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The Yankees’ biggest surprises of the first half

What have been the most pleasant surprises from the first half of the Yankees’ season?

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

As sports fans, and as humans in general, we choose arbitrary times to step back and take stock. Whether it’s the turn of the calendar or the passing of a threshold, there are certain points where it’s irresistible to look back on what’s happened. With the Yankees having surpassed the halfway point of the season, there’s no better time to take a 10,000-foot view of the season.

The Yankees were great in the first half. That, in itself, wasn’t exactly shocking. Still, just because the ultimate result hasn’t been surprising doesn’t mean there weren’t surprises along the way. What have been the biggest surprises of the first half?

The Rookies hit right away

Before the season, I wrote about the risk the Yankees would likely take on in entrusting major roles to unproven players. In 2017, a “rebuilding” year, there wasn’t much risk involved in giving young players room to grow. If they failed, well, the Yankees weren’t expected to win the World Series anyway. This year, with great expectations facing the team, if unproven rookies came up and failed, the Yankees could be left in a sticky situation.

I needn’t have worried. Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres were up within the first month of the season and have immediately shown the skills to hit in the major leagues. Third base and second base, positions that could have been huge holes if the rookies failed to produce when called upon, instead have been strengths.

This shouldn’t be taken as if it was a given. Before the season, FanGraphs’ Steamer projections gave the 21-year-old Torres a .302 wOBA projection. Andujar fared just slightly better with a .315 wOBA forecast. At the very least, there was statistical reason to be a little skeptical that the rookies would be great hitters at the outset.

Instead, Torres leads all AL second basemen with as many plate appearances with a .384 wOBA. Andujar has been strong too, with a .345 wOBA. Torres and Andujar could easily have come up and struggled, and it would not have been a shock. That both of them were so ready has been a pleasant surprise.

Aaron Hicks continues to break out

Maybe it shouldn’t be shocking that Hicks has been great in 2018. Hicks broke out in 2017, in truth, setting career highs in every major category. Still, that Hicks has not only consolidated his break-out from last year, but actually carried it over and possibly gotten better, is a bit of a surprise.

Hicks entered 2017 with an ugly .223/.299/.346 slash line. He went on to have his best season, running a .266/.372/.475 slash line, posting 15 homers and 10 steals while his trademark trips to the DL limited him to 361 plate appearances.

With such a limited track record of success, it was reasonable to be skeptical about whether Hicks would be as good in 2018. His one good year was preceded by four mostly bad ones. He projected to regress to a .325 wOBA and 1.9 WAR, both fine figures, but not as good as last year.

Hicks has been even better. His slash line is up to .262/.351/.509, good for a career-best 136 wRC+. He already has 15 home runs, and could hit close to 30 with good health. Speaking of which, he has already played 65 games, and is on pace to record easily the most plate appearances of his career.

There was reason to believe Hicks would step back a bit after his big 2017. Instead, he has gotten even better, and he has stayed about as healthy as ever in doing so. In the span of a year and a half, he has transformed from a fourth outfielder to a potential All-Star.

Jonathan Holder picks up the slack

The Yankees’ bullpen was always going to be great. It was great last year, it projected to be great this year, and it now leads the league in fWAR. The most surprising name in the mix, though, has been Holder. While Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances have been dynamite at the back, other setup men like Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson haven’t been as effective this year. Holder has picked up the slack, and then some.

After posting a 4.15 ERA in 2016 and 2017, Holder has a 1.89 ERA in 33.1 innings in 2018. That ERA, after adjusting for league and park effects, ranks 21st in all of baseball among relievers. Holder was mostly unheralded entering the year, and has been among the league’s best relief arms for the first half.

Holder hasn’t done anything eye-popping to get there; he hasn’t jacked up his velocity, or added a new pitch. He has just followed a simple recipe of missing bats, limiting walks, and avoiding homers. Holder has posted a career-best strikeout rate (24.4%), a career-best walk rate (3.2%), and a career-best home run rate (0.27 HR/9). Excel in those categories, and you’ll obviously find success.

With Holder, the Yankees have still trotted out an incredibly deep relief corps, even with Kahnle in the minors, Adam Warren dealing with injuries, and the reliable Robertson faltering a bit. Just as we all expected: Chapman, Betances, and Holder.

What other developments have had you pleasantly surprised? Let us know in the comments!