It is high, it is far, it is Gian
For the first time since 2011, the Yankees celebrated a season-opening win as they blasted the Blue Jays on Thursday, 6-1. The last time the Yankees won on Opening Day, the winning pitcher was Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera got the final out of the game… yeah, it’s been a while, eh?
[On the other hand, some things never change … the starting leftfielder and leadoff man in the 2011 was opener was Brett Gardner, who was in that same position and batting spot in 2018. It was Gardner’s seventh Opening Day start in left field, tied with Babe Ruth for the second-most in franchise history; only Roy White (9) has more.]
The winning formula was a perfect blend of power and pitching, as the Yankees banged out seven extra-base hits — their most in a season-opener since 1963 — and held the Blue Jays to just two hits — their fewest allowed in a season-opener since 1967.
Giancarlo Stanton cemented his True Yankee™ status on his very first swing in pinstripes, drilling a laser shot into the right-centerfield seats in the first inning to give the Yankees an early 2-0 lead. The ball exploded off his bat with an exit velocity of 117.3 mph, the hardest-hit ball recorded at Rogers Centre. And never before had an opposite-field homer measured by Statcast rocketed off the bat that fast.
But Stanton was merely heating up with that early longball… he capped off the win with a solo dinger to dead-center in the ninth inning, producing a remarkable Opening Day effort and a near-unprecedented Bronx Bomber debut:
- Stanton is the fourth Yankee since 1950 with a multi-homer game in the team’s season opener, a list that also includes Joe Pepitone (1963), Roger Maris (1960), Mickey Mantle (1956).
- Stanton joined Maris (1960) as the only players ever to go deep twice in their first game played as a Yankee.
- Stanton and Barry Bonds (2002) are the lone players in major-league history to follow-up a 50-homer campaign with a multi-homer game on Opening Day of the next season.
- Including his fifth-inning RBI double, Stanton finished with three extra-base hits, three runs scored and four RBI, becoming the first player in franchise history to reach each of those thresholds on Opening Day.
The new guy’s ridiculous performance overshadowed a stellar outing for Luis Severino, who surrendered one hit across 5 2/3 scoreless innings while striking out seven. He is the only Yankee starter since at least 1908 to give up no more than one hit on Opening Day.
And, most impressively, the 24-year-old joined Bob Feller (1940) and Walter Johnson (1910) as the only major-league players under age-25 to pitch more than five innings, allow one hit or fewer and strike out at least five guys on Opening Day.
The Drury and Wade Show
On Friday night it was another pinstriped newbie who provided the big hits, while a familiar “ace” dazzled on the mound en route to a 4-2 victory in Toronto.
Perhaps the most encouraging numbers from Friday’s game were 0 and 12 — Stanton, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez combined to go 0-for-12 with four strikeouts — and the Yankees still added a ‘W’ to the ledger because their number eight and nine hitters (Brandon Drury and Tyler Wade) combined to drive in all four of the team’s runs.
Both of Drury’s RBI hits — a double in the second and a single in the fourth — gave the Yankees the lead. Per Fangraphs’ win probability added (WPA) metric, Drury’s performance at the plate increased the Yankees chances of winning by 25 percent. This was his 291st career game, and only seven times has Drury contributed more WPA in a team win.
The biggest storyline, though, of the first two games was the excellence of the pitching staff. Their three runs allowed in games one and two are the fewest for the Yankees in the first two games of the season since 1996 (insert emoji of choice here).
The starters — Severino and Masahiro Tanaka — were both stellar, and Tanaka’s one-run, three-hit, eight-strikeout effort somehow the lesser of the two pitching lines. The last time the team’s first two starting pitchers of the season each gave up no more than one run was 2003 (Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte); and the last time Yankee starters each had seven-plus strikeouts in the first two games of the season was 1932 (Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing).
Tanaka and Severino are the first pair of starters in franchise history to each allow no more than three hits in the team’s first two games of the season.
Clutch Austin, Disaster Dellin
The dream of a 162-0 regular season ended on Saturday with a frustrating 5-3 loss. The lone bright spot in the lineup was Tyler Austin, who single-handedly kept the Yankees in the game with a couple of booming game-tying homers. A two-run shot in the fifth and a solo bomb in the seventh added to his growing legend as a clutch masher.
Those were his eighth and ninth career homers, and of the nine, eight have tied the game or given the Yankees the lead. For his career, he is hitting .348/.360/1.000 in high-leverage situations, with five homers in 25 plate appearances. Since his debut in 2016, he owns the highest OPS (1.360) and slugging percentage (1.000) of any player with at least 25 high-leverage plate appearances over the last three seasons.
CC Sabathia wasn’t as dominant as Severino and Tanaka, but still gutted through a solid five innings, allowing two runs (one earned) on five hits. It was enough to extend the rotation’s record-setting season-opening performance: since earned runs became official in the American League in 1913, this is the first time that each of the Yankees’ starters allowed no more than one earned run in the first three games of the season.
The Yankees’ hopes of a trademark comeback victory were squashed thanks to an eerily familiar meltdown in the eighth inning by Dellin Betances. The trouble began when he gave up a 455-foot tie-breaking homer to the leadoff batter, Yangervis Solarte, the longest homer he’s allowed in the Statcast era (since 2015). That’s two homers allowed in two appearances for Betances, who last year didn’t surrender his second homer until September 4 in his 56th outing of the season.
And somehow coughing up the go-ahead homer was only the second-most gut-wrenching thing in the inning.
Kevin Pillar reached on one-out single, and then ambushed Betances by swiping second base, third base and home to give the Blue Jays a two-run lead. It had been nearly 90 years since a player stole three bases in an inning against the Yankees.
The last guy to do it was a Tigers shortstop named Jackie “Rabbit” Tavener on July 25, 1928, and the Yankee pitcher on the mound was rookie Archie Campbell. Incredibly, it was the second straight season Tavener stole second, third and home in an inning against the Yankees (he also did it on July 10, 1927)! He had 46 career stolen bases, and six of them came in those two innings against the Yankees.
Betances allowed four total steals in that inning (Luke Maile also stole second), a feat that’s been done by only one other Yankee pitcher in the last 40 years: Mariano Rivera, who did it twice during his career, on September 26, 2010 against the Red Sox and September 5, 2011 against the Orioles.
Four games into the season and we already have an early leading candidate for Worst Loss of The Season. The bullpen imploded for the second consecutive day in Sunday’s 7-4 loss, and the Yankees ended up with a disappointing series split. The Yankees still haven’t won a series at the Rogers Centre since August 2015, their longest current drought at any AL East ballpark.
For all of the crushing losses the Yankees suffered last season, they didn’t experience one quite like they did on Sunday. Last year they were 56-0 when leading by at least three runs entering the seventh inning. This season they are now 2-1 in such games, after Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson choked away a three-run lead in the seventh and eighth innings.
In a surprising twist, it is the starting rotation which has shined while the bullpen has been a train wreck:
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Four outs away from a victory, Robertson loaded the bases in the eighth inning via an intentional walk to Josh Donaldson and then surrendered a heart-breaking grand slam to Justin Smoak to seal the defeat. That was Smoak’s second career grand slam, and the other came on August 8, 2015 against… the Yankees.
The inevitable question is whether Robertson should have simply pitched to Donaldson in that situation. While there is certainly a ton of statistical and non-statistical factors to consider with the matchup, here’s one pair of numbers to think about:
1. The small sample-size data — Smoak was 0-for-5 with four strikeouts in his career vs Robertson while Donaldson was 3-for-8 with two homers — suggested that giving Donaldson a free pass to face Smoak was a good option.
2. But the large sample-size numbers — Smoak’s 31 homers vs. right-handers last season were the third-most by a lefty against a righty in the majors — screamed that pitching to Donaldson was a better choice.
Regardless, the end result was a crushing defeat, leaving the Yankees at .500 or worse through four games of the season for the seventh straight year.