Man oh man, was that a satisfying Game One win over Cleveland. The Yankees executed in all phases of the game, with every player making a positive impact. You’d have to squint your eyes really hard to find fault with the performance. However, there is always room for adjustment and improvement, so squint our eyes we shall.
Game Two showed exactly why you should strive to improve as a team every single day. For as close to perfection as Game One was, Game Two represented the complete opposite. From the word go, the game was beset by incompetence, mistakes, and questionable decision making.
MLB’s handling of the weather-affected start to the game verged on malfeasance, and is just another reminder why the league cannot be trusted to make common sense decisions. Masahiro Tanaka was out of whack and the bullpen imploded to an anemic Cleveland lineup. Only by the thinnest of margins were the Yankees able to sneak out of Cleveland with a series sweep.
In addition to the dominating outing from ace Gerrit Cole, the reason the Yankees won Game One was that the bats did damage up and down the lineup. The only batter not to get in on the act was Aaron Hicks, who went hitless on the night. That’s not to say he had an unproductive night, as the Yankees center fielder walked and twice and scored to runs. He was less effective the next night, and while he tripled for his first hit of the postseason, he also struck out with the bases loaded to end the top of the ninth.
We’ve all heard about the three true outcomes. However, given Hicks’ peculiar skill set, at times during the season it seemed like he had become a two true outcome hitter. I’ll concede that this appraisal came amidst being mired in a mid-season losing streak. While the Yankees languished in two separate lifeless regular season slumps, I felt like I could flip a coin as to whether Hicks would walk or strikeout before he even stepped in the batters box. Obviously this is hyperbole, as Hicks walked or struck out in only 37.4% of his plate appearances this season, but that is the type of reaction borne out of frustration.
Hicks has been serving as the primary three-hole hitter, which is a bit puzzling considering he was eighth on the team in slugging. Still, Hicks’ greatest asset is his ability to get on base, but the Yankees are only returning a fraction of that value by batting him after the team’s two best sluggers. Batting Hicks ninth gives the Yankees a de facto extra leadoff batter. It’s like spotting DJ LeMahieu a man on base half the time he comes up.
LeMahieu is a world-class hitter as is, but give him a runner on base on he turns into a whole other animal. His wOBA and wRC+ leap from .380 and 141 with the bases empty to .402 and 155 with runners on. Aaron Judge also experiences an uptick in effectiveness with men on, albeit in a different manner.
With men on base, Judge’s plate disciple ratchets into top gear. His walk rate jumps from 14.4% to 17.1% while his strikeout rate falls from 34% to 28.2%. I’ll qualify this by stating that Judge’s power numbers get dinged slightly with runners on versus the bases empty - his wOBA falling from .404 to .386 and wRC+ from 157 to 145. That being said, the Yankees showed how the premium they place on controlling the zone played out with the execution of their masterful game plan against Shane Bieber. So I think in the end, the tradeoff between plate discipline and power for Judge would be a net positive.
The Yankees can rearrange their lineup a couple of different ways to accommodate such a shift in philosophy. On one hand, they can just move Hicks to the nine-hole and bump everyone else up a notch accordingly.
On the other hand, if they want to preserve the righty-righty-lefty structure at the top of the lineup they can move Brett Gardner to three-hole to break up the righty bats. I know, I know, many fans - myself included - decried this exact decision early in the regular season. However given his performance to wrap up the regular season and to start the postseason, the Yankees can feel secure batting their grizzled veteran after LeMahieu and Judge.
I freely admit that I’m nitpicking here. The Yankees put together a near-perfect performance in Game One, and Hicks more than filled his role batting third. However, I still believe there are even more runs in this lineup with Hicks batting ninth. If there’s anything Game Two showed us, it’s that every day is a new ballgame and there are always areas of improvement. And the more runs the Yankees score this postseason, the closer they’ll be to accomplishing the ultimate objective.