Every player wants to walk off the spring training fields and jump-start their season the way Didi Gregorius did last year. By the end of April 2018, Gregorius was slashing .327/.421/.735 and was on pace for 58 long balls. Unfortunately, the 2019 Yankees don’t have the luxury of riding another hot start from Gregorius. With a flurry of early injuries, they’re going to need standout performances from a handful of players that have enjoyed success out of the gate in previous seasons. These are the players with a track record of success before the dog days of summer roll around.
Judge only has two full MLB seasons under his belt, but hot starts are becoming a trend for the big man. In fact, Judge has hit .301 in the first half throughout his career. That number dips to .227 in 116 second half games. One has to factor in the shoulder and wrist injuries that Judge battled down the stretch the past two seasons, but it’s hard to ignore the damage he’s done in March/April. He carried the Yankees with 10 March/April home runs in 2017, and started red hot once more in 2018 by posting a superb .317/.453/.584 line. With Stanton and Andujar on the injured list, the Yankees are relying heavily on the big man to carry the load, and history shows he might be able able to do just that.
Yankees fans are becoming familiar with LeMahieu very quickly with the onslaught of injuries, and the early returns have been promising. The Gold Glove winning second baseman has historically seen the ball very well in March and April, as evidenced by his best strikeout and walk rates of any month. According to Baseball Reference, LeMahieu has posted a 9.7% walk rate and 12.9% strikeout rate in 123 March/April games in his career. Compare that to his career averages of 7.4% and 15.2%, respectively, and it conveys the newcomer’s knack for coming out of the gates ready to hit. LeMahieu’s going to have a lot of fans in New York if he can continue to fill in for Andujar at third base and put the ball in play consistently during his first couple months in pinstripes.
Gardner presents a bit of a different story than Judge and LeMahieu. The longest tenured Yankee has relatively modest April numbers, but he’s frequently found a rhythm in May and June. The major difference this season is that a slow start could put Gardner on the bench as more of a fourth outfielder. Fans might be watching an over-the-hill version of Gardner, but sticking with him into May and June could pay dividends. According to Baseball Reference, Gardner’s career OPS jumps from .690 in March/April to .813 in May. One might dismiss this as strictly a reflection of stats accumulated by a young Gardner, but the Yankees outfielder tore the cover off the ball in May 2017 and 2018. In his age 33 and 34 seasons, he slugged .673 and .513, respectively. Don’t put Gardner out to pasture just yet.
This comes as no surprise to those who have watched Tanaka thrive in his first two starts of the season. While Tanaka’s Opening Day history is a mixed bag, he has pitched to a 14-4 record with a 3.32 ERA in 26 career March/April starts. Interestingly, Tanaka has both his highest strikeout rate and highest walk rate in March/April. This has been a successful recipe for the veteran right-hander, as opponents bat only .213 against Tanaka in the first month of the season, by far the lowest of any month.
It’s probably an understatement to say the Yankees haven’t gotten off to the start they envisioned, but it’s a long season. They still have some players in the lineup (knock on wood) that have been through the battles and know how quickly things can change in the early going.