The 2016 New York Yankees’ season has not gone according to plan for anyone, but things are not as bad as they might seem. Thanks to a recent 4-game winning streak, the Yankees are only 2 games below .500 and only 3.5 games back out of the Wild Card.
This newfound success can be directly correlated to the surge of the top of the Yankees’ lineup, specifically in Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.
Thanks to Ellsbury and Gardner’s rediscovered offense, the Yankees are much closer to a playoff team now than they were when their 1-2 hitters in the lineup were scuffling.
Following the subpar 2013 season, the Yankees spent more than half of a billion dollars on free agents, including center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. While the Yankees had just lost Robinson Cano to the Seattle Mariners, Ellsbury seemed like an odd fit on the Yankee roster, mostly due to the fact that the Yankees already had Brett Gardner in center field.
In fact, Gardner was coming off of a breakout season in 2013. Due to the absence of several key injured veterans, Gardner took on a leadership in the Yankee dugout and responded with his most complete season yet: a .273 average, a career-high 8 homers, 24 steals, and the willingness to play center field or left field.
Ellsbury was also coming off of a solid year, one that slightly bettered Gardner’s: a .298 average, 9 dingers, and 52 steals. Signed to a 7 year, $153 million contract, Ellsbury and Gardner were to give the Yankees the 1-2 punch atop the lineup that they needed so desperately.
While the plan worked in 2014, both players sagged last year. Ellsbury and Gardner got off to torrid starts last year before struggling after the All-Star Break. They combined to bat .213 with just 11 home runs, 12 steals, and collect a putrid .593 OPS after the Midsummer Classic, and the poor play came to a head in the Yankees’ lone postseason game, a 3-0 loss to the Houston Astros in the Wild Card Game.
In that fateful game, Ellsbury was benched and Gardner went 0-4 with 3 strikeouts before injuring his wrist. It was safe to say that all of the excitement and good feelings that Yankee fans had in 2014 were gone out the window after last season.
While both Ellsbury and Gardner had much better track records and were expected to bounce back, it was tough sledding for both of them again at the start of 2016, which only furthered the fans’ boos.
Ellsbury hit just .235 with a .619 OPS in April before getting injured yet again, and Gardner wasn’t much better, hitting .254 with a .735 OPS. In the season’s first month, the formerly dynamic duo combined to only go 8-12 on stolen base attempts.
With the top of the lineup providing little in terms of offensive production, the Yankees also struggled as a team. Their table setters failed to get their chores done, and the Yankee offense was a laughingstock. The team only went 8-14 in April, and much of this had to do with the lack of production from the top of the lineup.
When the top of a lineup is going right, it is getting on base, swiping bags, and creating run-scoring opportunities for the middle-of-the-order bats. Luckily for the Yankees, Ellsbury and Gardner got their act together in a big way in May, which directly correlated with the Yankees’ rise from the cellar.
Since returning from a hip injury, Ellsbury has been on fire atop the Yankee lineup, swatting .357 with 2 triples and 4 steals. Gardner has also improved. Despite a drop in batting average, he has gotten on base more, hit for more power, and stolen more bases.
And wouldn’t you know, the Yankees have resurrected their season in conjunction with the revival of Ellsbury and Gardner. They have gone 12-8 in May and have the Wild Card in their sights.
While it cannot be expected that Ellsbury and Gardner keep up this superb level of play for the rest of the season, continuous consistency would go a long way in helping out the Yankees. If we have learned one thing from the last 3 years of having Ellsbury and Gardner atop the Yankee lineup, it’s that the Yankees go as their 1-2 punch is going, and right now, the duo is single-handedly breathing life into the Yankee season.