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May 4, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL East

Homeward Bound

by Ben Kabak

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In baseball, as George Carlin once said, the object of the game is to be safe at home. It’s a comforting feeling to reach home with another run on the board, and there is no surer means of accomplishing that feat than via the home run, which ensures that with one pitch, at least one run can cross the plate. For fans of the team who just launched the ball over the fence, the homer is the truest of the three true outcomes.

And yet, home runs have a way of bringing out the hand-wringing. Can a team hit too many home runs? It might be the most efficient way of scoring runs, but it’s over and done with very quickly. Those who fear the home run worry that it kills rallies; just recently in fact, the Daily News' Anthony McCarron worried that the AL East-leading New York Yankees were too reliant on home runs.

At the time, Yankee manager Joe Girardi dismissed the suggestion. "A lot of our runs have scored on home runs," the skipper said. "There's nothing wrong with that. Scoring runs in bunches is not a bad thing—it can be tough on clubs to recover and we feel we have a pretty good bullpen."

Does McCarron have a point, or is Girardi right to be satisfied with the current state of affairs? Let’s take a look:

Team

Games Played

Runs Scored

Home Runs

HR Runs

Percent

Yankees

27

146

46

81

55.5%

Rays

29

123

26

44

35.8%

Red Sox

29

126

26

42

33.3%

Orioles

28

117

31

53

45.3%

Blue Jays

29

129

30

45

34.9%

As a baseline for comparison, approximately 33.4 percent of all runs scored in the majors this year have come via the longball. Last year, 34.4 percent of all runs scored on home runs. What some might see as a problem is a trait most major-league teams would love to have. The Yankees are leading the AL East in home runs by a wide margin. Powered by a .340 on-base percentage, they’re also leading the division in runs scored by the home run, as well as plain old runs scored. Too many home runs, indeed.

Of course, the flip side of the Yanks’ glut of home runs is that they aren't scoring as much when they don't go deep. Only 44.5 percent of their runs have been precipitated by events other than the home run, while the rest of the teams in the division score a larger percentage of their runs on those outcomes. Yet, as long as the Yankees continue to put men on base at this clip, they will score plenty of runs by the longball or otherwise. Their 5.4 runs per game is tops in the American League, and no one in the Bronx should be complaining about how those runs have been plated.

Heading into the 2011 season, most pundits predicted big things for the Yankees’ offense. The club can and will score runs, but the pitching was regarded as suspect. Nonetheless, while the offense has lived up to its billing, the Yanks find themselves at 17-10 in large part thanks to those pitchers.

In the early going, the Brian Cashman 2003 All-Star Reclamation Project has been an unqualified success. With Phil Hughes shelved with a mystery ailment that isn’t Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, the Yankees’ rotation resembles something that would have earned raves in an earlier decade. Supporting CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and the 23-year-old Ivan Nova.

It comes as quite a surprise that Bartolo Colon is doing what Bartolo Colon once did best, despite his advanced age and protruding stomach. His 5.5 K/BB ratio leads the American League, and his 9.0 K/9 IP places him behind only Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander and Ricky Romero in the junior circuit. Colon has found success by throwing primarily fastballs, and he has been sitting comfortably in the mid-90s with the four-seamer while his two-seamer darts in and out. No one knows if his arm can withstand throwing 100 innings, let alone 150, but the Yankees will ride him for as long as they can.

Despite the early success of his staff's outmoded arms, GM Brian Cashman will look to pick up a pitcher at the trading deadline, and by next year, some of the club’s heralded young arms should be ready. For now, though, the Yankees' pitching and home runs will keep them in the winner's circle.

* * *

Breathing down the Yanks’ necks in the division are the resurgent Tampa Bay Rays, who used the longball last night to walk off against a Jose Bautista-less Blue Jay club. Down 2-1 with one on and one out in the 9th, B.J. Upton lasered a liner into the left-center-field seats to give the Rays another win. Like the Yankees, they went 4-2 this past week, losing twice to the Angels after sweeping the Minnesota Twins.

Last night’s game marked a potential turning point in the Rays' season, as Evan Longoria returned to his spot in the lineup. The club managed to overcome a 1-8 start to land in second in the AL East even without Longoria's services for much of April. His 26-game absence likely cost the team a full win, and his return adds significant depth to a club that has struggled to get on base this year.

* * *

Up in Boston, the Red Sox have ostensibly shaken off their early-season woes as well. After beating the Angels for the sixth time this year, Boston is just a game under .500. Adrian Gonzalez hit only his second home run of the year last night, and even Marco Scutaro, displaced by Jed Lowrie, lifted one out of Fenway.

The club isn’t out of the woods yet, though. Kevin Youkilis has been battling hip discomfort (and an abnormally low .280 BABIP). Josh Beckett, not injured but coming off of a 125-pitch outing, had his start this week pushed back a few days. Plus, the club won't get to beat down on the poor Angels again this year after Los Angeles heads out of town on Thursday.

* * *

As injuries play their roles in shaping the AL East contenders, so too are they impacting the teams on the fringe. The Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista, with his gaudy .530 on-base percentage and AL-leading nine home runs, will miss this week’s series against the Rays with a neck injury. The AL’s April Player of the Month left Sunday’s tilt with the Yankees and underwent an MRI last night. The results showed no injury, but some inflammation, so he’ll rest for a few days.

Bausista supplies nearly all of the Jays’ firepower. They were 2-4 this week but have gone 0-2 without the reigning AL home run champ. If Bautista misses significant time, the Blue Jays would become an even more vulnerable club in a deep division.

* * *

The Orioles brought Vladimir Guerrero to Camden Yards in hopes of augmenting their lineup with some veteran firepower. So far, Guerrero has disappointed, posting just a .673 OPS. Remarkably, it took him 116 plate appearances to draw a base-on-balls. In the sixth inning of last night’s Baltimore loss to the Royals, Guerrero saw seven pitches and walked. For the Orioles, who went 4-3 last week, it was a momentous occasion.

The Orioles have the second-most home runs in the division, and they’ve plated 45.3 percent of their runs via the longball. Baltimore, though, serves as a cautionary example of what can happen when a club hits home runs without getting on base. Their collective OBP is .297, and as a result, they have scored the fewest runs in the American League East. It’s looking like that kind of season for the Orioles, a club perennially on the rise but seemingly making little headway.

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