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Yankees takeaways: ‘We’re dawgs out there,’ Juan Soto amazes and interesting lineup decisions

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Yankees takeaways: ‘We’re dawgs out there,’ Juan Soto amazes and interesting lineup decisions


HOUSTON — As soon as Alex Verdugo leaped from the ground with the ball in his glove after making a game-saving sliding catch in the ninth inning to secure a four-game sweep over the Houston Astros, Juan Soto skipped from the other side of the field as he flexed like a bodybuilder. It was just the latest moment that signified the energy surrounding the New York Yankees in 2024 being different than last season’s “disaster” of a year.

The Yankees in 2023 felt stale, boring and mostly uninteresting, even when they won. It’s only four games, but the swagger of this year’s group is like comparing a Paris Fashion Week model to a dad who wears his white New Balance sneakers with grass stains out to a steakhouse.

Marcus Stroman will scream and slap his glove after working out of a jam. Verdugo will chirp at opposing fans as if he were a chronically online Yankees diehard. Soto will pound his chest, stare at the opposing dugout and snatch souls along the way. Through four games, the vibes are different.

“It’s just kind of like letting them know and letting everybody know that we’re here,” Yankees starter Clarke Schmidt said. “We’re excited about this year. We’re ready to get going and this is just the start for us.”

This is the first time since 2003 that the Yankees have started a season 4-0. New York trailed in the sixth inning or later in each of the first three games of the series; the Yankees won each of those.

“It’s very eerily similar to how we were in 2022,” Schmidt said. “When we started off on a good start, we just felt like we weren’t going to lose at the end of the games. We felt like we were always going to come back. We were always in it. I think there’s an energy. There’s an excitement in the clubhouse.”

Here are some thoughts on the Yankees’ first series of the year:

What’s up with Soto?

It’s hard to fully appreciate players on different teams around the league when you’re locked in on covering one team daily. That’s not to say it wasn’t widely known how incredible Soto is, but it was evident while in Tampa, Fla., for spring training that it was going to be an experience watching him up close for eight months.

His plate discipline is otherworldly. His at-bat against Astros closer Josh Hader in the ninth inning with the game tied at 3-3 was special. It was a 2-2 count when Hader threw a slider on the inside corner. Soto fouled it off. Now watch Soto’s reaction to that pitch:

Every pitch is a war with Soto. When he’s wowed by a pitch, he’ll nod in a show of respect. Astros starter J.P. France struck Soto out on Sunday with a nasty curveball in the third inning. Soto walked back to the dugout biting his lip and nodding in approval. The next at-bat against France, he lined a single through the left side of the infield.

Against Hader in the ninth, Soto got a sinker outside of the zone that he laced to left field, giving the Yankees a 4-3 lead. In his career, lefties are hitting .145 against Hader. Soto is now 2-for-4 against Hader, including the playoffs.

“I think it just put a bow on this series of what we saw in his at-bats,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of Soto.

“I mean, dawg,” Verdugo said of Soto. “Let’s just put it like that. He’s a dawg, bro. I can’t say anything else. We’re dawgs out here.”

For the series, Soto reached base in 12 of his 20 plate appearances. He also flashed defensively, which was unexpected given how poor of a defender he was with the San Diego Padres last season. In Sunday’s game, Soto potentially saved a run when he ran 83 feet toward the right-center gap to track down an Alex Bregman fly ball that had a catch probability of 45 percent, according to Statcast.

 

Boone said the most impressive aspect to him when evaluating Soto’s game is his intensity every moment he’s on the field. It manifested itself in the biggest moment of Sunday’s game against his former Padres teammate.

“I always want to be up in that situation,” Soto said of his hit in the ninth inning. “That’s what we play for. We all know there’s gonna be times that we do fail and sometimes you’re gonna have success. But I always want to be up there. I don’t mind to be up there and get all the boos or all the claps. I’m always ready for it.”

Competent left field defense

It wasn’t just the final play in Sunday’s game that made it obvious how having an actual left fielder could make a difference for the Yankees this season. But Verdugo made plays coming in on the ball, tracking to his left and right and everything in between. It was a noticeable difference from what the Yankees had in left field last season.

The Yankees swore they were adequate defensively in left field (seriously), but it was obvious to anyone watching the team daily that it was a problem. Take this liner off Kyle Tucker’s bat as an example.

This play had a 50 percent catch probability, according to Statcast, yet Verdugo made it look much easier than it was. There were numerous occasions last season when Yankees left fielders would have plays with over 90 percent catch probabilities that would fall for hits. It turned out that punting on left field wasn’t the best decision. Having stability in left field, especially in a spacious Yankee Stadium, should go a long way for the Yankees this year.

“It’s been tremendous,” Boone said of Verdugo’s defense. “He made a couple of great plays in the gap in left-center. He almost made another one — it might’ve been Game 2 where he dove and it just kicked off of him. And then (Sunday), that’s money time with the game on the line. It seemed like he had a great read. My first instinct off the bat was that is dropping in. When I looked up, he was on the dead run tracking it. I almost knew he had it. He kind of hotdogged it but I loved it.”

Interesting lineup decisions

After Gleyber Torres was hit by a pitch on his right thumb Friday, it was notable that he was in the lineup Saturday. This early in the season, it felt expected that the Yankees would play it safe and give Torres the day off. But nope. Even on Sunday with the series wrapped up, it felt like a spot to give newly acquired infielder Jon Berti a day in the starting lineup. It wasn’t until Anthony Volpe was scratched with an upset stomach that Boone inserted Berti into the lineup.

When the Yankees traded for Berti, it seemed likely that he and Oswaldo Cabrera would platoon at third base in DJ LeMahieu’s absence with a non-displaced fracture in his right foot. Because Cabrera has been as hot as anyone across MLB it’s been impossible to take him out of the lineup.

“I think everyone can understand the situation a little bit,” Boone said before Sunday’s game. “I told Jon today nobody wanted him here more than me. Like I pushed everyone. We need to go get him. I know what he’s going to mean to this team in the long haul and I know that’s the case. He’s going to play a huge role for us this year. I want to get him in there and eventually we will.”

That seems like a change in organizational philosophy to believe in the “hot hand,” which Cabrera has been. Boone told reporters before Friday’s game that Berti “probably” would play Saturday. That didn’t happen because Cabrera had a career-high four hits on Friday. But Boone downplayed anyone thinking there was a change in thinking.

“No, I think I said, ‘I’ll probably play him tomorrow,’” Boone said. “That’s kind of how I left it. I said he’d likely be in there tomorrow. Things changed on that front after day two. So that’s all it was.”

Another noticeable observation is where the Yankees have hit Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup. Against left-hander Framber Valdez on Opening Day, Stanton was the Yankees’ cleanup hitter. Against the Astros’ right-handers, Stanton hit fifth with Anthony Rizzo batting fourth. Stanton struggled mightily against righties last season and is 3-for-14 to begin this year. The Athletic was told before the season began that the initial plan was to hit Stanton sixth in the order. That was until LeMahieu was ruled out with his foot injury. If Stanton struggles against righties, it will be fascinating to see if the Yankees continue to drop him in the order.

It’ll also be interesting to see what the Yankees decide to do with Volpe when everyone in the lineup is healthy. So far, depending on the handedness of the Astros’ starting pitchers, he’s hit sixth or seventh. The thinking with Volpe coming into the year is he’d hit ninth and be the de facto “second” leadoff hitter. While Soto and Cabrera have gotten most of the attention in the lineup, Volpe has been impressive, too. Out of the 70 pitches he’s seen this year, he’s swung and missed at just two. It’s a credit to the changes he made this offseason.

“I think it’s definitely swing adjustments he’s made,” Boone said. “Certainly the experience and his aptitude and his baseball IQ. But swing and miss was an issue for him last year. Since early in the spring, you can clearly see he’s worked hard to plug some holes that the league exposed a little bit at times last year.”

(Photo of Juan Soto: Troy Taormina / USA Today)





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