Youmans: Judge's power surge drives Yankees into favorite's role

June 23, 2022 07:35 PM

It’s not always important to get off to a good start. The Yankees and Aaron Judge fell far short of a contract extension before the season, negotiations stopped, Judge went cold at the plate and the team was slow out of the gate.

The news out of New York was mostly negative on April 17, when Judge went hitless in a 5-0 loss to Baltimore that dropped the Yankees to 5-5 through 10 games.

“When the year started, I don’t think anyone thought the Yankees would be the World Series favorites in June,” Westgate SuperBook oddsmaker Ed Salmons said. “Most people thought it would be the Dodgers. I didn’t see this coming, I’ll be honest, but their pitching has been unbelievable.”

The Yankees’ incredible turnaround also has a lot to do with Judge’s power surge. The 6-foot-7 outfielder leads MLB in home runs with 25 (through Monday) while topping the team in batting average (.301) and every major offensive category. In early May, the SuperBook posted Judge at 25-1 odds to win American League MVP, and today’s he’s the even-money favorite.

Gerrit Cole, the $324 million ace of the pitching staff, also got off to a rocky start in April before rebounding. Cole took a no-hitter into the eighth inning Monday, when the Yankees won at Tampa Bay to push their record to 50-17.

In the race to 50 wins, the Yankees easily got there first, ahead of the Mets (45), Astros (41) and Dodgers, who were a disappointing 40-25 through Monday after going 7-11 since May 30. The SuperBook has moved the Yankees to + 400 World Series favorites, with the Dodgers at + 500.

Salmons said there has been heavy betting action on the Yankees in the World Series futures market, but he’s not concerned with the liability and has plenty of time to work with it. The postseason is always unpredictable and taking short odds on the Yankees at this point is no bargain.

VSiN handicapper Will Hill is well aware the Yankees, his favorite team, have not been back to the World Series since winning it in 2009, so a remarkable record through 67 games does not guarantee a banner season.

“The Yankees are having a dream season and far exceeding expectations,” Hill said. “The division race is over before summer even begins, but winning between 105 and 110 games like they will is going to carry with it a ton of pressure come October. When a team wins this many games, a first-round loss to, say, the White Sox, would be looked upon as a choke and colossal disappointment.”

The hottest team in the AL East before the season was the Blue Jays, who sit in second place and trailed the Yankees by 12 games through Monday’s action.

Preseason expectations for the Yankees were not exactly low, but their win total of 91.5 suddenly looks like a gross miscalculation by oddsmakers. William Hill sportsbook offers adjusted win totals throughout the season and currently posts the Yankees at 104.5.

Baseball’s regular season is a six-month marathon, so injuries and slumps inevitably happen, but the Yankees do appear headed for around 110 wins unless their pitching breaks down or Judge goes down to injury.

Cole’s numbers are reflective of an ace (6-1, 3.14 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 11.5 strikeouts per 9), but he was recently tagged for five homers in a short start at Minnesota and flopped in the 2021 postseason. Nestor Cortes, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery and Luis Severino have a combined record of 21-5 to fill out baseball’s best five-man rotation.

Clay Holmes and Michael King are the strongest arms in a bullpen that no longer counts on Aroldis Chapman to be the closer. Chapman has been injured but, when healthy, is so shaky that he’s a blown lead waiting to happen.

“My biggest worry is the health of the pitching staff,” VSiN baseball betting analyst Adam Burke said. “The Yankees have had five pitchers make at least 12 starts, so they've stayed really healthy in the rotation. Cortes has thrown over 110 innings once in his career. Severino threw 29.2 innings from 2019-21 and has already thrown 66 this season. The bullpen is already missing big names like Zack Britton, Chapman, Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga, so losing any other top relievers would put a strain on the team.

“The Yankees are really, really good, but being on pace for 120 wins is unlikely to continue.”

Even a team that is 33 games over .500 in June has concerns. The Yankees are an imperfect team and could wear down, though they do have the resources to make moves before the trade deadline later in the summer. As impressive as this New York lineup is, there are holes.

“Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks have been automatic outs at times this year, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa is without a home run as the starting shortstop,” Hill said. “Another flaw, despite the presence of Anthony Rizzo, is they remain a little too right-handed dominant with Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu and Josh Donaldson. This team is still vulnerable to a dominant right-handed pitcher.

“All that being said, the Yankees are lapping the rest of the field as we approach the halfway mark, and now it’s time to do it once October rolls around.”

A strong finish is most important. Rewind to August, when few were predicting a World Series run for the Braves. Which team has long-shot value this year? Burke said the White Sox, a 32-1 shot at Circa Sports.

“The White Sox have the weakest schedule left of any team and play only four teams with winning records (Astros, Padres, Twins, Guardians) in the second half,” Burke said. “I really don't think the Twins or Guardians are this good. The White Sox have the strongest rotation in the division by far, a really good roster when healthy and over 40 percent of the remaining schedule is made up of the Tigers, Royals, Orioles, A’s and Rockies.”

World Series or bust, the Yankees could have a problem to deal with as Judge enters free agency. General manager Brian Cashman misplayed his hand in contract negotiations, and the homegrown face of the franchise is driving his price sky high.

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