One week ago, the New York Yankees had the third best record in the majors, and were in first place in the AL East, a game up on the Tampa Bay Rays. Here we are just seven days later, and the team is three out in the East, tied with Boston and Toronto, and only sits a game above .500. What the hell happened? The Yankees didn’t just suddenly get bad overnight. They’ve had some glaring holes all season, and over the past week, those holes have come up and have beaten the team’s brains in to the tune of six straight losses, five of which came in the Bronx. What’s wrong with the team? Is this losing streak a harbinger of things to come?
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: the New York Yankees are not a bad team. Thery’re a damn good team. They’re also an aging veteran team, and with that age comes decline in performance. The youngest of the team’s nine regular starters is Brett Gardner, at 27. Three starters, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Alex Rodriguez, are all 35 or older. Their starting rotation is more of the same, with Ivan Nova being the only one of the five that’s still in his 20s. And like with the offense, the age seems to be catching up to most of the staff.
We’ll examine the offense first. The Yankees offense cumulatively has a line of .248/.333/.441, making it one of the best in the league. But fans still complain about the struggles of the team, which are not unfounded. Every one of the nine Yankees starters has a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of under .300, which is the league average, aside from Gardner at .301. But the only one who’s been disastrously unlucky is Jorge Posada at .164, which you’d expect from an aging, injury-laden former catcher moonlighting as a DH. The incident last weekend with Posada and Joe Girardi was totally silly, just because of how wrong Posada was. You’re a struggling hitter, and you expect to keep your spot in the middle of the lineup? How long is the team supposed to throw you a bone like that?
The team’s plate discipline has been very good, with six of the nine starters having walk rates above 10%. The only three that aren’t are Robinson Cano (whose career rate is under 5%), Jeter (another one of those aging veterans who has also cut his strikeout rate to go along with his dropping walk rate), and Curtis Granderson, who is right around his career average. Granderson has been by far the team’s best hitter in the early going, pacing the team with 14 homers. He’s turning into the player many expected him to turn into after his trade to the Yankees prior to the 2010 season. He’s been the one hitter on the team living up to his potential. Catcher Russell Martin, signed in the offseason in a gamble that he’d revert to his All-Star form, has bounced back very nicely and is absolutely living up to his contract. But he’s one hell of an injury prone catcher, and you have to wonder if he’ll be getting hurt again in the future, as it seems like he always have.
Most of the criticisms of the team have fallen on the shoulders of the veterans, like Jeter and Posada. Alex Rodriguez started off hot, but is now showing every bit of his 35 years. After a career year last year, Nick Swisher has fallen back onto hard times with his typical low batting average showing its nasty self again. After a disappointing 2010, Mark Teixeira, a notorious slow starter, hasn’t taken off to the superstar level the team has expected. It’s not just the “true Yankees” who are struggling, it’s also the high priced acquisitions who were brought into town to be superstars. Oddly, it’s the under the radar, low budget acquisitions like Martin and Granderson who are doing most of the damage for the offense.
Of the Yankees five starting pitchers, only CC Sabathia is living up to his promise. Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, who were brought in to be possible competitors for the back end of the rotation, now own the third and fourth spots in the order due to the ineffectiveness of Phil Hughes. Both men are giving up home runs like they’re going out of style and throwing nowhere near as hard as they did just a few years ago. That’s to be expected with age, but guys like that aren’t supposed to be in the middle of the rotation for a contender. Ivan Nova is performing about as well as expected at the back end, despite walking nearly as many hitters as he’s striking out. He’s been a prototypical fifth starter on an AL team, but he’s the worst one of the three fifth starters the Yankees are trotting out there. And then, there’s AJ Burnett. The level of vitriol fans have for this guy is off the charts. In his tenure as a Yankee, he’s striking out fewer batters than he did in his heyday with Toronto, walking more, and he’s a walking home run machine. He’s still under contract for two more seasons after this one, and at this point, he’s no better than a three or a four on a contender.
The New York bullpen has been anchored by two men: the ageless Mariano Rivera, and David Robertson. Rivera has been his usual dominant self, while Robertson is a poor man’s Craig Kimbrel: lots of strikeouts, lots of walks, and he’s keeping the ball in the park. That’s more than can be said of former wunderkind Joba Chamberlain, who is starting to look more like just a bullpen guy than a dominant late game reliever. Free agent signee Rafael Soriano, expected to be the heir apparent to Rivera, has been beyond awful for the team.
What’s my verdict on the Yankees? They are definitely a talented enough team to stick around in the AL East race for most of the season. But they might just have too many things catching up with them this year. Toronto has the best player in the league, Boston has the best mix of young and old, and Tampa has (and it pains me to say this) the ability to small ball their way to the best of them without relying on a big homer to get them through the game. I think the Yankees will rebound and make a race of things in the East, but I don’t think they’re going to make the playoffs unless something drastic happens.