'There's no stopping this team': How the Yankees cleaned up their act and became baseball's most dominant squad

·11 min read

Corrections/clarifications: A previous version of this story misstated the date of a Yankees trade.

BALTIMORE — The greatest team in baseball this season is also something of a paradox.

The New York Yankees can wow you with towering home runs and intimidate you merely by stepping on the field – yet their most impactful contributions often emerge from information passed from player to player, gleaned from a tablet, shared in a meeting room.

They feature the game’s greatest slugger putting on a power show against the backdrop of a dramatic salary drive – but their greatest steps forward have come not from Aaron Judge’s might but rather the decision to disregard offense altogether at two of the most important defensive positions.

They employ a dozen players earning nine-figure salaries – yet insist it is chemistry and selflessness and a heightened level of focus and intent that has taken this franchise to a new level.

It is rare air: The Yankees are 27-9, in lockstep with their 1998 team widely regarded as the franchise’s best in the last half-century or so. They lead the major leagues in earned-run average but also OPS, hit more homers per game than anyone but also feature the game’s greatest reliever.

Yes, it’s still baseball, and it all could go sideways soon or at some point this summer. But when you’re nearly a quarter through the season, and still on pace to win 122 games, it’s more than fair to recognize a moment in time that seems like a harbinger for history.

“There’s no stopping this team,” Judge said on a night he smashed his 13th and 14th home runs, was robbed of a third by a heightened Camden Yards wall designed in part to stop him and saw his club win for the 20th time in 23 games.

“We want to play two games a night if we could. We’ve got a special group here.”

Aaron Judge leads the AL with 14 homers this season.
Aaron Judge leads the AL with 14 homers this season.

Largely, it is the same group that won 91 games last season, a lofty total in some quarters but in New York the evidence of a choppy, underachieving, frustrating season that ended in a wild-card loss to the Boston Red Sox. For the Yankees, results are typically binary – you win the World Series, or you don’t – and off-seasons can operate in similar fashion.

Yet these Yankees have managed something altogether different: Cleaning it up without cleaning house.

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'Like a receipt that keeps printing'

For the casual fan, these Yankees provide no shortage of eye candy. In Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo, they feature three of the top five home-run hitters in the game, this in a season where the baseball is performing like a wet Nerf ball struck with a soggy newspaper. Nobody in baseball hits the ball harder than Judge (97.4 mph average exit velocity) or Stanton (96.6)

Yet as the Yankees swung from wild winning rampages to stultifying losing skids last season, it was easy to forget that Judge and Stanton were both healthy (148 and 139 games played, respectively) and highly productive (.916 and .870 OPS), keeping the Yankees afloat in spite of their shortcomings.

There was no shortage of consternation, then, when the world’s second-most valuable sports franchise opted to sit out of the high-end free agent market and instead make a pair of transactions just before and after the lockout to define their new club.

No, the March trade for shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa that sent powerful but defensively deficient catcher Gary Sanchez to Minnesota did not mollify the masses. It merely created a potion that apparently hatched a super team.

Monday night, Jose Trevino looped a fly ball 318 feet down the right field line and off Camden Yards’ foul pole, a home run as unimpressive as Judge’s are majestic. It was the first homer struck by a Yankee catcher this year, this after every other team’s backstop had gone yard.

Sanchez had four homers by this time last year, on his way to 23. Trevino and his catching mate, Kyle Higashioka, may not combine for 10.

Yet their collective commitment and brain power have meant much more to this team.

Yankees ace Gerrit Cole says the pair “don’t take mental days off,” and that it’s impossible to miss them discussing strategy, be it in the training room or the hot tubs or in running the pitchers’ meetings.

They’ve each played in 22 games, but Cole says “if Kyle’s not catching me, Kyle’s watching every pitch. If Jose’s not catching me, Jose’s watching every pitch. Both are discussing what I’m executing and not, how I look, what they’d attack. It’s like they don’t miss a game. They’re both playing every game.”

The results, says Cole, now in the third year of a nine-year, $324 million deal, are palpable.

“I see us making less stupid pitches,” he says. “I see us pitching with a thought process throughout an entire game, throughout an entire series. Whereas, if somebody’s strength is to pitch another way but at this point of a series or game we’ve established to that specific hitter, these catchers are confident going a different direction away from said person’s strength because that’s how we’ve attacked the hitter to this point.

“There’s a lot of continuity. The sequence just keeps running, like a receipt that just keeps printing and printing and it doesn’t hit the floor.”

Not even CVS could spit out the receipts showing what Yankee pitchers have accomplished. Their 2.76 ERA leads the majors, and the continuity from starters Cole, Jameson Taillon, Nestor Cortes and Jordan Montgomery has been startling: Yankee starters have given up three or fewer runs in 24 of 36 games, two or fewer in 19 of those. It means the club doesn’t need too much from a powerful lineup that’s only too happy to oblige.

Higashioka was drafted in 2008 and is now the longest-tenured Yankee. At 32, he’s never played more than the 67 games he caught last season, when he hit a career-best 10 home runs. Likewise, Trevino’s 89 games played for Texas last season marked a career high.

The duo rank 25th in the majors in both average (.182) and OPS (.485), but it’s an effective timeshare for so many other reasons.

“Me and Trevy are always talking about, ‘Hey, what are you seeing on this guy?’” says Higashioka. “On the days each of us catch, we’re almost going in there with game experience rather than going in blind.”

'He's our superstar'

Sanchez, along with Judge, was dubbed a Baby Bomber when he hit 53 home runs over 176 games in his first two seasons. The club came to expect production from behind the plate, just as it did from shortstop, when Derek Jeter gave way to Didi Gregorius and eventually Gleyber Torres, who slugged 38 home runs in 2019, his second consecutive All-Star season.

Yet much like Sanchez’s occasional struggles behind the plate, Torres played his way off shortstop last season, when he committed 18 errors; his uneven performance seemed emblematic of the Yankees’ inconsistencies.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa was acquired in a trade with the Twins in the offseason.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa was acquired in a trade with the Twins in the offseason.

And much like punting offense at catcher, the trade for Kiner-Falefa seemed curious. A light-hitting, no-power shortstop when the likes of Carlos Correa, Trevor Story and others were available merely by writing one more big check?

Now?

“He’s our superstar shortstop,” says Cole, a former teammate of Correa’s in Houston. “He is a Gold Glover. And he is an elite contact hitter. So, what’s left to be desired is the prolific power and hitting third – but we can’t even get our three-hole hitters in the lineup, for no other reason than we have too many good players.

“He’s what we needed, really. And he’s the type of player who elevates other players’ games because of the type of teammate he is. Carlos (Correa) does the same thing; others don’t. There are players out there that don’t do that so for us to have someone who does do that, you see it permeating through other players.”

The numbers back up the moves at both positions and the Yankees’ insistence they are doing many of the “little things” better.

With Torres shifting comfortably from shortstop to second, the Yankees’ defensive rating in three key metrics has risen from 28th or 29th overall in 2021 to 14th and 16th this year, their overall rating improving from -32.4 to -1. Yankees catchers now rank third overall defensively compared to 16th in 2021. Shortstop defense has risen from 28th to 10th.

It’s almost like the Yankees acquired three everyday players, what with Torres hitting the ball hard again and seeing his athleticism play up at second.

“He’s been through a lot already as a young man at this level – he’s been an All-Star a couple times, he’s had playoff success, he’s struggled some, he’s hit bumps in the road,” says manager Aaron Boone. “How do you respond to that? How do you grow from that? We’ve seen him take steps forward in that regard.”

It doesn’t hurt that Torres just has to be another guy in a defensively gifted infield, with former Gold Glover Anthony Rizzo at first and DJ LeMahieu and Josh Donaldson sharing time at third. In the middle is Kiner-Falefa, who has yet to hit a home run and is batting .271.

He knows why he’s here.

“I feel like I’m a grinder and I feel like that mentality is what these guys want here. It’s nice to see I’m not the only one working,” says Kiner-Falefa, who never enjoyed more than a 78-win season in Texas. “Everyone on this team, 1 through 26 and all the coaches and analytic guys are on the same page. I love it. It’s very refreshing.

“It’s a cool feeling, especially coming from a mediocre team.”

A different level

There’s little mediocrity on his new squad, from one through nine in both lineup and innings. Their most impactful performer may be reliever Michael King, who leads major league relievers with 37 strikeouts, in just 25 2/3 innings. Boone has adopted a village approach to the ninth inning, with inconsistent Aroldis Chapman and Clay Holmes holding that down.

That enables King to deploy whenever it’s hottest; in the Yankees’ 27th win, he entered a tie game in the sixth with the go-ahead runner on second and struck out six of nine batters faced, allowing two balls in play in three spotless innings.

King pairs a 97-mph sinker with a sweeping curveball he learned last year from former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. While he has starter aspirations, he’s at that rare moment of untouchability that high-end arms sometimes achieve out of the bullpen.

“It’s like video-game stuff. He makes his strikes look like balls, and his balls look like strikes,” says starter Jameson Taillon. “He can throw a curveball in the other batter’s box and make you look like a fool. He’s not trying to execute, he knows he’s going to execute.”

King may eventually falter, just as the Yankees, at some point, may hit a rough patch. For now, Judge has quieted any drama about his pending free agency with his scalding start, putting the onus on the front office to up the ante after GM Brian Cashman revealed the slugger turned down a $213 million extension offer just before opening day.

For now, it’s hard to imagine anything but immaculate vibes, with Boone saying the team’s improvement at the margins “starts with the kinds of relationships and the camaraderie that they’ve built together.”

“I feel like it is at a different level,’’ he says.

It is nearly Memorial Day, and the Yankees have yet to lose more than two games in a row. That will change, and so, too, will the club’s 5 ½-game bulge in the AL East – for better or worse.

The Yankees know bad times are inevitable. They also believe they’re far better built to withstand them.

“It’s not just we’re a team, we’re best friends off the field,” says King. “I know when we have bad stretches, it’s going to really come into play that we’re a team and we love each other.

“Right now, it’s super fun, but when times are tough, it’s still going to be fun and we’re going to get out of those cold streaks faster because of it.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NY Yankees off to MLB's best start: 'There's no stopping this team'

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