By Anthony Pucik
If you told Yankee fans at the beginning of the season that they would be in the playoffs, they probably would’ve been content. That’s a weird word to describe any New York sports’ fan base, but for the 2015 Yankees, fans would accept being content.
There were tons of question marks heading into the season. Masahiro Tanaka was coming off an elbow injury and elected not to receive Tommy John surgery. Ivan Nova started the year on the disabled list recovering from his TJ surgery. Alex Rodriguez was returning to MLB for the first time since his suspension and Derek Jeter was being replaced by Didi Gregorius, a twenty-five-year-old shortstop from the Arizona Diamondbacks. A lineup full of aging, injury-prone veterans, a depleted starting rotation at the start of the season and a bullpen that was almost completely new, garnered low expectations, even for the “if you aren’t first you’re last” Yankee fan base.
So it came as a surprise to many when the Yankees found themselves in first place by a wide margin at the end of July. The top of the lineup, led by Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, were both hitting around .300 and setting the table nicely for the middle of the Yankee order: Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. Teixeira was having one of his healthiest years as a Yankee while putting up MVP-caliber numbers in the clean-up spot, but the real story was Alex Rodriguez. Last playing professional baseball in 2013, A-Rod looked like his old self, hitting 33 homers and knocking in 86 runs on the season and coming through in numerous clutch situations.
During this time, it wasn’t the starting rotation that was getting it done for New York, but its bullpen. Adam Warren converted from starter back to reliever, and was a valuable asset in the sixth inning when needed, but the real heroes were Chasen Shreve, Justin Wilson, Delin Betances and Andrew Miller. Shreve and Wilson, both additions from the offseason, proved to be manager Joe Girardi’s go-to seventh inning men throughout the year, with earned run averages just over three. If Wilson and Shreve were impressive, then Betances and Miller were indescribable. The pair was nearly unhittable the entire season, striking out 209 batters combined. Betances had a 1.50 ERA on the year with a 1.01 WHIP, while Miller filled the hole left by David Robertson at the closer position, saving 36 games with a 0.86 WHIP and 2.04 ERA to his credit.
The Yankees were flying high, and fans were overjoyed with the way they were crushing uncharacteristically mediocre expectations. That is, until the trade deadline. The Toronto Blue Jays, who were in the middle of the pack in the American League East, went all in at the deadline, acquiring David Price and Troy Tulowitzki in an effort to catch the division-leading Yankees. Meanwhile, New York decided not to make too many changes to its roster because it was not willing to part with top prospects like starter Luis Severino, first baseman Greg Bird, outfielder Aaron Judge and shortstop Jorge Mateo.
Severino and Bird ended up being key contributors in the last few month for the Yankees, but did not have nearly the same impact as Toronto’s additions. Tulowitzki added to an offense that was already one of the best in the league, while Price brought an ace to a starting rotation that was the Jays’ weakest link. Over in the Bronx, things weren’t going so well for the Yankees. Gardner and Ellsbury hit a cold streak, as did nearly the entire Yankee lineup, not to mention Teixiera going down with a season-ending leg injury. The bullpen also began to struggle, Betances and Shreve mostly, possibly due to fatigue. The end result was the Yankees losing its comfortable division lead to the Blue Jays.
With the division unattainable, the Yankees surely would get the first Wild Card spot, having at one point a four and a half game lead, but even that was a struggle. The Yankee struggles continued in September, and they didn’t clinch a berth until their last home game of the season, and it took a Houston Astros loss on the last day of the season to officially clinch the first Wild Card spot.
So in one way, the Yankees could look back at the regular season and see it as a success, because they did better than originally expected. However, if you look back and see how well the Yankees played at points this year, only to see large leads in both the division and Wild Card slip away from them, you can say that plenty more could have been accomplished. Since we are in New York and New York fans are relentless, the latter is how this season will be remembered.