The Yankees should not be in first place
The Yankees are over-achieving this year.
But that is impossible you say. They are the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers. They play in the House that Ruth Built. They are the gold standard of baseball. Or the Evil Empire, if you prefer. First place is their birthright.
Well, fortune has not kissed them this year. Their Goliath, Aaron Judge, has missed about half the season. Their $300 million super-sluggerman, Giancarlo Stanton, has missed almost the whole season. Their budding superstar third baseman, Miguel Andujar, has missed the whole season, and their shortstop, Didi Gregorious, has missed most of the season as well.
Not to mention the loss of their ace pitcher, Luis Severino, and their All-Star relief specialist, Dellin Betances. All their starting pitchers have had disappointing seasons.
And yet the Yankees are in first place. Maybe it IS their birthright.
Or maybe it’s Carlos Beltran.
Last December, a little over a year after helping the Astros win the World Series, Carlos Beltran ended his hiatus from baseball, wearing the Yankee pinstripes again, this time as an advisor.
There have been some remarkable success stories on the Yankees this year. Players with little or no prior pedigree have stepped into the giant void left by the injury of superstars, and have played like superstars for the first time themselves.
DJ LeMahieu, a rather unheralded free agent pickup, is front runner for the AL batting title. His career wRC+ is 96. With the Yankees he’s hitting 143. That’s 43% better than the average hitter.
Gio Urshela, another relatively unknown commodity before this season, a fill-in at third base, has 18 home runs. The most he ever had before this season was six. His career wRC+? 96. Which includes this season, about half his career ABs. This year? He’s at 147.
How about Cameron Maybin. He’s been around forever, a speedy outfielder with a toothpick bat. How desperate could the Yankees be thinking this could replace mighty Giancarlo Stanton. A career 94 wRC+ hitter, a Jake Marisnick equivalent, he’s hitting 141 this year for the Yankees.
It goes on and on. Mike Tauchman is hitting 138 wRC+ after a career 111 average. Austin Romine is up 17 points, Clint Frazier is up 12 points, Brett Gardner is up 10 points.
A few have bucked the trend. Aaron Judge is “only” hitting 123 wRC+, continuing a downward trend since the first half of his rookie year. Didi Gregorious is down 8 points. Keep in mind both players are coming back from prolonged visits on the IL.
Despite all the injuries and all the new faces, the Yankees remain a hitting juggernaut, leading MLB in scoring, and presenting opposing pitchers with an imposing gauntlet of batters 1 through 9 in the order.
Is it Beltran?
In 2017 I wrote a fanpost entitled Is Beltran the Reason for the Season? At the time, Jake Marisnick, Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez, Carlos Correa and Josh Reddick were all having career years. That remains the case to this day, with the possible exception that George Springer may surpass his 2017 numbers this year.
Of course, critics said it was just a coincidence, and truthfully, there is no way to prove the proposition either way.
In 2018, absent the Mentor, almost every Astro had a precipitous decline except Alex Bregman. Altuve and Correa played injured it is true, but even taking the injury part of their season out of the equation, they dropped.
From the article World Series Hangover, we found that Altuve’s wRC+ dropped 21 points, pre-injury, Carlos Correa 29 points, pre-injury, George Springer 31 points, Yuli Gurriel 12 points, Josh Reddick 19 points, Evan Gattis 7 points, Marwin Gonzalez 40 points, and Jake Marisnick 33 points. Besides just dropping from the previous year, most of these players dropped below career averages as well, especially if you excluded rookie seasons from the average.
Of course, critics would retort that World Series champions are usually teams full of players having career years for whatever reason, and that regression the next year is completely predictable.
Which still begs the question: is the “for whatever reason” for the Astros’ hitting success in 2017 Carlos Beltran?
In Astroball, author Ben Reiter was convinced it was, and other successes too. Chapter 7 of a book with nine chapters about the Astros’ World Series run was devoted to the impact of Carlos Beltran. I think you could categorize the impact in three ways:
1. building chemistry and team unity
2. advising young players; being the team psychologist
3. technical advise, for both hitters and pitchers.
In researching various articles through the years I have run into anecdotes that confirm and validate the evidence Reiter cites in his book. For example, according to a Sports Illustrated article, after a 2 for 25 run at the plate, Springer began taking his frustration out on his fiancee’. He went to Beltran, and after sage psychological advise, immediately went on a tear. In Reiter’s book, Springer is quoted as saying that players took Beltran’s hitting advise more readily than that of a coach. Carlos Correa attributed exactly seven of his 24 home runs to the advice of Beltran.
Beltran was a rabid consumer of tapes, even back when they really were tapes, and famously exposed how Yu Darvish was tipping pitches during the World Series. He also told Dallas Keuchel about the way he was tipping pitches as well soon after joining the team.
And, of course, everyone here knows by now what kind of on-going streak Gurriel has been on since the Astros last visited New York. Beltran advised Gurriel to change his stance to help him keep both eyes on the ball.
Beltran’s role in New York as Special Advisor is loosely defined, working with both the front office and the players, giving whatever assistance and advice he feels is useful.
“I wanted to share my experiences and my information with the players,” Beltrán said recently. “I’d played the game for a long time, had been through all kinds of things. A lot of times the younger players, when they have difficulties, they don’t know where to go. So I wanted to let them know what I did, and see if that helped them.”
The anecdotal evidence keeps accumulating. Carlos Beltran helped make 2017 magical for the Astros. And unfortunately, he may be a big reason why the Astros’ main rival now sits in first place in the American League.