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The Yankees Look Like Contenders Again. It’s Not for the Reasons You Think.

After a disappointing first half of the season, the Yankees have surged up the standings since the All-Star break. That’s thanks to some unlikely heroes—and a penchant for winning close games.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The starting point to the Yankees’ August surge makes sense: Stuck outside the playoff field, they traded for Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo at the deadline, bolstering the roster and fulfilling the franchise’s two goals of adding stars and swinging for the fences with a bunch of big boys.

The destination makes sense, too: By posting an MLB-best 28-9 record since the All-Star break, the Yankees have accelerated past five teams in the American League wild-card standings to move into playoff position. After Wednesday’s games, the Yankees are as close to the Rays and the best record in the AL as they are to the Athletics—whom they visit for four crucial games this weekend—and the league’s second wild-card berth.

After sweeping a two-game set in Atlanta earlier this week, New York is on an 11-game win streak—the illustrious franchise’s longest since 1985. If the Yankees win their next game, they’ll have the franchise’s best streak since Maris and Mantle were chasing the home run record in 1961.

But along the way, the team’s expected journey has charted a rather unexpected path. Even with Gallo and Rizzo on the roster, and even with star pitchers like Gerrit Cole and Aroldis Chapman missing time this month, the Yankees are winning because of their pitching, not their offense.

Despite the notable deadline additions, the Yankees’ lineup still isn’t living up to the Bronx Bombers moniker. Individually, even with Rizzo’s scorching first few games in pinstripes, both Rizzo (93 wRC+) and Gallo (84) have been below-average hitters in New York. Since the All-Star break, the Yankees rank outside the top 10 in overall performance at the plate (with pitcher hitting removed), and in the bottom half of the league in power production. They’re a bit better than they were in the first half—but still far from the unstoppable sluggers they appear to be on paper.

Yankees Offense by Half

Statistic Before All-Star Break Since All-Star Break
Statistic Before All-Star Break Since All-Star Break
Runs Per Game 4.2 (18th) 4.8 (13th)
wRC+ 100 (15th) 108 (12th-tie)
ISO .158 (20th) .172 (18th)
SLG .395 (19th) .413 (21st)
Pitcher hitting excluded

The lineup certainly looks more formidable than it did a month ago—and will look even more so once it returns to full health, with Gio Urshela expected to emerge from the injured list Thursday and Gleyber Torres close behind. Giancarlo Stanton is on fire in August (.320/.420/.613); Aaron Judge is in the same range (.306/.396/.565); Luke Voit is the reigning AL Player of the Week.

But the Yankees’ chief exploits have come on the mound. Since the All-Star break, New York’s pitchers lead the majors in fWAR and are tied for first in park-adjusted ERA. The whole group has an ERA 28 percent better than average in the second half.

The rotation starts with Cole, who has scuffled in a few starts since MLB’s crackdown on sticky stuff but still looks like a Cy Young favorite even with reduced spin. In his past six starts, dating back to a complete game shutout in Houston, Cole boasts a 2.92 ERA, 2.01 FIP, and a league-best 38 percent strikeout rate. If the Yankees play in the wild-card game, Cole will give them an advantage no matter the opponent.

The rotation beyond Cole has also stepped up—particularly because the team’s ace missed a few turns through the rotation after testing positive for COVID-19. Jordan Montgomery is reliable if unspectacular, allowing no more than three runs in any of his past 10 starts. Jameson Taillon, who had a 5.43 ERA at the end of June, has a 2.01 mark in nine starts since, including gems against the Astros and Red Sox. Luis Gil is the first pitcher in recorded MLB history with three scoreless starts in his first three career appearances.

And then there’s Nestor Cortes Jr., whose name cannot be mentioned at any point without the phrase “crafty lefty” nearby. He seemed like back-end 40-man flotsam during brief stints in Baltimore and Seattle, but after returning to the Yankees on a minor league deal he has been the greatest revelation of all. Among all pitchers with at least seven games started this season, Cortes is tied for seventh in park-adjusted ERA (2.56, or 41 percent better than average). He’s only 7 percentage points behind second-place Lance Lynn, though Jacob deGrom is miles ahead of everyone else:

Best Park-Adjusted ERAs, Minimum 7 Starts

Pitcher Innings ERA-
Pitcher Innings ERA-
Jacob deGrom 92 27
Lance Lynn 130 2/3 52
Walker Buehler 162 1/3 53
Corbin Burnes 133 55
Carlos Rodón 109 2/3 56
Danny Duffy 61 57
Brandon Woodruff 145 1/3 59
Freddy Peralta 121 1/3 59
Nestor Cortes Jr. 56 1/3 59
Kevin Gausman 146 61
Trevor Rogers 110 62
Robbie Ray 145 1/3 63
Max Scherzer 132 1/3 63
Tyler Glasnow 88 64
Shohei Ohtani 100 65

With Cole and Montgomery now back in the rotation, and with the injured Corey Kluber and Domingo Germán expected back in some capacity as well, the Yankees might soon have a surplus of capable starters. (With every passing day, the possibility for a return from Luis Severino, who has been shut down from throwing, seems less and less likely.) To handle the overflow, someone like Cortes might head back to the bullpen—where he’d join a whole cast of similarly unknown overachievers.

The Yankees’ pen has needed all of those anonymous arms. Two of the team’s top relievers have been overworked: Chad Green ranks second among all pitchers this season in relief innings, and Jonathan Loaisiga is fourth. Meanwhile, expected back-end anchors Chapman, Zack Britton, and Darren O’Day have spent much of the season hurt, inconsistent, or both. (O’Day is now out for the season, while Britton returned to the injured list on Monday.)

And because the team’s middling offense hasn’t been able to generate runs in bunches, the Yankees have played the most close games of any team this season. That lack of lower-leverage games has meant little leeway for Aaron Boone and his staff, so even ostensible mop-up relievers have been thrust into important innings. Since the All-Star break, 63 percent of pitches thrown by Yankees relievers have come with the winning run on base or at the plate, or the tying run on base, at the plate, or on deck. For context, Atlanta is in second place in that statistic at 44 percent—closer to 25th place than to the Yankees.

Or, to look at the same set of circumstances another way: Yankees relievers have pitched with an average leverage index of 1.54 in the second half, on a scale in which 1.0 is average and anything above represents higher leverage. The second-place Dodgers (1.18) are closer to 24th place than to the Yankees.

Yet while the Yankees have played more close games than any other team, they’ve also won the highest percentage of such games. That might not be a repeatable formula, but it’s powering the Yankees toward a playoff spot.

The numbers behind the bullpen’s clutch performance are astounding and astoundingly egalitarian. In the first four games of the Yankees’ win streak, a different reliever saved every game. Since the All-Star break, seven different Yankees have secured a save. Castoffs like Lucas Luetge, Wandy Peralta, and Stephen Ridings have all excelled.

Most excellent of all, however, has been Loaisiga, who is now as central to the Yankees’ bullpen as Cole is to the rotation. Once a hard thrower without much aim, Loaisiga has sacrificed some strikeouts for markedly better control and has benefited from the trade-off. By FanGraphs’ version of WAR, the 26-year-old Nicaraguan has been the most valuable reliever in the majors this year, thanks to his combination of quantity and quality via a high innings total and avoidance of the two bad true outcomes. Out of 157 qualified relievers, he ranks ninth in HR/9 and 17th in walk rate.

This kind of patchwork performance has proved both a pleasant surprise, in the case of genuine cornerstones like Loaisiga, and a necessary one, as unexpected contributors have stepped in for their absent predecessors. According to Baseball Prospectus’s injury tracker, the Yankees have lost the third-most wins to injury in 2021, behind only the Mets and Dodgers. DJ LeMahieu is the only member of the opening day lineup who has been healthy all year. (This is a good time to remember that Jay Bruce was the team’s opening day first baseman, which feels like it happened a half-decade ago.)

That dynamic yields unanswerable questions about the team’s future, though. Besides Cole and the oft-injured Kluber, Montgomery has the most playoff experience among the realistic rotation candidates, with all of one start and four innings to his name. And while the bullpen hasn’t been perfect—the 2021 Yankees sure love their late-game drama—the stumbles have largely come from the pen’s highest-profile pitchers, Britton and Chapman. Will Boone trust Luetge and Peralta and over those better-pedigreed lefties in a key playoff moment?

Perhaps most pressing of all, will the offense continue to improve until it reaches its anticipated level? For New York to catch Tampa Bay and avoid the wild-card game, or to win enough playoff rounds to reach its first World Series since 2009, the lineup will certainly need to hit for more power than the Orioles, whom New York still trails in season-long slugging percentage.

But for a team that hovered around or below .500 for all of the first half and sat outside the playoff picture until August, it’s hard to quibble about those uncertainties amid an 11-game win streak. If anything, the slow starts for Rizzo and Gallo, along with the lingering injuries to Urshela and Torres, means New York can still improve, if its batters match its pitchers and compensate for any regression on the mound.

That’s a scary prospect for the rest of the American League. MLB has a long season, and the Yankees took some extra time to find themselves. Now that they’re peaking, they just can’t seem to lose.

Leaguewide stats through Tuesday’s games.