but still, a tough challenge.

Beyond one key starting pitcher, a rivalry also can be aided by similarly built teams going to battle and we certainly have that with Astros-Yankees. A lot of young, exciting position players poised to man the middle of the lineup for the next decade? Check. Bullpens full of flame throwers? You got it. They both have questions in their rotation and have been linked to Jose Quintana this last offseason. With the young talent on these teams, it’s not hard to see ESPN, Fox or TBS market a series centered around Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve vs. Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge. They’re not limited in that regard as the teams seem to match each other budding star for budding star.

With their similar constructions also comes a similar timeline for success in this case: Both teams are rising to the top of the American League at the same time. Many in baseball foresaw the Astros’ success this year, perhaps as far as three years in advance. (Thanks Sports Illustrated!) Even though the Yankees came out of nowhere for some, they seem to be a team on the cusp of contention with their strongest days ahead of them.

This weekend’s series with the Astros may be getting overshadowed by the sweep of the Cubs and the upcoming festivities for Derek Jeter, yet it’s still an important series. Important at least for mid-May. Houston is a useful measuring stick for the Yankees, bringing a team just as hot as them into Yankee Stadium for four games. Come out with three wins and you gain a lot of respect. Lose three of four or get swept and it will be much easier nationally to dismiss the Yankees as a flash in the pan, a team not quite there.

Without 1-2 more playoff series between the two franchises, it will be hard to create a real rivalry. Close games like Thursday night can nudge it that way and so could a brawl, although the latter isn’t something for which to rot. A larger impediment is that they’re limited to 6-7 regular season games a year spread out over two series, not the 19 games the Yankees play against the Red Sox. But as far as rivalries go outside the AL East, the Astros are the best bet for one over the next half decade.

Thoughts before the quick four-game weekend homestand

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees enjoyed yet another off-day yesterday — it was their seventh scheduled off-day in the first five weeks and three days of the regular season — and later today they’ll get back to work with the series opener against the Astros. It’s a four-game series and a four-game homestand. The Yankees will be back out on the road starting Monday. Anyway, I have some thoughts on things.

1. Yankees outfielders are hitting a combined .301/.404/.579 (160 OPS+) with 28 home runs in 436 total plate appearances so far this season. That is, far and away, the best outfield production in baseball. (The Nationals are second with a 142 OPS+). The least productive outfielder on the roster in terms of OPS+ has been Jacoby Ellsbury, who is hitting .281/.373/.427 (118 OPS+). The Yankees have four starting caliber outfielders on the big league roster — well, that’s if you’re fully buying into Aaron Hicks in the early going — plus two very good outfield prospects in Triple-A in Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler. Outfield is an area of major depth right now. It’s hard to take any of the big leaguers out of the lineup, and if the Yankees wanted to call up Frazier or Fowler, it would be difficult to justify the change. This isn’t a problem! It’s a luxury. Too many good players is a good thing. The outfielders won’t keep this up all season. I don’t think this is a true talent 160 OPS+ outfield unit. I’m just curious to see how all this plays out. Do the Yankees try to unload Ellsbury and his contract while he’s playing well? Do they finally move Gardner? Is another team willing to buy high on Hicks? Or is cashing Fowler and/or Frazier in as trade chip for a starting pitcher the best move? What a fascinating outfield situation.

2. I find Aaron Judge‘s lack of doubles weirdly interesting. He has 13 home runs so far this season — it would be 14 if not for that stupid non-homer triple — and only three doubles. I don’t see this as a flaw at all. I think the lack of doubles is due entirely to how hard Judge hits the ball. Going into yesterday’s games he ranked sixth in baseball in average exit velocity (93.6 mph) and 13th in hard hit rate (48.3%). Judge hits the ball so hard that a) it tends to carry over the fence for homers rather than fall in the gap for two bases, and b) it comes off the wall hard and the outfielder gets to it so quickly that Judge has no choice but to hold at first base. Those “he hit it so hard he held himself to a single” batted balls. You know what I mean. Judge looks so much more disciplined and comfortable in the batter’s box this season and he’s doing a ton of damage. More than I ever thought he’d do this early in his career, even in a 121 plate appearance sample. Everything about him is interesting because he’s such a unique player, including his seeming inability to hit doubles because he hits the ball so damn hard.

3. Speaking of Judge, he is exactly the kind of player and athlete baseball has been losing to other sports over the years. Judge had Division I football scholarship offers coming out of high school, but baseball was his true love, so he stuck with it. Too many other kids in similar situations — big, physical athletes who are good at multiple sports in high school — wind up playing football (or basketball) because there are more scholarships available. Division I schools are allowed 11.7 scholarships for a 27-man baseball roster. That’s it. Many schools don’t even fund all 11.7 either. Football, on the other hand, gets 85 scholarships a year. Judge is in the minority. Most kids in his situation end up playing football because it equals a free ride to college. Judge stuck with baseball, worked very hard to make himself into the player he is today, and the Yankees are reaping the rewards. MLB should look at Judge and realize this is the kind of talent they’re losing to other sports. I’m not quite sure what the league can do about it — they can’t force colleges to give players baseball scholarships, etc. — but MLB should want to keep players like Judge playing baseball and not fleeing to other sports because they offer more immediate advantages.

4. Joe Girardi has used many different batting orders so far this season — 26 different batting orders in 31 games, in fact (not including the pitcher’s spot in NL parks) — and so far they’re all working. He’s indicated he’d like to keep Gary Sanchez in the two-hole going forward and I am cool with that even though he’s not a typical No. 2 hitter. He’s one of the team’s best hitters, so give him as many chances to hit as possible. Sanchez gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead with a solo homer two batters into Tuesday’s game, remember. At the same time, I think the best No. 2 hitter on the roster is Hicks. He switch hits, he’s been ultra-disciplined this year (17 walks and 13 strikeouts!), he has power, and he runs well too. Pretty much the perfect No. 2 hitter as far as I’m concerned. The problem is Hicks doesn’t play every single day, so Girardi can’t stick him in that spot permanently. In that case, I’d like to see Judge bat second going forward, with Sanchez bumped down to either fourth or fifth. Judge does play just about every day, he’s a more disciplined hitter than Sanchez, and he runs better too. And he’s going to give you that same power threat as well. Simply put, Judge is a more complete all-around offensive player than Sanchez thanks to his discipline and baserunning, so I think he’s a better fit for that premium lineup spot. It’s not a huge deal, and over the course of 162 games the difference between the two in the No. 2 spot might be negligible. But in one individual game, Judge’s advantages in plate discipline and baserunning could have a huge impact.

Hicksie. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Hicksie. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

5. Sunday night’s game, that marathon against the Cubs, showed exactly why I am not a fan of the automatic intentional walk rule. After the Yankees took the lead in the 18th, a clearly fatigued Chasen Shreve was able to walk both Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo with two outs to get to the pitcher’s spot without having to throw a pitch. He then struck out Kyle Hendricks to end the game. Shreve had thrown 39 pitches in 2.2 innings before the walks and was running on fumes. The intentional balls he didn’t have to throw to Bryant and Rizzo would have taken more out of him! His location to Hendricks could have suffered and changed the inning completely! Hey, the Yankees benefited and won the game, so I’m not going to complain. But this is what I was referring to when I said intentional walks are a competitive play the pitcher (and catcher) should be forced to execute. Shreve was out of gas and he was able to get the matchup he wanted without having to waste any his remaining bullets walking Bryant and Rizzo. Things like that are an unintended consequence of a rule change designed to speed things up a bit.

6. If there was any lingering belief the Yankees view Rob Refsnyder as something more than an emergency option at second base, it was erased in the ninth inning Saturday, when he was replaced defensively with the Yankees up by five runs. Egads. Refsnyder did boot a ball in the previous inning that no doubt contributed to Girardi’s decision to remove him for defense, but still. Up five runs? If you believe in the kid at the position, he doesn’t get pulled in that spot. That spoke volumes about how comfortable — or uncomfortable, in this case — Girardi is with Refsnyder defensively at second base. At this point Refsnyder is basically an up-and-down depth player for the Yankees, someone who won’t kill you at the plate against lefties, and is capable of filling in at first base and in the corner outfield spots. And second base in an emergency. Nothing more. There’s no reason to get rid of him now while he has a minor league option and can be sent up and down as necessary. Next year, when Refsnyder runs out of options and has to be exposed to waivers to be sent down, chances are his time in the organization will come to an end. The Yankees have told us with their actions they never believed in him as much as the fans and, to be fair, just about all the love he received from fans was based on the stats, not the scouting report.

7. The Yankees are 21-10 overall, which is a 110-win pace over a full season. No, I don’t think they’re that good, but they are definitely better than I believed coming into the season. I saw them as an 84-85-ish win team that could maybe win 88-89 games and sneak into wildcard contention if some things went their way, like Judge hitting the snot out of the ball and Luis Severino turning the clock back to 2015, which is exactly what happened. Here’s the thing though: that 21-10 record is in the bank. It happened. Even if the Yankees are a true talent 84-win team and revert back to form and play at an 84-win pace in the final 131 games of the season, they’d finish 89-73. That’s how much this great start has helped. Young rebuilding teams have a way of “arriving” ahead of schedule. Theo Epstein admitted he expected 2016 to be the coming out party for the Cubs. They instead went from 73 wins in 2014 to 97 wins in 2015. The Pirates went from 79 wins in 2012 to 94 wins in 2013. The Rays went from 66 wins in 2007 to 97 wins in 2008. When it comes together, it can come together quick. That could very well be what is happening to the Yankees. And, even if it’s not, this great start has given them a huge head start in the race for a postseason spot.