Yankees prove Boone’s prophecy right with alpha ‘drawg’ Soto leading the charge

Juan Soto celebrates after a hit during the Yankees-Astros game on March 31, 2024 at Minute Maid Park.

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The palpable energy surrounding the 2024 New York Yankees is visible in the very the first series. The image of Juan Soto flexing across the outfield in celebration of Alex Verdugo’s game-sealing catch against the Astros epitomizes it. This stands in stark contrast to the lackluster atmosphere that plagued the team in 2023, a season many dubbed a “disaster.”

Just a day before their opening series against the Astros, the Yankees skipper brags about having an extra edge against the Astros.

“I do feel like there was an extra edge to our preparation,” he claims. “And even as we go through our advance meetings (for the Astros series) as groups, there’s an edge and a focus and a commitment that is where I think it needs to be.”

During a Zoom session with reporters on Wednesday, Aaron Boone expressed his foremost aim: to aid the team in their pursuit of the ultimate goal, winning a World Series. He stressed that his entire energy and concentration were devoted to elevating the Yankees to their maximum potential.

“I’m in competition mode,” the Yankees manager said. “I’m here to try and win a World Series. All my energy and all my focus is trying to play my part in helping us be the best possible team we can be. And our goal is to be a world champion.”

With a 4-0 sweep of the Astros, that extra edge in the Yankees lineup and their fervent competition to win is well discernible. Last year, even victories felt hollow, devoid of the spark and excitement that defines a championship contender. However, just four games into the 2024 season, a sense of confidence and vibrancy radiates from this team.

Several factors contribute to this newfound swagger. Marcus Stroman‘s fiery celebrations are infectious, Verdugo’s playful banter with opposing fans adds a touch of fun, and Soto’s commanding presence on the field is undeniable. These are not just individual acts; they signify a departure from the mundane and usher in a fresh start for the Yankees.

Juan Soto hits during the Yankees-Astros game on March 31, 2024 at Minute Maid Park.
MLB

As Clarke Schmidt explains, these on-field antics symbolize the team’s collective eagerness and anticipation for the season ahead. They’re hungry for success, focused, and ready to embark on a journey together.

It’s no coincidence that this energy coincides with a perfect 4-0 record to kick off the season, a feat last achieved in 2003. Remarkably, the Yankees have battled back from deficits in the sixth inning or later in each of their first three games, showcasing their resilience and clutch play.

Schmidt sees parallels with the strong start of the 2022 season. He attributes the current atmosphere to a renewed sense of confidence among the players, a feeling fueled by the infectious energy and palpable excitement pulsating within the clubhouse. There’s a belief in their abilities, a swagger that suggests this year’s Yankees might just be something special.

Juan Soto’s brilliance gives Yankees an edge

Juan Soto during the game between the New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros, on march 31, 2024.
Yankees

Covering a single team day in and day out can create a tunnel vision effect, making it easy to overlook exceptional talent on opposing teams. However, Juan Soto’s remarkable skills were impossible to ignore, even during Spring Training in Tampa. It became evident that witnessing his brilliance firsthand throughout an eight-month season would be a privilege.

What truly sets Soto apart is his phenomenal plate discipline. A prime example unfolded in the ninth inning of a tied game against the Astros’ closer, Josh Hader. With the count at 2-2, Hader threw a slider on the inside corner that Soto impressively fouled off. Even Soto’s reaction to this pitch was noteworthy – every at-bat with him feels like a chess match.

He exhibits a genuine respect for well-executed pitches. Despite being struck out by Astros starter J.P. France in the third inning on a nasty curveball, Soto tipped his cap as he returned to the dugout, acknowledging the quality of the pitch. In his next at-bat against France, he responded with a sharp single through the left side.

This respect for pitching translates into elite hitting. In the ninth inning against Hader, Soto laid off a sinker that darted outside the zone, but he showcased his ability to punish mistakes. He laced the next pitch, a fastball left over the plate, into left field for a go-ahead 4-3 lead.

This knack for hitting what he can handle is particularly impressive considering the struggles of other left-handed hitters against Hader. In fact, lefties typically muster a meager .145 batting average against the Astros’ closer. Yet, Soto boasts a remarkable 2-for-4 record against Hader, including clutch hits in the postseason. His ability to decipher pitches and adjust his approach makes him a formidable opponent for opposing pitchers.

Juan Soto’s impact on the Yankees’ sweep against the Astros extended far beyond the numbers on the box score, according to manager Aaron Boone. The word “exemplary” was used by Boone to describe Soto’s performance throughout the series, a testament to his overall contribution to the victories.

The admiration for Soto wasn’t limited to the coaching staff. Teammate Alex Verdugo showered praise on him, calling him a “dawg” and highlighting his impressive play on the field. This comment from Verdugo suggests that Soto’s impact goes beyond just his offensive contributions.

Indeed, Soto’s offensive prowess was undeniable as he reached base in an impressive 12 of his 20 plate appearances during the series. However, perhaps even more surprising were his defensive contributions, which were particularly noteworthy considering his defensive struggles with the San Diego Padres last season. A prime example came in Sunday’s game when Soto covered a significant 83 feet toward the right-center gap to snag a fly ball off the bat of Alex Bregman, potentially preventing a run. Even the objective Statcast data acknowledged the difficulty of the play, assigning it only a 45 percent catch probability.

“He’s a dawg,” teammate Verdugo said. “Just put it like that, he’s a dawg, bro. I can’t say [anything] else. We’re dawgs out here.”

Boone further emphasized the intensity Soto brought to every moment on the field. This competitive fire was especially evident during Sunday’s crucial plays against his former Padres teammate.

Interestingly, Soto himself thrives in these high-pressure situations. He openly expressed his desire for such moments, like the one where he delivered the game-winning hit in the ninth inning. He acknowledged the rollercoaster nature of baseball, with its highs and lows, but Soto seems unfazed. He’s ready to face the cheers and the jeers, the praise and the criticism, all in pursuit of victory. Juan Soto’s arrival has brought a new dimension to the Yankees, and it’s clear he’s ready to embrace the spotlight and the pressure that comes with it.

Alex Verdugo resolves Yankees’ left-field problem

Alex-Verdugo-new-york-yankees
X-@LuisGilbertLop

Sunday’s game wasn’t just about the final play; it was a shining example of how Alex Verdugo‘s presence in left field has transformed the Yankees’ defense. Throughout the game, Verdugo showcased his impressive range and agility, effortlessly making plays on balls hit in all directions. This stands in stark contrast to the struggles the Yankees faced in left field last season.

While the Yankees may have downplayed the issue in the past, fans were acutely aware of the significant defensive deficiencies in left field. One can recall the line drive off Kyle Tucker’s bat last year, where Statcast, known for its objectivity, assigned that play a 50% catch probability, yet it was missed. Verdugo, on the other hand, made a similar catch on Sunday appear routine, highlighting the vast improvement in defensive reliability. The team’s past decision to overlook the importance of a strong left fielder seems like a clear misstep in hindsight.

Having a reliable outfielder patrolling the vast expanses of Yankee Stadium is a major advantage this season. Manager Aaron Boone echoed this sentiment, praising Verdugo’s “outstanding” defensive performance. Boone specifically mentioned Verdugo’s ability to handle plays in the left-center gap, his impressive near-miss diving catch in Game 2, and his crucial play in Sunday’s game where his judgment and tracking skills proved invaluable, even when the outcome initially seemed uncertain. While Verdugo’s on-field demeanor might suggest a laid-back approach, Boone clearly sees the effectiveness in his execution.

The contrast between Verdugo’s defensive prowess and the struggles of last season is undeniable. His presence has significantly bolstered the Yankees’ outfield and is a major factor in their early success, providing a level of defensive reliability that was sorely lacking in the previous season.

The Yankees’ X-factor

Oswaldo Cabrera celebrates after hitting the first homer for the Yankees in 2024 against the Astros on March 28, 2024, at Minute Maid Park.
NYY

Gleyber Torres’ surprise return to the lineup on Saturday, despite a thumb injury, left many wondering about the role of newly acquired infielder Jon Berti. With Torres back and DJ LeMahieu sidelined by a foot fracture, the expectation was for Berti to see some action at third base, potentially platooning with the impressive rookie Oswaldo Cabrera.

However, Cabrera’s strong performance throughout the series left manager Aaron Boone hesitant to disrupt the lineup. While Boone had previously expressed the possibility of Berti starting on Saturday, Cabrera’s hot streak ultimately took precedence. This decision highlights a potential shift in the Yankees’ philosophy, prioritizing the “hot hand” over strict adherence to initial plans.

Although Sunday’s game offered another opportunity for Berti’s debut, an upset stomach sidelined Anthony Volpe, leading to Berti finally getting the nod. Boone acknowledged his eagerness to integrate Berti into the lineup, recognizing his importance to the team’s long-term success. However, Cabrera’s current form makes him difficult to remove from the start.

This situation suggests a willingness to adapt to on-field performance, potentially marking a shift in the organization’s approach. While initial plans may prioritize specific players, outstanding performance like Cabrera’s can alter the course of action, prioritizing the player in peak form to maximize the team’s chances of winning. Although Berti awaits his turn, Cabrera’s hot bat keeps him firmly entrenched at third base for the time being.

Another interesting observation concerns the placement of Giancarlo Stanton in the Yankees’ lineup. During Opening Day against left-hander Framber Valdez, Stanton occupied the cleanup spot. However, when facing the Astros’ right-handed pitchers, Stanton was moved to fifth, with Anthony Rizzo in the fourth spot. Stanton’s struggles against right-handed pitchers last season continued into this year, as he started 3-for-14. Before the season began, The Athletic reported that Stanton was initially slated to bat sixth. However, this changed when LeMahieu sustained a foot injury. If Stanton continues to struggle against righties, it will be intriguing to see if the Yankees persist with dropping him down the order.

Additionally, the Yankees’ strategy regarding Anthony Volpe’s placement in the lineup when everyone is healthy will be worth monitoring. Depending on the handedness of the Astros’ starting pitchers, Volpe has alternated between hitting sixth or seventh. Initially, the plan for Volpe entering the year was for him to bat ninth and act as the de facto “second” leadoff hitter. While Soto and Cabrera have garnered much attention in the lineup, Volpe has also impressed. He has shown remarkable discipline at the plate, swinging and missing at just two of the 70 pitches he’s seen this year. This improvement reflects the changes he made during the offseason.

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