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Edwin Encarnación Is Built for the Yankees—and the Yankees Are Built for Baseball in 2019

Some might wonder why New York traded for another hitter instead of addressing its starting pitching needs. But the Yanks have continued designing their roster with modern homer and bullpen trends in mind—and lead the AL East as a result.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The New York Yankees are in first place, and this week, they should add two previous home run champions and a current home run leader to their lineup. As Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton moved to Triple-A Scranton over the weekend for rehab games after early-season injuries, New York also completed a trade for Seattle slugger Edwin Encarnación, whose AL-best 21 homers this season are just the latest demonstration of his consistent power.

For the mere cost of part of Encarnación’s salary and 19-year-old pitcher Juan Then, whom FanGraphs rated as New York’s 31st-best prospect before the season, the Yankees added the player with the most home runs since 2012. And with Stanton slated to return to the majors on Tuesday and Judge after him, the Yankees are certainly upholding their Bronx Bomber reputation.

To some, the Encarnación acquisition is strange: New York would seem to need pitching, not more hitting, and after the starter-starved Yankees recently let the Braves outbid them for free agent Dallas Keuchel, they seem to be prioritizing the latter against common sense. That contention, however, misses the point: The Yankees are going all in on a strategy fit for the 2019 baseball environment, with a dual emphasis on power hitting and relief pitching. All of this season’s key leaguewide trends are converging in the Bronx.

The first reason New York traded for Encarnación is that the Yankees’ 2019 offense is good but not great; much better than it had been at low points earlier this decade, but not as fearsome as it was the last two seasons, as the team transitioned into a new competitive era. Nor has the Yankees’ power reached recent levels, as they set the MLB record for most team home runs in 2018 but have seen the likes of the Twins, Astros, and Encarnación’s Mariners out-homer them this season.

Yankees Offense by Season

Season Runs/Game Rank Non-Pitcher wRC+ Rank HR/Game Rank
Season Runs/Game Rank Non-Pitcher wRC+ Rank HR/Game Rank
2015 2 6 4
2016 22 26 19
2017 2 4 1
2018 2 2 1
2019 5 10 6

That they even rank as high as sixth in homers per game is a testament to the performance of regulars like Gary Sánchez (20 home runs), Luke Voit (17), and Gleyber Torres (15) in their injured teammates’ stead. (It’s also a testament, perhaps, to their playing the Orioles 12 times already.) The Yankees’ five highest home run totals last year belonged to Stanton, Judge, Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius, and Miguel Andújar—but due to injuries, those players have combined for just 10 this season. Stanton has batted just 15 times total; Yankees pitchers, in interleague play, have batted 14.

Unheralded fill-ins like third baseman Gio Urshela have flourished in New York and allowed the lineup to remain an above-average outfit as a whole. But it’s not just Urshela and Clint Frazier who have taken those extra at-bats. It’s also Mike Tauchman and Tyler Wade, and Brett Gardner in a full-time slot rather than the fourth outfielder role he probably should occupy at this point in his career. The Yankees have given about a third of their non-pitcher plate appearances to players with below-average batting lines in 2019.

Starting this week, with Judge, Stanton, and Encarnación, the roster won’t have that issue. Basically everyone in the lineup has performed at a well-above-average level at the plate since the start of last season, and basically everyone in the lineup projects to perform at a well-above-average level the rest of the way this year. (wRC+ is structured with 100 as the league average, and 120 equivalent to 20 percent better than league average, 130 to 30 percent better, and so on.)

The New-Look Yankees Lineup

Player wRC+ Since 2018 Projected Rest-of-Season wRC+
Player wRC+ Since 2018 Projected Rest-of-Season wRC+
Giancarlo Stanton 128 141
Aaron Judge 148 137
Edwin Encarnación 123 124
Gary Sánchez 108 120
Luke Voit 155 118
Aaron Hicks 121 111
Gleyber Torres 120 111
Didi Gregorius 121 104
DJ LeMahieu 95 98

What does a lineup with such top-to-bottom talent even look like? Encarnación leads the league in home runs and might hit in the bottom half of a healthy Yankees batting order. Sánchez is second in homers and could do the same. Torres might hit ninth. The whole lineup, one through nine, further embodies a league that’s on a record home run pace, with an extra-bouncy ball and players swinging for the fences in all situations. Every team can hit home runs in this context, but the 2019 Yankees are designed with that explicit goal in mind.

A stuffed starting lineup also means a rich bench to serve as depth. If Stanton and Judge figure as the everyday starting outfielders—which would fit with manager Aaron Boone’s assertion that Encarnación will be the team’s “primary DH”—Gardner will add speed, defense, and positional flexibility in the outfield, while Urshela might now be overqualified as a backup third baseman. Add a backup catcher to the team’s 12-man position player group, and the Yankees don’t even have room for Frazier, who’s hitting as well as Ronald Acuña Jr. and Javier Báez this season but was optioned to the minors Sunday afternoon.

The rotation looks less promising—as the Yankees have stumbled in June, this group has been the greatest offender. Yankees starters have a 6.02 ERA this month; take out Chad Green’s two scoreless opener appearances, and that mark rises to 6.44. It should be hard to contend for a division title with the equivalent of Kei Igawa making a start every day.

Player by player, New York’s starters offer a bundle of red flags. Masahiro Tanaka has lost his splitter, his best pitch. James Paxton doesn’t look quite right after rushing back from a knee injury. J.A. Happ has the second-worst homer rate among qualified starters, at more than two per nine innings. CC Sabathia’s homer rate is even worse than Happ’s, though he hasn’t thrown enough innings to qualify. Domingo Germán’s career high in innings (majors and minors combined) is 123 2/3 and he didn’t even reach 100 last year, but he’s already up to 70 this season; he’s now on the IL with a hip flexor strain, after allowing 14 runs in 14 2/3 innings over his past three starts.

New York’s rotation could pivot back to a strength as it appeared before the season, if Paxton returns to form, if Germán’s injury break proves helpful to manage his innings load, and if Luis Severino’s various maladies—which have kept him out all season—abate by next month to make the New York ace the de facto midseason upgrade the rotation needs. But that’s a lot of ifs, and after many of the same starters surrendered 15 runs in 13 innings in the ALDS loss to Boston last season, the rotation might be due for a boost anyway, before that weakness manifests in another October.

That’s where the Keuchel kerfuffle becomes a greater puzzle. The Yankees reportedly refused to budge beyond a prorated qualifying offer for the southpaw starter, letting him instead join the Braves for a relatively minor difference in salary. Meanwhile, they haven’t yet made moves to reinforce the rotation via trade, but the current starters’ ERA keeps climbing, and the ravages of injuries won’t go away. Even prospect Jonathan Loaisiga, who made four appearances (three starts) as a depth option this season, is now on the 60-day IL with a shoulder strain.

In the meantime, at least until future moves might come, the Yankees have adjusted by adopting an approach emblematic of this era of baseball. They’ve used an opener a handful of times, with Green throwing an inning or two to start a game, then giving way to the likes of Nestor Cortes Jr., Chance Adams, and David Hale for a longer outing. They’ve won all five of those games.

And more generally, they’ve tried to limit their starters’ exposure, opting instead to call on a bullpen that general manager Brian Cashman bolstered this offseason, by signing Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino in free agency. Yankees starters average just 5.1 innings per game, 22nd in the majors, and they’ve reached 100 pitches in a game just seven times all year, which ranks 29th. Nineteen different pitchers have reached or exceeded that total of 100-pitch games by themselves.

The super bullpen hasn’t been quite as indomitable as advertised, and Dellin Betances’s season-long absence and recent injury setback hurt, but the advantage of assembling such a deep crop of relievers is that new arms can fill in for injured or slumping ones. Tommy Kahnle, for instance, has rebounded from a lost 2018 season to produce basically the same numbers he managed in his breakout 2017 campaign. And Green, sent to the minors in late April with a 16.43 ERA, has rediscovered his form since returning to the majors: He’s struck out 23 batters and walked just two in 15 innings, which comprise five opener starts and seven relief appearances.

The pen’s depth has also allowed Boone to carefully manage each individual reliever’s workload. No Yankee ranks in the top 20 in relief innings this season, nor has any Yankee pitched on three consecutive days. If anything, the Yankees could be even more aggressive in relying on relievers. New York’s starters pitch well the first and second times they face a lineup in a game, but utterly collapse the third and fourth times through the order.

Yankees Starters’ Performance by Times Through the Order

Statistic 1st and 2nd Rank 3rd and 4th Rank
Statistic 1st and 2nd Rank 3rd and 4th Rank
ERA 3.32 6 7.79 29
FIP 4.31 14 5.93 30
OPS Allowed .698 7 0.950 29

Relative to their overall performance, this year’s Yankees have been the worst in MLB history the third time through the order. That’s in a relatively small sample, of course, and the season isn’t over—but before 2019, last year’s Yankees were the worst ever. One odd sample might be a fluke; two constitutes a clear pattern.

Yet even if the Yankees ride their relievers harder, particularly in the playoffs, the starter problem would still glare. In this light, not signing Keuchel still baffles. He was available for just money, with no prospect cost, and the Yankees have nothing if not Scrooge McDuck–sized piles of cash. But New York didn’t choose Encarnación instead of Keuchel; frustration about missing on the latter shouldn’t mask the coup the Yankees pulled with their latest addition of an offensive star.

The Blue Jays in 2015 pose the best recent example of a team choosing to upgrade an already strong offense, as they traded for Troy Tulowitzki days before the trade deadline. As Dave Cameron wrote for FanGraphs at the time, “In a good line-up, the whole really is greater than the sum of the individual parts, because good hitters create more opportunities for other good hitters to turn their production into runs. And because players tend to hit better with men on base than the bases empty, a good hitter can have a positive impact on his teammates’ performances as well, further increasing the non-linear value of adding a good hitter to a team already strong in run scoring.”

The same concept applies here: A run scored by the offense counts just as much a run prevented by the pitchers, and an 8-5 win counts as much as a 4-1 win. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing more runs if they’re easily available, as Encarnación was due to Seattle’s teardown; as Boone said Saturday, there’s “always room for good players.”

Perhaps most importantly, Encarnación’s addition also shouldn’t prevent the Yankees from improving their pitching. Two days after trading for Tulowitzki, those 2015 Blue Jays traded for David Price, and the Yankees have another six weeks to think about pitching additions. Encarnación could help in this regard, too; with no room in the lineup for Frazier, for instance, he could serve as the key player to move for a starting pitcher.

No pitcher on Price’s level in 2015—when he finished second in the AL Cy Young vote —is likely to be available this summer, but New York should still have the opportunity to make a move. San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner and Toronto’s Marcus Stroman should both be available in a trade, and if a team like Texas fades in the playoff race, Mike Minor could become the best pitcher on the market. If the Yankees trade for a pitcher and Severino returns to the rotation with his typical quality next month, New York could add two All-Star-level starters for the second half.

And in the meantime, they’ll continue to rely on the offense and bullpen to succeed. It’s working so far because, despite all the early-season injuries, they’re still in first place above the Rays and Red Sox. Now that offense looks even better, and better-suited to battle potential regression from the current contributors, and it will soon be at full strength for the first time this season, with a new slugger to boot. The 2019 season is a time for home runs, and the Yankees are a team built for the times.

Statistics through Saturday’s games.