With less than one-tenth of the 2019 MLB season in the books, it’s clearly time to make definitive judgments about which Yankees turned themselves into legends during the offseason. Such overreactions are as fun as they are unfounded, and since we’re all short on optimism during this nightmare April, let’s go ahead and make way too much of the hottest starts to the year.
Of course, time will tell whose first two weeks were actually a sign of things to come, but perhaps the stats from this tiny sample size will allow us to peer into the future, or — at the very least — they’ll prove once and for all that such speculation is a complete waste of energy. For each improved player, I’ve assigned a “Believability Score” based on advanced metrics, peripheral numbers, physical factors like injuries, and admittedly a bit of my own arbitrary hunches. A score of 10 is my way of betting the farm that the player has entered a whole new chapter of his career, while a score of 1 means I don’t buy the change at all.
2019 stats: .268/.333/.732 slash line with 6 HR in 11 games
2018 stats: .186/.291/.406 slash line with 18 HR in 89 games
Key metrics: .192 BABIP (.317 in 2016, .304 in 2017, .197 in 2018), 22.4° launch angle (14.2° in 2018), 0.35 GB/FB (1.00 in 2018)
Believability Score: 8
End-of-year projection: 130 games, .260 BA, 35 HR, 95 RBI (All-Star starter)
Excluding his injury-plagued 2018 campaign, Gary Sanchez has 59 home runs in his first 188 career games. That’s a 51 HR-per-162 pace; for context, no catcher had more than 27 long balls in 2018. But while Sanchez’s power has never been in doubt, his all-around offensive value has fluctuated dramatically. From 2016 to 2017, his .923 OPS elicited Hall of Fame comparisons — the only catcher in history with a career OPS over .900 is Mike Piazza at .922. Yet in 2018, Sanchez became a homer-or-bust type with holes on defense.
Here’s guessing that 2016-2017 Sanchez is closer to his true profile. Through 11 games this season, he has a career-high launch angle and easily a career-best ground ball per fly ball rate (GB/FB), an approach that has translated to 1 home run every 6.8 at-bats. Meanwhile, his extremely low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) suggests that his average might actually improve as that number regresses to the mean, though it strangely never regressed to the mean last year. In fact, since the start of 2018, Sanchez has the lowest BABIP among all players with a minimum of 400 plate appearances by a landslide, despite an elite average exit velocity:
2019 stats: .321/.323/.643 slash line with 10 RBI in 8 games
2018 stats: .265/.390/.353 slash line with 1 RBI in 15 games
Key metrics: Average exit velocity of 87.9 mph (league average is 89.0 mph), 18.5° launch angle (2° in 2018)
Believability Score: 5
End-of-year projection: 90 games, .255 BA, 15 HR, 45 RBI (solid contributor)
Yes, he’s only played in eight games. And no, he isn’t the .965 OPS hitter we’ve seen thus far. But Clint “Legendary Bat Speed” Frazier now boasts an impressive .459 career slugging percentage, despite slugging just .353 last season while playing through concussion symptoms. If current trends hold, he should take the struggling Brett Gardner’s job after all — despite his shaky defense in left field. And at 24, Frazier’s got plenty of room to improve, particularly now that he’s getting the regular playing time he needs.
On the other hand, two-thirds of his hits are against Oriole pitchers, while his middling exit velocity is a concern. Still, the former #5 overall pick has elite power, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the man they call El Rojo slugs .500 this season, as only 26 qualified hitters did last year.
2019 stats: 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA in 2 starts
2018 stats: 2-6 with a 5.57 ERA in 21 games (14 starts)
Key metrics: .115 BABIP (.300 in 2018), 3.17 FIP (4.39 in 2018), 5.72 BB/9 (3.47 in 2018)
Believability Score: 3
End-of-year projection: 25 appearances, 4.40 ERA, 1.25 WHIP (back-end starter)
Domingo German has worn his most convincing Luis Severino disguise so far in 2019, albeit against weak competition in the Tigers and Orioles. And while the sample size is tiny and likely skewed, there’s a reason the analytically-minded Yankees are so high on him: his fastball spin rate ranks in the top 5% of all MLB pitchers, while his Hard-Hit% places him in the 85th percentile. He’s utilized his off-speed pitches better this year and looked downright untouchable at times — allowing just 3 hits in 11 innings.
But I’m still not sold on German, especially if the Yankees are counting on him to replace Severino for most of the season. His biggest weakness has always been command, and with a lower Strike% than he had in 2018, I don’t see improvement there. Granted, he’s likely to be significantly better on paper than he was last year, given his sneakily solid peripheral numbers in 2018 and his above-average stuff. A quick look at his microscopic BABIP and his alarming BB/9, however, suggest the Yankees should keep looking for rotation help.