Despite a global pandemic, frequent injuries, and several embarrassing losing streaks, the Yankees are headed to the postseason. They finish up the regular season with a 33-27 record, which isn’t too shabby, and have secured the fifth seed in this year’s wacky playoff format. But more than their record, the Yankees’ 2020 season is best characterized by hot-and-cold streaks and volatile swings between playing extremely well and looking like a little league team.
After so many ups and downs, how did the Yankees make it this far?
When they are playing at their best, the Yankees have the scariest lineup in the American League. Playing at their best is the operative phrase there, but we do know what kind of power this lineup is capable of when they’re healthy and producing. That said, 2020’s funky schedule and restrictions on travel present one big caveat. The Yankees’ offense has not seen much elite pitching this year, so the question remains of how the team will perform against Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, who will probably win the AL Cy Young Award.
DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit
LeMahieu and Voit have carried the team on their shoulders this year. They are both vital pillars of the Yankees’ lineup. In addition to providing the team with crucial leadership, Voit belted 22 dingers this year, securing his place as 2020’s MLB home run king. Voit has also refused to sit out games, despite the nagging foot pain that is clearly causing him to hobble around the bases.
LeMahieu finishes the season with a remarkable .364 batting average; he is the first player in the Modern Era to win both the American League and National League batting title (LeMahieu won the 2016 NL batting title with the Rockies). The last time a player on the Yankees finished the regular season with a better average than DJ’s? That would be Mickey Mantle, who hit .365 in 1957.
They get on base and don’t run into outs.
The Yankees—Gary Sánchez being the notable exception—are great at *not* striking out. Even with Sánchez striking out nearly 40 percent of the time, the Yankees have the third-lowest strikeout rate in the American League. They also boast the highest walk rate (11.4 BB%) and the lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio in MLB. The team’s batting average might not be something to write home about, but their total production this season has been solid. In looking at metrics that demonstrate a hitter’s productivity and calculated offensive value, the Yankees have the best wRC+ (118) and wOBA (.342) in the league.
Bottom line? This Yankees lineup knows how to get on base and they don’t give away outs on the basepaths. Although they tend to be cautious baserunners, they excel at taking extra bases. The Yankees tend to be smart on the basepaths and have not made many baserunning mistakes in 2020. Not to mention: this Yankees team knows how to slide.
There were a number of moments this season when the Yankees wished they could turn to their relief weapon Tommy Kahnle in the bullpen. Kahnle’s nasty changeup and the loud volume of his voice were both sorely missed in 2020. But even in his absence, the Yankees’ bullpen is among the best in MLB. Specifically, Chad Green, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman are elite relief arms and the team can count on them in pressure-filled, high-leverage situations.
Sure, we got Gerrit Cole in the offseason. And Deivi García has been a real lifesaver. But with just three-ish pitchers in the Yankees’ starting rotation, the relievers deserve a lot of credit.
It’s difficult to predict what will happen on Tuesday, when Cleveland and the Yankees face each other in Game One of the AL Wild Card Series at Progressive Field. Making predictions about these postseason matchups feels a little like ranking teams for the College Football Playoff; the comparisons are abstract and mostly limited to statistical analysis without any head-to-head record to consider as a reference point. MLB teams have not played the same overlapping schedules during this odd 2020 season.
That the teams haven’t faced each other all season adds an exciting element of the unknown. It will also provoke anxiety in fans who recognize the unfamiliar situation for what it is: on Tuesday, the Yankees will face probable Cy Young-winner for the first time this season, in a ballpark that is not theirs. The 2020 postseason is going to be unique and strange for many reasons, but the Yankees are ready for the competition.