Coming out of the All-Star break, the Yankees were in a precarious position. They were a middling three games over .500 and tied with the Blue Jays for third place in the AL East, eight games behind the Red Sox and 6 1/2 behind the second-place Rays.
The Yankees looked very little like the club most expected to be the best team in the American League. Whether the culprit was injuries or inconsistencies, the bottom line is the Yankees were playing more like also-rans than a team running away with the AL East title.
Even their wild-card status was muddy. Challenging for first place in the East was an afterthought, and the Yankees were 2 1/2 out of the second wild-card spot, looking up at the Mariners and rubbing elbows with the Jays, Indians and Angels.
Not exactly the company they expected to keep.
They won seven of their first 11 after the break, though, and general manager Brian Cashman made a series of decisive moves. On July 29, a day before the season’s only trade deadline, he picked up a pair of left-handed sluggers, Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo. Lots of teams wanted Gallo or Rizzo, but Cashman landed both. The short porch in Yankee Stadium’s right field quivered with delight.
Now, let’s fast forward to today. The Yankees are 21-6 in August, a run that included a 13-game winning streak. They’ve gone from 2 1/2 games out of the second wild-card to sole possession of the first wild-card, two ahead of the Red Sox — they scorched past their Boston rivals in the standings — and 4 1/2 ahead of the A’s, who are now on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. They even managed to gain ground on the Rays, despite Tampa Bay’s brilliant 19-6 record in August.
So you would assume Gallo and Rizzo were playing like MVP candidates, right? It’s not a long, convoluted journey to connect those dots.
But it’s just not the case. Gallo is batting .167 with five homers and 11 RBIs in August. Rizzo, who had three homers and six RBIs in his first six games with the Yankees, is batting .167 in August, with a backup-middle-infielder-esque .476 OPS. There are 13 pitchers this season with an OPS better than .476, including Rizzo’s former teammate Jon Lester, who has a .481 OPS during his time with the Nationals and Cardinals.
Look, there’s a good reason why the Yankees were most people’s choice as the best team in the AL heading into the start of the season. The lineup was full of sluggers. The rotation was led by one of the sport’s true aces. It’s been a bumpy season, no doubt. But the reason the Yankees are 21-6 in August is the same reason the club was the preseason favorite. The superstars are playing like superstars, and it’s been impressive to watch.
Let’s take a look.
Giancarlo Stanton, DH/OF
August stats: .319/.404/.626, 8 homers, 21 RBI, 1.030 OPS, .380 ISO, 180 wRC+
Need to know: When he’s locked in, watch out. After a poor July — two homers and a .653 OPS in 23 games — it’s been hard to turn on MLB Network or open Twitter these days without seeing a slew of highlight clips of Stanton sending triple-digit exit-velocity hits all over the ballpark. He’s played 26 games this month and only one time did he fail to reach base during the game.
Aaron Judge, OF
August stats: .333/.412/.627, 8 homers, 24 RBI, 1.039 OPS,.294 ISO, 178 wRC+
Need to know: Unlike Stanton, who’s been up and down this year, Judge has been the most consistent, reliable presence in the Yankees’ lineup this season. August is his third month of the season with an OPS north of .945. He’s posting his best year since that magical 2017 season, when he won the AL Rookie of the Year and finished second in the MVP voting.
Gerrit Cole, SP
August stats: 0.51 ERA, 3 starts, 17 2/3 innings, 24 strikeouts, 4 walks
Need to know: The 2021 season has been a wild ride for Cole — his struggles after the sticky substance crackdown were well documented — but with his stellar August he’s right back in the middle of the AL Cy Young conversation. When he’s pitching like this, he’s the type of starter who can win the win-or-go-home wild-card game all by himself.
It’s here we should say that, unlike with the offense, which hasn’t gotten many contributions from the newbies, bullpen additions Clay Holmes and Joley Rodriguez have been solid in August, combining for a 2.65 ERA in 18 outings in August. And it’s impossible to say enough good things about rookie Luis Gil and back-from-the-IL Wandy Rodriguez; those two have a 0.00 ERA in 27 1/3 combined innings. Gil’s three starts covering 15 2/3 innings are the first three of his big-league career.
Luke Voit, 1B/DH
August stats: .290/.361/.581, 5 homers, 18 RBIs, .943 OPS, .290 ISO, 156 wRC+
Need to know: Voit led the majors — not just the Yankees or the AL, but the majors — in home runs during the shortened 2020 season, but struggled this year with injuries and inconsistency and basically was pushed aside when the club traded for Rizzo. That, apparently, lit a fire under Voit’s chair and he’s been a run-producing force this month. It helps that he’s actually healthy, too. His comments about playing time showed the kind of fire a team wants from a player.
Brett Gardner, OF
August stats: .283/.389/.433, 2 homers, 8 RBI, .822 OPS
Need to know: Gardner has looked his age for a large portion of this 2021 season, to be honest. And on the heels of looking the same way for much of the 2020 season, it was fair to wonder what he had left in the tank. His on-base percentage was below .300 for April, May and July, but he’s been outstanding in August, batting mostly in the No. 7 or 9 spot, but up at 1 or 2 several times, too. And the defense is still exceptional.