The Yankees are a really good team.
That doesn’t sound like much of a revelation, but it’s important to note that. Because this team has expected since Day 1 of spring training that they would be here, back in the American League Championship Series and in position to return to the World Series for the first time in 10 years.
And if you look closely, it’s not hard to realize this Yankees team is significantly better than the one that lost to the Astros in the ALCS two years ago.
Check out the lineups from Game 7 against Houston in the 2017 ALCS and the lineup that swept the Twins in the ALDS:
Brett Gardner LF DJ LeMahieu 1B
Aaron Judge RF Aaron Judge RF
Didi Gregorius SS Brett Gardner CF
Gary Sanchez C Edwin Encarnacion DH
Greg Bird 1B Giancarlo Stanton LF
Starlin Castro 2B Gleyber Torres 2B
Aaron Hicks CF Gary Sanchez C
Todd Frazier 3B Didi Gregorius SS
Chase Headley DH Gio Urshela 3B
Stanton over Hicks is tricky because of all the time Stanton missed this year. And Hicks might still be a part of this if the Yankees deem him ready to play after missing the last two months with an elbow injury.
Then there are the four holdovers. Gardner is an almost equal version of himself from two years ago. Sanchez is, too, because his slightly lower OPS can be rationalized with his improved defense.
Judge and Gregorius both missed major chunks of the season compared to two years ago — neither one has the raw numbers to match their 2017 selves. But it was clear in the ALDS how much better an overall player Judge has become in a short time. Gregorius struggled mightily coming back from Tommy John surgery, but his performance against the Twins was right out of his old playbook.
I know, it’s about pitching.
Masahiro Tanaka is exactly who he was then, and he proved that again last weekend. Nothing but confidence giving him the ball in October.
Luis Severino is a bit more of a wild card. If he had missed only half the season, it wouldn’t be so hard to see what he was, but with only 12 innings and one playoff start to go on, there is obviously some mystery involved.
A healthy Severino is still a very good Severino, even if the stamina is lacking. He’s been electric enough at times, so there is hope it’s in there. That’s not the full-on “he’s back” endorsement, but he also hasn’t shown that he can’t do it, only that he’s a tad rusty. Four to five innings of dominance are almost as good as six to seven given the strength of the bullpen.
James Paxton is the difference maker. He is significantly better than the 2017 version of CC Sabathia, who did make big starts against Cleveland and Houston two years ago. But Paxton was acquired with the idea that he could lead the rotation and dominate games in October. For the last two months, he’s been that guy. And he was up for the moment in Game 1 against Minnesota.
Do the Yankees have a fourth starter? Chad Green plus a full bullpen that includes J.A. Happ and Sabathia is better than Sonny Gray. Although props to Gray, who did pitch very well in his Game 4 start two years ago.
The bullpen has been rebuilt with Adam Ottavino replacing David Robertson, Zack Britton filling the role of Dellin Betances, and Green being exactly who he was before when he’s not being used as an opener. Tommy Kahnle has been a huge weapon this year against lefties. And Aroldis Chapman has been exceptional outside a brief slump in August.
The intangibles are a little harder to compare and measure. Especially since the manager is different this time. But Aaron Boone has been leading the charge for two years with supreme confidence in his club. I asked him Thursday how this team is better than the one he took over.
“I think there’s another level of experience, of focus, and perhaps the biggest thing — hunger,” Boone said. “It’s one word I’ve used to describe these guys a lot this year. I feel like they’re really hungry. They’ve shown that in the most normal of days during the year and continue to show it now when the stakes are really high obviously. But I think that hunger is something this team has in a big time way.”
The Yankees didn’t lose to the Astros two years ago because they didn’t pitch well enough. They gave up only 20 runs in seven games. Home field played a part, as the Astros won the first two games 2-1, including on a walk-off win in Game 2. But location had very little to do with Justin Verlander dominating his two starts. That could very easily have happened in New York the way he was pitching.
Impossible to beat the Astros, you say? Nothing is impossible in sports. And this Yankees team is better than the one we saw in this spot two years ago. Now to see if that is good enough to win the American League pennant.