We are now 52 (and a half) games into the 2018 season and the Yankees are running like a well-oiled machine. The team is coming off an impressive series win over the defending champion Houston Astros, and have now won 10 of their past 11 series. They remain the only offense in the league yet to be shutout this season, and the team has not lost three games in a row at any point thus far. With their starting pitching inconsistent (besides the dominant Luis Severino) and the bullpen yet to reach its full potential, the heavy lifting in the early going has largely been done by the bats. Good thing these Bombers might just be better than advertised.
The Yankees lead or are second in the league in nearly every meaningful offensive category — traditional or sabermetric — including runs per game (5.69), homers (87), OPS (.816), and wRC+ (120). Even with superstars Gary Sanchez, Giancarlo Stanton, and Didi Gregorius struggling at times to start this year, this team has the undisputed best offense in baseball.
So what’s been the key to the Yankees success early on this year? Well, more-so than anything, the wealth of talent and depth in their lineup has given pitchers nightmares each and every night. But digging a little deeper, it seems like the Yankees patience and clutch hitting along with their outrageous power have separated them from the pack to this point.
Early in spring training, Aaron Boone said he wanted his team to be “obsessed with controlling the strike zone.” So far, these Yankees have done just that. A huge factor in their early season success has been their ability to knock starters out early and wear down the bullpen. In Wednesday night’s game, the team forced Dallas Keuchel to throw 106 pitches in just 5.0 IP, typical of how this offense operates. In fact, the Yankees see the most pitches of any team in the league at 158.2 P/G.
The Yankees unique ability to work pitchers seems to be the result of both excellent plate discipline and pitchers’ fear of their lineup. Pitchers seem to be attacking the Yankees mashers by attempting to get them to chase out of the zone. This is evidenced by the fact that the team sees just 41.2% strikes, the lowest rate in the league.
However, it has proven largely ineffective in neutralizing their bats so far thanks to the maturity and discipline of the Yankees lineup. Their chase rate on pitches out of the strike zone is just 29.1%, good for 9th best in baseball. The team also seems to be comfortable waiting for pitches they can really crush, as their overall Swing% is 44.4%, the fourth lowest in baseball. This combination of a cautious approach from pitchers and patience from Yankee hitters has allowed them to see better pitches and excel on offense.
This part should go without saying, and any baseball fan that’s watched this team play in 2018 knows the prowess of their sluggers. The Yankees lead the league in home runs with 87 thus far, a historic pace that puts them 12 (!!) home runs ahead of where the record setting 1997 Mariners were through 52 games. Aaron Judge, Sanchez, and Stanton predictably lead the way, and are joined by Didi to give the team four hitters with double digit dingers already. Gleyber Torres has also been a revelation for the team, with 9 homers in his first 33 career games.
But the team’s power is not limited to just home runs. They crush the ball even when it stays in the yard too, with a hard hit rate of 38.8%, the third best in baseball. This plays a major role in their ability to produce extra base hits, of which they have 199, the second most in the league.
The team has also mastered the art of lifting the ball on offense, a development in hitting throughout the league that has driven the increase in home runs throughout baseball. The team hits 38.9% fly balls, the 5th most in baseball. And when they do get the ball in the air, no team puts a higher percentage of those flyers into the seats. A whopping 17.9% of Yankee fly balls clear the fence for big flies, well above the league average of 12.7%.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this team’s early performance has been the ability to drive in runs at key points in the game. It seems like each and every hitter on this team thrives on high pressure hitting scenarios.
For years, Yankees fans lamented the team’s inability to hit with runners in scoring position. From 2013 through 2016 (dark days for Yankee supporters), the team was only just above league average with RISP, hitting .266 with a wRC+ of 109. That story has changed drastically with these Baby Bombers. These 2018 Yankees are hitting .276 with a 127 wRC+, among the best in all of baseball.
Even more encouraging is the team’s performance in high leverage scenarios. Fangraphs has constructed a metric for determining how crucial any given at bat is to determining the outcome of the game. A high leverage at bat is one that has the potential to generate a massive swing in win probability for the game. In such high leverage scenarios this year, the Yankees have been nothing short of spectacular. They’re hitting .307/.427/.514 with a wRC+ of 155. For reference, Bryce Harper is a career .282/.386/.517 (141 wRC+). This team has been nothing short of exceptional when the spotlight is brightest.
All of this contributes to why the Yankees offense has arguably been one of the most crucial and clutch in baseball. WPA, or win probability added, measures how much each play adds or detracts from a team’s chance of winning an individual game. Over the course of the season, no lineup has improved their team’s chances of winning game-to-game than the Yankees.
It’s easy as a fan to find things to complain about. Stanton was an early target of Yankee fan ire, and while Didi is beloved he is coming off a miserable May in which he hit .151/.186/.215 (0 wRC+!!). But looking at the bigger picture, this Yankee offense is stacked and has clearly developed a game plan to attack pitchers and put runs on the board. Their combination of patience and power makes each at bat a nightmare for their opponents, and their clutch hitting has carried them even when the pitching has slacked off. If they can keep the bats hot, there’s no question this team has a chance to be the best in baseball.