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‘There’s no stopping this team’: How the Yankees cleaned up their act and became baseball’s most dominant squad

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BALTIMORE — The greatest team in baseball this season is also something of a paradox.

The New York Yankees can wow you with towering home runs and intimidate you merely by stepping on the field – yet their most impactful contributions often emerge from information passed from player to player, gleaned from a tablet, shared in a meeting room.

They feature the game’s greatest slugger putting on a power show against the backdrop of a dramatic salary drive – but their greatest steps forward have come not from Aaron Judge’s might but rather the decision to disregard offense altogether at two of the most important defensive positions.

They employ a dozen players earning nine-figure salaries – yet insist it is chemistry and selflessness and a heightened level of focus and intent that has taken this franchise to a new level.

It is rare air: The Yankees are 27-9, in lockstep with their 1998 team widely regarded as the franchise’s best in the last half-century or so. They lead the major leagues in earned-run average but also OPS, hit more homers per game than anyone but also feature the game’s greatest reliever.

Yes, it’s still baseball, and it all could go sideways soon or at some point this summer. But when you’re nearly a quarter through the season, and still on pace to win 122 games, it’s more than fair to recognize a moment in time that seems like a harbinger for history.

“There’s no stopping this team,” Judge said on a night he smashed his 13th and 14th home runs, was robbed of a third by a heightened Camden Yards wall designed in part to stop him and saw his club win for the 20th time in 23 games.

“We want to play two games a night if we could. We’ve got a special group here.”

Aaron Judge leads the AL with 14 homers this season.

Aaron Judge leads the AL with 14 homers this season.

Largely, it is the same group that won 91 games last season, a lofty total in some quarters but in New York the evidence of a choppy, underachieving, frustrating season that ended in a wild-card loss to the Boston Red Sox. For the Yankees, results are typically binary – you win the World Series, or you don’t – and off-seasons can operate in similar fashion.

Yet these Yankees have managed something altogether different: Cleaning it up without cleaning house.

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‘Like a receipt that keeps printing’

For the casual fan, these Yankees provide no shortage of eye candy. In Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo, they feature three of the top five home-run hitters in the game, this in a season where the baseball is performing like a wet Nerf ball struck with a soggy newspaper. Nobody in baseball hits the ball harder than Judge (97.4 mph average exit velocity) or Stanton (96.6)

Yet as the Yankees swung from wild winning rampages to stultifying losing skids last season, it was easy to forget that Judge and Stanton were both healthy (148 and 139 games played, respectively) and highly productive (.916 and .870 OPS), keeping the Yankees afloat in spite of their shortcomings.

There was no shortage of consternation, then, when the world’s second-most valuable sports franchise opted to sit out of the high-end free agent market and instead make a pair of transactions just before and after the lockout to define their new club.

No, the November trade for Texas Rangers shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa and the March deal that sent powerful but defensively deficient catcher Gary Sanchez to Minnesota did not mollify the masses. It merely created a potion that apparently hatched a super team.

Monday night, Jose Trevino looped a fly ball 318 feet down the right field line and off Camden Yards’ foul pole, a home run as unimpressive as Judge’s are majestic. It was the first homer struck by a Yankee catcher this year, this after every other team’s backstop had gone yard.

Sanchez had four homers by this time last year, on his way to 23. Trevino and his catching mate, Kyle Higashioka, may not combine for 10.

Yet their collective commitment and brain power have meant much more to this team.

Yankees ace Gerrit Cole says the pair “don’t take mental days off,” and that it’s impossible to miss them discussing strategy, be it in the training room or the hot tubs or in running the pitchers’ meetings.

They’ve each played in 22 games, but Cole says “if Kyle’s not catching me, Kyle’s watching every pitch. If Jose’s not catching me, Jose’s watching every pitch. Both are discussing what I’m executing and not, how I look, what they’d attack. It’s like they don’t miss a game. They’re both playing every game.”

The results, says Cole, now in the third year of a nine-year, $324 million deal, are palpable.

“I see us making less stupid pitches,” he says. “I see us pitching with a thought process throughout an entire game, throughout an entire series. Whereas, if somebody’s strength is to pitch another way but at this point of a series or game we’ve established to that specific hitter, these catchers are confident going a different direction away from said person’s strength because that’s how we’ve attacked the hitter to this point.

“There’s a lot of continuity. The sequence just keeps running, like a receipt that just keeps printing and printing and it doesn’t hit the floor.”

Not even CVS could spit out the receipts showing what Yankee pitchers have accomplished. Their 2.76 ERA leads the majors, and the continuity from starters Cole, Jameson Taillon, Nestor Cortes and Jordan Montgomery has been startling: Yankee starters have given up three or fewer runs in 24 of 36 games, two or fewer in 19 of those. It means the club doesn’t need too much from a powerful lineup that’s only too happy to oblige.

Higashioka was drafted in 2008 and is now the longest-tenured Yankee. At 32, he’s never played more than the 67 games he caught last season, when he hit a career-best 10 home runs. Likewise, Trevino’s 89 games played for Texas last season marked a career high.

The duo rank 25th in the majors in both average (.182) and OPS (.485), but it’s an effective timeshare for so many other reasons.

“Me and Trevy are always talking about, ‘Hey, what are you seeing on this guy?’” says Higashioka. “On the days each of us catch, we’re almost going in there with game experience rather than going in blind.”

‘He’s our superstar’

Sanchez, along with Judge, was dubbed a Baby Bomber when he hit 53 home runs over 176 games in his first two seasons. The club came to expect production from behind the plate, just as it did from shortstop, when Derek Jeter gave way to Didi Gregorius and eventually Gleyber Torres, who slugged 38 home runs in 2019, his second consecutive All-Star season.

Yet much like Sanchez’s occasional struggles behind the plate, Torres played his way off shortstop last season, when he committed 18 errors; his uneven performance seemed emblematic of the Yankees’ inconsistencies.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa was acquired in a trade with the Twins in the offseason.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa was acquired in a trade with the Twins in the offseason.

And much like punting offense at catcher, the trade for Kiner-Falefa seemed curious. A light-hitting, no-power shortstop when the likes of Carlos Correa, Trevor Story and others were available merely by writing one more big check?

Now?

“He’s our superstar shortstop,” says Cole, a former teammate of Correa’s in Houston. “He is a Gold Glover. And he is an elite contact hitter. So, what’s left to be desired is the prolific power and hitting third – but we can’t even get our three-hole hitters in the lineup, for no other reason than we have too many good players.

“He’s what we needed, really. And he’s the type of player who elevates other players’ games because of the type of teammate he is. Carlos (Correa) does the same thing; others don’t. There are players out there that don’t do that so for us to have someone who does do that, you see it permeating through other players.”

The numbers back up the moves at both positions and the Yankees’ insistence they are doing many of the “little things” better.

With Torres shifting comfortably from shortstop to second, the Yankees’ defensive rating in three key metrics has risen from 28th or 29th overall in 2021 to 14th and 16th this year, their overall rating improving from -32.4 to -1. Yankees catchers now rank third overall defensively compared to 16th in 2021. Shortstop defense has risen from 28th to 10th.

It’s almost like the Yankees acquired three everyday players, what with Torres hitting the ball hard again and seeing his athleticism play up at second.

“He’s been through a lot already as a young man at this level – he’s been an All-Star a couple times, he’s had playoff success, he’s struggled some, he’s hit bumps in the road,” says manager Aaron Boone. “How do you respond to that? How do you grow from that? We’ve seen him take steps forward in that regard.”

It doesn’t hurt that Torres just has to be another guy in a defensively gifted infield, with former Gold Glover Anthony Rizzo at first and DJ LeMahieu and Josh Donaldson sharing time at third. In the middle is Kiner-Falefa, who has yet to hit a home run and is batting .271.

He knows why he’s here.

“I feel like I’m a grinder and I feel like that mentality is what these guys want here. It’s nice to see I’m not the only one working,” says Kiner-Falefa, who never enjoyed more than a 78-win season in Texas. “Everyone on this team, 1 through 26 and all the coaches and analytic guys are on the same page. I love it. It’s very refreshing.

“It’s a cool feeling, especially coming from a mediocre team.”

A different level

There’s little mediocrity on his new squad, from one through nine in both lineup and innings. Their most impactful performer may be reliever Michael King, who leads major league relievers with 37 strikeouts, in just 25 2/3 innings. Boone has adopted a village approach to the ninth inning, with inconsistent Aroldis Chapman and Clay Holmes holding that down.

That enables King to deploy whenever it’s hottest; in the Yankees’ 27th win, he entered a tie game in the sixth with the go-ahead runner on second and struck out six of nine batters faced, allowing two balls in play in three spotless innings.

King pairs a 97-mph sinker with a sweeping curveball he learned last year from former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. While he has starter aspirations, he’s at that rare moment of untouchability that high-end arms sometimes achieve out of the bullpen.

“It’s like video-game stuff. He makes his strikes look like balls, and his balls look like strikes,” says starter Jameson Taillon. “He can throw a curveball in the other batter’s box and make you look like a fool. He’s not trying to execute, he knows he’s going to execute.”

King may eventually falter, just as the Yankees, at some point, may hit a rough patch. For now, Judge has quieted any drama about his pending free agency with his scalding start, putting the onus on the front office to up the ante after GM Brian Cashman revealed the slugger turned down a $213 million extension offer just before Opening Day.

For now, it’s hard to imagine anything but immaculate vibes, with Boone saying the team’s improvement at the margins “starts with the kinds of relationships and the camaraderie that they’ve built together.”

“I feel like it is at a different level,’’ he says.

It is nearly Memorial Day, and the Yankees have let to lose more than two games in a row. That will change, and so, too, will the club’s 5 ½-game bulge in the AL East – for better or worse.

The Yankees know bad times are inevitable. They also believe they’re far better built to withstand them.

“It’s not just we’re a team, we’re best friends off the field,” says King. “I know when we have bad stretches, it’s going to really come into play that we’re a team and we love each other.

“Right now, it’s super-fun, but when times are tough, it’s still going to be fun and we’re going to get out of those cold streaks faster because of it.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NY Yankees off to MLB’s best start: ‘There’s no stopping this team’

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Every team’s biggest steal in the 2022 NFL draft

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Every year, winning the NFL draft is about balancing need with value, filling the biggest holes on your roster without reaching for lesser prospects, and taking advantage when you have the chance to grab talented players later than expected.

Each of the league’s 32 teams landed at least one potential bargain in the 2022 NFL draft, and some of them even came at the game’s most important position, a rarity in today’s landscape.

While they still have their entire NFL careers ahead of them, based on how we valued the 2022 class, here are our picks for the biggest steal for every team in this year’s draft:

Arizona Cardinals

(AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

EDGE Cameron Thomas

3rd Round, No. 87 overall

Atlanta Falcons

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

QB Desmond Ridder

3rd Round, No. 74 overall

Baltimore Ravens

(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

S Kyle Hamilton

1st Round, No. 14 overall

Buffalo Bills

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

WR Khalil Shakir

5th Round, No. 148 overall

Carolina Panthers

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

QB Matt Corral

3rd Round, No. 94 overall

Chicago Bears

(AP Photo/Emilee Chinn)

EDGE Dominique Robinson

5th Round, No. 174 overall

Cincinnati Bengals

(AP Photo/Artie Walker, Jr.)

EDGE Jeffrey Gunter

7th Round, No. 252 overall

Cleveland Browns

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

DL Perrion Winfrey

4th Round, No. 108 overall

Dallas Cowboys

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

DL John Ridgeway

5th Round, No. 178 overall

Denver Broncos

Syndication: The Oklahoman

EDGE Nik Bonitto

2nd Round, No. 64 overall

Detroit Lions

(AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

S Kerby Joseph

3rd Round, No. 97 overall

Green Bay Packers

(AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

EDGE Kingsley Enagbare

5th Round, No. 179 overall

Houston Texans

(AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

LB Christian Harris

3rd Round, No. 75 overall

Indianapolis Colts

Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

TE Jelani Woods

3rd Round, No. 73 overall

Jacksonville Jaguars

(AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

LB Devin Lloyd

1st Round, No. 27 overall

Kansas City Chiefs

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

OL Darian Kinnard

5th Round, No. 145 overall

Las Vegas Raiders

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel

DL Matthew Butler

5th Round, No. 175 overall

Los Angeles Chargers

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

OL Jamaree Salyer

6th Round, No. 195 overall

Los Angeles Rams

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

CB Derion Kendrick

6th Round, No. 212 overall

Miami Dolphins

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

LB Channing Tindall

3rd Round, No. 102 overall

Minnesota Vikings

(AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

CB Andrew Booth Jr.

2nd Round, No. 42 overall

New England Patriots

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

CB Marcus Jones

3rd Round, No. 85 overall

New Orleans Saints

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

LB D’Marco Jackson

5th Round, No. 161 overall

New York Giants

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

LB Darrian Beavers

6th Round, No. 182 overall

New York Jets

(AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

EDGE Jermaine Johnson II

1st Round, No. 26 overall

Philadelphia Eagles

(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

LB Nakobe Dean

3rd Round, No. 83 overall

Pittsburgh Steelers

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

WR George Pickens

2nd Round, No. 52 overall

San Francisco 49ers

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

EDGE Drake Jackson

2nd Round, No. 61 overall

Seattle Seahawks

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

CB Tariq Woolen

5th Round, No. 153 overall

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(AP Photo/Steve Luciano)

CB Zyon McCollum

5th Round, No. 157 overall

Tennessee Titans

(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

QB Malik Willis

3rd Round, No. 86 overall

Washington Commanders

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

QB Sam Howell

5th Round, No. 144 overall

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NBA mock draft 2022 roundup: Detroit Pistons take big swing with No. 5 pick

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It’s the most … wonderful time … of the year — for draft aficionados.

The NBA draft lottery results Tuesday night gave us the draft order for the 14 lottery teams in the draft June 23 in Brooklyn.

The Detroit Pistons have the fifth overall pick after dropping two spots in the lottery, won by the Orlando Magic. Oklahoma City has the second pick, followed by Houston and Sacramento. Pistons’ fellow Central Division competitor Indiana has the sixth selection, with Portland seventh.

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The draft seems to have a consensus top three, though the order is up in the air: Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. and Duke’s Paolo Banchero.

Here’s a quick roundup of respected NBA draft experts and who they have the Pistons taking in new mock drafts published after the lottery reveal.

[ Want more Pistons news? Download our free mobile app on iPhone & Android! ]

Jonathan Givony, ESPN: Jaden Ivey

ESPN’s resident draft expert, formerly of DraftExpress, thinks the Magic take Smith Jr. at No. 1 with his shooting and defensive versatility giving him the edge over Holmgren (No. 2 to the Thunder) and Banchero (No. 3 to the Rockets).

The Kings, already with De’Aaron Fox and Davion Mitchell at the guard spots, pick Iowa sophomore forward Keegan Murray here, setting the Pistons up with Ivey to play in the backcourt next to rising standout Cade Cunningham.

SPENDING DOUGH: 3 areas Pistons should address in free agency, and who they should target

Another dynamic backcourt player would help a Pistons team that went 23-59 last season and badly needs more offense.

“Ivey is the most electric prospect in the class, possessing the type of extra gear-changing speeds in the open floor that few NBA players possess,” Givony writes. “Ivey’s size, frame and length, along with the strides he has made as a shooter, will allow him to slide into a variety of lineup configurations, making it easy for him to find his way onto the floor, especially as his defense and decision-making improve.”

Givony has Michigan freshman wing Caleb Houstan sneaking into the first round with the last pick at No. 30 by the Thunder (from Phoenix).

Michigan State freshman wing Max Christie ends up No. 45 to Charlotte, while the Pistons at No. 46 (from Brooklyn) take Arkansas sophomore center Jaylin Williams.

Read Givony’s mock draft in full if you have ESPN+.

THE FANS: ‘A wasted season’: Pistons fans distraught after NBA draft lottery results

Sam Vecenie, The Athletic: Shaedon Sharpe

Kentucky's Shaedon Sharpe warms up Jan. 25, 2022.

Kentucky’s Shaedon Sharpe warms up Jan. 25, 2022.

The draft’s top mystery man is Sharpe, who was a five-star prospect and consensus top-three recruit in the 2022 class. He ended up enrolling early at Kentucky for the second semester in January, but never played a game. Sharpe, a 6-foot-6 Canadian guard, turns 19 at the end of May and graduated high school before the NBA’s 2021-22 season began, so he’s eligible to be drafted.

Vecenie, who also has the Magic selecting Smith at No. 1 — “my favorite prospect in the class because he possesses the combination of skills that are most in-demand in the current NBA” — has the Kings taking Ivey despite their plethora of guards, which leaves the Pistons in an interesting spot again.

“Sharpe represents a high-upside gamble due to his potential as a wing shot-creator,” Vecenie writes. “He looks every bit like a future NBA star wing, combining elite length with terrific hops. The problem for scouts is that he hasn’t played much at high levels of competition, so nobody’s really sure how he’ll react to the speed of the game.”

[ Why Shaedon Sharpe makes 2022 NBA draft more interesting for Pistons ]

Vecenie mentions Pistons general manager Troy Weaver “tends to really like players with a great intersection of athleticism and length, as well as guys who have high upsides,” and thinks Sharpe fits well next to Cade Cunningham as the shot maker this team desperately needs.

Like Givony, Vecenie has the Thunder taking Holmgren at No. 2 and the Rockets going Banchero at No. 3.

Vecenie has Christie going with No. 35 pick to the Magic and Houstan at No. 36 to the Blazers, and also has the Pistons taking a big man with their second-round pick: Senegalese center Khalifa Diop, who plays in the top Spanish league Liga ACB.

Read Vecenie’s mock draft in full.

A LEGEND PASSES: Pistons center Bob Lanier was brightest star in a bleak decade for Detroit sports

Jeremy Woo, Sports Illustrated: Ivey

Purdue's Jaden Ivey.

Purdue’s Jaden Ivey.

Make it 3-for-3 of draftniks thinking Smith goes No. 1, followed by Holmgren and Banchero.

Woo, who joined the Free Press’ “The Pistons Pulse” podcast in April to break down the draft, has the Kings taking Sharpe, which leaves the Pistons with a chance to take Ivey despite their lottery misfortune.

“The pronounced highs and lows of Ivey’s breakout season gave the NBA plenty to nitpick, but ultimately, his unique speed and explosiveness as a downhill playmaker present way too much upside to overthink,” Woo writes. “He should benefit more than most from the freedom and space of the pro game, and if his passing chops and decision-making tick upward as he matures, Ivey is going to be very hard to stop. He has the ability to be a very good defender when he tries, he shoots the three well enough to think it keeps improving, and if he can slow down the game for himself mentally while still attacking at a breakneck pace, Ivey can be a star. Playing alongside Cunningham would make his life much easier.”

Read Woo’s mock draft in full.

THE ROSTER: Pistons face crucial decisions: Debating who stays and who goes

Ricky O’Donnell, SB Nation: Adrian “AJ” Griffin Jr.

Duke forward AJ Griffin shoots against Arkansas during the second half in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA men's tournament in San Francisco, Saturday, March 26, 2022.

Duke forward AJ Griffin shoots against Arkansas during the second half in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA men’s tournament in San Francisco, Saturday, March 26, 2022.

Here’s a different perspective, as SB Nation’s resident draft expert has the Magic taking Banchero No. 1. The Pistons pass on Sharpe and go with Duke’s AJ Griffin, a chiseled 6-6, 225-pound freshman wing with a 7-foot wingspan.

He projects as a big-time shooter, after he converted 44.7% of his 3-pointers on 159 attempts last season, though he has a history of knee injuries, which must be inspected.

“Griffin Jr. headlines Tier 2 for his combination of youth, physical tools, and shooting touch,” O’Donnell writes.

“While Griffin is big and sturdy, he lacks great flexibility and agility, which limits him both as a north-south driver on offense and screen navigator on defense. Griffin doesn’t yet produce many free throws or consistent rim pressure, which limits his offense despite such impressive shooting. Griffin is already built like a grown man despite being one of the youngest prospects in the class. There are options with safer floors still on the board, but Griffin’s potential ceiling gives him the pole position for the fifth pick.”

Read O’Donnell’s mock draft in full.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: NBA mock draft 2022 roundup: Detroit Pistons take big swing

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