There are probably two prevalent thoughts amongst you, the Fan Interference readers, with respect to me and the Yankees. Thought #1 is “HA! Explain the Yankees’ season NOW, Special K!”. Thought #2 is “Who is Special K, and why do I care about his opinion?” While I cannot make you care about my opinions (but you should, because they are smart and you can never hear enough smart things), I can attempt to explain what the hell is going on with the New York Yankees.
After the loss to the Mets today, my first reaction was pretty much anger. I was angry with the players for not performing, Joe Torre for being on quaaludes, and Brian Cashman for shoddy roster construction. Watching this team over the last few weeks has been easily my most frustrating experience as a sports fan (Jordan’s Bulls regularly beating Ewing’s Knicks is a close second, or anything Vanderbilt football-related for that matter). Being the analytical sort, I have been trying to come up with an explanation for the Yankees’ terrible, awful play. At last, I have come up with my official current stance on the New York Yankees’ 2007 season through May 19th:
The Yankees have been historically unlucky.
Before the angry, torch-wielding mobs show up on West 87th Street, demanding I admit that the Yankees just aren’t that good, I implore you to listen to my reasoning. I have no idea if I’m right or not – there are, after all, 121 more games to be played. Maybe the Yankees aren’t that good, who knows. But right now, I am of the reasoned opinion that the Yankees have just been incredibly unlucky.
We can start with the starting pitching. In April, Yankee starters gave up runs at a blistering, alarming rate. This was, in my opinion, due primarily to injuries. Lots of injuries. Random, bizarre, unforseen injuries (excluding Carl Pavano). The Yankees’ projected rotation coming out of Spring Training was Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, and Kei Igawa. Wang didn’t pitch until April 24th, because of a hamstring injury. Mussina only made two starts in April because of a hamstring injury. Igawa sucked. Pavano is hurt again and out for the year. Only Pettitte hasn’t missed a start. The result of all these injuries was the promotion of several minor-league pitchers.
Contrary to popular belief, the Yankees have a good farm system, particularly with respect to starting pitching. The Yankees’ FIVE call-ups can easily be divided into two categories: servicable/good pitchers, and outright scrubs. The former group consists of Darrell Rasner, Phil Hughes, and Jeff Karstens. Guess what happened to them? Broken hand, torn hamstring, broken leg. Scrubs Matt DeSalvo and Chase Wright managed to stay healthy and therefore sucked. So what we have here is a pitching staff that, primarily in April, was unable to stay healthy. When they did get hurt, their generally decent replacements all got hurt too. Ouch.
Yet the Yankees’ offense thrived in April, scoring 5.35 runs per game, which was good for 4th in baseball. The Yankees’ team ERA in April, however, was 5.02 (27th). As the calendar turned to May, it seemed reasonable to assume that as the starting pitchers returned from injuries, the team would begin to reach its potential.
Nope. Despite a 3.83 team ERA in May (12th in baseball), the Yankees have continued to suck. Why? A regression in offense and bad luck. The Yankees have scored 4.88 runs per game in May, which is only a small drop to 9th in baseball. The Yankees have outscored opponents 83-63 in May, yet have a 9-9 record. Furthermore, the Yankees’ expected record based on their season’s run differential is 22.5-17.5 – quite different than their actual 18-23 record. Given this information, it would seem likely that a correction is coming. After all, it is extremely difficult for a team to maintain a losing record while outscoring its competition. This gives me hope.
What makes it difficult to fully accept this likely correction, however, has been the Yankees’ offense of late. While Jeter, Posada, Matsui and Mientkiewicz(!)/Phelps have performed well in May, important cogs such as Damon, A-Rod, Giambi, Abreu and Cano have posted a .607 OPS between them. That’s awful. While the pitching in May has been average-to-good, the offense has been declining.
So what do we make of all this? The pitching in April sucked, but the offense was clicking. The offense in May has sucked, but the pitching has been fine. Intuitively, one would expect a .500ish record based on these occurrences. Let’s put the Yankees at 21-20 then. Throw in the 83-63 run differential in May leading to a 9-9 record, and you’ve got your bad luck. So let’s take off a few wins, putting the Yankees at – ta-da – their actual 18-23 record.
To form a reasonable, educated opinion on the rest of the Yankees’ season, we must ask ourselves if the pitching and the hitting will ever overlap. My cautiously optimistic answer to this is “yes”. A rotation of Wang, Mussina, Pettitte, Clemens and Hughes – which is very close to being a reality – is a reason for optimism. Even if one of them gets hurt, the Yankees can insert Igawa or Tyler Clippard for a turn or two. Hey, the Red Sox are 29-13 with Julian “Acid Fight” Tavarez as their fifth starter, so Igawa or Clippard wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. If the Wang-Mussina-Pettitte-Clemens-Hughes rotation materializes (and it seems likely), the starting pitching should be fine.
This rotation would be useless, however, if the Yankees continue hitting like they have in the past few weeks. The question is whether or not this is the “real” Yankee offense or a slumping one. I think it is somewhere in the middle. I am not concerned about Jeter, Posada, A-Rod, or Matsui. They should all perform up to their expected levels. Damon worries me a little because of his nagging injuries; he’s probably due for a slight decline. Abreu has looked awful at times, but there’s no way he’s become a .600 OPS hitter this quickly. There’s no reason to think he won’t rebound. Cano concerns me primarily because of his inability to lay off bad pitches. He needs Ritalin or something. But he is only 24 and to expect another .890 OPS season without a regression would be unreasonable. I say Cano rebounds, but not quite to his 2006 form. Then there’s Giambi, who worries me the most. He’s 36, physically breaking down, and seemingly cannot consistently get around on fastballs. While he remains useful because of his fantastic eye, he seems the most likely candidate for a sharp decline. The net effect is, in all likelihood, a slight offensive regression as compared to 2006.
Despite all these statistics and whatnot, I think the rest of the Yankees’ season can be determined just but looking at a few simple numbers and remembering a few key circumstances:
- The Yankees’ pitching in April was awful, and now it’s solid. Furthermore, it is now solid and has upside. The return of Phil Hughes – along with Clemens’ arrival – calls for some improvement over the Yankees’ 11th best team ERA and 10th best OPS against. Theoretically, this should make the bullpen more effective as well.
- The Yankees’ offense in April was fantastic, and now it’s slumping. Again, there is upside. The chances of Damon, Abreu, Cano and Giambi continuing to perform at this level is highly unlikely. A simultaneous precipitous decline in all four’s offensive ability would be one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen in baseball. In any case, the Yankees are 3rd in baseball in runs scored, and 4th in OPS.
- The Yankees have outscored their opponents 221-198 this season. Based on this differential, the Yankees should have a record around 22-19, not 18-23.
- For emphasis, Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, Darrell Rasner, Jeff Karstens, and Phil Hughes have – in total – missed substantial time due to freak injuries. When they have been healthy (and none has a history of injuries), they have been effective. Furthermore, a rotation of Wang-Pettitte-Mussina-Clemens-Hughes is fast-approaching. This bodes well.
The season pretty much rides on two events occurring: the offense regaining some semblance of its 2006 form, and the pitching staying healthy. I’d say each event has a good chance of occurring. The remaining question is, quite simply, will it be enough to reach the playoffs? I don’t have an answer for this. It seems highly unlikely that the Yankees can win the AL East, although that would be sweet if they did. The most realistic goal is the Wild Card. I certainly think that the Yankees can do it. I watch each and every minute of each and every game, and I can tell you with complete honesty that I have never seen a team subjected to more bad luck than the 2007 Yankees. Everything that could wrong has gone wrong (knocking furiously on wood). I am pretty confident that the Yankees will bounce back and play good baseball for the rest of the season. I remain uncertain, however, as to whether that will be enough to get to the playoffs.