While the 2021 Yankee offense has by no means lit the world on fire early in games, the bats have been much better of late, something that has no doubt contributed to the club’s stellar record in the 70+ close contests in which they have competed. In innings seven through nine, the Bombers have hit .234/.340/.394. Their .734 team OPS is 10 percent better than the major league average in the final third of games. It also represents the only triad of innings wherein the Yankees hit better than league average.
The eighth inning, though, is where Aaron Boone’s “Savages in the Box” really make an impact. The Yankees’ slash line in the penultimate inning is .253/.365/.440. Their .805 team OPS is a whopping 26 percent above the major league median and represents far and away their best inning. Who is doing the damage? In small sample sizes, Clint Frazier, Luke Voit, and Kyle Higashioka have all raked, each with an OPS above .900. And Gary Sánchez has been nigh-unstoppable, with a slugging over .600 and a 1.073 OPS, in a slightly larger sample.
But it is the oldest Yankee and the biggest Yankee who have experienced perhaps the greatest success in the eighth inning. Moreover, they have been at the heart of the action in many of the critical eighth innings the 2021 Cardiac Yankees have found themselves in.
Dating back to the beginning of the season, the Bombers have frequently found themselves in eighth innings wherein they tied games or took/extended leads. In the 16 games I reviewed, Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge stand out.
Gardy has admittedly had a subpar season, though he has been much better lately. Throughout the season in crucial eighth innings, however, Gardner has been both invaluable and versatile. In the games I scrutinized, Gardner went 3 for 4 with two walks, a sacrifice fly, two sacrifice bunts, and an RBI. Those numbers align with Gardner’s larger performance. For the season, he is hitting .360/.500/.520 when he steps to the dish in the eighth.
Meanwhile, Judge has been outstanding almost all season and the eighth inning is no different. In the same sampling of games, Judge has gone 5 for 10 with a homerun, five RBI, two walks, a sacrifice fly, and a hit by pitch. Like Gardy, Judge has also been at the top of his game all season in the eighth. His 48 at-bats in the stanza trail only DJ LeMahieu on the club, and Judge has cobbled together a .333/.468/.583 line.
Both players’ high on-base percentages in the eighth – both in the larger sample and in the smaller collection of games I honed in on – hint at shared approaches they have employed to great success. First, in these late-game, close situations neither Gardner nor Judge have often ambushed first pitches. Gardner swung at only two of nine initial offerings he saw – and one was when he was trying to lay down a sacrifice bunt. Judge has been a tad more aggressive, offering at four of 14 first pitches.
Second, in one of the most unsurprising things I have ever encountered, both Gardner and Judge work the count in these situations. Removing the plate appearances wherein Gardner laid down sacrifice bunts, he saw almost five pitches per plate appearance. Judge is not far behind, seeing roughly four and a third pitches each appearance, with a sample size almost double Gardy’s.
Here is a representative Gardner at-bat from May 5. His sacrifice fly that day was part of a three-run eighth inning that broke a tie and propelled the Yankees to victory over the Astros. After taking the first pitch, Gardner worked the count to 2 and 2, and on the sixth pitch, lifted a fly ball to left field to score Tyler Wade.
Judge provided a similar at-bat in a game the next month. Leading 4-3 in the top of the eighth inning in Minnesota, Judge took the first pitch. In Judgian fashion, he then worked the count full, and ultimately drove in an (much needed, as it turned out) insurance run with a fielder’s choice.
On one final note, both Gardner and Judge have still been successful when behind in the count. In this game from April 20, Judge fell behind 1 and 2 to Atlanta reliever Tyler Matzek. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, though, he put a 98-mph heater into right field to load the bases with no one out in a 1-1 tie. A run-scoring wild pitch then came through to give the Bombers a lead they held onto, ultimately beating the Braves 3-1.
Not to be outdone, Gardy has similarly battled from behind to come through in the clutch. On July 24, the Yankees trailed Boston 3-0 headed into the eighth at Fenway. With two out in the inning and Estevan Florial at second base, Gardner fell behind Nathan Eovaldi 0-2. But after fouling off a two-strike 93-mph cutter and then a 98-mph fastball, Gardy was able to rap a curveball into right field, scoring Florial. The Yankees never looked back from there, ultimately beating Boston 4-3.
The Yankees have played in a plethora of close games in 2021. Almost nothing has come easy for the club. Luckily, their bats have been at their best late, especially during the eighth inning. While several Yankees have come through in the clutch, Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge have led the way. The two have seemingly been at the heart of almost every pivotal eighth inning for the Yankees this season. Their ability to work quality at-bats, including when behind in the count, has resulted in positive outcomes for the Yankees.
As the club continues its charge towards October baseball, having a couple of battle-tested bats that are unfazed in high-leverage, late-game situations can be nothing but good news for the Bombers as they chase another World Series title.