(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)
When the Yankees landed in Detroit on Monday, it looked like an opportunity to make some hay. However, the team’s suddenly slumbering lumber conspired with several miscues in the field and on the bases to send the Yankees limping to Texas with three losses.
Historically, the Yankees have struggled to score in Comerica Park, so the week’s drought shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. In the 47 games played since the park opened in 2000, the Yankees have only hit 38 home runs and averaged 4.7 runs per contest.
Yankees at Comerica Park, 2000-2011
Although the Motown slowdown was in keeping with past results, the Yankees’ recent swoon extends back even further. Over the last 11 games, the team has averaged only four runs, including a 12-run outburst against the White Sox. If you remove that game from the equation, the team’s average run total drops all the way to three. Not surprisingly, the Yankees have gone 5-6 over this period.
Before the season, most fans probably would have expected the pitching staff to be the root cause of an extended lull. However, responsibility for the Yankees’ first down period falls squarely on the shoulders of the offense. Ironically, if not for the team’s strong starting pitching, the current stretch of 11 games could have been even more costly.
It’s easy to identify the source of the Yankees’ recent woes, but figuring out the reason behind the diagnosis is a much harder task. After all, before the Yankees’ returned home to face the White Sox on April 25, the offense was averaging a whopping six runs per game. So, the question remains, what is behind this recent spiral?
Contrary to what you’d expect, the Yankees have actually increased their line drive percentage and BABIP over the last seven games (fangraphs database does not allow for customized breakouts). The team has even seen a significant uptick in its walk rate. All three of these metrics have at least a slight positive correlation with run production, so the resultant precipitous decline seems out of place.
Yankees’ Contact Profile, Season vs. Last Seven
The pink elephant has been the team’s home run rate. Before April 25, the Yankees had hit 36 long balls, or an average of two per game, but since then, only 10 round trippers have been hit, or less than one per game. This disturbing trend is also evident in the team’s batted ball data over the last seven games. At one point, almost 20% of all Yankees’ fly balls were leaving the ballpark, but over the last week, that rate declined to only 9.1%.
Although the Yankees’ offense has started to pick up the pace in other areas, the gradual improvements have not been significant enough to compensate for the decline in home run production. Even if the Yankees have been as unlucky as this recent xBABIP analysis conducted by River Avenue Blues suggests, it would take a remarkable streak of good fortune to make up for a sustained loss of power. In other words, the Yankees need to hit the long ball (not exactly an earth shattering conclusion, I know). But, what happens when they don’t?
Even when the Yankees were racking up home runs, a common lament was that the team was too reliant upon them. And, in many ways, that concern has been borne out over the past 11 games. Although hitting home runs has always been, and should be, the cornerstone of the team’s offense, concerns about the lineup’s ability to diversify aren’t unfounded. One indication is the team’s speed score, which has fallen to 4.0, and lagged at 2.9 during the past week. Over the past decade, the Yankees’ runs per game has correlated almost as strongly to its speed number as home runs, so the team’s station-to-station approach bears watching. Several of Baseball Prospectus’ baserunning metrics also tell a similar story.
Run Correlations (R): Home Runs and Speed Number
* Speed Score is composed of the following components: Stolen base percentage, stolen base attempts as a percentage of opportunities, triples, double plays grounded into as a percentage of opportunities, and runs scored as a percentage of times on base.
One final thing to consider about the Yankees’ recent slump is the schedule. Before April 23, the team had played only one stretch of at least five consecutive games. Since then, however, the Yankees have played 13 straight. Considering the lineup’s average age of 31.6, slower bats as well as increased aches and pains could be the manifestation of this first prolonged stretch of games, and a sharp decline in power could be the result. Unfortunately, the recent injury to Eric Chavez mitigates the strength of the Yankees’ bench, making it less likely that the team can afford to rest its older veterans.
When you are dealing with small samples, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why performance deviates from an expected norm. Usually, by the time you think you’ve found an answer, a correction has already taken place. With a little bit of luck, better contact, and a return to normal power levels, the Yankees offense should once again pace the major leagues. Of course, if the performance of the starting rotation also starts to mirror expectations, the question will become is that good enough?