The Yankees knew back in October that they would begin the 2019 campaign without Didi Gregorius, as the shortstop recovered from Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow. They didn’t know, however, that they would also lose Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Gary Sanchez, and Miguel Andujar to injuries before the season was a month old.
Despite missing two-thirds of the starting lineup — and their biggest run producers — for a substantial chunk of April, the Yankees ended the month holding one of the American League’s Wild Card berths. Amazingly, they’re even nipping at the heels of the first-place Tampa Bay Rays, who rode a hot start to the best record in the league.
One reason for the Bombers’ success is their consistently good starting pitching, but the other is the stellar performance of the replacement players. Every day, the Yankees send a lineup onto the field filled with guys who weren’t even in the big leagues on Opening Day. Yet, they keep winning.
That the Yankees are winning isn’t the only impressive thing here. It’s the way they’re winning that’s particularly encouraging. The Yankees seem to have rediscovered the almost forgotten art of small ball.
New York owns a respectable .341 on-base percentage, which is aided by the lineup’s 10.2% walk rate. Somewhat shockingly, the Yankees also rank in the top base stealing teams, posting a 1.7 Weighted Stolen Base Runs (wSB) mark.
Countless times this season, we’ve seen the Yankees manufacture runs playing station-to-station baseball, stealing bases, moving runners along, and taking walks when given. Among Yankees with at least 60 plate appearances, Gio Urshela leads with a .409 on-base percentage. Tyler Wade leads the club with five stolen bases, and DJ LeMahieu leads with three sacrifice flies. Meanwhile, six different players have executed successful sacrifice bunts, including Thairo Estrada, Austin Romine, and Gleyber Torres.
The best part is that while the Yankees are winning with small ball, they’re not forgoing the home run. The Bombers still hit for power. They just don’t rely nearly exclusively on the long ball, as they seemed to do last year. The Yankees are currently fourth in the AL in homers, thanks to the fireworks of Clint Frazier, Luke Voit, and the recently returned Gary Sanchez.
This subject might reignite the debate about the merits of small ball versus power, but I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive. The best teams are always more than just one-trick ponies.
For example, consider the 2009 Yankees. They led the majors with 244 home runs, en route to claiming the franchise’s 40th pennant. During the World Series against Philadelphia, they relied on a balanced offensive approach to win the Fall Classic.
While Hideki Matsui homered three times in three different games to claim MVP honors, the team also relied on small ball to win. Trailing 3-2 in the top of the fifth of Game Three, Andy Pettitte singled off Cole Hamels to score Nick Swisher and tie the game. After Derek Jeter singled, Johnny Damon doubled them both home to give the Yankees a lead they would never relinquish.
The next day was the Johnny Damon game. With the score knotted at four in the top of the ninth, Damon singled, stole second and third, and scored the go-ahead run on an Alex Rodriguez single. All totaled, the Yankees scored seven runs that day without benefit of a homer, to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
It bodes well that this year’s squad appears to be channeling their predecessors from 10 years ago early in the season. It will be both interesting and exciting to see if it continues.
Earlier this week, Tyler wrote that the early season success of the replacements might be a case where “these guys are playing above their heads,” because it may be “the only way they can score at the big league level.” This might be true. I hope not, but there’s no way to know for sure this early on.
In Inside The Empire, co-authors Bob Klapisch and Paul Solotaroff noted that the Red Sox “set up a station to teach their players how to extend, prolong, and win at-bats in spring training.” They also stated that, at the end of their final interview for the book, Brian Cashman said, “I don’t want to be talking 20 years from now about the Yankees team that broke the home run record but ...”
With that in mind, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the style of play we’re now seeing from the replacement players is part of a plan by the organization to address those very deficiencies that caused the Yankees to come up short last year. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that the Yankees rediscovered an important weapon that lay dormant for too long, and I hope they continue using it.