If I asked you to name the most exciting plays in baseball, what would be at the top of the list? First would probably be a home run, with bonus points if the ball rocketed off the bat at warp speed and cleared the outfield wall within two seconds. Next could be a few things: maybe a fastball that blows past a hitter who’s trying to hit it into orbit. If you could conjure a baseball team that mashed monstrous moonshots at unparalleled rates and threw high-velocity heaters past hitters with a torrent of unending gas, you would enjoy watching that team. You might even think that the club was playing baseball in its most idyllic form.
Enter the 2022 New York Yankees. Through the weekend, their 98 homers in 60 games were 14 more than any other team in Major League Baseball. That is not surprising, because they hit the ball harder than anyone else. When a Yankee puts the ball in play, the ball comes off his bat at an average of 90.6 miles per hour, according to the league’s Statcast data. This preternatural baseball-mashing has manifested some extraordinary bombs already. On Saturday, Giancarlo Stanton hit a ball 120 miles per hour and bounced it off the second deck at Yankee Stadium, and that was somehow … maybe not the most stunning homer a Yankee has hit this year? The team’s longest plate-to-air missile to date was this 456-footer on May 12, one of the 24 so far to leave the bat of league leader Aaron Judge:
The Yankees also pitch. Their 2.85 staff earned-run average leads MLB, with the Houston Astros next at 3.03. But it is not just that the Yankees get people out. They do that with fireworks, too. The Yankees’ average fastball velocity is a league-best 95.1 miles per hour. That’s fun not only because heat is fun, but because the Yankees are a nifty pitch-sequencing team that prefers to confuse you and then blow the ball past you. They throw fastballs 47.8 percent of the time, which is only enough for 22nd in the league. They make up that gap with lots of cutters and changeups, and the effect is that teams either make weak contact or don’t make it at all. The Yankees get more swings and misses than anyone else (on nearly 27 percent of opposing swings), and only four teams allow a lower percentage of hard-hit balls.
It has all added up to the best record in baseball, 44 wins and 16 losses through Sunday. (By contrast, the Cincinnati Reds lost 16 games before April 29.) An 18–4 destruction of the Chicago Cubs on Sunday was the Yankees’ 10th game out of 60 in which they’ve reached double-digit runs. It is with some regret that I inform you that the Yankees are not just the best team in baseball these days, but that they are an overwhelming force that plays a more terrifying brand of the sport than anybody has in years.
Start with the homers. They come from up and down the roster, with Judge and Stanton leading the way but the entire team getting in on the act with some regularity. The Yankees have nine players with at least five, putting the roster on pace for a whole lineup’s worth of 15-homer hitters. That’s an unusual historic feat, though not an unprecedented one. The 2012 Yankees had 10 such hitters, the most in league history. A handful of others have had nine, including nine different teams between 2017 and 2019. But context matters. In those years, the league was on a homer upswing, as the makeup of the ball (particularly in 2019) and who knows how many other factors led to a league-wide surge in dingers. In 2022, offense is depressed in a way it has not been in decades. Teams are averaging 1.05 home runs per game, a figure that would’ve fit better in the 1990s than in the homer-heavy times of the past few years. The Yankees are cutting against their sport and launching baseballs to the heavens in a difficult moment to do that. And despite at least one opposing manager whining about the dimensions of Yankee Stadium helping the team to those numbers, that venue is far from the most homer-friendly setup in the league.
So many of these home runs have just been so, so picturesque. Stanton and Judge are the two hardest-hitting sluggers in baseball by both average exit velocity and the percentage of balls that they hit on the “barrel.” (No. 5 in the league is outfielder Joey Gallo, who is somehow doing that amid one of the driest offensive spells of his career.) It appears that just being in proximity to the Yankees will induce a player to utterly destroy baseballs at a breakneck clip. Consider utilityman Matt Carpenter, a longtime St. Louis Cardinal who had seven homers in 418 plate appearances the past two years, is now 36 years old, and has started his Yankees career in recent days with a home run every five trips to the plate:
A big help for the Bombers is that they do not need to face Yankee pitching. Almost every Yankee starter and reliever has a fastball that sits at least in the low-to-mid 90s, and the main outlier from that group, 27-year-old Nestor Cortes, has a 1.96 ERA on the strength of a hard-breaking cutter and a fastball that is hard to hit even as it averages just 91.1 miles per hour. The rotation has more conventional fireballers like staff ace Gerrit Cole, and it has other pitch-mixers like Jameson Taillon, who this year has dialed back his heater usage and managed to make hitters look silly with a variety of other pitches—but also with his fastball.
Cole and Taillon are two pieces in the Yanks’ nesting doll collection of former Pittsburgh Pirates who now mow hitters down in the Bronx. Completing the set is reliever Clay Holmes, an unhittable sinkerballer who generates ground balls on a preposterous 84 percent of the balls put in play against him. Nobody else in 2022 has a rate above 65 percent, and nobody in the history of tracking such things has cleared 80 percent in a season while pitching at least 20 innings. The Yankees’ pitchers pour in the gas, to be sure, but they manage to be comically good in other areas, too.
And that might be the real genius of this team. The Yankees both hit and throw the hell out of the ball, but it’s also worth marveling at how they handle the finer points of the game. A few weeks ago, against the Detroit Tigers, they figured out that young pitcher Elvin Rodriguez was tipping his pitches when the Yankees had runners on base. As chronicled in a wildly informative video from Jomboy Sports, the Yankees realized that when Rodriguez was set to throw fastballs from the stretch, he would take a long stare at third base before his windup. When he threw breaking balls, he’d take a much quicker glance:
The Yankees—by legal means, rather than Astros means—could tell what was coming. They chased Rodriguez in the fifth inning after tagging him for four homers and 10 runs. There are a lot of little games within a baseball game, and it appears that the Yankees are great at winning those, too.
This team didn’t come together by accident. This is a $248 million roster, featuring one of the biggest free agent signees ever (Cole, for nine years and $324 million prior to 2020) and various trade pickups that required the Yankees to take on salaries that other front offices would have laughed at carrying. The Yankees will pay a heavy competitive balance tax bill this year to subsidize teams like the Pirates and Oakland Athletics that are not making even a cursory effort to compete. The Yankees, alternatively, invested in fielding an elite team and made enough good evaluations to create this behemoth.
It will not last forever. Judge is a free agent after the season, and it is not at all clear that the Yankees will choose to stomach what is sure to be one of the biggest contracts in sports history. In a paradox, letting Judge walk would make the Yankees look less evil to the kind of fan who does not find it charming when teams spend huge money on talent. Viewed in a different way, it would be nice if the Yankees let some other team pay their superstar, because it is uncomfortable how many things these guys are much better at than everyone else right now.