Thoughts Before Yankees Opening Day

Friends, Opening Day is tomorrow. Tomorrow! You love to see that. The Yankees will take on the Blue Jays at 1:05 pm in the Bronx. Gerrit Cole will be on the hill. I am excited, and there’s a lot to say. Today should be quiet, though we’ll likely hear some rumblings about the 26th man on the roster and perhaps get some news. We’ll keep you posted on all of that as it develops.

Here are some thoughts to hold you over as we all get ready to cheer on the Yankees in the first real season since 2019.

1. General Excitement: Let’s start out with the basics today. I am infinitely more excited for the 2021 campaign than I was the 2020 season, even though I tried really hard last year to get excited for 2020. And this is not just hindsight. There were a few moments where the season almost felt normal. Opening Day in Washington, though that was marred by Juan Soto’s positive test, was one of them. The Gary Sánchez grand slam against the Mets. Both playoff games against Cleveland. But other than that, it was generally a slog – and I don’t think that’s solely because the Yankees were a slog, either. It was a rough year.

This year, though, things feel a lot different. There will be fans in the stands tomorrow at 1 o’clock. Although it will not be full capacity, there will be nearly 11,000 fans in the stands tomorrow. It will be the most normal Yankees game since Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS. I’ve been watching a lot of NBA basketball, and having fans back makes a huge, huge difference – you could feel it in Spring Training, too. And, of course, we are preparing for a full 162-game slate. That also makes a huge difference: it feels like baseball again. Sixty games does not make a season.

All of this is to say that first pitch tomorrow can’t come soon enough. And the Yankees should be pretty good, too. That always helps.

2. Gerrit Cole and the Rotation Lineup: We talked about this for a bit on Monday’s podcast, but I wanted to expand on it a bit here. I really like the way the Yankees have lined up their rotation to start the season, particularly the way that they’re using Gerrit Cole. As a reminder, the rotation will officially shake out like this:

  • April 1 vs. TOR: Gerrit Cole
  • April 3 vs. TOR: Corey Kluber
  • April 4 vs. TOR: Domingo Germán
  • April 5 vs. BAL: Jordan Montgomery
  • April 6 vs. BAL: Gerrit Cole
  • April 7 vs. BAL: Jameson Taillon

While it is a bit disappointing that we won’t see Jameson Taillon for nearly a full week, it makes sense. They should ease him back into the rotation. It also allows the Yankees to use Gerrit Cole as much as possible, which should be able to continue into the month. (There are four off-days and likely several rain outs. It’s April on the east coast.)

Cole’s 12 starts last year tied him for second-most in the American League, and his 73 innings pitched was fourth in the AL. Only Lance Lynn (84), Shane Bieber (77.1), and Aaron Civale (74) threw more innings. It is obvious to point this out, but that should continue into 2021 and it’s good to see the Yankees jumping behind their ace right away. Judging by the Grapefruit League, he is ready to go. He touched 100 miles-per-hour several times, and he is clearly in regular form:

You can see it right there in the chart. He built himself up over the spring and is now consistently in regular form. There’s also not much concern about his command and location. He absolutely attacked the zone in March:

None of this is really groundbreaking analysis. The point is just to illustrate that the Yankees are fortunate to have a pitcher of Cole’s caliber, and he will allow the team to paper over some early injury worries. They will likely be easing Jameson Taillon into action, and possibly even Corey Kluber as well. Going into the season with a horse like Gerrit Cole saves bullpen arms and allows them to use the rotation exactly as they want. It is exactly what they paid for in December 2019.

3. Corey Kluber’s Command: Alright, now on to the elephant in the room. Everyone is very concerned about Corey Kluber’s command, and I get it. This is not pretty to look at:

It’s not just all over the place, either: it’s the location of the colors that is also somewhat concerning. There is a lot of blue (curveballs) and orange (sinkers) in the upper-middle part of the strike zone. I think a lot of people were hoping to see him dial it in a bit during his last tune-up start this weekend, but it didn’t happen. Overall, more than 40% of his spring pitches were called balls.

Time to panic and second guess the Yankees, right? Wrong. I don’t think we should be very worried about this. At least not yet. His stuff was still obviously good (he did induce a 14% whiff rate out of opposing batters) and his velocity is fine. Both of those are more important to me right now, considering the fact Kluber is returning from what is essentially two seasons out of the business.

He is a two-time Cy Young winner who has dealt with injuries in back-to-back seasons. Before that, he was legitimately one of the best pitchers in the American League. He did not forget how to pitch. To me, this looks like obvious rust. It may be a few more starts before he starts to reign in his command – pitching is hard! – but I am very confident he will do so in short order. Spring Training is a useful barometer, but it’s not much more than that. Players are always making tweaks, especially a veteran arm like Kluber. Let’s see how this shakes out over the first month of the season before we really get up in arms about it. Deal?

4. Underrated Storylines: There are a few under-the-radar storylines I’m watching heading into the season. I don’t think any of them merit a full post, so I’m just going to include them here. There are more than this, surely, but these are the three I’m watching closest right now.

Chad Green Pitch Usage

I wrote a lot about Chad Green’s curveball last season, as you likely remember. He introduced it last spring, and it makes a lot of sense for his repertoire. Here is what it looks like:

And he threw it quite a bit last year, about a quarter of the time. This spring he’s relied on it significantly more than that, even, featuring the offering 44% of the time. That’s a lot, especially for a fastball-dominant – and I mean dominant – arsenal like Green’s. It is likely just Spring Training noise and tinkering, but it’s worth following. Let’s see how Green uses the pitch this season. That’s the only way to know if a Spring Training trend is real.

Aaron Hicks’ Health

I believe that Aaron Hicks is the most important member of the Yankees who never gets any love. He’s a very productive, switch-hitting, top-of-the-order bat. He works the count, gets on base, and plays good-to-great defense in center field. The Yankee lineup is a lot deeper when he’s in it, which has unfortunately not been all that often. Hicks recovered from Tommy John last year, and his power evaporated.

I expect that to change if he’s healthy and fully recovered this year. He should look more like Aaron Hicks out there, and that’s a good thing for the Yankees. The only question, to me, is if he can stay healthy. We spend a lot of time worrying about Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in this department, and for good reason, but Hicks should absolutely be added to this list. I’m really hoping he can log a fully-healthy season.

The First Full Season of the New Pitching Tree

The Yanks have a new pitching system! Well, they did last year, too, but this year it’s real. It’s too hard to evaluate anyone on last year alone at this point, so I’m very curious to see how this all shakes out this year. We’ve seen the new “Gas Station” set up in Tampa, and it follows a pretty thorough reworking of the Yankees pitching infrastructure. I covered that last year, so check it out if you need a refresher. There are new coaches and directors up and down the system, and this year we’ll get to see the fruits of that restructuring. Let’s keep our eye out on this all year, too.

5. Yankees Award Winners: Last week, I ended this column by listing off the Yankees I was most looking forward to seeing. This week I want to do something similar, but instead predict who I think would win team-specific awards, if they were doled out, in 2021. We have a full predictions post coming later today where we all make league-wide predictions etc., so keep your eyes out for that in a bit.

This post is already running a bit long, so I’m going to keep this concise as most of these are pretty self-explanatory. In any case, here are my Yankee-specific award winner predictions:

  • Most Valuable Player: Aaron Judge. Who else would this be? Okay, there are plenty of other options, but let’s assume a full season of health for the entire team for a second. I don’t think there’s a single Yankee who separates the Yankees from the pack quite like Aaron Judge. He’s their biggest difference maker, with the possible exception of Gerrit Cole, and if the Yankees win the World Series, it will almost certainly be because of Judge.
  • Cy Young: Gerrit Cole. Come on. I don’t need to explain this one at all, do I?
  • Relief Pitcher of the Year: Aroldis Chapman, and it’s again not close. I feel like Chapman, despite his propensity to give up incredibly deflating postseason home runs, does not get his due. He changed his pitching style and remained one of baseball’s most dominant relief pitchers. That is not easy to do.
  • Rookie of the Year: Deivi García. This is another really easy one.
  • Most Improved Player of the Year: Gary Sánchez. I expect him to have a great year, but even if he is just okay – think 105 wRC+ with adequate defense – he probably takes the cake here. The only other contender is really Gleyber Torres.

6. Final Thoughts: Is it tomorrow yet?

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1 Comment

  1. I’m excited for this season as well – even though, regrettably, the DH and extra innings rules still exist, and I’m increasingly pessimistic that we’ll ever see those restored to normal – because this feels like the first legitimate baseball I’ll be seeing since 2019. I could never take last season seriously. The severely-reduced schedule, the geographic-restricted schedule, the make-it-up-as-we-go rules changes…it was nonsense. I never took 2020 seriously even going into the season. Would I have loved the Yankees to win the last game of the 2020 season? Yes. Would I have seen a championship last season the same way as I would in any other season? No. There’s a reason why Brosseau’s home run didn’t hurt me then and it still doesn’t hurt me now.

    We finally have a mostly-normal looking season up ahead. Hope it turns out well.

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