Yankees Thoughts: Pitching Is Great, Offense Isn’t

Pitching carries Yankees to winning homestand against AL East rivals

The Yankees finished their season-opening, seven-game homestand with a winning record (4-3) against the Red Sox and Blue Jays. I would have signed up for that prior to the first pitch on Opening Day and I’m happy with the result. Again, it could have and should have been more, but to come out of those two series with a winning record is what was needed (even if the Red Sox aren’t very good and nowhere near the level of the Blue Jays).

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees.

1. Through seven games, the Yankees’ offense has been a problem. The offense has produced 24 runs this season and two of those were scored by automatic runners, so it’s really 22 runs in seven games. That’s 3.1 runs per game. That’s not going to cut it.

Last season, seemingly every day Yankees fans were told the lineup would eventually hit and they would get on a roll and they would turn it around, only to never to do any of those things. So why should any Yankees fan think the offense that underachieved all of last season won’t do the same this season, if it includes the same players?

It’s not early either. The core of this Yankees lineup has played hundreds of games as a unit, not just seven, and Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo have now been Yankees for nearly the equivalent of half of a full season. Don’t let any player, the manager, the front office or media members tell you its early in assessing the Yankees. They brought back the same team plus Josh Donaldson and it’s completely fair to evaluate them on their performance to date in 2022 because it’s been a continuation of 2021.

2. Donaldson has been dreadful in his first week as a Yankee. Sure, he drove in the automatic runner on Opening Day to beat the Red Sox in the 11th inning, but that’s all he has done. He’s hitting .185/.241/.222 with one extra-base hit and has struck out 11 times in 29 plate appearances. He deserves to be the leadoff hitter about as much as Aaron Hicks deserved to the be 3-hitter last season.

There’s always risk when rostering and playing a 36-year-old every day that at any moment he could just be finished. Time is undefeated and when it comes to baseball players in their mid-to-late-30s, it’s usually not forgiving.

Donaldson isn’t having the kind of bad luck Gallo was having in the season’s first weekend when the quality of his at-bats were good and he was hitting the ball hard and not coming out with hits. Donaldson’s at-bats have been painful. He seems to be behind in every count and when he does put the ball in the play, he’s not doing so with authority. I didn’t think the Yankees were getting the 2015-16 version of Donaldson when they acquired him, but I didn’t think they were getting what has been a near-automatic out to this point.

The Yankees will continue to bat Donaldson leadoff because of his name and his career history and hope that they didn’t just trade for a third baseman whose finished who they owe $48 million to over this year and next.

3. The problem with the Yankees’ offense is twofold: their stars haven’t hit (outside of a couple games against the Red Sox) and the bottom of their order can’t get the ball out of the infield, let alone get on base.

Jose Trevino, a career .248/.273/.366 hitter, who the Yankees acquired just before Opening Day is currently the team’s best catcher. It’s scary, but it’s true.

It’s scary because the Yankees chose this catching tandem. It wasn’t created out of necessity because of injury or some other circumstance. The Yankees purposely traded away Gary Sanchez to create the worst catching situation in the majors. Thankfully, Trevino at least had the two-RBI performance he had on Thursday night to make up for Higashioka’s atrocious start.

4. I didn’t expect anything out of Higashioka this season because I have never expected anything out of him. When a player has a .178/.226/.370 career batting line, there’s no positive expectation that can come with them, only a negative one, and Higashioka has surpassed every negative expectation with flying colors.

Higashioka hasn’t just been bad, he’s made himself unplayable. He hit a 79-hopper on the ground up the middle in his first at-bat of 2022, and since then nothing. He hasn’t had another hit. Not even a walk. In the 17 plate appearances to follow that single, he has made 18 outs (he hit into a 6-4-3 double play), mostly by hitting the ball to the shortstop (his specialty) or by striking out.

I’m not mad at Higashioka. I’m not frustrated or angry. He didn’t tell the Yankees to trade the second-best power-hitting catcher in the majors so the Yankees could inexplicably make Higashioka their starter to improve the team’s framing. He’s starting most games for the Yankees despite his inability to generate offense and his inability to throw out baserunners because who wouldn’t want to play Major League Baseball? It’s like not he’s the one who created this roster issue and he’s not the one who continues to put himself in the lineup.

Trevino should be playing over Higashioka. This isn’t a 2022 sample size. This is a career sample size and Higashioka’s career suggests this is who he is. Naming him the starting catcher wasn’t going to magically make him play like someone worthy of being a starting catcher. It didn’t work last season when Boone started giving him the majority of the catching playing time over Sanchez, and it didn’t work the year before either. Higashioka hasn’t been having these kind of offensive results for a week, he’s been having them for a career. Sanchez would unfairly lose his playing time for having a week like Higashioka just did. It should go both ways.

5. It’s hard for me to hold back on Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who like Higashioka didn’t ask to be the Yankees’ starting shortstop. I’m going to do my best to hold on a little longer with him because he’s playing a position in shortstop that hasn’t been his primary position and he’s on a new team trying to prove himself.

It hasn’t been good for the front office to date that their all-glove, high-contact offseason acquisition has been a mess in the field and at the plate through the first two series. Kiner-Falefa needed a 3-for-3 night on Thursday to get his batting average up to .200, and with the way averages jump with so few at-bats this early in the season, that should tell you how bad he was prior to Thursday when he, Trevino and Luis Severino led the Yankees to a win.

6. I love Severino. He has been my favorite Yankee for several years, and it feels good to have him back, healthy and starting games. With his litany of injuries since 2019 spring training hopefully behind him, it’s not surprising he’s having the kind of success he’s had in his first two starts against the Red Sox and Blue Jays (8 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 11 K, 1 HR, 2.25 ERA, 1.125 WHIP).

Severino has been the Yankees’ best pitcher through his first two starts, and no one should be shocked by that. He was a Cy Young contender in his last healthy season (2018), and in his late-September 2019 and 2019 postseason starts, he was really good, and last season when he came back from Tommy John surgery he was great. Severino has been an elite, front-end starter since 2017, and as long as he avoids injury, he will continue to be one. I love having him back and watching him pitch every fifth day.

7. Severino held the Blue Jays scoreless for five innings on Thursday, two nights after Nestor Cortes held them scoreless for 4 1/3 innings. Three years ago, Cortes was used as a piggyback option to the opener for the Yankees (usually Chad Green) and he couldn’t have been less deserving of the role or a spot on a major-league roster. But since changing his style last season, he has become a valuable part of the pitching staff, and a trustworthy part of the staff. (I never thought I would use “trustworthy” as a way to describe Cortes). I look forward to his starts as much as I didn’t look forward to his appearances three years ago, and his style and demeanor continues to be enjoyable.

8. The difference between last season and this season is the Yankees’ rotation is better and their bullpen is the best ever assembled. The Yankees can win games scoring three and four runs like they have in 2022 because their starters will rarely ever take them out of the game and their bullpen will be able to protect nearly every lead and hold nearly every deficit to give the offense countless chances to get back into games.

I can’t say enough about the bullpen construction and how comfortable I feel once the Yankees’ relievers start entering games.

This is what the Yankees’ bullpen did in the Red Sox series:
18.2 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 9 BB, 19 K, 1 HR, 0.96 ERA, 0.803 WHIP

This is what the bullpen did in the Blue Jays series:
16 IP, 13 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 15 K, 1 HR, 1.69 ERA, 1.063 WHIP

This is the bullpen’s line through seven games:
34.2 IP, 19 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 13 BB, 34 K, 2 HR, 1.30 ERA, 0.923 WHIP

Even on nights when Aroldis Chapman tries his best to throw away a game like he did on Thursday, the Yankees aren’t out of options despite having already used Lucas Luetge, Miguel Castro, Clay Holmes and Chad Green, and with Jonathan Loaisiga unavailable after pitching back-to-back games. Boone didn’t have to sit by and watch Chapman single-handedly ruin a game. He was able to go back to a bullpen in which Chapman is no longer the best option and not even a Top 5 option (he’s more like a Bottom 3 option) and bring in Michael King to save the game.

9. After getting shut out on Monday (3-0), the Yankees shut out the Blue Jays on Tuesday (4-0) and Thursday (3-0). Yankees pitching held the Blue Jays to seven runs over the four games after the Blue Jays scored 20 runs in a three-game series against the Rangers to open the season.

The Blue Jays are for real. Of course they are. They are the favorite to win the American League. But I’m not as worried of the Blue Jays as maybe I should be. I’m most worried of the Rays in the AL East because the Kevin Cash Rays have owned the Boone Yankees. I’m less worried about the Red Sox than either of those two teams. I’m not worried about the Orioles at all.

What I am worried about though is the Yankees playing to the Orioles’ level. Something we saw far too often last season which cost the Yankees a chance to win the division and forced them to play the one-game playoff on the road. The Yankees’ inability to beat up on the 110-loss Orioles of 2021 ruined their season because the rest of the division beat up on them.

10. The Rays have already played and swept the Orioles in three games. With the Yankees playing the Orioles this weekend, they need to hold serve. A series win would be acceptable, but a series sweep is what’s really needed. (A series loss or Orioles sweep is an outright disaster.) As long as the Rays, Blue Jays and Red Sox are stacking wins against the Orioles, the Yankees need to as well.

The Yankees, Blue Jays and Rays are all currently 4-3. The Red Sox are 3-3. The Orioles are 1-5. The wins and losses will change, but the standings will closely resemble that order for the entire season with the Yankees, Blue Jays and Rays all about equal, the Red Sox just behind and the Orioles buried. With the non-Orioles teams in the AL East all beating up on each other and likely all playing close to. 500 against one another, the team at the top will be the team that performs best against the Orioles. This weekend isn’t just an early-season, mid-April series against the lowly, last-place Orioles. It could be the difference between getting a bye to the ALDS or having to play a best-of-3 with all games in the series on the road. It could be the difference between playing past Game 162 or not. It should be treated as such.

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