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August 18, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
Dog Days: The Yankees
As August dawned, the Yankees had owned sole possession of first place in the American League East for seven weeks, but the dog days are clearly upon them now. On Sunday, they fell victim to a two-hit shutout that provided 2002 first-pick flop Bryan Bullington of the Royals with his first major-league victory. On Monday, they were held scoreless for eight innings before falling to the lowly Tigers, who came into the Bronx with a 9-22 record since the All-Star break. That latter loss dropped the Yankees to a 6-9 record for the month and into a tie for first place with the Rays. Is their hold on a post-season spot secure?
The Yankees' Playoff Odds briefly topped an MLB-best 90 percent in late July and stood an eyelash below that as of August 1. After Monday's loss, those odds had fallen to 82.9 percent (46.1 percent division, 36.8 percent wild card), just the fourth-highest mark in the league behind the Rangers (96.7 percent), Twins (84.2 percent), and Rays (83.3 percent). While their run differential and third-order winning percentage are higher than those of Tampa Bay (+140 to +134 and .577 to .568, respectively), their remaining opponents have a slightly better record, averaging a 60-57 mark, compared to 58-59 for the Rays, which is why the odds slightly favor the latter. More on that below.
The Yankees' rotation is in disarray thanks to the combination of Phil Hughes' mid-season slump, the sub-par performances of A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez, and the continued absence of Andy Pettitte due to a groin strain; lately, only CC Sabathia has thrown well with any consistency. Consider the contrast between the unit's first- and second-half performances:
QS% is the percentage of quality starts (six innings or more, three earned runs or less), while DS% is the percentage of disaster starts (more earned runs than innings pitched). The Yankees' tendency towards the latter has nearly doubled since the break, as the rest of their numbers have suffered.
Fortunately, their bullpen has rounded into shape during that stretch with Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson stringing together several solid outings, Boone Logan emerging as a reliable lefty option, and deadline acquisition Kerry Wood providing another live arm for the late innings. At the break, the Yankees ranked ninth in WXRL (2.7) and seventh in reliever Fair Run Average (4.30); they've been tops in the league in both since then (3.6 WXRL, 2.42 FRA). Robertson, Logan, Wood, the amazing Mariano Rivera, and mop-up man Sergio Mitre all have FRAs below 2.00 in the second half, while Chamberlain's 3.28 is more than 1.5 runs per nine below his engorged first-half mark.
The most surprising aspect of their recent woes has been the sudden shutdown of the game's most prolific offense. The Yanks scored 5.5 runs per game through July while hitting a combined .271/.354/.442; they were held to two runs or less in just one game out of six during that span. Even with the deadline acquisitions of Lance Berkman and Austin Kearns to shore up the DH slot and the bench, they're hitting just .243/.303/.386 in August, averaging 3.7 runs per game and being held to two runs or less one-third of the time. Alex Rodriguez (.231/.273/.538) and Mark Teixeira (.226/.263/.547) are in all-or-nothing mode, having combined for 10 of the team's 16 homers since the calendar turned, but little else. Robinson Cano (.231/.333/.288), Nick Swisher (.259/.306/.379), and an aching Jorge Posada (.179/.273/.282) have simultaneously hit cold spells, Berkman (.200/.300/.314) has yet to ignite in pinstripes, while Brett Gardner (.210/.333/.311 since July 1) and Francisco Cervelli (.182/.256/.223 since June 1)are in the throes of longer, more troubling slumps.
As if that's not bad enough, the team has shown a penchant for being befuddled by starters they've never faced before, generally soft-tossers at that. This season, Bullington, Baltimore's Jake Arrieta, Philadelphia's Kyle Kendrick, the Mets' Hisanori Takahashi, (then) Anaheim's Sean O'Sullivan, and Cleveland's Josh Tomlin combined to yield 20 hits and seven runs in 40 innings in their first contact with the Bronx Bombers as their teams went 5-1; those pitchers have a combined 4.85 ERA otherwise. In fact, the Yankee offense has under-performed significantly while facing finesse pitchers—those in the bottom third of the majors in strikeout and walk rates—for the first time since 2004:
The two right-handed columns are the team's adjusted OPS relative to their hitting as a whole (tOPS+) and to the major-league performance in that category (sOPS+), with 100 being average. These figures demonstrate how the Yanks dominate power and neutral pitchers but are sub-par against the finesse ones.
In the abstract, it's power pitchers that the Yankees are more likely to face in October—the Twins' Carl Pavano and the Rangers' Tommy Hunter are the most prominent finesse pitchers among the rotations of their potential first-round opponents—and the odds certainly favor them getting there. The battle with the Rays for first place in the East should continue to be a dogfight; Tampa Bay holds a 6-5 edge in the season series, but New York will host four of their seven remaining games. As noted above, the two teams have fairly even remaining schedules overall, but there's a marked contrast over the final 10 games after their September 20-23 series in New York; the Yankees play three at home against the Red Sox and then travel to Toronto and Boston for their season-ending series, while the Rays draw a batch of cupcakes in the Mariners, Orioles, and Royals.
The real key for the Yankees isn't winning the division. It's staying ahead a Sox team dealing with problems in the rotation themselves and now without Kevin Youkilis, Mike Cameron, and Jacoby Ellsbury for the balance of the season. The Yanks don't need to press by rushing Pettitte back or playing Posada and Rodriguez into the ground, as the odds of beating Boston remain strongly in their favor.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .