Every spring, baseball analysts far and wide entreat those around them to beware of the small sample size. The dreaded SSS is labeled Public Enemy No. 1, and the term “stabilization point” suddenly becomes en vogue. I’m not here today to beat you over the head about small sample sizes, though. Sure, don’t draw completely surefire conclusions from what’s happened so far. Enjoy this Yankees season for what it’s been so far, that is, a brilliant stretch of performance over a somewhat short span.
Rather, with the Yankees approaching the quarter-mark of the season, I decided to rewind things one year, and see what we felt about the Yankees this time last year. There are so many things that seem certain right now, having watched five or so weeks of baseball in 2022. But so much season still remains, and looking back to what we thought at this time in 2021 can serve to remind us just how much things can change (and what might stay the same).
Gio Urshela, still an All-Star
Across 2019-20, Gio Urshela batted .310/.358/.523, good for a 132 wRC+, one of the most stunning developments in the league. Halfway through May of 2021, well, Gio was batting .303/.349/.479, good for a 126 wRC+. I’d say that with each passing day in 2021, Urshela’s breakout was seeming more and more real, but really, we were past that point with the third baseman. Urshela had consolidated his breakout by proving it wasn’t a fluke during 2020, and in 2021, he was simply a clear first-division starter at the hot corner.
Until he wasn’t. Urshela hit .253/.281/.395 from this point onward in 2021, with injuries playing some role in his poor performance. He missed a few weeks due to a hamstring ailment, and also injured his hand in late August.
We shouldn’t immediately extrapolate from Urhsela’s cautionary tale last year, and project doom for any player that seems similar. Instead, we can think about the circumstances that led to Urshela’s tough season, and consider the chances they recur elsewhere. Both DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres, who like Urshela saw difficult 2021 seasons held back by injury, have bounced back fairly well in 2021. Urshela’s regression should probably remind us that the likes of LeMahieu and Torres do have to keep this up all year. For now, both are looking more like the 2019 versions of themselves that helped propel the Yankees offense, but they’ll have to stay healthy and consistent through 2022 to truly cement their respective returns to form.
Jameson Taillon, work-in-progress
Taillon had a 5.40 ERA one year ago. He had struck out five times as many batters as he’d walked, an encouraging sign, but Taillon was giving up chunks of homers, and hitters were doing damage against his fastball.
He went on to author one of the stronger second halves in the league, bringing in a 3.25 ERA and .630 OPS allowed from July on. It took some time, but Taillon eventually resembled the mid-rotation arm with upside that was promised when Brian Cashman flipped four prospects for last January.
Of course, the Yankee pitching staff has been so dominant in 2022 that there are hardly any struggling pitchers to council patience with. The closest thing we have is Luis Severino, who has been uneven at times, but on the whole has looked pretty impressive across his first starts in years. It almost goes without saying that the Yankees should be careful and patient with Sevy in the early going.
Aroldis Chapman’s 0.00 ERA
On this day last year, Aroldis Chapman had yet to allow an earned run. He’d faced 54 batters and allowed four hits. His 0.04 FIP nearly matched his ERA, and looked more like a typo than a real stat. Early-season Yankee games from last year may as well have only lasted eight innings.
Chapman’s dominance fizzled out, in a way that coincided with the league’s crackdown on banned substances, though it’s unclear exactly to what extent the new restrictions led to the closer’s downturn. Chapman ultimately finished the year with his worst surface-level figures since he was a rookie, in spite of a start where he which he pitched as well as he ever had before.
Is there much we can learn from Chapman’s decline? Should we perhaps become somewhat wary of the fast starts from, say, Michael King and Clay Holmes? King and Holmes have shown little weakness so far, with everything about their pitch mixes and batted ball profiles supporting elite results, but the same could’ve been offered about Chapman last year.
That said, I wouldn’t view Chapman’s rollercoaster season as reason to doubt the likes of Holmes and King going forward; they look like great relievers, and they’ll probably be good the rest of the way. Chapman’s tale goes to show the variability in results inherent even with the most talented relief arms, or at least, the ones with a tendency to entirely lose the zone once every few outings.
There are plenty other statistical oddities from early last season that I haven’t highlighted here. Brett Gardner had a 38 wRC+ one year ago, but a 106 figure from then on. Kyle Higashioka and Tyler Wade looked like super-subs, with the former running a 128 wRC+ while spelling Gary Sánchez, and the latter hitting .316.
There’s also something to be taken away from the parts of the team not mentioned in this exercise. On the whole, other than stray arms like Taillon or Justin Wilson, the Yankee pitching staff looked awesome at this point last year. The staff performed well throughout the year, and remains dynamite in 2022.
Moreover, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were off to great starts to this point in 2021. They’re off to great starts now. These parts of the team have remained constant, and excellent, for over a season now.
That’s what I’m primarily taking away from this lookback at a year ago. There’s still so much that can change, and we shouldn’t assume that every fast-starter will keep things up, and that those struggling can’t pull out of it. But the core of this team is as steady and strong as it’s been. The heart of the offense, Judge and Stanton, was raking a year ago, it’s raking now, and it should rake for the foreseeable future. The pitching turned fearsome a season ago, and boy is it still fearsome now. For as much as things can and will change from this point forward, ultimately, the foundation of the Yankees’ success should have us feeling confident throughout the season.