NEW YORK — The idea that the New York Yankees are a “year ahead of schedule” is based on the quaint, if erroneous notion that ballplayers, like Swiss trains, solar eclipses and Gregorian calendars, actually keep to a reliable schedule of development. You understand this fallacy if you watched Game 5 of the American League Championship Series Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium.
While the Houston Astros, famously scheduled to “arrive” this year, mailed in too many non-competitive at-bats against the well-prepared, cold-eyed New York pitching staff, the young, homegrown hitters of the Yankees outfoxed one of the great surgical pitchers of the game, Dallas Keuchel.
Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird were born eight months apart in the same year, 1992. Two years ago they were playing Double-A baseball in Trenton, N.J. Friday night they will play for the American League pennant and a trip to the World Series, thanks to a stepping on the necks of a down Houston team, 5–0.
“All of a sudden,” Bird said, “you look up and you’re in the playoffs. It’s very cool.”
They got here—the majors, the playoffs and the brink of the World Series “ahead of schedule”—because they have learned an advanced approach and keen plate discipline to complement generational kind of power. In Game 5, Judge (the oldest of the bunch at 25 years and 175 days), Sanchez and Bird combined for five hits, four runs batted in and three walks.
Judge, Sanchez and Bird each had a run-scoring hit. Only twice before in the franchise’s epic postseason history have three players this young had run-scoring hits in the same game, and the names reverberate with gravitas: Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon and Charlie Keller in Game 4 of the 1939 World Series, and Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin and Gil McDougald in Game 5 of the 1953 World Series.
“The key is I feel like we all like each other and pull for each other,” Bird said. “When you build a good clubhouse and you combine it with talent, I think you’ve got something.”
“Bird,” said hitting coach Alan Cockrell, “has the best eye of all. If he doesn’t swing and the umpire calls it a strike, every time we check the video he’s right—it was a ball. We don’t even have to check any more.”
Judge and Sanchez have crazy power. Judge homered in Game 4 and Sanchez in Game 5, running their 2017 combined total to 91. If you check all the players in history to see who hit the most home runs in their first 182 regular season games (Sanchez’s total of games; Judge isn’t quite there yet), you will find that this Yankees team has two of the top five home run hitters at such a start to their careers: Judge, with 56 homers, trails only Rudy York, and by one, and Sanchez, with 53, is fifth, just behind Mark McGwire and Ryan Braun.
Watching how they hit, however, brings a deeper appreciation, not just for their work, but also for the player development system of the Yankees, including general manager Brian Cashman, outgoing farm director Gary Denbo, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer, and the many coaches, scouts and advisers with dirt on their loafers. None were held in higher esteem than the wise and wily Gene “Stick” Michael, who passed away this year.
Before Game 5, I told Judge how impressed I was that in Game 4 the 282-pound rightfielder tagged out a Houston runner headed to third base, a short cab ride away from his position as he alertly hustled to involve himself in a rundown play.
“Brainwashing,” Judge said. “The player development system.”
Judge’s home run in Game 4 off Lance McCullers, the one that triggered the comeback from a 4–0 deficit, as well as Houston manager A.J. Hinch’s quick hook of his effective starting pitcher, was another example of the advanced development of these young New York hitters.
Major league hitters rarely swing at first-pitch curveballs. They don’t normally sit on them because if the pitcher throws a cookie of a fastball—the pitch every hitter yearns for—the hitter can’t pull the trigger and feels awful for the missed opportunity. Pitchers threw 22,441 first-pitch curveballs this year. Hitters swung only 19% of the time at them. And of those 4,288 swings, they hit a home run only 80 times.
That’s 80 home runs out of 22,441 pitches, or 0.3% of the time. You’re six times more likely to win a prize in the New York lottery (1 in 46) than you are to a home run on a first-pitch curveball (1 in 281).
So when Judge stepped in against McCullers in Game 4, the odds were against him hitting a first-pitch hook for a home run. Moreover, Judge had seen 81 first-pitch curveballs in his career and had only one hit, a single. The pitch to McCullers represented a free strike to start the at-bat.
But Judge was having none of it.
“He’s a good hitter with a good game plan who pays attention,” Cockrell said.
Judge knew McCullers had been throwing curveballs on about half his pitches, including 66% to Judge (six out of nine). McCullers threw a get-me-over curve, and Judge smashed it off the batter’s eye in centerfield. It was the swing that turned the series, the Yankees having outscored Houston starting with that swing, 11–0.
Judge was back to his observant ways against Keuchel in Game 5. The crafty Houston lefthander whiffed him his first time up by slipping a cutter past his hands after throwing five straight fastballs. The next time they met, in the third, the count was 1–1 when Keuchel went back to the cutter on his hands. This time Judge was ready, clearing his hips early to bring his barrel around in time, and sending a hard grounder down the third-base line for an RBI double.
So detailed is Judge that he will subtly adjust his feet in the batter’s box. Cubs manager Joe Maddon likes to say the toughest thing to get a young hitter to do is move his back foot in the box; most of them fall on the habit of routine. Not Judge. Against Keuchel in Game 1 he moved four inches closer to the mound to protect against his sinker. And as Cockrell said, “If he feels like he needs more room to work his hands he’ll move back [from the plate]. He’s got a pretty good feel.”
Said Judge, “Depends how I feel. It’s based more on how I feel than anything the pitcher is doing.”
The double put the Yankees ahead, 2–0, with Bird having posted the first run with smart hitting of his own against Keuchel. With Starlin Castro at second and two outs, Keuchel fell behind Bird 2–0 by missing low and inside with fastballs. Incredibly, in a fastball count, Keuchel tried another one, and in the same spot. Trained on that speed and spot, Bird turned on it for a hard single to drive in Castro.
Sanchez had been 1-for-16 in the ALCS, mostly because Houston pitchers kept spinning breaking balls away from him. But in the fifth, when Keuchel tried an 0–1 slider, he left it on the plate and Sanchez pounced on it for an RBI single. Two innings later, he walloped a hanging 0–2 slider from reliever Brad Peacock for a home run.
Keuchel began the night with a career 1.09 ERA against the Yankees, the best ever against the franchise. In Game 1, in classic Keuchel subterfuge, the lefty threw 60% of his pitches out of the strike zone and beat the Yankees by getting them to chase pitches that slipped just off the inside, outside and bottom edges of the plate. The Yankees swung at 20 of the 66 pitches out of the zone, and hit .100 in their chase effort (1-for-10).
Cockrell knew that Keuchel’s magic trick is to stretch the plate horizontally in a hitter’s eyes, not vertically. He turns the 17-inch plate into a 21-inch plate, and those extra two inches on each side are sirens that lure wayward hitters into the rocks.
So before Game 5, Cockrell told his hitters about this trick. There was no way, he told them, that they could cover both sides of the plate. So he gave them this order: simply look for balls over the plate. Instead of worrying about the boilerplate mantra of “make him get the ball up,” (Keuchel almost never elevates the ball anyway) Cockrell told them simply to look for balls that cut the 17-inch wide airspace over the plate, even if it was down. Forget about covering in and out.
It worked. The Yankees hit .333 against Keuchel (7-for-21).
“You can’t miss mistakes,” Judge said about facing Keuchel. “He’s so good that when you have a pitch on the plate you have to take advantage of it. That’s what we were able to do.”
Judge is not a rash person. He is a thoughtful sort, and you can often tell this by the way he answers a question: as if he’s in the on-deck circle preparing for an at-bat. When a reporter finishes a question, Judge sometimes will bow his head as if in serious thought, allow a beat or two to pass, then launch into his carefully considered answer. He reacted exactly that way when somebody asked him how it felt to be one win from the World Series.
After the pause to consider, he softly exhaled, “Whew!” He took another beat, then said, “It’s great. But we’re not done. We can’t get ahead of ourselves.”
The Astros, even those with far more years than the Baby Bombers, swung the bat as if they were tightly wound. In the fifth inning, for instance, when they had two runners and one out and chance to climb back into contention in the game, their 1-2 hitters, George Springer and Josh Reddick, took awful at-bats. Between them they fouled back three eminently hittable pitches, one of which had New York starter Masahiro Tanaka screaming at himself for a mistake he somehow survived. And then both Springer (looking) and Reddick (chasing a terribly wide and low pitch) whiffed. Combined they are 2-for-35 in the series, and forcing Hinch to rethink the top of the lineup for Game 6.
The young ones on the other side continued to grind out their at-bats.
“They’ll give you a good at-bat every time,” Cockrell said. “If it’s late in the game and we’re up by three or down by three, like the other night, it doesn’t matter. You can’t tell. They grind no matter what.”
Judge was a strikeout machine last year in a 27-game cameo. He went home and re-tooled his setup and swing for a more consistent approach, so much so that as he likes to say, “I’ve been doing the same thing since February.” His one-year leap in improvement—from a guy who went to spring training fighting for an outfield spot to the most impactful slugger in the league and, based on jersey sales and All-Star votes, its most popular player—is the greatest reason why the Yankees, after winning 84 games last year, are on the brink of a pennant this year. He is a franchise-changing player. He also happens to have Sanchez and Bird right there next to him, the way they were in places like Trenton and Scranton-Wilkes Barre, learning their craft.
“People are making the most of the moment,” Judge said. “But also a lot of hard work is showing up right now.”
It’s a credit to their work, but it’s also a credit to the Yankees’ player development system, to the people who don’t operate under a schedule, but put in the time to maximize a player’s potential, however long or short it takes.
Just before Game 5, one of the many Yankees advisors in that effort, Lee Mazzilli, was in the dugout, joking with Bird about how Yankee Stadium had come alive with passion and euphoria in that Game 4 comeback, almost like the way it was in the old stadium.
“The ghosts,” Bird told him.
“Ah, they’re not here,” Mazzilli said. “That was the old place.”
“No, they moved over here,” Bird said. “And we’ve got one more.”
Bird smiled and said only, “Stick,” and turned to run on to the field, right on time.