Any way you slice it, this has been an absolutely dreadful week for the Yankees, capping off a season that is probably more loathed than any since 2013. Between underperformance by the offense, numerous injuries, and a stubborn insistence on losing ballgames to the Baltimore Orioles, there are plenty of reasons to (irrationally) scream, “Trade everyone and tear it all down!”
But, as Han Solo once said, “It wasn’t all bad, was it? Some of it was ... good?” So as we say goodbye to the 2021 Yankees season and kick it to the curb in disgrace, let’s look back on some of the good times, those pleasant surprises that we can look back on and go, “Well, at least that happened in 2021.”
Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton combine for 287 games
Coming into the season, the biggest question surrounding the Yankees lineup was whether or not the Yankees would have their two biggest bats in the lineup together — after all, they combined for 171 regular season games the past two years. This year, they more than answered the bell, as Judge played in 148 games (91 percent) and Stanton in 139 (86 percent). They also each spent significant time at more physically demanding positions than they did in previous years, as Judge started in center field 23 times — he had only manned the position once in his major league career — and Stanton played the field 26 times — more than twice the amount he played over the last two seasons combined.
There were a lot of problems with the 2021 Yankees’ lineup, but Judge and Stanton certainly weren’t two of them.
The pitching staff is elite
With Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery, and Domingo Germán slotted behind Gerrit Cole in the rotation on Opening Day, the Yankees rotation had a lot of boom-or-bust potential in 2021. Despite the team sending seven different pitchers to the IL over the course of the season (the five from Opening Day, plus Néstor Cortes Jr. and Luis Severino), the pitching staff was excellent, allowing just 4.13 runs/game (fifth best in the AL) and posting a 3.90 FIP (third best in AL).
Part of that was due to the Yankees having a veritable ace in Cole, who was a Cy Young candidate until he injured his hamstring and proceeded to give up 15 runs in 17.1 innings over his last three starts. Part of that was due to Jordan Montgomery taking the next step to become a solid No. 2 starter, as he was worth 3.3 fWAR, 28th-most in the majors among starting pitchers. The majority of it, however, came from unexpected excellence in the rotation from Néstor Cortes Jr., Michael King, and Jonathan Loáisiga turning into elite options out of the bullpen, and shrewd trades for Wandy Peralta, Joely Rodriguez, and Clay Holmes.
Kluber throws a no-hitter
Speaking of elite pitching performances, perhaps nobody was better this year than Corey Kluber was on May 19th, as he etched his name into immortality by throwing the first Yankees no-hitter in more than two decades. To say that the two-time Cy Young winner was electric would be an understatement — he was just about perfect, striking out nine while allowing only one baserunner (Charlie Culberson, who reached on a third-inning walk).
Unfortunately, as we began to dream of an elite Cole/Kluber/Montgomery trio at the top of the rotation, Kluber hit the shelf with a shoulder injury in his next start, and he would not return to the mound until the last day of August.
Either way, we’ll always have that no-hitter, and for that, Corey, we thank you.
A night of Major League debuts
At the start of August, the Yankees had Cole, Kluber, Montgomery, King, and Germán on the injured list at the same time. Desperate for starters, they promoted 23-year-old Luis Gil, who started the season with Double-A Somerset, to start against the Baltimore Orioles on August 3rd — at the same time, they also added Brody Koerner and Stephen Ridings to the roster.
Gil electrified the Bronx in his first outing, throwing six shutout innings, striking out six, allowing four hits, and walking only one. Ridings came in to relieve him, striking out the side in the seventh inning around a two-out double off the bat of Maikel Franco. Koerner completed the trio of debuts by allowing one run on two hits in the final two innings, as the Yankees went on to win 13-1.
Gleyber Torres finishes strong at second base
Gleyber Torres did not have a good season by any stretch of the imagination, combining lackluster defense with the bat of a glove-first utility infielder. Over the final three weeks of the season, however, Torres’ bat woke up, posting a .300/.372/.443 slash in 17 games, good for a 128 wRC+. Perhaps not so coincidentally, that hot streak began the same day that the Yankees decided that he could no longer be the team’s starting shortstop, shifting him to second base for the end of the season.
Is this hot streak a return to the 2018-2019 version of Gleyber that went to two All-Star Games, or is it simply just a hot streak? I’m sure that we’re going to break that down at least once this offseason, but regardless of whether you think it’s sustainable or not, it was pleasant to see the Gleyber Torres of old, at least for a couple of weeks.
Luis Severino made it back
On October 15, 2019, Luis Severino threw 4.1 innings in Game 3 of the ALCS against the Houston Astros, allowing two runs on five hits while striking out six and walking three.
On February 27, 2020, he underwent Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL, during which time the surgeon also removed a bone chip from his elbow.
On June 12, 2021, he suffered a groin injury in a rehab start with the Hudson Valley Renegades.
On August 13, 2021, he was scratched from his final rehab start with the Scranton RailRiders because he “didn’t feel right.”
On September 21, 2021, he finally returned to the mound, throwing two scoreless innings in relief en route to a 8-1 route of the Rangers. This would be the first of four appearances he made in the season’s waning days, during which time he struck out eight batters in six innings of work.
Due to the Yankees’ short stay in the playoffs, Severino’s 2021 season amounts to little more than a cameo, but judging from the little bit that we saw, so long as he can stay healthy, the Yankees will have two top-flight pitchers atop their rotation in 2022.
Miscellaneous pleasant surprises
Many other pleasant things dotted the season, even if most of them were on the small side. Although there’s not the time and space to detail all of them, here are a few highlights:
- The hometown kid, Andrew Velazquez, got to fulfill his dream as the starting shortstop of the New York Yankees.
- The Yankees had their longest winning streak in decades, as they won 13 games in a row in August.
- Gio Urshela made one of the greatest defensive plays of the season on its final day.
- The prospects did well across the board, with special shout-outs to middle infielders Anthony Volpe, Oswaldo Cabrera, and Oswald Peraza.
The ending certainly wasn’t ideal, and in many ways, that’s all that matters. But there were still some good things along the way, and we shouldn’t forget that, either.