Two years ago, the Yankees experienced their shortest playoff run in the franchise's illustrious history, losing the one-and-done American League Wild Card game to the Houston Astros. That abbreviated postseason trip was followed by a "blink and you’ll miss it" rebuilding process. Now the team is set to pursue October baseball glory once again. The question is: Have they improved? The answer is a resounding yes.
Barring a sub-.500 performance in their final 10 games against teams with losing records, the Yankees will achieve their first 90-win season since 2012. They have won nine fewer games than their Pythagorean record, suggesting that they should have topped 100 wins. This places them around 15 wins better than their 2015 predecessors.
The 2015 Wild Card squad had a paltry run differential of +66, while the current team sits at +186. That's a difference of more than one run per game, and they have done it by improving on both sides of the ball. The 2017 Yankees are scoring more runs while allowing fewer.
Around the diamond, one position that has seen significant improvement is second base. Stephen Drew slashed an awful .201/.271/.381 and posted a 77 OPS+ in 2015. This year, Starlin Castro made the All-Star team for the fourth time — his first with the Yankees — while batting .298/.334/.448 and racking up a 102 OPS+.
Brian McCann had a productive season two years ago, slashing .232/.320/.437/.756 while clubbing 26 home runs. He also drove in a team-leading 94 runs. He has been overshadowed this season by sophomore phenom Gary Sanchez, who has 32 home runs and 88 runs batted in. He has also slashed .279/.345/.533. The Kraken's 127 OPS+ is one point higher than Thurman Munson's during his 1976 MVP year. Munson slashed .302/.337/.432 with 17 home runs and 105 runs batted in.
Carlos Beltran was also an important run producer while manning right field two years ago. He slashed .276/.337/.471/ while hitting 19 home runs. He also managed to drive home 67 runs. Those numbers are dwarfed compared to the MVP worthy performance by Aaron Judge.
The rookie sensation has slashed .280/.416/.591 while clubbing 46 home runs and driving in 102. He has led the AL in slugging average, OPS, runs scored, and home runs for virtually the entire season. Judge flirted with the Triple Crown before cooling off, but will likely be the unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year. He's hit the second most home runs by a rookie ever, and still has a chance to break the all-time record (49). He has already broken the rookie record for walks held by Ted Williams.
One man is responsible for a great improvement at the shortstop position. Didi Gregorius struggled when he first came to the Yankees in 2015, hitting .265/.318/.370 with nine home runs. He drove in just 56 runs as well. He's improved each year since arriving in New York, and had a near All-Star campaign this season, though.
With a .291/.325/.495 slash line, 25 home runs and 84 runs batted in, Sir Didi has become an important middle-of-the lineup bat. Despite batting in a strong lineup that includes young sluggers like Sanchez and Judge, and veterans like Matt Holliday and Chase Headley, Joe Girardi has relied on Gregorius to hit cleanup on a regular basis. This is a testament to how far the 22-year-old has come during his three seasons in the Bronx.
The Yankees' pitching staff has also improved greatly since 2015. Plagued by injuries and inconsistency two years ago, the Yankees are headed to the playoffs with six healthy and reliable starting pitchers. The top four can compare favorably to any other rotation in baseball when they're at their best. Luis Severino ranks third in the league in every pitching rates stat; Sonny Gray is in the top 10; CC Sabathia seems to have put his early season inconsistencies behind him; and Masahiro Tanaka has largely had a second-half revival.
The bullpen is arguably the best in baseball. Whereas Girardi had two guys he could truly depend on back in 2015 — Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller — he now has six. Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green, Adam Warren, and Betances can all be trusted in high-leverage situations. Each can come into the game at any point and pitch multiple innings if needed. With frequent postseason off-days making each of them available for possibly every game, the Yankees bullpen might prove to be the team's greatest weapon of all.
What does all this mean? Will the Yankees make a deeper run into the playoffs this time around? No one can predict that. One thing is certain: The current group is a vast improvement — in both talent and performance — over their last playoff attempt.
In which areas do you think the Yankees have most improved since their last playoff appearance in 2015? Let us know in the comments section below.