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Why the Yankees could start hot if the season returns in July

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The health and history of their rotation might make the difference.

Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Yankees Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

As soon as Gerrit Cole signed his historic contract, Yankees fans began imagining the chilly March day he’d first take the mound in a competitive game. Just because that moment — not to mention the rest of the season — has been delayed doesn’t mean we can’t still dream about it.

In an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus, Major League Baseball has deferred Opening day until at least mid-May. Even in an ideal scenario, where teams begin ramping back up by June, they might not be ready for real game action until midsummer.

Sure, it would be strange to see teams just beginning their journeys around Independence Day, rather than prepping for the All-Star Game. But baseball has always been ripe with strangeness — just ask Joba Chamberlain about dealing with a nightmarish swarm of Lake Erie midges.

So let’s start our dreaming in July. What might past July performances tell us about the Yankees in the present?

First, the bad news: July wasn’t a great month for the Yankees in 2019. As a team, they finished 14-11, tied with September for their worst record by month (excluding March, during which they played just three games.) They also posted their worst run differential, scoring 143 and allowing 129.

While the offense produced, it did so in spite of its ongoing injury woes. Among the Yankees’ litany of injuries, Aaron Judge was still finding his way after his oblique strain, Luke Voit went down with an abdominal tear, and Gary Sanchez was limited to 15 games and posted a double-take-inducing -7 wRC+.

Their relative success at the plate was due in large part to Gio Urshela. July marked his turn to take the wheel of the “Next Man Up” tour bus, and he drove with aplomb. While many of the the lineup’s mainstays were hurt or slumping, Urshela was embarking on his metamorphosis from fun early-season story to fearsome summer slugger.

Gio Urshela Takes Off, July 2019.
Gio Urshela Takes Off, July 2019.
FanGraphs

The real struggle was with the starting pitching. The month began brightly enough, with solid performances turned in by James Paxton, Domingo German, and J.A. Happ in particular. But the the rotation’s results soured in the back half of the month, reaching their nadir with Masahiro Tanaka’s painful, 3.1 IP, 12 ER beatdown at the hands of the Red Sox on July 25th.

The good news? 2020 offers plenty of remedies to what ailed the Yankees last summer.

To start, Paxton’s mediocre July in 2019 belies his usual affinity for the month. For his career, he’s put up an excellent 1.12 WHIP and 3.14 xFIP in July, his best among all months. With his full recovery from back surgery now expected in May, he should have plenty of time to build up to his best by the start of the season.

Plus there’s that Gerrit Cole guy. Last July he authored a 1.85 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP across 34 IP — exactly the kind of brilliance that can stabilize a staff that might be wavering in the summer heat. July also kicked off a torrid stretch of 13 consecutive Cole starts the Astros won.

And it wasn’t an outlier. On average, July has been his most productive month over the span of his career. He sports a sparkling career 0.99 WHIP in 181 July innings.

If Cole and Paxton anchor the top of the rotation as their previous July numbers suggest they can, the Yankees would be positioned to start the season hot — especially important if the schedule is more of a sprint than a full 162-game slate. With only a few short months to make a push for the playoffs, a couple weeks of sharp baseball to start the year would go a long way toward ensuring a seat at the postseason table.

Plus the lineup should be healthier. Just as fans had hoped in spring training, the offense could look a lot like last July’s, except with Sanchez, Judge, and Voit rested and ready, along with Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Andujar back in the fold.

In a truncated season, days off might be hard to come by, and doubleheaders might be more commonplace. If the Yankees are healthy, their depth of talented hitters will serve them well as they navigate the schedule.

Obviously, the fact that players will just be starting their seasons, rather than taking a well-earned break for All-Star weekend, means this won’t be an ordinary July. And none of these numbers are predictive in any meaningful sense. But if we are dreaming up a start to this season, why not focus on the positive indicators that might make July special? After months of waiting for Gerrit Cole to step onto the rubber and lead the team to the postseason, Yankees fans have earned it.