New York Yankees: 5 Players Stepping Up Big in Clutch Playoff-Race Pressure

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistSeptember 21, 2017

New York Yankees: 5 Players Stepping Up Big in Clutch Playoff-Race Pressure

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    Todd Frazier and Didi Gregorius are heating up down the stretch for the New York Yankees.
    Todd Frazier and Didi Gregorius are heating up down the stretch for the New York Yankees.Steven Ryan/Getty Images

    Even if the standings don't reflect their progress, the New York Yankees are rounding into form as genuine World Series contenders.

    By winning 14 of 19 September games, the Bronx Bombers have virtually ensured postseason participation. Although they have yet to clinch a playoff bid, Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs both give them a 100 percent probability of maintaining their expanding wild-card lead after sweeping the Minnesota Twins.

    While the Boston Red Sox have not relinquished much ground in the American League East, Yankees fans can still appreciate the squad discovering a second gear.

    With the offense producing from top to bottom, they entered Thursday first in runs scored this month.

    Gary Sanchez setting the offensive bar for catchers and Aaron Judge awaking from a second-half slumber has them sprinting to the finish line. Yet, other unheralded contributors deserve credit for their sizzling September play.

    On the pitching side, their rotation has found a distinguished ace, while an unlikely reliever headlines a stacked bullpen. Let's pinpoint five performers leading the Yankees into October baseball.

3B Todd Frazier

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    Frazier has hit 10 home runs and drawn plenty of walks since joining the Yankees in July.
    Frazier has hit 10 home runs and drawn plenty of walks since joining the Yankees in July.Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    To appreciate Todd Frazier, one must learn to value baseball's vast treasure trove of data beyond batting average. Some fans may never reach that enlightenment, but most will understand the third baseman has been everything the Yankees wanted.

    Since getting shipped from the Chicago White Sox, the New Jersey native has batted .218 in 57 games. In all sincerity, though, he has helped the Evil Empire immensely. While he hasn't stockpiled many hits, he has still reached base at a stellar .366 clip by drawing 31 walks.

    Only five qualified position players have drawn a higher walk rate this season than Frazier's 14.4.

    The 31-year-old has also made his contact count with 10 home runs, five of which he blasted in September. He has a .971 OPS during a torrid month despite amassing 10 hits in 47 at-bats.

    With help from his steady defense at the hot corner, Frazier's 2.8 WAR exceeds that of Evan Longoria, Mike Moustakas, Jake Lamb and Boston deadline acquisition Eduardo Nunez. That certainly doesn't deserve the thumbs down he has helped to transform into a rallying cry. 

SS Didi Gregorius

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    Gregorius has hit a career-high 25 home runs this season.
    Gregorius has hit a career-high 25 home runs this season.Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    The Yankees haven't received such stellar shortstop production in quite some time.

    OK, put down the pitchforks. And the torches, too. When Didi Gregorius replaced that other fairly popular Yankees shortstop, nobody imagined him properly filling his shoes. They have instead received a two-way star.

    After going deep in three straight games against the Baltimore Orioles and belting one more on Wednesday, the 27-year-old surpassed Derek Jeter's career high (and franchise record for a shortstop) with 25 home runs. His 3.9 WAR, which ranks sixth at the position, nearly matches the cumulative 4.0 WAR over the Yankees legend's final four seasons. 

    Since the future Hall of Famer's highly debated defense waned late in his career, this is the best campaign New York has received from a shortstop since 2009.

    Yankees manager Joe Girardi praised Gregorius' breakout, per Howie Kussoy of the New York Post

    "We lost some hitters that we expected to hit in the middle of the order from injuries and Didi has stepped in and done a fabulous job," Girardi said. "[It's] just really impressive what he's done. The home runs, the RBIs, the big hits that he's had, the outstanding defense. … He's had a really good year."

    Gregorius now has 15 second-half long balls and four doubles, six home runs and 22 RBI in 19 September games. Per Baseball Reference, he's producing in big spots by batting .333/.359/.544 with men on base and .333/.365/.617 with two out and runners in scoring position.

    When acquired as an affordable starter after hitting .226/.290/.363 for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014, nobody would have imagined him blossoming into the team's third-best position player behind Judge and Sanchez.

OF Jacoby Ellsbury

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    Ellsbury has saved his starting job with a scorching September.
    Ellsbury has saved his starting job with a scorching September.Steven Ryan/Getty Images

    For most of the season, Jacoby Ellsbury represented a $153 million sunk cost and weak link blocking Clint Frazier. Now he's their hottest hitter.

    Leaving August with a .241/.319/.378 slash line, the outfielder was in jeopardy of losing his starting job before Aaron Hicks went back on the disabled list. 

    However, with hits in all but one September game—he had one plate appearance in the outlier—Ellsbury is 24-for-56 with 13 walks in September, giving him a .543 on-base percentage this month.

    As a result of spending more time on the basepaths, he has swiped five bags to up his season tally to 21. Although he hasn't gone deep this month, the 34-year-old has smacked five doubles and a triple in his last eight games. 

    His slash line has ballooned to .273/.361/.420, and a .338 weighted on-base average (wOBA) would mark a personal best since defecting from the Red Sox to Yankees in 2014. Ellsbury's role is no longer an uncertainty.

    "He's just played extremely well," Girardi told Bleacher Report's Danny Knobler. "Jacoby's been a big part of us winning [five] series in a row, the way he's played. He's going to continue to play."

    If he stays hot through September, he'll warrant a boost to No. 1 or 2 in the batting order against right-handed pitchers. He's a huge reason the Yankees have kept the AL East race tight.

SP Luis Severino

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    Severino has cemented his spot as one of baseball's top young aces.
    Severino has cemented his spot as one of baseball's top young aces.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    The AL Cy Young Award race is an epic two-man battle between Corey Kluber and Chris Sale. A distant third on this writer's imaginary ballot? Luis Severino.

    A year after losing his rotation spot and finishing with a 5.83 ERA, the 23-year-old has sliced his 2017 mark down to 3.03 in 187.1 innings, easily eclipsing his previous professional high of 162 frames. He has compiled MLB's sixth-most strikeouts (221) while issuing just 50 walks. 

    Amid a tight division race, Severino has solidified his undisputed standing as New York's ace. Instead of wearing down, he has posted a 2.21 ERA and 55 strikeouts in his last seven starts since surrendering 10 runs to Boston on Aug. 12. Unfazed by pitching in hostile territory, he has sharpened a 2.24 ERA away from Yankee Stadium.

    The Yankees initially changed their rotation so Severino, who pitched last Friday, would go a whole week before taking his next turn this Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays. This would have arranged his ensuing and final scheduled start of the regular season for Wednesday. Although the Yankees didn't explicitly state this as their intention, the move aligns him for the AL Wild Card Game if necessary.

    They instead bumped him back up to Wednesday, giving him two more chances to help catch Boston in the AL East standings.

    "We discussed it... It allows for him to start three more times, if needed," Girardi said on Tuesday, per the New York Daily News' Peter Botte. "Our goal is still to win the division, and we have clinched nothing at this point."

    Don't be surprised if Girardi reverts to his original thinking and spares Severino for the Wild Card Game. Even if the Yankees steal the division, pitching their ace during the final weekend could prevent him from starting Game 1 of the American League Division Series, an honor he has certainly earned.

RP Chad Green

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    Green has been the most valuable member of a stacked Yankees bullpen.
    Green has been the most valuable member of a stacked Yankees bullpen.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Who is the Yankees' most valuable relief pitcher? Dellin Betances? David Robertson? Tommy Kahnle? Aroldis Chapman?

    None of the above. If the Bronx Bombers enjoy a deep playoff run, Chad Green will emerge as a household name.

    Green leads New York's bullpen and all but six relievers with 2.2 WAR. He's done so by authoring a 1.93 ERA, 0.75 WHIP and 99 strikeouts over 65.1 superb innings. Only Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen have accrued higher strikeout percentages than Green's 41.6. 

    Opponents are hitting .149 with a 67.7 contact percentage against the 26-year-old righty, who is showing no signs of regressing. Over his last seven outings, the former starter has allowed one run while compiling 24 strikeouts over 13.1 frames.

    Girardi has made the most of his dominant swingman, frequently deploying Green for two or more innings at a time. Such versatility out of the bullpen makes Green their not-so-secret postseason weapon.

                 

    Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.