The Yankees find themselves in solid, if not perfect position for the home stretch as the 2021 calendar turns to September. If New York is going to return to the lofty successes of August, though, it would help if key players could repeat recent Septembers in pinstripes.
If Wednesday night is any indication, Gerrit Cole could put together another masterful September. He pitched well in his first season as a Yankee during the truncated, COVID-affected 2020 campaign. When the calendar hit September, though, Cole took it to another level. As the Yankees pursued a playoff berth, Cole was as close to automatic as anyone could ask.
Cole made four starts last September. The first was the worst, as he took the L against Baltimore on September 5th. Even then, Cole showed flashes of what would follow, pitching six innings, allowing one earned run, and striking out 10. That marked the last game the Yankees lost with him on the hill in the 2020 regular season. He threw seven innings in each of his three remaining starts (one a complete game due to the rule for COVID-era doubleheaders).
In 21 innings, he allowed only two earned runs, and he struck out 24 opposing batters compared to only three walks allowed. Much of his success came from keeping opposing batters’ launch angles down. Cole induced launch angles well below his season average (11.9 degrees and -1.3 degrees versus 16.4 degrees) in two of the starts and in the outlier, wherein Blue Jay batters lofted the ball, he minimized hard contact. By FanGraphs’ Game Score v2, Cole’s final three starts were his best, second-best, and fourth-best of the season, as he shoved when it mattered.
In the bullpen, Chad Green is another Yankee who could help carry the Yankees if he can repeat past September success. The 2019 Yankees did not set the world ablaze once autumn arrived, posting a respectable 14-11 record in their final 25 games. That was no fault of Green’s, however, as the reliever bamboozled opposing bats in the final weeks of that season.
Everything about Green’s 2019 stretch run jumps off the page. A 0.68 ERA in 13.1 innings, a 17.6 K/9, and an 8.67 K/BB are just a few of the indicators of how outstanding Green was. He was also a jack-of-all-trades, opening games in addition to coming out of the ‘pen whenever needed.
Perhaps no other game better encapsulates Green’s stretch run than his performance against Boston on September 8th. He came into the game to begin the fifth inning with the Yankees leading 6-4, in relief of an ineffective Masahiro Tanaka. Green proceeded to throw three perfect innings and struck out 5 Red Sox, punctuated by a swinging strikeout of Jackie Bradley, Jr. on a patented high fastball. He gave way to begin the eighth, and the Yankees rewarded his work a with a win, both for the club and for Green.
Entering September 2021, Green has already thrown 68 innings, 7.2 short of his career high. It is possible that the club might manage his workload to rest him for the playoffs. But for a bullpen missing Zack Britton and unsure what version of Aroldis Chapman will emerge each game, a Chad Green renaissance would be an immeasurable boon.
On the offensive side, if DJ LeMahieu could somehow find his form from last September, the Yankees would be well-situated to strike early and often. LeMahieu was money for New York 12 months ago, leading the club in runs, hits, doubles, SLG, OPS, and total bases as the Bombers made their stretch run. His performance included a 12-game hitting streak from September 7th through 19th, and a total of 10 multi-hit games.
There is a pretty simple explanation for LeMahieu’s success last fall… he absolutely crushed the baseball, much harder than usual. Just under 70 percent of his hard-hit balls (54 of 80) for the entire 60-game season, according to FanGraphs, occurred in the 27 games that took place after August 31st. It also helps that LeMahieu absolutely wore out the opposite field, including for power.
Given DJ’s mediocrity so far in 2021, asking him to repeat his 1.050 September OPS from last season is a tall order. But if LeMahieu can find even part of his previous form, the Yankees offense becomes markedly more dangerous.
The final Yankee on this list, like Gerrit Cole who began it, looks like he might be on the way to, if not replicating his best September, at least coming close. Aaron Judge showed no mercy to baseballs in the month of August. So far, he shows no signs of taking pity on baseballs or the men who throw them this month either. His callous disregard for the health and well-being of baseballs and pitchers is reminiscent of September during his breakout, should-have-been-MVP 2017 season.
There were few reasons to believe that Judge would have such a monstrous finish to the 2017 season. His red-hot first half was in the rear-view mirror and his August OPS sat at a miserable .680. But then September arrived and Peak Aaron Judge returned. He mashed a ridiculous 15 home runs down the stretch, one every six at-bats. When the dust cleared, Judge drove in 32 runs in 27 games and almost doubled his August OPS, posting a 1.352 mark.
What did Peak Aaron Judge look like? He walked more than usual – 23.1% walk rate vs. 18.7% for the 2017 season. He struck out less – 26.4 % vs. 30.7%. And the at-bats when he put the ball in play? He hit it. Hard. Over 95% of his batted ball outcomes in September 2017 were either medium or hard hit, with the latter accounting for more than half of the balls he put in play. Judge has always been an exit velocity savant, but down the stretch in 2017, he demolished baseballs with ruthless abandon. His 52nd and final home run of the season, on the final day of the month off Marcus Stroman, was a fitting pièce de resistance for his September. The ball left his bat at 118.3 mph and soared almost to the concourse in left-center field at Yankee Stadium.
Given Judge’s performance last month, and his start to September, it might not be unreasonable to think he could have another monster stretch run. Asking for a perfect facsimile of September 2017 is perhaps greedy, but if Judge even comes close, both he and the Yankees will be set up for success.
With only three head-to-head games left against Tampa, and that club’s torrid stretch recently, the AL East might be out of reach. But the Yankees do currently have the inside track on home-field for the Wild Card game. If they are going to maintain their position and if they are going to have any chance of catching Tampa, players are going to need to be at their best in the final month. The men listed above have all shown they can carry a team down the stretch. Let’s hope they, and/or other pinstriped performers, provide New York similar performances as we approach October baseball.