This piece could very easily come across as unbearable to Yankees haters, and truth be told, I would have a hard time arguing against such a reaction. Not only does it assume that the Yankees will make the playoffs, but it also spends over a thousand words discussing why the Yankees – owners of the best record in baseball, playing in toughest division in the tougher league – are not built for a deep postseason run. Maybe this makes me spoiled. No, it definitely makes me spoiled. But having watched this team all season, I can say there are real questions about its ability to repeat as World Series champions. And no, it’s not because the Yankees are boring or lack fire or heart or desire, or any of that nonsense that Bill Simmons regularly uses to explain failure in baseball. It’s because the Yankees don’t have the “Secret Sauce.”
What is the “Secret Sauce”? It is not the unique condiment applied to Big Macs, although I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed “Special Sauce” instead in my outline for this piece. No, the “Secret Sauce” is a small group of indicators that former Baseball Prospectus writer Nate Silver discovered correlated very strongly with playoff success. It turns out that bunting, stealing, and experience – those factors that most broadcasters and mainstream analysts tout as essential – have nothing to do with winning postseason games. In fact, Silver’s investigation showed that there was no correlation between team offensive strength and postseason success. Instead, they found that there were three strong indicators of postseason success: a power pitching staff that misses bats, a strong bullpen (with a focus on the closer), and a capable defense. Behold, the “Secret Sauce.”
The 2009 Yankees had this special mix of skills. Their starters struck out 7.48 batters per nine innings, good for fifth in baseball and first in the American League. This skill is important because it keeps the ball out of play, adding fewer variables and therefore fewer risks to the process of getting an out. The 2009 Yankees also had a strong bullpen, and it wasn’t just because of Mariano Rivera’s usual brilliance. David Robertson, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Damaso Marte filled out the rest of a dominant unit that kept the ball out of play by striking out an AL-best 8.44 batters per nine innings. Lastly, the Yankees fielded a good defense for the first time in years. Thanks to average or better years by Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Brett Gardner, and Melky Cabrera, the Yankees did a good job of converting the balls that actually were put into play into outs. As a result of all this, the “Secret Sauce” rankings held the 2009 Yankees in high regard.
Unfortunately, it feels like the 2010 Yankees are a different story. Although the 2010 “Secret Sauce” rankings views the Yankees favorably, there are holes in its analysis. This year’s team has a starting rotation that is built more for the regular season than for the playoffs. After C.C. Sabathia, there is little that inspires confidence, particularly in the way of dominant, power pitching. Andy Pettitte is currently injured and mired in a series of setbacks that will delay his return until September. Even when he was healthy, his 2.88 ERA is about a full run lower than it should be based on his rate statistics. Phil Hughes has pitched well and has the strikeout ability that becomes more important in the playoffs, but he is rapidly approaching his innings limit and likely will not be a part of the team’s playoff rotation. A.J. Burnett has pitched like a fifth starter this season, thanks to a strikeout rate that has bottomed out at 6.77 after falling steadily since 2007. Javy Vazquez is the quintessential innings-easter on a playoff-caliber team; he keeps his team in the game over the long haul, but you don’t want him anywhere near elite competition in a short series. This rotation is simply not equipped with the same ability to miss bats as its 2009 counterpart. Yankees starters have a 6.94 K/9, a figure that lags behind AL rivals like the Rays, Red Sox, Rangers, and Blue Jays.
This deficiency extends to this year’s bullpen as well. While last year’s unit led the AL in strikeout rate, this year’s group ranks fourth at 7.72 K/9. Rivera remains Rivera, but his supporting cast is weaker than it was in 2009. Robertson’s strikeout rate is still strong, but down from his otherworldly 2009 figure. Chamberlain is having a good but not dominant year. Hughes has moved to the rotation. Kerry Wood’s ERA since joining the Yankees is impressive, but it ignores the sheer number of baserunners he’s allowed and the lucky ways he’s managed to prevent them from scoring. He’s also a perpetual injury risk. And lefty Boone Logan may be winning the hearts and minds of the coaching staff, but he has gotten lucky in terms of home runs allowed and strand rate. Color me skeptical of his emergence as this year’s reliable lefty specialist. Because of Rivera, Robertson, and Chamberlain, this year’s bullpen can’t be worse than average. But there is also much preventing it from being consistently excellent.
The 2010 Yankees have a good defense if you believe the numbers, which should help offset the pitching staff’s inability to miss bats. Teixeira and Cano anchor the infield, while Gardner and Curtis Granderson cover lots of ground in Yankee Stadium’s spacious left-center field. Nick Swisher is roughly average in right, while Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are decidedly mediocre on the left side of the infield. The most glaring defensive concern, however, is the team’s inability to control the running game. Other than Pettitte, none of the Yankees’ starters is particularly good at holding runners on. This inability is made worse by Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli’s combined futility in throw out basestealers. Perhaps this won’t mean much in the playoffs, but it certainly can’t help.
Although Silver’s study revealed no correlation between offensive prowess and playoff success, it’s worth mentioning that the Yankees are susceptible to left-handed pitching in a way that the 2009 edition was not. Last year’s team had a .839 OPS against southpaw starters. This year’s it’s .766. Granderson and Lance Berkman simply cannot hit lefties. Cano has picked up where he left off in 2009, hitting for more power but less patience against them. Gardner struggles somewhat against them. Austin Kearns is merely adequate against both lefties and righties. Rodriguez has absolutely fallen off a cliff against them in 2010, hitting only .198/.292/.372. That leaves Swisher, Teixeira, Jeter, Posada, and Marcus Thames to carry the load against left-handers. Perhaps in other years this wouldn’t be a huge issue. But if the Rays, Rangers, and Twins make the playoffs, that means seeing lefties David Price, Cliff Lee, and Francisco Liriano more than once in a short series. If the White Sox beat out the Twins, you can substitute John Danks for Liriano. No matter what, that’s a tough road to travel for any team, and particularly for one that struggles against lefties.
Ultimately, I’m not convinced that this team has the “Secret Sauce” that it did last year. Much of that skepticism relates to the starting pitching. The rotation suffers a steep decline after Sabathia, and even he has slowly transformed into a groundball machine instead of a strikeout artist. The bullpen is good, but greatness hinges on continued dominance from dubious characters such as Kerry Wood and Boone Logan. The defense is sound statistically, but both the catching corps and the left side of the infield are causes for concern behind a pitch-to-contact rotation. Add to those issues the Yankees’ troubles hitting lefties and the presence of elite left-handers on other AL playoff teams, and it begins to look more and more like the Yankees must catch every break to return to the World Series, much less win it.