If you’re reading this column, the idea that the Yankees are stricken with defensive inadequacies probably won’t elicit anything in the way of a guffaw or spit-take. That’s to say, it hardly qualifies as breaking news. As James Click pointed out in his recent piece on Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rankings, the Yankees had one of the worst team defenses in baseball this season. And most of the blame lies up the middle.

Derek Jeter‘s range at short calls to mind an on-duty piano hauler simultaneously encumbered with the dual burdens of Job and Frodo. In center, Bernie Williams‘ routes on fly balls reminds one of the stock-price chart of some high-beta outfit from the semi-conductor sector. And, as he demonstrated in the ALDS, Williams has the throwing arm of your garden-variety French intellectual.

I’m done making cheap jokes, but I will add that Alfonso Soriano at the keystone is as erratic as Peter Buck after a bottle-and-a-half of airline Chardonnay. OK, now I’m really done… Except to say that sneaking a base hit through the middle against the Yankees is easier than beating Vin Diesel at Trivial Pursuit. Moving along…

The poor glovework, besides costing the Yankees runs, has served to obscure what’s been an excellent pitching staff. And when I say “excellent,” I mean an excellence of historical proportions.

The Yankees in 2003 finished a commendable but unspectacular fourth in the American League in runs allowed. However, if we confine our attention to those elements over which pitchers wield the most control, the Yankee staff fares much better. They finished second to Oakland in the AL in home runs allowed and second to Boston in the AL in strikeouts. It gets better.

They allowed the fewest walks of any staff since the 1968 Giants (yes, that would be the “Year of the Pitcher”). What’s more, they not only led the majors in K/BB ratio, but they posted, as a staff, the best K/BB ratio in the history of the American League (2.984). Overall, they rank third in major league history in K/BB ratio behind only the ’02 Diamondbacks (3.095) and the ’66 Dodgers (3.045).

Rk  Team		 K/BB
1.  '02 Diamondbacks	3.095
2.  '66 Dodgers		3.045
3.  '03 Yankees		2.984
4.  '02 Yankees		2.816
5.  '01 Diamondbacks	2.813
6.  '94 Expos		2.795
7.  '96 Braves		2.761	
8.  '67 Twins		2.750
9.  '90 Mets		2.741
10. '68 Giants		2.738

Normalize the numbers to the league average, and the ’03 Yanks look even stronger:

			 K/BB  Percent of League
Rk  Team		Ratio	  K/BB ratio
1.  '02 Diamondbacks	3.095	      160
2.  '03 Yankees		2.984	      154
3.  '90 Mets		2.741         153
4.  '02 Yankees		2.816	      146
5.  '66 Dodgers		3.045         144
6.  '94 Expos		2.795	      143
7.  '88 Mets		2.723	      143
8.  '67 Twins		2.750	      138
9.  '01 Yankees		2.723	      137
10. '96 Braves		2.761	      136

In stathead circles, the K/BB ratio has become synonymous with the somewhat amorphous notion of “command.” And in terms of command relative the league, this year’s Yankee model is second only to the ’02 Snakes.

To be fair, Yankee Stadium this year played as a modest pitcher’s park, suppressing run scoring by about five percent. In contrast the BOB provided a slight boost to the offense last season. It’s hard to argue that the Yankees had better pitching, but it’s worth noting that the D’backs had a tremendous amount of their staff value tied up in two arms–Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

Together, Johnson and Schilling combined for almost exactly half of Arizona’s strikeouts in 2002, and without them as part of the calculus the staff had a rather middling 2.06 K/BB ratio. Take out the top two innings contributors from the Yankees–Mike Mussina and David Wells–and the Yankees are left with a 2.61 K/BB ratio. Incidentally, Mussina and Wells have the best K/BB ratios of any Yankee qualifier.

The upshot is that the Yankee staff is an excellent one, and one that will probably ignored by history because of the ineptitude of the Yankee defense. While the offense was praiseworthy, finishing third in the AL in runs scored, it was the pitching staff (and the rotation in particular) that was prevailing strength of the 2003 Yankees.

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