As we prepare to turn the calendar to 2020, it’s time to take one final glance in the rearview mirror and take stock of the year that was. The 2019 Yankees were, in a word, remarkable. By record, it was the franchise’s best outfit since its 2009 World Series title. By many other metrics, it was one of the best teams in baseball. By different, intangible measures, it wrote a beautiful, unbelievable story that will be told amongst Yankee fans for generations, even if the tale didn’t end with the ultimate triumph. Let’s take a look at some of the year’s best and worst, and try to make some sense of the complicated tapestry that was Yankees baseball in 2019.
The Bare Basics
The New York Yankees opened their 117th season of play last March 28 with a 7-2 win over Baltimore in the Bronx. They compiled a record of 103 wins and 59 losses, a good enough mark to secure their first American League East championship since 2012. They scored 943 runs and allowed 739. As a team, the Yankees slashed .267/.339/.490 for a wRC+ of 117, the second-best mark in the major leagues, trailing only the powerhouse Astros. Their pitching staff was decidedly more average, posting a 4.31 ERA, 14th best in baseball, and a 4.47 FIP. The Yankees qualified for the 2019 postseason as AL East winners and the American League’s second seed, sweeping the Twins in the ALDS before falling to the Astros in a six-game ALCS.
Any discussion of the 2019 Yankees starts and ends, quite literally, with the unheralded offseason signing that, to many fans, felt like an attempt to patch over the damage sustained in a fruitless quest for more high-profile free agents. Universally panned as the product of the Yankees’ newfangled strategy to cut costs wherever possible, LeMahieu not only exceeded our wildest expectations but also emerged as the most valuable player to don the pinstripes last year. His six bWAR paced the team by a considerable margin, his utility in playing three infield positions allowed the Yankees to cover for numerous injuries throughout the year, and his steady, calm presence was popular in the clubhouse and on Yankees Twitter. And his ALCS Game 6 home run deserves a better place in Yankee lore than it will ultimately receive, due to what happened just 15 minutes later. LeMahieu garnered MVP votes at the season’s conclusion. Inconceivably, he was the most essential Yankee in 2019 – and he didn’t even make the starting lineup on Opening Day!
We saw a 21-year-old rookie prospect blossom into a 22-year-old bonafide stud in 2019. With an impressive 2018, and a third-place Rookie of the Year finish already to his name, Torres fast-tracked his development last year and enters 2020 as my personal choice to amass the most value by season’s end. Torres’ offensive numbers ticked up across the board, and most impressively, he cut his strikeout percentage while boosting his power production. After spending most of 2018 as a below-average defender at second base, Torres was forced to return to his youth position as a shortstop with the early-season absence of Didi Gregorius. He wasn’t perfect, but per the defensive metrics graded out better at short. The poised, confident Torres is ready to leap to superstardom next season.
Expected to serve as a depth piece behind the formidable outfield trio of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Hicks, Gardner was thrust into a full-time starter’s role when each of those big three missed considerable time with injuries during the regular season. And the longest-tenured Yankee did not disappoint. Gardner posted the best offensive season of his career at age 35, along with his usual solid defense in both left and center. Whether he’s brought back in 2020 or not, Gardner owes the Yankees nothing.
There were quite a few bullpen options to choose from in compiling this section, but the team’s most valuable reliever couldn’t be left out. Chapman finished tied for third in baseball with 37 saves to go along with a sparkling 2.21 ERA and 2.28 FIP. He improved his command from what was a fairly catastrophic 2018. Though his velocity continued to decline, he fashioned his breaking ball into a reliable option that missed bats at an impressive clip. Chapman appeared in 60 games in 2019, his highest total in four years, and his presence proved crucial to the playoff run.
The man is affectionately known as Goose got demoted in 2019! Hard to believe now, but Green spent time in Scranton early last year after his disastrous start to the campaign, featuring a 16.43 ERA in April. But he came back with a vengeance, posting a 2.89 second-half ERA while forming the core of the team’s opener strategy that was critical to its sustained success. Green struck out 32 and walked eight in 19 innings, and the Yankees posted an 11-4 record in the games he opened. For a team without enough reliable starters, Green’s contributions were essential.
A brief shoutout to our large adult son, who managed to accumulate 5.4 bWAR, second-most on the team, in just 102 regular-season games. That is patently absurd. Name this man captain, and do it immediately.
In a season of unexpected turns, no one surprised us more than Gio. Imagine predicting in March that Urshela, who didn’t even make the major league squad out of camp, would slash .314/.355/.534 and remain an everyday player all season long. This, from a man who posted a 41 wRC+ and a negative fWAR in his last long-term big league stint before toiling away in the minors for the better part of a year. Ridiculous. Juiced ball or not, Urshela’s presence covered for the absence of 2018 hero Miguel Andújar, provided indispensable depth and made the front office look like geniuses. Job well done, Gio.
Did anyone have as much to prove entering this season as Kahnle? A stalwart of the 2017 postseason run, Kahnle dropped off the face of the earth in 2018 and spent a chunk of that year in Scranton trying to make sense of his FIP exploding from 1.83 to 4.19. But he surged back to relevance this year, tossing 61 high-leverage innings, posting great K/BB numbers, and earning a spot in Aaron Boone’s circle of trust. As the last remaining piece of the 2017 deadline marquee, Kahnle was a big part of the bullpen’s success in 2019.
Ottavino and Britton qualify for this section because although each had a track record of major-league success before this season, each also entered the campaign with significant question marks. Ottavino had solid 2013, 2014, injury-shortened 2016, and 2018 campaigns sandwiched around a disastrous 2017, all with Colorado. Britton was the Yankees’ signature 2018 trade deadline acquisition and one of the best relievers in the game as recently as 2016. But he dealt with significant command issues after returning to action following a long absence to deal with an Achilles injury, and his strikeout numbers dropped in his first half-season in the Bronx. Both pitchers, however, rebounded from the uncertainty to post solid contributions. Ottavino was darn near unhittable for stretches in 2019, flashing video-game stuff in a team-high 73 appearances. Britton’s strikeout numbers haven’t rebounded, but his bowling-ball sinker still induces grounders at an elite rate, and he used the pitch to wiggle out of jam after jam.
This may be an unpopular selection given Gary’s second-half swoon in which he hit just .207, resurrecting the demons of his awful 2018 campaign. But there’s a reason he was chosen as an All-Star in an election landslide: he was on pace for 40 homers before he missed time with groin and calf issues in August and September. During the season’s first half, Sánchez showed the power we all fell in love with during 2016 and 2017 and ended 2019 with an impressive 34 homers and a respectable 116 wRC+ even after his struggles. His blocking behind the plate, always a topic of note, improved considerably as well. It remains to be seen whether Sánchez can put everything together for a full, healthy season, but I remain bullish on his outlook.
No review of the 2019 Yankees would be complete without a hat tip to the many heroes who helped the team weather the storm of injuries that plagued them from start to finish. For example, if someone had told me that Mike Tauchman would finish fifth on the team in bWAR back in March, I would have asked who Mike Tauchman was. Similar unexpected contributions came from utility outfielder Cameron Maybin, a veteran on his eighth major league team; Edwin Encarnación, acquired in May from Seattle to add another savvy slugger to the Yankees’ lineup; and Mike Ford, an undrafted free agent out of Princeton who toiled away in the minors for six years before receiving his shot. Seemingly every week, a new nameless player launched himself into our hearts. The constant pleasant surprises made 2019 a uniquely fun adventure.
Memorable Games and Series
April 16: Yankees 8, Red Sox 0
New York staggered out of Spring Training without its ace starter, Luis Severino, and best reliever, Dellin Betances. Boston, meanwhile, perhaps still emerging from the haze of one of the most dominant single seasons in baseball history, dropped 11 of its first 17 games. Neither fan base was enjoying 2019 as the longtime rivals entered their first series of the season, a short two-game set in the Bronx. A marquee pitching matchup headlined the Tuesday nighter: Chris Sale against shiny new acquisition James Paxton. For the first two and a half innings, the faceoff lived up to the billing, but the Yankees broke through for two runs in the third and two runs in the fifth to oust Sale. Meanwhile, Paxton carved up the Sox vaunted lineup and posted arguably his most impressive stat line of the season: eight innings pitched, two hits, no runs, one walk, and a whopping 12 strikeouts for his second win of the season. The rout set the tone for what would be nearly polar opposite 2019 experiences for the Yankees and Red Sox, as the teams switched fortunes almost entirely from the year before.
May 22 – Yankees 7, Orioles 5
The third victory of a rather mundane four-game sweep of hapless Baltimore wasn’t the story here. The story was Gleyber Torres. For the second time in three games at Camden Yards, Torres bashed two home runs off Orioles pitching. It was his fourth multi-home-run game against Baltimore in 2019, and it came in May. Fourth. Gary Thorne’s memorable call sealed the moment as a flourish on one of the most scarcely believable feats of domination the Yankees witnessed all season.
June 29-30 – The London Series
The Yankees and Red Sox took the rivalry across the Atlantic for two games at London Stadium, home of the 2012 Olympics and the English Premier League’s West Ham United. The hilariously small outfield dimensions and fast turf contributed to gameplay that resembled an arcade version of baseball. In the first game, neither Masahiro Tanaka nor Rick Porcello made it out of the first inning, and the Yankees prevailed 17-13. The following day brought more offensive fireworks, a near collapse by the Yankees’ pen, and ultimately another New York victory, 12-8.
July 18 – Yankees 6, Rays 2
On this day, a meme, a rallying cry, and an internet sensation were born. Poor Brennan Miller. Just the wrong place at the wrong time. Incensed with rookie umpire Miller’s warped strike zone in the first game of a doubleheader, Aaron Boone hurled insults from the dugout while Brett Gardner hammered the roof of the dugout with his bat in frustration. After being tossed from the game one-hitter later, Boone hopped up the steps, confronted Miller, and got his money’s worth.
The “savages in the box” moniker, along with Brett’s bat banging, became fundamental to the team’s identity, while comedic genius and podcast host Jomboy rocketed to baseball superstardom for his role in exposing Boone’s hot-mic rampage. All in all, one of the season’s most beautiful moments.
July 23 – Yankees 14, Twins 12
Target Field in Minneapolis played host to easily the most exciting single game of 2019, and arguably one of the greatest regular-season games the Yankees have ever played. Down 9-5 in the eighth after recovering from what was an 8-2 deficit, four doubles off the bats of Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, Aaron Judge, and Didi Gregorius vaulted the Bombers into the lead. Not for long, as in the bottom of the inning, Miguel Sano connected for his second home run of the game and just the second surrendered by Zack Britton all season as the Twins seized control again. In the top of the ninth, Aaron Hicks’ two-run blast to deep left-center gave the Yankees another one-run advantage, which Aroldis Chapman promptly surrendered to send the game to extras. After New York took a 14-12 lead into the bottom of the tenth, Adam Ottavino nearly coughed that one up too. Chad Green was brought on to face the dangerous Max Kepler with the bases loaded and two outs, and served up a screaming line drive into the gap…where Hicks, diving at full extension, ran it down for the ballgame.
August 2-4 – Burying the Sox
Summary: the Yankees ended any hopes the Red Sox had of repeating as AL East champions in a comprehensive four-game dismantling over the course of an August weekend. The sweep made up games two through five of a season-high nine game winning streak, which vaulted the Yankees to a 10.5 game division lead over the Rays and pushed their advantage over Boston to 15.5 games. Ballgame over, World Series defense over, AL East season over.
The Injuries (season-long)
Luis Severino, Dellin Betances, Miguel Andújar, and Giancarlo Stanton missed almost the entire season. Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Gary Sánchez, and Luke Voit missed significant portions of it. There wasn’t a single game during the entire 2019 season in which you could realistically claim that the Yankees were at full strength. The team just did not come together as Cashman, and the rest of the front office had envisioned it would. In spite of the adversity, and because of the nearly endless stream of inspired replacement performances, the team was able to succeed.
The Trade Deadline
Justify the inaction as you might (and I certainly did), it remains disappointing that after two straight years of impact moves at the deadline, the Yankees stood pat in 2019. Whether or not you think the right move was out there, it was clear that the team didn’t have the starting pitching to guarantee a World Series run, and couldn’t compete with Houston as composed at the time. The 2018-19 offseason is what laid the groundwork for the ultimate failure, as the market thinned terribly, and the Yankees didn’t have impact farm system pieces that they were willing to part with to land a capable starter. The trade deadline came and went without even a depth move, and assuredly took some of the wind out of the team’s sails.
July 25 – Red Sox 19, Yankees 3
Coming off a series in Minnesota in which Yankees starting pitching was shellacked for three days straight, the last thing the team could afford was another round of subpar performances from its rotation. Alas, an absolute laugher at Fenway, was the next step. This was probably the one moment during the entire year when I felt like things were about to fall apart completely, and they looked even direr after the Yankees lost the next two games against the Sox, too. But the team rallied to take the last game of the series and avoid the sweep, and order was quickly restored over the next two weeks.
He’d otherwise be firmly in the “breakouts” section of this review. One of the most important contributors of 2019, Germán stepped in capably when Luis Severino was lost during Spring Training, and CC Sabathia and James Paxton both missed parts of April and May. He took huge strides forward and positioned himself to be an important part of the Yankees’ playoff rotation as well as its long-term future. Though the allegations of events that transpired in September (and perhaps before that as well – abusers scarcely ever act just once) remain just that, and few details have been released, MLB’s quickly-enacted discipline and the MLBPA’s lack of a forceful appeal seem to confirm the worst. Germán betrayed his partner and his family – and far less significantly, but still importantly, he let down his teammates and his fans. His suspension was the darkest moment of the year and left an irreversible stain on a team with an already-suspect history of the treatment of domestic abusers. MLB has a domestic violence problem, and it requires comprehensive reform.
After avoiding the dreaded wild card game, something the Yankees hadn’t been able to do since their 2012 trip to the postseason, first up was a date with the Bomba Squad of Minnesota. Much like their meetings in 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010, and 2017, the 2019 series wasn’t much of a contest. New York romped in two games at home, punctuating the second with a Didi Gregorius crowd-rousing grand slam to bust the game open early, and then held on in Game 3 on the road. The destined date with the Astros for the American League crown was set, and the Yankees shocked much of the baseball world by defeating Zack Greinke in Game 1 at Minute Maid Park. But the upset wasn’t to be. A razor-thin come-from-behind Houston triumph in Game 2 felt like a small pebble in the road but amounted to a fortune-altering boulder, as the Yankees dropped the first two games at home to place themselves, disappointingly, on the brink of elimination. Aaron Hicks launched a three-run homer off the right-field foul pole to help his teammates beat Justin Verlander in Game 5, and DJ LeMahieu silenced the Houston crowd two nights later with a game-tying two-run blast in the top of the ninth off Roberto Osuna. But mere moments after arguably the most dramatic Yankee home run since Raul Ibañez seven years earlier, Jose Altuve sent a hanging Aroldis Chapman slider onto the railroad tracks above the outfield, and Yankees Universe sunk into a long, cold offseason.
If you believe some fans, a Yankee season isn’t successful unless it achieves the ultimate prize. I understand that this organization holds itself to a different standard because it takes pride in its unique history, but it is harder to win a world championship right now than ever before. Every team is smart, every team uses analytics, and every team is aggressive in the pursuit of a competitive advantage (looking at you, Houston). The Yankees put together a team capable of winning a title this season. It wasn’t as good a team as Houston, but it pushed those celebrated Astros to six games, and with a break or two, it’s a series the Yankees could have won. As we’ve put some distance between Altuve’s backbreaking homer and the present day, and as the sting of such a dramatic and emotional postseason exit fades, it’s important to keep in mind that the Yankees did so many things right in 2019. They survived an injury barrage without equal in baseball history – and then they thrived, and they brought us all on an epic journey that I won’t soon forget. Can they take another step? Once we turn the calendar, we’ll find out.