With one-quarter of the season already in the books, the Yankees find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Not only has the Bronx Bombers’ recent slide dropped the team to within one game of the .500 mark, it has also placed them on the cusp of last place. Should the team eventually hit rock bottom, it would mark the first time since 1990 that the Yankees brought up the rear this late in the season. So, who are these 2012 Yankees and is it time to panic?
The Yankees’ 21-20 record isn’t much worse than it was last season after 41 games (22-19), and the 2011 team wound up coasting to another division title. However, there are some important distinctions, the most obvious being the overall competitiveness of the A.L. East. Last year, when the Yankees were hovering around .500 in May, the team was in second place, just one game behind in the loss column. This year, the Yankees are one game from last place and five off the lead. Granted, the division leading Orioles are probably a good bet to lose steam, but records aside, the A.L. East has all the earmarks of a much improved and more well rounded division.
Even more important than the relative strength of the A.L. East is the lack of consistency that the Yankees have shown all season. It’s hard to point to more than one five-game stretch in which the team has played well in all facets of the game. With the exception of the bullpen, every component of the team has struggled for a significant stretch, making it difficult to assess exactly what kind of team the Yankees have, much less how they will be able to turn it around.
The Yankees’ most glaring problem so far has been the starting rotation, which ranks 26th in the majors with a 4.93 ERA. The starters have also been prone to the long ball, allowing over 1.6 per nine innings, a pace that would be the highest in franchise history. Even more discouraging than the aggregate totals has been the level of inconsistency. Only one time through the rotation has each starter posted a game score above 50 (which is the baseline rate); not surprisingly, the Yankees went 5-1 in that span. Setting the bar even lower, the rotation has managed three consecutive outings with a game score above 45 over only one other stretch, and for the entire season has posted the third lowest quality start percentage in all of baseball.
Source: baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com
Some people might counter the poor performance of the Yankees’ rotation by its xFIP of 3.73, which is a fielding independent version of ERA utilizing a normalized HR rate. It’s perfectly reasonable to use xFIP as the basis for predicting some improvement, but how much can be expected? After all, xFIP discounts the staff’s very real HR vulnerability, not to mention what is probably the team’s greatest deficiency: defense.
Fielding metrics are far from gospel, but just about every measure suggests the Yankees defense has been very poor, with some even implying historic proportions. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Park Adjusted Defensive Efficency (PADE) rating, the Yankees’ current rate of -3.98 not only ranks as the third worst in the majors, but it would also qualify as by far the lowest franchise total since at least 1950. The presumed return of Brett Gardner should go along way toward vastly improving the team’s defense, but the exact timing still hinges on a very important MRI. What’s more, as great as Gardner is with the glove, the Yankees’ defensive struggles have seemed to be systemic. Needless to say, a weak defense behind a rotation that is prone to the homerun isn’t a recipe for success. so if that dynamic persists, the Yankees could be in trouble.
Note: For perspective, in its glossary definition of PADE, BP describes a reading of -2.41 as “horrendous”.
Over the years, the Yankees’ offense has usually been more than capable of compensating for its deficiencies, but lately, that hasn’t been the case. In May, the Bronx Bombers have been shooting blanks, scoring only 3.6 runs per game thanks in large part to long stretches of futility with runners in scoring position. As a result of the malaise, the Yankees’ offense now ranks a more pedestrian seventh in terms of runs scored per game and well behind the league leaders. Compounding the team’s decline in run production has been a developing hole in the middle of the lineup as both Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez have significantly underperformed expectations. Considering the extent to which Derek Jeter and Raul Ibanez have hit above the curve, it stands to reason that unless Teixeira and Arod re-emerge, the Yankees’ offense will not be able to rise to its past levels. That doesn’t mean the lineup can’t be good, but considering the concern about the pitching and defense, the real question is whether it can be good enough.
If there’s one area of the team upon which the Yankees’ can hang their hat, it’s the bullpen. Even with the monumental losses of Mariano Rivera and David Robertson, the relievers have continued to pitch well. The unit ranks sixth in the majors with an ERA of 2.69 and third with a strikeout rate of 9.5 per game. However, can the bullpen sustain that level, especially if Robertson’s strained oblique is slow to heal? Besides, is that really how the 2012 Yankees want to be defined? Although a dominant bullpen is an important complementary piece for a winning ballclub, it’s hard to be successful when the greatest strength is used relatively infrequently and its ability to add value is entirely dependent on the rest of the team.
So, who are the 2012 Yankees? Despite being two months into the season, that remains a very difficult question to answer. No one should be surprised if the final outcome is another division title, but because of the team’s ongoing identity crisis, the downside risk appears much greater than in recent seasons. That’s why fans of different persuasions, ranging from eternal optimists to habitual pessimists, are likely to come away with wildly different opinions. Of course, the most important perspective belongs to Brian Cashman. Does he think the team is good enough to stand pat, or will reinforcements be needed? On more than a few occasions over the years, Cashman has had to confront a similar fork in the road, and, for the most part, he has usually taken the right path. However, this season could be one of his greatest challenges, and how he responds could go along way toward establishing an identity for the team. In the meantime, you can bet the entire organization desperately wants to avoid being defined as the “last place Yankees”.