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The most positive developments of the 2021 Yankees season

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It was a frustrating year, but let’s try to find some reasons for optimism going forward.

Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

After every season, I try to find some reasons to be positive. Given the frustrating ends to most of the Yankees’ recent campaigns, this has proven to be a necessary exercise. When the team itself doesn’t provide much reason for optimism, we have to actively search out that optimism ourselves.

Today, I’m looking for the most positive developments from the 2021 season. By most positive, I mean most impactful on the Yankees’ medium- to long-term plans, players whose performances meaningfully shifted the future outlook in a good way. This means players who look likely to stick around are favored; a Cy Young campaign from Corey Kluber this year would’ve been great, but it wouldn’t rank too highly on this list, given the veteran’s pending free agency. Also, we’ll focus on major-league play here, leaving the success of Anthony Volpe and the like to the side.

No, this wasn’t the most fun season top-to-bottom. But there was still plenty of good stuff that came our way, and some it even left the Yankees in a better position than before.

The Yankees uncover mid-rotation starters

A common criticism entering 2021 centered on the Yankees’ pitching depth. Sure, Gerrit Cole was a stud, but who would back him up? As it turned out, a pair of unheralded lefties stepped in and performed admirably, in a way that should meaningfully change the Yankees’ rotation plans going forward.

Jordan Montgomery proved a rock in the rotation, turning in 30 starts with a 112 ERA+, a figure somewhat inflated by a disastrous final outing, and a career-high 162 strikeouts in 157.1 innings. He demonstrated an ability to generate whiffs and make hitters look silly despite a lack of overpowering stuff, relying on command and deception to produce outs.

Even more shocking, though, was the emergence of Néstor Cortes Jr. His career ERA+ before 2021 stood at 66, and he only returned to the Yankees in January because the pitching-thin Mariners decided that they were no longer interested in his services.

By summer, Cortes was one of the Yankees’ most valuable hurlers. He excelled in any number of roles, from opener, to traditional starter, to multi-inning reliever. He made 22 appearances and totaled a career-high 97.2 innings with a stellar 148 ERA+. With Cole nursing a hamstring injury in September, by the end of the year, you could argue there was no Yankee starter you’d have rather seen on the mound than Cortes.

The question with both of these lefties, of course, is the extent to which they can sustain their 2021 performances. Projecting their futures is hard, but we can at least say with confidence that their 2021 seasons were legit. Both Montgomery and Cortes backed up career-best run prevention figures with career-best strikeout and walk rates, and perhaps more importantly, they just looked the part. It was clear opposing hitters were comfortable against neither Montgomery nor Cortes, struggling to make consistent, quality contact. In fact, watching Cortes in particular confuse hitters with his funky deliveries ranked among the season’s highlights:

Montgomery is 28 and likely to be around for at least the next two seasons. Cortes has yet to even turn 27, and won’t hit free agency until after 2025. Even if both regress a bit in 2022, they’ve done enough to look like solid mid-rotation starters. That the Yankees can look ahead feeling pretty good about the names they’ll pencil in behind Cole has to stand as one of the best developments from 2021.

A new super reliever appears

It’s no secret that the Yankees like to run out an uber bullpen. Whether it was the Dellin Betances/Andrew Miller/Aroldis Chapman triumvirate of 2015, the Chapman/Chad Green/David Robertson/Tommy Kahnle group of 2017, or the Chapman/Zack Britton pairing entering 2021, the club has long had a monopoly on relief aces.

But Chapman struggled through an up-and-down year, and Britton floundered before getting hurt. With only Green remaining relatively dependable among the purported super relievers, the Yankees needed someone to emerge to round out the bullpen. Jonathan Loáisiga proved more than ready for the task.

Much ink has been spilled documenting just how Loáisiga managed to break out, so I’ll keep it short. He tweaked his repertoire to feature a deadly turbo sinker, one that befuddled hitters and generated heaps of weak contact. Loáisiga’s lower strikeout rate was by design; the sinker played more to contact than his four-seamer, but that contact resulted in soft groundballs easily gobbled up by a grateful defense.

After merely showing flashes during his young career, Loáisiga finally put it all together, to the tune of 70.2 innings and a 199 ERA+. He became Aaron Boone’s most-trusted arm, and one of the finest relievers in the entire league: among relievers with as many innings, only two had a better adjusted ERA than Loáisiga.

Loáisiga just turned 27 and is set to hit arbitration. He now stands as the Yankees’ clearest relief ace going forward. He ranks as easily one of the best developments of the past season, representing a story of remarkable personal success, a pitcher who at last reached his potential after battling years of injury and inconsistency, and of player development, with a revamped staff of coaches getting the best out of a talented athlete.

The sluggers stay healthy

In truth, given how many unexpectedly strong performances the Yankees generated on the pitching side this year (and how mediocre the offense typically was), we could probably go on and on with positive pitching developments. In the interest of balancing things out a bit, let’s celebrate a notable achievement from the lineup: the combined health and form of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.

More than anything, the 2021 campaign provided proof of concept for these two sluggers. There’s no guarantee the Yankees will see another season in which both Judge and Stanton were on the field as much as they were last season (particularly given Judge’s looming free agency after 2022). But since we had literally never seen them both stay mostly healthy for a full season, that they did so in 2021 proved that it could actually be done.

Stanton recorded 579 plate appearances with a 136 OPS+. Judge put together 633 plate appearances with a 149 OPS+. The two steadied the lineup, and were essentially the only reason the club’s offense somehow finished ninth in wRC+, rather than towards the very bottom of the league.

Again, it’s possible that we never see these two play this many games again. But the fact that they did so at least suggests the Yankees may have finally struck on a plan to get these guys on the field 135 times a year. Maybe it was Judge’s cautious play in right, perhaps it was a revamped conditioning routine, or maybe Stanton even benefitted from more consistent play in the field.

Whatever it was, it worked once, which is more than it’s worked before. That it’s even possible to keep this mighty duo healthy is a boon, and if the Yankees can pull off the trick again, their hopes for a stronger offense in the future look that much brighter.