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(AP/Julio Cortez)

These Yankees deserve their flowers

(AP/Julio Cortez)

These Yankees deserve their flowers

The 2022 New York Yankees are currently an MLB-best 45-16 and are unquestionably the best team in baseball right now. That’s not up for debate.

This marks their best 61-game start since 1998 (pretty good year, huh?) — when they began 47-14 — and is the fifth-best start in franchise history. The Yankees is five games ahead of the team with the second-best record, their cross-town foe New York Mets (41-22); they lead the majors in run differential (plus-129), 21 more runs than the next-best team (Dodgers – +108); they also have the best record against opponents .500 or better at 16-7.

To add on, the Yankees top the majors in several categories, with a few being: Home runs (98), slugging percentage (.438), expected slugging (.511), wRC+ (120), team ERA (2.81) and opponents’ batting average (.213). New York also leads the American League in runs scored (309), runs per game (5.1), walk rate (9.9), on-base percentage (.327), pitcher’s strikeouts (560), strikeout rate (25.1) and strikeout-to-walk rate (18.6).

The success at the plate has come on the back of AL MVP favorite Aaron Judge, who’s slashing .313/.385/.674 (MLB-best 1.059 OPS) with 24 home runs — baseball’s most — and 48 RBIs. He also in the midst of having the lowest strikeout and swing-and-miss rate of his career. Pay that man, Brian Cashman!

The pitching (which I’ll touch on later) has been a completely different story. Nearly two weeks ago, both Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole carried consecutive perfect game bids at least six innings, being the first team since 1961 to do so. It doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things — but that’s still all I really need to say about how dominant the pitching staff has been. They have arguably the best closer in the sport in Clay Holmes (also more on him later) and possess solid depth top-to-bottom throughout the roster.

But let’s talk about a few of their “unsung heroes” across the roster:

Nestor Cortes Jr.

Cortes might not be a surprise to many anymore, but he’s a legitimate AL CY Young candidate, along with Justin Verlander, Kevin Gausman, Shane McClanahan and Alek Manoah, among others. Cortes is fourth in the AL in ERA (1.96), seventh in FIP (2.84), fifth in strikeout rate (28.6 K%) and T-9 in fWAR (1.7). He might not be the complete frontrunner, but he’s certainly in contention.

And that’s a crazy thing to say when he was a near afterthought in the Mariners’ organization in 2020.

Since returning to New York, for his second stint, prior to 2021, pitching coach Matt Blake has helped Cortes refine his repertoire with the introduction of a cutter. In fact, it’s his most-used pitch this year at 38.9 percent, marginally more than his four-seam fastball at 38.3 percent. Opponents are hitting just .162 with a .323 SLG off his cutter this year after posting a .271 AVG, .447 SLG a season ago.

In a rotation that involves Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino, Cortes been the top starter in arguably the best rotation in baseball. What a story.

Clay Holmes

I’ll keep this short, sweet and to the point because if you haven’t read Evan’s piece on Holmes, check it out here. It’s very good.

But Clay Holmes in the running for best reliever in baseball as we slowly, but surely approach the halfway point of the season.

Holmes arrived to New York from Pittsburgh just before last year’s trade deadline with control issues; his 13.2 walk rate was T-23 worst of 164 qualifying relievers despite sporting a 23.3 strikeout percentage. Since? Holmes sports a combined 3.3 walk rate — the third-lowest in baseball since the trade — paired with a 30.7 strikeout. He’s only surrendered six earned runs in 57.2 innings, including one earned in 29.2 innings this season.

Holmes “Wally Pipped” Aroldis Chapman as the Yankees’ closer and Holmes hasn’t showed any signs of relinquishing it anytime soon. He also possesses one of the nastiest sinker-slider combinations I’ve ever seen. He’s for real, folks.

Jose Trevino

Where would the Yankees’ pitching staff be without Jose Trevino, who’s been one of the best defensive catchers in baseball?

Trevino was acquired from the Texas Rangers as a response to New York dealing Gary Sanchez to the Twins in a separate trade for Josh Donaldson. Trevino has been one of baseball’s best framers — ranking in the 100th percentile in framing (per Statcast) and has logged an MLB-most 5.3 framing runs, per Baseball Prospectus. Pretty good, right? He’s also nabbed three of the 10 attempted base-stealers and has commanded the Yankees’ pitching staff better than anyone could’ve expected.

His infectious energy has clearly spread throughout the clubhouse, helping buoy this early-season eruption. Kyle Higashioka has been nothing short of disappointing as the presumptive starting catcher entering 2022, but Trevino has taken charge and filled-in seamlessly. Oh, and he’s slashing .415/.446/755 with five home runs and 15 RBIs over his last 19 games (56 plate appearances).

Matt Carpenter

Okay, this one shouldn’t really count because Carpenter signed with New York nearly three weeks ago.

Carpenter recorded a .671 OPS (83 OPS+) from 2019-21 after posting a .847 OPS (130 OPS+) from 2011-18 in St. Louis, nearly sending the then-35-year-old into retirement.

He signed a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers in the offseason, playing in Triple-A Round Rock. I actually got to see him in action with the Express, a game in which he crushed one of his six homers during his time in AAA. In total, he slashed .275/.379/.613 in the Pacific Coast League (a hitter’s heaven) 13 extra base hits and 19 RBIs before getting cut because he wasn’t going to get called-up.

Soon thereafter, he got inked to a major league deal in New York and has looked like it’s 2018 all over again. Over the weekend, he became the first Yankee hitter to record six home runs in his first 10 games with the team. Yes, you read that correctly: He totaled six big bombs in his first 10 (!!) games (30 appearances). He’s hitting .286 with a 1.376 OPS, albeit a small sample, but it’s been amazing to follow his journey over this last month or so. That alone gives him the unsung hero honor.

Matt Blake

Hats off to pitching coach Matt Blake. Round of applause. This has turned into one of Cashman’s best hires….maybe ever?

Practically the entire Yankees pitching staff is having career-or-near-career seasons: Taillon, Cortes, Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery with relievers Michael King, Holmes, Wandy Peralta, Miguel Castro, Ron Marinaccio and starter-turned-reliever Clarke Schmidt. That’s even with Jonathan Loaisiga and Chad Green both injured.

This has been, by far, the best pitching staff’s performed in recent memory. It’s almost a disappointment when the starters go six-plus innings with 2-3 earned runs. Perhaps their worst starter this year has been Cole, who’s still been an above-average starter! And when the pen does need to be used, it’s been one of the most productive in baseball like it has for many years now.

And Blake deserves all the credit in the world.

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