One year ago, the Yankees beat the miserable Arizona Dirt-backs to reach a record of 17-22, five shy of the magical .500 mark that defines wild card contender status in the Selig-verse. Nobody was hitting. A-Rod was dating a six. Our biggest offensive threat - the ever-chugging Carlos Beltran - was batting .245 and barely capable of scoring from second on a double.
Last night, we clawed the stumbling KC Royals like a catnip-scented ball of string, (though Gio Gallegos' enshrinement into the IIH Hall of Fame might be delayed.) Everybody is hitting. A-Rod has become side-candy for J-Lo. Our biggest offensive threat - Aaron Judge - has already done a Sports Illustrated cover and sketch comedy on the Tonight Show. What's next? Saturday Night Live?
Yet a question remains: Are we flat-out better than last year, or just a hotter version? Most of the lineup remains the same. They're just hitting.
Last May 18th, here's where our batting lineup stood, (with their current numbers in parenthesis.)
Ellsbury CF: .278... (.272)
Gardner LF: .240... (.285)
Beltran DH: .245... (Holliday .272)
McCann C: .268... (Sanchez .293)
Teixiera 1B: .203... (Carter .230)
Castro 2B: .283... (.351)
Gregorius: .238... (.319)
Headley 3B: .207... (.256)
Hicks RF: .208... (.326)
A-Rod: .220... (Judge .320)
With the exception of Ellsbury, who remains an inert substance, every single Yankee in the lineup has at least a 27-point improvement over last year. The lamest boomlet is at 1B, where Greg Bird is hurt and Chris Carter remains a ghostly version of Heathcliff Johnson (he'll turn 70 in July; anyone feel old?), with a few more whiffs. The fact is, last year through July 31, we got squattily doo from our RF and 1B slots, and this year, thus far, one position has changed: we have the emerging nation of Judge.
But but BUT... the real litmus test is not in right field. It's at second base. And the real question about 2017 is whether Starlin Castro is on the verge of career-breakout, MVP-level season, or simply having a banner spring.
Do we really expect Castro to hit .351? It seems crazy, but keep this in mind: He is 27, prime age for an infielder. In Chicago, he twice hit higher than .300, though with marginal power. Last year, he finished at .270 with 21 homers. If this turns out to be his career year - as it now seems to be - it's easy to imagine Castro batting .300 with power. He still isn't taking enough walks - last year, he accepted 24 bases on balls (a pathetic rate of .041). This year, he has seven walks, (.058, still pretty awful). But right now, he leads all MLB second-basemen in hitting and is second in HRs, one behind a certain Jay-Z hanger-on who is known to jog out grounders. (Suck on it, Seattle. Our 2B is outplaying yours.)
It's easy to get down on Castro when he lunges at a 3-and-2 third strike over his head. But his on-base percentage thus far in 2017 is the best among all 2B with more than 100 at bats. He is killing it.
Listen: We can expect Gardy, Headley, Gregorius and maybe Hicks to decline in production, migrating to their regular numbers. (Though Didi and Hicks both seem ready for break-out years.) And who knows how far Judge can go in his first full season? (He hasn't yet hit that summer slump that affects every rookie.) But it's Castro who has transformed the lineup.