Tuesday, July 14, 2009

First Half: A Roller Coaster

The Yankees have taken us on a wild a ride this first half. They survived Alex Rodriguez's hip injury, taken us to some great highs (stretches when they went 19-6 and 13-2) and crushed us with some devastating lows (a five-game losing streak and a 4-9 stretch of horrid play).

The overall outlook is pretty good. The Yankees are 51-37, the third-best record in baseball and second-best in the AL, three games worse than the AL East-leading Red Sox.

That's the Yankees' best first-half record since going 50-36 in 2006. That season the Yankees were also three games behind the Red Sox at the break and went on to win the division. If the Yankees' trend of having very strong second halves holds true, you have to like the Yankees' chances of surpassing the Red Sox and winning the division for the first time since '06 -- though past performance is not a guarantee of future success.

But that's a long way off. Let's look back:

The Good
The Yankees survived the first five weeks of the season without Rodriguez, thanks in large part to Nick Swisher, who hit .312 with seven homers and 19 RBI in April. The Yankees stood at 13-15 and tied for third, 5-1/2 games behind the Blue Jays with A-Rod returned on May 8.

A-Rod came back at just the right time as the Yankees were in the midst of a five-game losing streak. He homered in his first at-bat against the Orioles' Jeremy Guthrie in Baltimore, and just like that, the Yankees' fortunes changed. A few games later, the team started a nine-game winning streak and by May 30, the Yankees were sitting 1-1/2 games in front of the Red Sox in the division.

The team has also shown a remarkable ability to bounce back, winning 25 games in come-from-behind fashion. They also have shown the ability to rebound in the standings. After dropping 9 of 13 during one stretch in June, the Yankees stood at 38-32, tied for second, five games behind the Sox on June 23. The went on to win 13 of 15 to climb back into a tie for the division lead, before dropping the last three games of the half.

As a team, the offense has been dominant, ranking first in the majors in runs (495), homers (132), OBP (.358), slugging (.471), OPS (.828) and walks (373). It's second in batting average (.276) and has the fifth fewest strikeouts (531).

The pitching has been extremely streaky and the numbers reflect that. The highlights actually come out of the bullpen, which is best in the majors in OBP (.308), second in batting average against (.229), second in WHIP (1.26) and third in strikeouts (258).

Individually, Derek Jeter is having a terrific season. Any issues with his range defensively have not been noticeable and offensively he's primed for a huge year, hitting .321 with 110 hits, 10 homers, 56 runs and 17 stolen bases.

Mark Teixeira got off to a rough start, but took off when A-Rod returned and is hitting .278 with 21 homers and 63 RBI. But the thing that may be most undervalued about him is his defense. He is flawless at first and he makes everyone on that infield better, not only because of his ability to scoop bad throws, but because of his leadership in making sure everyone is positioned properly.

A-Rod, while still working his way back into form, has still hit 17 homers with 50 RBI in about 2-1/2 months, though he's hitting only .256.

Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera have been a better combination in center than anyone had a right to expect. The combined numbers overall (including games in which Melky has plays the corner positions) are .283 with 72 runs, 11 homers, 53 RBI and 23 SBs. Melky has been particularly adept at getting clutch, late-inning hits, while Gardner has added a key speed dimension the Yankees have lacked for some time.

Rookies Francisco Cervelli and Ramiro Pena also stepped in to do credible jobs as fill-ins and injury replacements. Their defense is major league-ready, their bats serviceable and their enthusiasm infectious.

After an inconsistent first two month in New York, A.J. Burnett has settled down and won four of his last five starts in dominating fashion. He leads the staff with an 8-4 record, 3.77 ERA and 101 strikeouts.

After a horrible first two months, the bullpen settled down in June as Phil Hughes was sent to the 'pen and seized the eighth-inning role that had become the team's Achilles' heel. He's allowed two runs in 18-1/3 innings (0.98) ERA with 19 strikeouts as a reliever, setting up nicely for Mariano Rivera, who despite some shaky moments early in the season, has recorded 23 saves in 24 opportunities with a 2.43 ERA.

Meanwhile, Alfredo Aceves has emerged as a jack-of-all trades since been called up as a long man in May. He's 5-1 with a 2.49 ERA in 43-1/3 innings spanning 22 outings. In many respects, he's been this team's MVP.

The Bad
As great as the highs were, the lows were beyond awful. Start with the Yankees losing all eight games they played against the Red Sox. The games weren't close and the Yankees were thoroughly outplayed.

There was also a five-game losing streak that included two losses to the Sox, and that 4-13 stretch in which they lost 2 of 3 against both the Nationals and Marlins (though the Marlins are in second place in the NL East, but only 46-44).

And of course, there was the three-game sweep in Anaheim against a short-handed Angels team to end the first half. The Yankees went 2-12 against the Sox and Angels in the first half -- an issue that does not bode well for the playoffs.

The big problem with the offensive is its hitting with runners in scoring position (.265), which ranks somewhere around 10th (unfortunately, ESPN.com's splits for RISP are incomplete and I have not been able to find a better source, other than my own Yankees tabulation). Just to compare, the Angels are hitting about .294 with RISP and the Sox .281, which could explain a large percentage of the Yankees' troubles with those teams.

The pitching numbers overall look awful, ranking 23rd in ERA (4.54), 26th quality starts (38), fifth worst in runs (435), 22nd in slugging (.427) and third worst in homers (112). The starters are 24th in ERA (4.76), sixth worst in runs (292), third worst in walks (210), 28th in OBP (.347), 24th in OPS (.780) and 25th in WHIP (1.45).

The bullpen has allowed the most homers in the majors (47), is 22nd in ERA (4.19), sixth worst in runs (143), 22nd in slugging (.417) and has thrown the eighth most innings (283-1/3).

In some respects, looking at those pitching numbers, it's amazing the Yankees have won 51 games, though it does explain how this team can look so bad when it's offense isn't clicking.

Individually, Joba Chamberlain has regressed since a dominant 8-inning performance against the Indians in early June. He's 4-2 with a 4.25 ERA, but is averaging only 5-1/3 innings a start.

Andy Pettitte, like the team, has been inconsistent. His outing have either been very, very good, or very, very bad. His record is good at 8-4, but the ERA (4.85) and walks (44) are too high.

CC Sabathia was brought in to be the ace. He was awful in April, terrific in May and up-and-down since. The result is a mediocre 8-6 record. And of course, there's Chien-Ming Wang, derailed by injuries in what is the most miserable, snake-bitten first half in the history of recorded time. His numbers are too obscene for publications in a family blog such as this.

Meanwhile, the bullpen, while it has overcome a lot, has had a lot of disappointments. Brian Bruney started the season well, retiring 22 straight before getting injured. But since his return, he has been nothing short of awful, losing the eighth-inning job. The Yankees need him to get back on track.

Jose Veras was so bad, he ended up being released. Damaso Marte was nothing short of awful before going on the DL and Edwar Ramirez pitched his way back to Triple A.

Phil Coke has been inconsistent (3.99 ERA), but is young and developing, and is showing signs of being able to handle the seventh inning, as well as tough lefties.

Offensively, there are few complaints. Despite hitting .308 with 13 homers and 46 RBI, Robinson Cano has been a disaster with runners in scoring position, going 23-for 109 (.211). Remove him from the Yankees' overall numbers and they are hitting .273 with RISP.

Also, after that great start, Swisher has tailed off, hitting .237 with 14 homers and 47 RBI overall.

Final Grade
B with a lot of room for improvement. With the third-best record in baseball, it's hard to be too hard on the team. It likely will make the playoffs, but its flaws are so glaring that there is reason for concern about its chances for postseason success.

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