Coming into the season, the New York Yankees had cause for optimism. Alex Rodriguez had been re-signed, they had a fresh face in the dugout in Joe Girardi, and a youth movement of sorts was underway. Add all of that to a deeply talented roster, and PECOTA tabbed the Yankees for 96 wins and the best record in baseball. As it turned out, reality has provided something else entirely. Presently, the Yanks are in fifth place in the AL East and six-and-a-half games behind the much-loathed Red Sox. If paces hold, then the Yankees will miss the postseason for the first time since 1993, and finish with a losing record for the first time since 1992. Needless to say, there’s plenty of time for them to reverse their fortunes, but will they?
Third-order wins isn’t especially fond of the Yankees’ body of work in 2008, so in the peripheral sense there’s nothing out of sorts about New York’s struggles. Certainly, the offense (which had been respectable enough, ranking ninth overall in team EqA) figures to improve now that Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada are healthy, and Robinson Cano is sorta-kinda hitting again. Of course, the offense hasn’t been the problem.
What’s likely going to undo the Yankees this season is their inability to keep runs off of the board. Presently, the Yankees rank a mere 24th in Defensive Efficiency, which is certainly part of the problem. The infield defense is a more specific concern. In terms of fielding, the Yankee infielders are either thoroughly inept (Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi), measurably sub-optimal (Robinson Cano), or merely average (Alex Rodriguez). That’s a troubling state of affairs for a team that has one of the most groundball-inclined pitching staffs in the American League. As currently constructed, the Yankee defense and Yankee pitching staff don’t figure to dovetail any better as the season goes on.
Speaking of the Yankee pitching staff, it has other issues. The rotation has been a liability thus far, and that’s why Yankee brass has opted to make Joba Chamberlain into a starter. As Joe Sheehan wisely notes, deploying Chamberlain as a starter maximizes his value and puts him in a role in which he’s succeeded in the past. The rotation will be better for it. But the bullpen? It’ll be a mess without Chamberlain, and it’s likely to get worse as time goes by.
The Yankees rank second in the AL in relief innings, and second in the AL in pitches thrown by relievers. For the most part, this is a consequence of Yankee starters’ inability to go deep into games. This season, Yankee starters have averaged just 5.3 innings per start, while the AL average is 5.9 innings per start, so the Yankees are comfortably below average in this regard. The result is an overworked bullpen. This was a genuine concern before Chamberlain was removed from the mix; now that Chamberlain is in the rotation, the bullpen becomes that much more of a trouble spot. In particular, succor in middle relief is sorely lacking.
Take a gander at the Relievers’ Expected Wins Added report, and you’ll find that the top-rated Yankee reliever not named Mariano Rivera or Joba Chamberlain, Kyle Farnsworth, who checks in at 72nd overall. So Farnsworth is now the Yankees’ front-line middleman. That’s what he was originally signed to be, and as hard experience proved, it didn’t turn out so good. Once you remove Chamberlain’s numbers from the calculus, Yankee middle relievers have a cumulative ERA of 4.62. Specifically, they’re going to have to find better setup options from the right side than Farnsworth, Brian Bruney, and LaTroy Hawkins.
So, in the pen they’re without Chamberlain and they’re fatigued, and save for Chien-Ming Wang no one presently in the rotation seems capable of consistently going deep into games. (That last will remain the case, even after Ian Kennedy and Philip Hughes return, whenever that may be.) As bad as the Yankee middle relievers have been thus far, they’re likely to fare worse going forward, barring personnel changes. They’ll fatigue more, and they’ll be working more high-leverage innings now that Chamberlain is no longer among them. Certainly, it’s possible for teams to overcome weak setup men, but let’s keep in mind that the Yankees are working from behind, and they’re in baseball’s toughest division. Under such circumstances, there’s no such thing as an insignificant flaw.
Let us remember that, on the whole, the Yankees have the oldest hitters and the oldest pitchers in the AL. Generally speaking, that’s not an arrangement that lends itself to improvement. While the decision to move Chamberlain to the rotation is eminently sensible in a vacuum, a team like the Yankees is particularly ill-suited to absorb such a division-of-labor shift. Good lineup, bad defense, bad middle relievers, suspect rotation… that describes this year’s Yankee model, and that’s why they’re not going to get back in the race in the absence of drastic changes.