The Yankees are set to begin the “second half” of the season tonight (though they’re already over halfway through the schedule), and are an impressive 29 games over .500. They boast one of the best offenses in baseball, one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, and one of the best bullpens. They have the look of a legitimate World Series contender. They also stand 4.5 games out of first place, thanks to what has so far been a season of historic proportions for the Red Sox.
Boston’s schedule will increase in difficulty during the final two-plus months of the season, and the Yankees will have their chance to get back on top of the division. If they want to pull off the comeback, they will need some key players to have a big impact down the stretch. Of course, trades could bring in some new players, but for now, let’s keep the focus on the current roster. Which Bombers could determine the outcome of the AL East?
The Sonny Gray roller coaster finally levels off
We’ll start with the most obvious necessity for New York. Their big move at last year’s trade deadline helped down the stretch in 2017, but as for 2018, Gray’s performance has badly harmed the Yankees in their quest for first place. His 8.25 home ERA would be the highest single season mark by a Yankee ever, and the month of June was the only time Gray managed to keep his monthly ERA below five, while his walk rate is currently the highest of his career.
Simply put, Gray has been bad. On the bright side, Gray has the track record of a successful starter. That’s why Brian Cashman made his move last July. Over the past five seasons before the trade, Gray’s ERA ranked in the top five in the American League, and Gray responded to the move to New York by posting a 3.12 ERA in the second half of 2017.
Clearly, Gray has the potential to turn his disastrous season around. His last outing was brilliant, as he tossed six shutout innings and struck out eight, while clocking his highest fastball velocity of the season. If his last start is a launching pad for a successful second half, it would go a long way for the Yankees’ hopes.
August Gary, part three
Gary Sanchez is poised to return from a groin injury, and the Yankees could use some catcher production in the worst way. Austin Romine’s wRC+ in June was a lowly 38, while baserunners went crazy on his inferior arm. Sanchez’s return from injury also comes on the cusp of his favorite month of the year, at least according to his numbers.
Sanchez has smashed 23 career home runs in August, leading to a ridiculous 196 wRC+. Sanchez’s historic August back in 2016 almost single-handedly kepth the Yankees in contention after selling most of their assets. Imagine what another monster August would do for a team that already leads the league in home runs, and is already a perennial playoff contender?
Sanchez was struggling through an extended slump prior to his injury, and will have a lot of work to do to raise his .433 slugging percentage. Fortunately for him and the Yankees, August looms ahead.
Speaking of offensive outburts...
The Yankees possess another big bat that is no stranger to second-half outbursts, as Giancarlo Stanton crushed 18 dingers last August en route to a 59-homer campaign and the NL MVP. It took Stanton some time to get going this season, but as he continues to acclimate to his new surroundings, he appears to be heading towards another monster second half. His wRC+ has been consistently on the rise since April, and his current July wRC+ sits at 167 to go along with a .349 average for the month.
Stanton’s bat is heating up, and if it catches fire in the second half, it could help the Yankees go on a big second-half run. Stanton’s success against the Red Sox (1.042 OPS in 2018) could also be a big boost for the Yanks, who still have 10 crucial matchups against Boston over the final two months of the season. It could be those matchups that directly decide the division, and Stanton’s success against Boston and their many lefties will be a major asset.