Bill Madden: 4 reasons why the Yankees have the best record in baseball

They continue to demonstrate the consummate home run or bust offense and have so far shown just marginal improvement in their base-running acumen which last year was among the sloppiest in the game. And yet there can be no mistaking this is a vastly better Yankee team than last season. A team that went into the weekend boasting the best record in baseball, and if you’re wondering why, well, there are numerous factors that cannot be denied.

PITCHING

Going into the weekend, the Yankees’ overall 2.75 team ERA ranked third in baseball, their 2.51 bullpen ERA second. Most impressive, however, has been the uncanny consistency of their starting pitchers. After April 21, when the Yankees were 7-6, Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes, Jameson Taillon and Jordan Montgomery all made four starts apiece — 16 in all — and in none of them did they give up more than two earned runs. The lone exception in the rotation was Luis Severino, who gave up one, four, three and three earned runs in his four starts over that span. Equally important is the fact that none of them have missed a start this year which brings us to the next key factor in the Yankees’ success:

HEALTH

Knock on wood on this one, but the Yankees so far have been the most injury-free team in baseball — quite a contrast from the last few seasons when they seemingly were hardly ever with the starting lineup intact. Since the start of the season they’ve had only one player — reserve outfielder Tim Locastro — go on the IL (By contrast, the Rays, last year’s AL East champs, currently have 10 pitchers alone on the IL) Heck, even Aaron Hicks has stayed healthy (if not productive) all year! Falling into that same category is:

RIZZO’S REVIVED LEFT-HANDED BAT

Though he, nor anyone around the Yankees, would ever admit it, Anthony Rizzo was never the same player after he contracted COVID last year. He hit just five homers after returning from the COVID list on Aug. 18. For that reason, the Yankees had reservations about re-signing him, first pursuing Freddie Freeman on the free-agent market and also inquiring about a trade for the A’s Matt Olson. The Yankees as a team had just 53 homers from the left side in ‘21, the 26th fewest in the majors. This year Rizzo has nine alone. There’s no denying the Yankees are still a home runs-or-bust offense. (Thursday’s 15-7 whopping of the White Sox and Dylan Cease, one of the best pitchers in baseball, was a prototype Yankee win — four home runs/14 strikeouts. As scouts have been saying for years, if you want to beat the Yankees, you’ve got to keep ‘em in the ballpark.) According to the Elias Bureau, their 50.6% of runs via the home run is tops in baseball and they’ve been in the top five the last five years. But at least it hasn’t been a mostly righties affair, which was the big criticism last year of Brian Cashman’s makeup of the club.

DEFENSE AND RUN PREVENTION

Cashman didn’t do a whole lot of re-making the club this offseason but what he did do — the trade of Gary Sanchez and Gio Urshela to the Twins for Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Josh Donaldson and catcher Ben Rortvedt — was significant. The athletic Kiner-Falefa has provided steady defense at short, allowing the Yankees to move Gleyber Torres back to second where he has proved far more comfortable while slowly regaining the form that made him an All-Star his first two seasons in the majors (three of his five home runs either tied or gave the Yankees the lead). As noted last week by the Daily News’ Yankee beat reporter Kristie Ackert, the Yankees as of Friday ranked third in defensive runs saved in the majors, per Fangraphs, as opposed to 29th out of 30 last year. Kiner-Falefa ranked eighth among shortstops with three defensive runs saved whereas last year Torres ranked 120th among shortstops with -7 defensive runs saved but has five runs saved this year at second base. As for the other part of the trade, for years scouts were in agreement that the Yankees were never going to the World Series with Sanchez as their catcher and last year they threw out only 17% of opposing baserunners which was the second lowest in the majors. This year, under the quality control direction of coach Luis Rojas and the use of PitchCom for better communication between the catchers and pitchers, the Yankees, as of Friday, had allowed the fewest stolen base attempts and tied with the A’s for the fewest stolen bases against.

So, as is evident, the Yankees are clicking on all cylinders right now — pitching defense and power — at the same time staying healthy and discovering to their delight there’s a lot of parity and mediocrity in baseball and not a lot of really good teams. They may not see one of those until June 23-26 when the Houston Astros come into Yankee Stadium. Given Cashman’s renewal of verbal hostilities with Astros owner Jim Crane this week, I’d be circling those dates on my calendar. The Red Sox may be dead in the water this year, but the Yankees most definitely have a new arch rival.

IT’S A MADD, MADD WORLD

Hearing that former Orioles, Padres and Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino is quietly putting together a group to hopefully buy the Nationals if and when the Lerner family decides to put the team up for sale. … That was pretty heavy company Cardinals handyman Brendan Donovan found himself in Wednesday when he went 2-for-2 with two RBI, a pair of walks and three runs scored against the Orioles. The Wurzburg, Germany-born South Alabama grad became the first Cardinal rookie to log at least two hits, two walks and three runs in a game since Albert Pujols in May 2001 and joined Stan Musial (1942) as the only other Cardinals rookie to amass at least two doubles, two walks and three runs in a single game. … We haven’t heard much from the much-traveled Jose Quintana in recent years, but last Monday the 33-year-old lefty whose been bothered by injuries and general ineffectiveness since 2019 broke two ignominious streaks. It was his first win since Sept. 5, 2019, ending a drought of 20 starts and 42 appearances between victories while, for the Pirates, it was the first win of the season for a starting pitcher in their 28th game — a major league record to start a season. … New baseball book of the week: Former Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson and acclaimed baseball photographer Jean Fruth have teamed up on another spectacular hardcover coffee table book — “Grassroots Baseball: Route 66″ — in which they traveled cross country along the nation’s most famous highway capturing images of the game and its connection to the communities. Along the way, they hooked up with Hall of Famers George Brett, Johnny Bench and Jim Thome, who provided commentary on their own grassroots experiences in the towns along Route 66.

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