These days, if you’re a New York Yankees fan, you have no choice but to pinch yourself every morning.
The calendar doesn’t say 2018 or 2019. As far as Major League Baseball record books are concerned, Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres don’t exist. Chase Headley is still the starting third baseman, and, therefore, Manny Machado is still a Baltimore Oriole.
And yet, here we are. It’s 2017, and the first-place Yankees sport a 38-23 record. What was at first a neat couple of weeks following a strong spring training is now nearly a half-season’s worth of the best baseball played in the Bronx since 2009.
It’s easy – and justifiable – to chalk it up to the earth-shattering rookie season of Aaron Judge. He currently leads the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, home runs, a sleuth of other on-field stats, and All-Star votes. Whereas Yankees fans have been concerned about replacing Derek Jeter, Judge decided to skip a few generations and be the heir apparent to Mickey Mantle.
But to say it’s been all Judge’s doing would be quite the alternative fact. Starlin Castro, slashing .328/.365/.530, is second in the league with 81 hits. The “other” Aaron, Hicks, is doing just about everything Judge is, except for the 495-foot bombs. Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorius are playing the best baseball of their careers, and Gary Sanchez is starting to look like the Gary Sanchez we saw towards the end of last season.
As far as the pitching is concerned, one could argue nearly the entire staff deserves All-Star nods. “Nearly”, because Masahiro Tanaka and his 6.07 ERA will need those four days off.
There’s something else that’s making these “rebuilding” Yankees legitimate contenders, however. They’re hungry.
When you look around the diamond, none of these players have had the success they’ve desired, for a multitude of reasons. Castro was shipped out of Chicago the winter before the Cubs won the World Series. Gardner has battled injuries and never-ending trade rumors throughout his career, and more or less rode the coattails of the Core Four and Alex Rodriguez to his first and only ring. Younger players like Judge, Sanchez, Hicks and Gregorius have also faced adversity just to make it to the big leagues, and none of them have ever played in a postseason series.
That’s what makes this Yankees team so different. In the past, almost everyone wearing pinstripes had either won a, or multiple World Series, and/or was making money that not even their great-great-great-grandchildren would run out of. Not to say that these Yankees were complacent, but there was definitely a sense of, “well, we’ll get ‘em next year,” whenever a season didn’t end with a parade down the Canyon of Heroes.
When it comes to the 2017 Yankees, however, next year isn’t a guarantee, and it shows. At the plate, they’re grinding out each and every at-bat, and on the mound, they’re giving it their all. Fans and players alike are well aware of what the future holds, with top prospects nearing the Bronx and premier free agents salivating over the money the Yankees will soon have available to spend.
The 2017 Yankees were always going to have to prove themselves, but not like this. Judge is no longer trying to establish himself as just an everyday big leaguer, but a legitimate megastar. Both Starlin and Didi are fighting to prove anything Gleyber can do, they can do better. And as a whole, the organization has no choice but to scrap the “tread water this year, build towards the future” plan. The Yankees want to win, and they want to win now.