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The power’s back: The Yankees are slugging again

The biggest driver of this offensive resurgence? Putting the ball over the fence.

New York Yankees v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Nineteenth.

The Yankees scored the 19th-most runs in baseball last season, a year largely defined by pairing an excellent pitching staff with an ineffective lineup. If you want to be generous, the Yankees ranked ninth by wRC+, but that was driven by an ability to reach base, only to be stranded — the team’s slugging percentage was 17th in baseball, ISO was 11th. At a time when “too many homerz!” has become a meme, the Yankees hit too many singles.

Contrast this with the performance of this team one month and one day into the season. The Yankees sport the best record in the AL, and that pitching staff is still great, but the Yankees now rank fifth in MLB in runs, second in wRC+, third in slugging, and first in ISO. Is anyone complaining about too many homers right now?

Anyone can pull up a FanGraphs leaderboard, so just spouting where the Yankees rank in particular categories isn’t super valuable. Instead, I want to talk about offensive philosophy, what fans think leads to wins, and what actually does. And I think we had a beautiful, object lesson in this last weekend down in Kansas City.

Friday night, the Yankees won in a blowout, with each of the hitters in the 2-5 slots going deep. Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton went back-to-back in the first inning, immediately giving Nestor Cortes some breathing room. The game was over by the seventh, when the Yankees added another four runs and the club’s stellar bullpen had taken over the way that they do.

Saturday, the Yankees won a close one, scoring all three runs without a hit — two sac flies and a GIDP with the bases loaded. They needed a shutout, or close to it, relying on a great-if-unlikely defensive play, and hoping that the adventures Aroldis Chapman occasionally takes us on in the ninth inning didn’t happen that game. The team still put 16 men on, including eight walks — a near-carbon copy of so many 2021 games, where the team could reach base, nobody could hit a ball over an outfielder’s head, and those runners were stranded.

Now the Yankees still won that game, which is great! But we’ll come back to it in a moment.

Then Sunday, the Yankees got the worst starting pitching performance of the series. Nobody’s going to put too much blame on Luis Severino, bad games happen, and the Yankees ended up winning by two. Yes, Isiah Kiner-Falefa had a huge RBI double (doubles, by the way, are an extra-base hit), and yadda yadda predetermined outcome, the margin of the game was Aaron Judge’s two solo home runs.

Yes, its good to be able to cash in runs with sac flies, a run coming home on a double play takes some of the sting out, and before someone mentions it, yes, sometimes a single is “all you need”. But the big difference between this team and last year’s is the ball is headed over the fence again.

The reason why teams and players value power so much is because, like for Nestor on Friday, it gives you breathing room. Knowing that you’re going to be spotted 1-2 runs a game, because someone in a deep lineup can leave the park every game, dramatically changes your win expectancy and allows you to shorten games. Mariano Rivera became famous largely because he turned Yankee games into eight-inning affairs. Hitting a three-run bomb in the seventh inning to go up five runs has a similar effect — the game’s not over, Mo blew saves sometimes too, but it’s pretty comfortably over.

Look, I’ll take Yankee wins any way I can get ‘em, because there haven’t been enough the last two years. A certain kind of fan is going to enjoy Saturday’s gritty gutsy old-school kind of win, and if that’s for you, that’s for you. But from a design standpoint, from a philosophical view, there’s just too many tightropes you have to walk in that kind of game — the runners can’t be thrown out or just plain slow on the sac flies, Cole needs to give up no runs, Rizzo needs to get to that line drive with two men on. It’s much easier to just hit the ball over the damn fence three times and worry about everything else later, and I’m glad the Yankees are back to that.