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Bill Madden: With Aaron Judge struggling, starting pitching is leading the way for the Yankees

It’s only April. Certainly no time to be making any definitive assessments about anything in baseball, which is why when it comes to the Yankees there’s just no telling yet what this team is.

All we know is the Yankees went into this weekend’s series against the Brewers with the third best record in the American League despite having zero contribution from Gerrit Cole and almost next-to-zero from Aaron Judge. Even before Cole went down in mid-March with inflammation and edema in his pitching elbow, the skinny on the Yankees was that, with Juan Soto added to the middle of the lineup, they were going to be as offensively potent as any team in baseball but had major questions about their starting pitching.

Instead it’s been just the opposite.

If you’re looking for a Yankee MVP so far this season, my nomination would be the pitching coach, Matt Blake. The Yankees’ pitching, particularly the Cole-less rotation has been superb. All five starters, Nestor Cortes, Carlos Rodon, Marcus Stroman, Clarke Schmidt and the Dominican rookie Luis Gil have been remarkably consistent, all with ERAs under 4.00, and solid starts almost every time out. The Yankees’ 2.95 team ERA ranks second in the majors and more than anything else it has been the Yankees’ starters who have kept them on the heels of the Orioles in the AL East while they await the offense, particularly Judge, to start doing their part.

It seems almost unfathomable a month into the season that Judge would be hitting .178 with four homers and 13 RBI (plus grounding into a team-leading seven double plays). He insists he’s not hurt and we have to believe him, but at the same time he’s clearly not been right. And while Soto’s been everything the Yankees had hoped for, it is still Judge who makes the offense go.

“It’s a long season and I’ve had seasons where I’ve started off worse than this in my career,” Judge said last week. “I’ve also had seasons where I started out hot and then you always hit a rough spot where you hit .150 in a whole month. You just gotta keep working, gotta keep improving and we’ll get out of it.”

The Yankees so far been averaging 4.31 runs per game, barely below the major league average of 4.35 and as of Friday were tied with the Marlins for the most grounded into double plays (30). There are concerns aplenty about the lineup beyond Judge.

For the first two weeks, Anthony Volpe, with his revised flattened swing, appeared to be really coming into his own, hitting the ball to all fields and batting .375 as of April 10 when the Yankees elected to move him into the leadoff spot. Since then his average plummeted 75 points and you have to wonder if the move, and the responsibilities that come with it, was too soon, and the Yankees might be better suited using Alex Verdugo, who doesn’t have Volpe’s speed but gets walks and sees a lot of pitches, at the top of the order.

In any case, they had to do something about the leadoff spot where Gleyber Torres (.192, 0 HR, 2 RBI) had been a mess. With 49 homers the previous two seasons leading up to his free agent walk year, Torres had been one of the most productive second basemen in the AL. But the fact the Yankees have made no overtures to extend him has seemingly affected him mentally. He needs to relax, which, of course, would be a lot easier if Judge and the rest of the Yankee offense can get it together.

Heightening the Yankees’ offensive woes has been the loss of DJ LeMahieu, whose return from recurring foot issues now appears weeks away again, rather than days. Without LeMahieu, his third base replacement, Oswaldo Cabrera, who was hitting .303 on April 21 before only getting one hit in the four games against Oakland at the end of the homestand last week, was supposed to be the Yankee backup at third, short, second and first base. They really don’t have any suitable infield backups, either on the major league roster or at Triple-A, and that’s a real problem.

Otherwise, the Yankees aren’t getting a whole lot out of the catching spot where rookie Austin Wells, who’s supposed to be an offense-first catcher, has gotten off to a horrendous start — and first base where Anthony Rizzo, 34, has at least stayed healthy but with limited (3 HR, 11 RBI) production.

So a month into the season this is where the Yankees are: Holding their own in the AL East on the strength of their pitching, but in a nervous waiting game for their best player “to come out of it.”


It’s apparently been decreed by the MLB poohbahs that Hunter Wendelstedt will receive some sort of discipline for erroneously tossing Aaron Boone out of last Monday’s Yankee game against the A’s over heckling the umpire received from — not Boone — but rather a fan behind home plate. We’ll probably never know what that discipline is because MLB never seems to do much of anything to its umpires for bad performance. Wendelstedt is one of a half-dozen umpires — Angel Hernandez, C.B. Bucknor, Brian O’Nora, Doug Eddings and Laz Diaz are the others — who consistently rank at the bottom of MLB’s rating system every year and yet they go on, year after year, embarrassing the game with their poor performance, which makes you wonder what’s the purpose of a rating system if there are no consequences for the umpires who consistently rank at the bottom? Baseball umpires are like Supreme Court justices. They can’t be fired and they can’t be demoted. It seems every other week Hernandez is embarrassing the game with his horrendous pitch calling behind the plate, but the MLB hierarchy merely shrug. It’s an age-old problem for baseball and a puzzlement that it’s never been fixed. If players get sent back to the minors or released for poor performance, why can’t umpires? …Congratulations to Dusty Baker for being the recipient of Baseball Digest’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He couldn’t be more deserving and is now in some heavy company with the previous winners Willie Mays, Vin Scully and Joe Torre. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence (right?) that Baker’s former team, the Astros, who he directed to three division titles and two World Series in the last four years, are currently wallowing in last place in the AL West with the fourth worst record in baseball. … It’s too early to say if this is going to be a season of epic batting futility but going into the weekend, the collective MLB batting average was .240, with five teams hitting .220 or worse, most notably the White Sox, who have been routinely fielding a lineup of at least six players hitting under .200. According to the Elias Bureau, the last time the collective major league batting average was .240 or lower was 1968 (at .237).


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