If you had told me before the season that the Yankees would be without Michael Pineda for the year, Mariano Rivera for all but three weeks, Brett Gardner for all but a month, Andy Pettitte for eight weeks in the middle of the season and C.C. Sabathia for three weeks around the All-Star Break, I would’ve predicted a .500 or slightly better record at midseason and an upward climb to catch the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays. Instead, the Bombers have the best record in baseball (52-33) and hold a commanding seven-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles (the Orioles?!) in the AL East heading into the All-Star Break.
How? Across-the-board consistency. None of the Yankees are dominating their position, with the notable exception of Robbie Cano. But the team is fourth in the American League in runs scored and third in runs allowed. The Yanks win a high percentage of close games because of their top-flight bullpen and have a staggering 134 home runs on the season, seven more than second-place Toronto and 49 above the MLB median. So far, that has been enough. Now for the midseason awards…
MVP: Cano. Forget Most Valuable Yankee — Cano has Josh Hamilton in his sights in the AL MVP race. The best second baseman in the majors has gotten better each month of the season:
If you’re scoring at home, that’s mediocre rotational player/cleanup hitter/Barry Bonds circa 2003/mid-90s Larry Walker. Despite a naggingly effective shift against Cano (first used by Rays’ mad scientist manager Joe Maddon, who puts the shortstop behind second base when Cano bats), he has dominated pitchers the last six weeks by going after the few good pitches he gets each day. Cano’s newfound aggression has hurt his strikeout total (45Ks in his last 63 games), but it’s been worth it for the 38 extra-base hits he has in those games — 19 HR, 18 doubles and one triple. Cano has a legitimate chance to go 40-40 in homers and doubles.
Amazingly, there’s still much room for improvement. Cano is hitting just .193/.327/.325 in 83 at-bats with runners in scoring position, a befuddling stat for someone of his baseball caliber. If those numbers regress towards a .300/.350/.550 mean in the second half — and they should — Cano could pick up another 20 RBIs and 30-35 runs produced without any other improvement.
Curtis Granderson produced 255 runs in his breakout 2011 season, best in the majors. With roughly half the season still to play, Cano has produced 108 despite hitting below the Mendoza Line in the most obvious run-producing situations. Do the math. It could be a special second half for the Yankees’ best player.
LVP: Russell Martin. The Yanks’ second-year catcher was not brought in to be the second coming of Johnny Bench, but it’d be nice if he could hit better than Austin Romine. After a mediocre-but-acceptable 2011 hitting campaign, Martin has been stuck below the dreaded Mendoza Line for virtually the entire season. His putrid .179/.300/.348 line is among the worst for MLB catchers — only Miami’s John Buck and San Diego’s Nick Hundley are comparably bad among starters. That’s not good company to be in. Unsurprisingly, Martin has been even worse in clutch situations. His .111/.158/.194 line in 38 plate appearances with runners in scoring position and two outs is so horrendous it belongs in the minors, or a rec softball league.
Despite his positive rapport with most of the Yankee pitchers and his above-average defense behind the plate, Martin has been playing less and less of late. After playing in just 16 of the team’s first 60 games, backup catcher Chris Stewart has played in 13 of the last 25, hitting a robust .277 in those games. When your backup catcher has a batting average 100 points higher than your regular catcher, you have a problem. Now that Stewart has become the personal catcher for ace C.C. Sabathia, Martin’s importance has diminished even further. He’s still the starting catcher as of now, but it’s been a long road down for a guy who made the All-Star team last season.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: The bullpen. No facet of the Yankees’ dominant first half has been more shocking than the bullpen’s response after Rivera tore his ACL shagging flies on an otherwise cheerful May afternoon in Kansas City. Despite losing Rivera for the year, dabbling briefly with David Robertson as the closer and then losing Robertson for a month, the Yanks have the sixth-best bullpen ERA at 3.20, a virtual dead heat with chief AL rivals Texas and Los Angeles (each at 3.16). Behind superlative work from Soriano, the ‘pen has converted on 27 of 34 save opportunities, fourth-best in the AL. Take away Rivera’s inexplicable opening day blown save and Clay Rapada’s double play misadventures in a late loss to the ChiSox on June 28, and that percentage is 85.2, best in the AL.
No reliever has been better than Soriano, who is finally making GM Brian Cashman look smart for that three-year, $35 million deal he signed the former Rays’ closer to before last season. If we’ve learned anything from Soriano’s spastic tenure with the Yankees (other than Don’t Throw First-Pitch Fastballs To Delmon Young, of course) is that’s Soriano is much, much more comfortable in the familiar role of closer than he is as a setup man. Since taking over the closer spot for Mo in mid-May, Soriano has converted 20 of 21 save opportunities and displayed the knee-buckling breaking ball that made him a two-pitch force in Tampa. With an ERA of 1.60 and a WHIP of 1.34, he’s more John Wetteland than Rivera. But a Wetteland-type season of 40+ saves and a World Series MVP award would obviously work just fine.
BIGGEST WEAKNESS: Clutch hitting. The Yankees have, from top to bottom, the second-strongest lineup in the majors behind Texas. Yet they’re terrible with runners in scoring position. No, not terrible — fetid. The team is hitting .231/.335/.418 with RISP, worst in the AL. The next worst is Seattle at .242, a full 11 points higher. With runners in scoring position and two outs, the Yanks are .212/.219/.363, again worst in the AL. And with the bases loaded, they’re .188/.257/.388, once again worst in the AL. Come up with some obscure RISP stat — second and third w/one out, runner on third with two outs in night games — and I can almost guarantee the Yanks would be the worst in the AL at it.
From Cano on down, the Yankee hitters have infected each other with the anti-clutch gene. Among regulars, Jeter has the best RISP average at .266, hardly a laudable figure. Swisher’s at .263, and then it gets downright ugly for the Yanks’ top hitters: A-Rod (.215), Teixeira (.244), Granderson (.243), and as I mentioned earlier, Cano at .193.
A great tennis player who only converts 10% of his break point chances is destined to lose the big matches (eg Roger Federer in his recent Grand Slam finals against Rafael Nadal). If the Yankees can’t convert more of their scoring opportunities, they won’t win in the postseason no matter how homer-happy they are.
BEST MOMENT: The quality start streak. Yeah, it’s not really a moment. But given the rash of injuries that has swept through the Yankees’ staff (Michael Pineda’s shoulder, Pettitte’s femur, Sabathia’s thigh, Freddy Garcia’s baseball ability), the staff’s performance in early June was nothing short of miraculous. From June 3 to June 18, a stretch of 14 games, Yankee starters had an astonishing 13 quality starts (defined as at least six innings pitched with three or fewer earned runs). The lone non-quality start? A seven inning, 4ER performance by Sabathia in a 6-4 win over the Braves on June 12. Yankee opponents totaled 30 runs in the 13 games for a scant 2.3 runs per game, and seven of those runs came in the Yanks’ only loss during that stretch, a 7-3 defeat to the Rays. Take that game out and the Yanks held opponents to about 1.9 runs a game for nearly half a month. When the streak started, the Yanks were 1.5 games behind the Orioles and Rays in the AL East. When it ended, the Bombers were 2.5 games up on Baltimore, and they haven’t looked back since.
WORST MOMENT: Rivera tears his ACL. Ugh. Read my day-of post, “Darkest Night“, for the gory details.
SECOND-HALF X FACTOR: Starting pitching health. A facile answer, sure, but it’s the truth. Assuming Sabathia returns from his thigh muscle strain at 100 percent — a fair assumption unless the Yankee brass has been lying about the severity of his injury — the Yankees will have a powerful 1-2 punch with Sabathia and Nova, along with a solid Game 4 playoff starter in Hiroki Kuroda. The real question marks are Pettitte and Phil Hughes. At 40, Pettitte may have more trouble recovering from his broken ankle than most pitchers, and after he was injured in July 2010, his last full season, he was not the same pitcher in the second half. Meanwhile, Hughes has only strung together one full season in his six years with the Yankees, an 18-8 campaign two years ago. The Yankees need at least one of the Pettitte-Hughes duo to be in top form come October, or it will be another early playoff exit for New York.
PREDICTION: ALCS loss to Texas. Why am I backing off my preseason prediction of a Yankees’ World Series title now? Because as well as the Yanks have played this season, the Rangers have too much talent. If the Yankees don’t improve their clutch hitting and continue to rely on the longball for offense, a first-round playoff series win will be as far as they go.