Don't Overlook the Yankees' Veterans
It is right and good that the baseball world has been deluged with news, articles, interviews and highlights of the amazing Aaron Judge, the leading contender for American League Rookie of the Year and MVP. He's a triple crown candidate (whatever you think of that distinction), and what he is doing to Major League Baseball right now is completely unexpected and heart-stopping.
The New York Yankees' amazing young catcher, Gary Sanchez, is off to another terrific season, as well. He burst onto the scene during his brief callup last year when he slugged 20 home runs in just 53 games, and he has continued his excellent play here in 2017.
It's obvious why everyone is bullish on the Yankees -- they have some spectacular young talent at the MLB level, and they boast one of baseball's best farm systems. It's the main reason why they entered play on Tuesday with a 38-23 record, good enough for first place in the American League East, leading the Boston Red Sox by four games.
The Yankees have compiled 90 runs this month. The next closest team is averaging almost 2 runs fewer per game. https://t.co/AWii6ZvvAs
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) June 13, 2017
But one of the less-talked about reasons for the Yankees' surge has been the play of the team's steady veterans, who are doing their part to fuel New York's early-season run.
At the age of 37, Matt Holliday is having his best season since 2014, when he was with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was a decent offensive performer the last two years, with a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 109 last year and 124 in 2015, both above the league average. But he's taken it to another level this season.
In 237 plate appearances, he has a slash line of .280/.384/.530 with 13 homers and 44 RBI. He has 33 runs scored with a wRC+ of 145, the 19th-best mark in baseball. He's also has seen his walk rate jump to 13.5% this year after an 8.2% clip in 2016.
Holliday is one of several players across the game who has benefitted from hitting more fly balls this season, increasing his fly ball rate from 35.9% last season to 39.6% -- all while upping his home-run-per-fly-ball rate (HR/FB) from 17.9% in 2016 to 23.6% this year. (Two years ago, that number was 7.5%, by the way.)
And while his strikeout rate has jumped from 16.7% to 26.6%, he's actually swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone, down from 30.6% in 2016 to 25.5% now.
After two straight seasons in which he posted a wRC+ below 100, Jacoby Ellsbury has been productive once again, even if it's not at the level of Holliday. In 153 plate appearances, Ellsbury is batting .281/.349/.422 with 4 homers, 14 RBI and 19 runs scored, and he was playing some pretty good defense in center.
However, it has come at a price, and it may be a while before anyone sees him in action.
The 33-year-old slammed into the wall and suffered a concussion two weeks ago, and Ellsbury has suffered a setback in his recovery that has resulted in him being shut down until further notice. That's a real shame, because his wRC+ of 109 this season is his highest mark since a 109 wRC+ back in 2014.
Even if he was healthy, through no fault of his own, he was in danger of losing his starting job to Aaron Hicks. The 27-year-old Hicks has been otherworldly, batting .313/.424/.578 with 10 dingers, a wRC+ of 167 and an fWAR of 2.6, which is second on the team only to Judge.
Still, Ellsbury had been a productive player until his concussion, but he may not return to the same role when he gets healthy.
Brett Gardner is third on the team in fWAR (1.9) and has seen a dramatic uptick in his power game. His career high in home runs is 17, set two years ago in 2015, but he's already at 13 this season with plenty of time to go until the All-Star break.
Like many Major Leaguers, Gardner has seen an uptick in his strikeout rate -- from 16.7% to 21.1% -- but his slugging percentage has increased dramatically from a .362 mark in 2016 to a .496 clip this season. Not coincidentally, Gardner's fly-ball rate has also skyrocketed to 37.1% in 2017 (up from 27.0% last year), and his HR/FB rate has shot up by a shocking amount, sitting at 21.0% this season after it was 5.9% in 2016.
Maybe the veterans becoming mashers like Aaron Judge just by osmosis?
Sure, the youngsters Judge and Sanchez are exciting, and still-fairly-young stars like Hicks and Starlin Castro (he's somehow still just 27 years old, by the way) are all playing great. But it's the play of the over-30 crowd that has had as much to do with New York's early-season success as anything else.
So give a hand to the old dogs who have learned new tricks. They're more than earning their keep.