June 11, 2004
Back with a Vengeance
It was 9:30 p.m. on a nondescript Tuesday night in April. The Bronx air was a little damp, a little cool, and filled with tension and frustration. The Yankees trailed 8-4 to the Oakland A's in the eighth inning, having watched their nominal ace blow an early 4-1 lead while pushing his ERA up to 6.55. Coming off an embarrassing three-game sweep by the Red Sox, this game was pushing the 8-10--soon to be 8-11--team ever closer to one of those mid-1980s scenes in which a manager, a pitching coach, and two or three random clubhouse attendants were fired.
Then Bernie Williams singled.
Then Alex Rodriguez singled right behind him.
Then Jason Giambi walked.
By a little after 10 p.m., the Yankees had a 10-8 lead and a new lease on life. That half-hour, in which they beat up Jim Mecir and Ricardo Rincon for six runs, looks like the most important moment of the 2004 season. The Yankees won that game, the next seven after it and have gone 30-9 since then, buring the field on the way to posting, by far, the best record in baseball. A team that couldn't score to save its life in April, that put up an anemic four runs in losing three games to its hated rival on the last weekend of that month, has hit like a team full of Jeff Kent clones since then:
April: .227/.332/.370, 4.2 R/G Since: .288/.369/.508, 6.3 R/GThe Yankees' offense has been the critical element in their run, rendering the collective agita over April's struggles just a bad memory. Bernie Williams, who looked done in the cold weather, has hit .286/.366/.500 in May and June. Despite all the attention focused on his early-season "struggle" Alex Rodriguez really only had two bad weeks. He's at .323/.419/.586 since May 1. Heck, Enrique Wilson has slugged .463 over that timeframe.
Even Derek Jeter, whose slump was so bad it made the cover of Sports Illustrated, may be returning to his level. He's off to an 8-for-20 start, with power, in June. Jeter has never been a walk machine, but his plate discipline fell apart in May to the tune of three walks and 25 strikeouts in 119 at-bats. With some success at the plate, the apparent pressing that led to the collapse of his selectivity should dissipate; I'd be surprised if Jeter didn't finish the season around .300/.370/.440, which would be pretty good numbers given how he hit for two months.
The Yankees have needed most of the 242 runs they've scored in the 39 games, because the team's pitching hasn't matched the offense's resurgence. They've allowed 4.85 runs during that stretch, and rank in the middle of the AL in runs allowed (275) this season. The culprit is the starting rotation, which despite the best efforts of Javier Vazquez, has a Support-Neutral Value Added of -0.9, ninth in the AL. Everyone other than Vazquez and Kevin Brown has been below average, although Mike Mussina has edged up to basically average since his horrible start.
The back end of the rotation has been brutal, and while Jon Lieber isn't a bad solution, no amount of wishcasting is going to make Jose Conteras a reliable #4 starter. He just doesn't throw enough strikes. If Kevin Brown's back sends him to the disabled list, the prospect of Tanyon Sturtze picking up starts is frighteningly real. The Yankees' inability to produce internal solutions for roster problems is a major failure of the front office, perhaps its only one.
On the other hand, the Yankee bullpen has been excellent, ranking second in the AL in Adjusted Runs Prevented. Last season, Joe Torre didn't have the personnel to run his pen the way he had for nearly a decade. He has had a much easier time of it this year, with Tom Gordon available to set up Mariano Rivera. The offense is a more obvious point, but Gordon has had almost as big an impact on the season because he's secured the eighth inning, such a problem for the Yankees last year. Paul Quantrill has provided innings, and while no left-hander has been effective so far--Gabe White and Felix Heredia have allowed 42 hits and 11 walks in 27 1/3 innings--that role will be filled, internally or externally, come July 31. The imminent return of Steve Karsay will only help.
Make no mistake, though, this team is all about the offense, and will go as far as its eight-man lineup allows. The Yankees will score 900 runs for the first time since 1999, and probably allow 800 for the first time since 2000. It's a much different team than the one we've seen for the past few seasons, more able to win games when getting a bad start--and getting more bad starts--and more prone to blowing teams out. The preponderance of guys who can get on base makes this a dangerous come-from-behind team, as the game that started the streak shows. If the Yankees were to acquire an upgrade at second base, even one like Junior Spivey, they could have a 200-run month down the stretch.
Thanks to the 30-9 streak, the Yankees have opened up a three-and-a-half game lead on the Red Sox, an eight-game swing from the completion of the sweep. That would be reasonable cause for consternation in Boston if not for the fact that the Sox have the second-best record in baseball. They survived playing a third of the season without Nomar Garciaparra, and will get Trot Nixon back sometime in the next week or so. To have the second-best record in the game, and be in the wild-card slot, is a heck of an achievement under those circumstances.
I'm still not convinced that the better team is in first place, given that the Sox are so close while having gotten so little from 15% of the payroll. I am, however, convinced that both of these teams are superior to the two in the AL West, and that my "gang of four" theory is now invalid. The Yankees and Red Sox are both going to the playoffs, and the A's and Angels are fighting for one playoff spot, not two.