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Why I’m still optimistic about the Yankees

After a mediocre offensive showing to start the year, the bats have woken up - and it’s possible the pitching is stabilizing too.

2021 Gatorade All-Star Workout Day Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

It’s very easy to be discouraged about the 2021 Yankees. They sit in third place in the AL East, own a +1 run differential, and boast a mere 41 percent chance of making the playoffs. They’ve seen crushing losses to the Angels, Mets and Astros ... but they also come out of the All-Star break winning six of their last eight games and staring down a four-game series with the Red Sox that could rip them back into the division race.

Coming into the season, the consensus opinion of the New York Yankees was that they were returning an excellent lineup and gambling on the starting pitching. They had Gerrit Cole and then six or seven different guys who could all play a role in the starting rotation, and the lineup would have to hit enough to buy the club time to set a rotation.

Instead, for the first six or eight weeks of the season, the Yankees boasted among the best pitching staffs in the game, while the offense struggled to get anything started. For awhile there, it looked like the Bronx Bombers were going to be carried by arms for the season. Since June 1st though, that’s been flipped on its head. Through April and May, the Yankees managed a 92 wRC+ as a team — exactly the league median — scoring an average of 4.12 runs per game.

As the weather’s gotten warmer, so have the sticks, with the club managing a 111 wRC+ and 4.8 runs a game. Both of those marks are slightly below the top-three offenses that the team has consistently posted over the past couple seasons, but the positive trends are there. The power’s up, with the club gaining 60 points of ISO over there April/May number. They’re striking out less, and crucially, getting the ball in the air a lot more.

The Yankees’ GB/FB rate early in the year was 1.33, the eighth-worst in baseball. At 1.22 since June 1st, they’re back to league average. There’s still a ways to go for this offense — clubs like Boston and the Dodgers are around 1:1 groundball:flyball, for example — but they’re looking much more like the offense we thought we were getting, one that could outhit a shaky pitching staff.

Furthermore, while the staff had a terrible June and seems to have picked up one glaring wart, it’s actually doing just fine:

The underlying, more predictive metrics like FIP and xFIP have remained fairly stable throughout the season. June was a little bumpier, but both on the whole and in July, the pitching has been average to slightly-better. Combine that with an above-average offense, and you have multiple ways to defeat an opponent, the key to rattling off big weeks.

That’s not to say there aren’t still issues with this team. Major pieces expected to contribute to the offense are doing worse than projected, with DJ LeMahieu, Gio Urshela, and Luke Voit all right around league average, and despite an optimistic recent week of batted-ball data, Gleyber Torres still hasn’t been an MLB-caliber bat. The Yankees might not need all four to make a comeback in the second half, but they probably need three of them to hit to their career averages.

There’s also the instability in the rotation. Jameson Taillon has strung together a few good starts, and Jordan Montgomery is a solid, if unspectacular, back of the rotation arm. The team still needs a legitimate No. 2 behind Gerrit Cole — who himself needs to prove that his complete-game shutout against the Astros was not a fluke, after trending downward the previous five starts — and likely don’t have the time to wait for Luis Severino or Corey Kluber to get back.

And then, of course, there’s Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees are paying a man $17 million to close games, and then not trusting him to close games. His meltdowns against the Mets and Angels cost the team two wins that they can’t exactly spare at this point in the season. Now troughs like these aren’t exactly unheard of from Chappy, in fact, he has about one per year:

This trough just happens to be by far the worst of his career. Whether it’s caused by a lack of tack, fingernail problems, mechanical issues, or whatever, the Yankees need an effective Chapman heading their bullpen. Again, being optimistic, he’s been able to pull out of these kinds of swoons before.

The Yankees have a tall hill to climb, and only 73 games to do it in. But we’ve spent the season conditioning ourselves for the worst possible outcome. The team’s hitting much better. The pitching appears to have stabilized after a rough June. With the right addition and a fix in a certain closer’s performance, I think there’s a real chance that the best is yet to come for the second half.