Because the Yankees have done well despite suffering several significant injuries, many have dismissed the team’s recent struggles. After all, if you had asked him on Opening Day, Joe Girardi probably would have signed up for .500 at this point in the season, the argument goes, so at 30-22, the Yankees are still way ahead of the game. That logic makes some sense, and it is certainly comforting during a four-game losing streak, but it is both unfair to the team’s pitchers and overly generous to its owner.
The Yankees are not lucky to be in their current position, and they haven’t been using smoke and mirrors to fool the rest of the league. Rather, the Bronx Bombers have excelled because of a strong pitching staff that ranks among the league leaders and, on a pro rated basis, stacks up against the best in franchise history. To date, Yankees’ pitchers have allowed 14% fewer runs than the American League average, which is well within the top quartile of franchise seasons. In terms of ERA+, the staff’s rate of 115 would be the fifth best mark since 1961. By just about every measure, the Yankees are allowing fewer runs on a relative basis when compared to past performance.
With such a dominant pitching staff, the Yankees should already be printing playoff tickets. Whenever the team has prevented runs at a similar rate, they’ve usually ended up playing deep into October (19 of 23 applicable seasons). However, in all but two of those years, the Yankees complemented a strong pitching staff with a potent offense. Such is not the case this season.
Because the pitching has been so good, many have ascribed some of the Yankees’ success to the team’s lineup of reclamation projects, but the organization doesn’t deserve credit for scouring the scrap heap to build an offense. With only 4.17 runs per game scored, the Bronx Bombers are fielding one of the weakest lineups in team history. On a relative runs scored per game basis, the Yankees are underperforming by 7%, which represents the 10th worst rate in the franchise’s 113 seasons. The offense’s corresponding OPS+ of 93 is also the sixth lowest mark since 1961 and worst since 1990, when illustrious names like Bob Geren, Alvaro Espinoza, and Oscar Azocar filled out the lineup card. Needless to say, in the 10 seasons when the Yankees scored at a similar rate, they failed to make the post season. In fact, in the 23 seasons when the Yankees scored fewer runs per game than the league, they only played into October twice (1981 and 1996) and compiled a regular season winning percentage of .470.
Source: baseball-reference.com and proprietary calculations
Based on the team’s strong pitching and weak offense, as well as the modest run differential the two have yielded, the Yankees probably are fortunate to be one game out of first place. However, that doesn’t absolve the team’s hierarchy for its austerity inspired off season. Instead of thinking about how well the Yankees have done with a depleted offense, it’s at least equally relevant to ask how much better they might have been if, for example, the team re-signed Nick Swisher and Russell Martin and did more to bolster its position player depth? It’s impossible to know exactly what the Yankees’ record would be under such circumstances, but when you consider the potential opportunity cost of the organization’s off season decisions, it dispels the notion that the team is currently playing with house money.
For the first 48 games of the season, the Yankees’ pitching staff carried the team. However, in the last four games, they’ve had a few hiccups. That was to be expected from a group performing at historic levels. Although there’s good reason to believe the Yankees’ pitching staff will continue to be one of the game’s best, some regression is also likely. Can the offense, which has only won two games when the Yankees have allowed more than four runs, compensate if the pitching takes a step back? The answer to that question will determine the Yankees’ fate.
With Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis getting ready to return to the lineup, the offense should get a boost. However, even after their return, the lineup will include several struggling hitters, so, the two corner infielders will not give the Yankees a circular batting order. When you further consider Teixeira’s propensity for slow starts and Youkilis’ diminished recent track record, the level of optimism is further mitigated. Nonetheless, it is upon these two hitters that the Yankees’ hopes rely because the rest of the cavalry isn’t close to returning.
Once Teixeira and Youkilis return, the Yankees’ lineup will be set for at least another month. Whether or not the Yankees have been playing with house money to this point, going forward they’ll being coming out of pocket. And, if the offense doesn’t improve, Hal Steinbrenner may be forced to do the same.