Monday, July 14, 2008

First Half Recap

So now that we've reached the midpoint of the season, it's a good time to take stock of where the Yankees are now, where they are headed and what they need to do in the second half of the season.

I was curious to see what Yankee fans other than myself thought about this season so far, so I set up a short poll here, in a Yankees' fans community.

Some notes on the results:

It's pretty obvious that the biggest (pleasant) surprise of the season has been Mike Mussina.

He won 11 games all of last year, and has already equaled that total this year. He's throwing more first pitch strikes, walking almost no one and giving the Yankees a chance to win in almost all of his starts.

He's even solved the issue of how to pitch to Manny Ramirez--just hit him!

Joking aside, whatever the Yankees expected they'd get from Moose this year, it wasn't this.

Mussina had, after all, pitched himself out of the rotation last August. He was supposed to be competing for the fifth spot, and when he ended up in the two spot because of an injury to Andy Pettitte, you could hear Yankees' Universe holding its breath.

Eleven wins later, there are still doubters, those that think Mussina will fall off, because pitchers in their late thirties aren't supposed to be this good.

The numbers don't lie, though. Without Mussina, the Yankees are under .500 and in last place.

He's stayed healthy all year, and pitched quality start after quality start, even if they haven't all been wins.

In terms of other surprises, the Yankee bullpen has come out of almost nowhere, and transformed from the greatest Yankee liability to the greatest asset. I'm not joking.

First of all, it doesn't hurt that Mariano Rivera is not just having a career year, he's having the type of year that can stand on its own for generations, like a Maris '61 or Pedro Martinez '99, and even then...

While, at 1.06, Rivera's ERA is about the highest it's been all season, it's still the lowest it's been in his career. In 42.1 innings pitched, he's allowed five runs. Five--and only one of those has come in a save situation.

His strike out per nine ratio is over 10; the only season in which he was better in that regard was in 1996, when he worked multiple innings as a set-up man, and his strike out to walk ratio, of 12.5, is by far the best it's ever been in his career. Considering that Mariano Rivera was headed to the Hall of Fame before this season started, that says something.

Never mind that he has converted all of his 23 save opportunities thus far.

Thing is, the bullpen hasn't been successful just because of Rivera.

With the probable exception of LaTroy Hawkins, everyone currently in the bullpen now is pulling his weight.

At the beginning of the season, the bullpen was a serious concern--outside of Joba Chamberlain and Rivera, there was no real confidence in any one of the relievers.

Somewhere along the line, however, the bullpen straightened itself out. Kyle Farnsworth figured out how to pitch and keep the fly balls in the ballpark, and Jose Veras went from being wildly inconsistent to a solid seventh inning guy. While Veras has given up a couple late inning home runs, for the most part he has come through in a big way.

The result of Farnsworth's and Veras' success is that the workload for Edwar Ramirez has been reduced--meaning that his change up is more effective because hitters see it less--and Dan Giese has thrived as a long man, while Dave Robertson has become another solid arm.

Joe Girardi has done a great job of spliting up the workload in the bullpen, but that alone cannot be the explanation to the bullpen's success.

Somewhere along the line--about the same time the Yankees decided to make Joba a starter--the bullpen figured it out.

To put it in statistical terms, considering the following splits, courtesy of Baseball Reference:

1998: 3.76
2008: 3.56

1998: .252
2008: .232

1998: .320
2008: .308

1998: .386
2008: .371

1998: 1.91
2008: 2.39

Granted, there's still a whole half season to go, but if the bullpen keeps this up, then once again we've got ourselves a team that can shorten games to six innings, and we know what happens when that occurs.

On the flip side of things, the most disappointing aspect of the season so far has easily been the offense.

At the same time there are both a million reasons for the fall off from last year, and no reasons at all.

You can look at all the injuries as an excuse--it's hard to manufacture runs when you have Jose Molina, Alberto Gonzalez and Wilson Betemit all with regular playing time, you might say--or, you can say, well, the Red Sox lost Ortiz and they're still scoring something like seven runs a game.

The truth is, the injuries that should have hurt us the most--the loss of Alex Rodriguez in May and Jorge Posada for much of April and May--shouldn't be considered a factor any more (well, at least A-Rod. Jorge is still playing with a tear in his shoulder.)

Instead, the Yankees need to look at other factors. For instance, Derek Jeter is having the worst offensive year of his career. Robinson Canò, who has started slowly every season, has started especially slowly this season, and Bobby Abreu isn't just not hitting, he's not even walking at the pace that he's set for himself in years previous.

Nevermind the offensive contributions (or lack thereof) from Melky Cabrera, Wilson Betemit or any of the other bottom-of-the-lineup guys; when the top and heart of the order aren't producing, it's real hard for the rest of the line up to make up the difference.

So for the second half of the season, if the Yankees want to have a real shot at a playoff spot, what do they need to do?

First, they need to keep pitching as they are. They aren't getting perfect starts, but for the most part, their starters are giving the team a chance to win which is all you can ask for game in and game out. The bullpen is shutting the opposing team down in a way they haven't really done since the late nineties.

Second and more importantly, the Yankees need to get out of this offensive malaise. They need to follow Brett Gardner's lead when it comes to grinding out at bats--if they remember how to work pitchers again, success will eventually follow. They need to be willing to sacrifice an out to move the runner over if they're facing a tough pitcher, and they need to stop acting as though a nine run outburst every once in a while is a substitute for a consistent offensive effort.

So, can the Yankees make the playoffs this year?

They can, but it won't be easy. With both Boston and Tampa Bay ahead of them, the Yankees have even more games to make up and less AL East teams to feed on--even traditional cellar dwellers of late, the Orioles, are exceeding expectations.

The Yankees still have ten games left against Boston, and I think a similar number against Tampa Bay, which is more than enough to make something happen, but they can't sit around and wait for those games to occur.

The Yankees have to start putting together win streaks of four or five in a row, and then not follow them with losing streaks of almost equal length.

The Yankees can do it with the players they have on their team now--after all, they did it last year--but they have got to pick it up and come out of the break flying.

They've been in worse situations before, and made the playoffs, but they have some serious work to do.

First Half Yankee Awards:

MVP: Mike Mussina. The team is nowhere this year without him.
Cy Young: Mariano Rivera. Read above. 'Nuff said.
Rookie of the Year: Joba Chamberlain. Has over exceeded expectations.
Comeback Player of the Year: Mike Mussina

Best Win: 6/5/08 vs. Toronto. Jason Giambi has a two strike, two out, two run home run in the bottom of the ninth to cap a comeback from down 7-2 to win the game.

Most important win: 7/5/08 vs. Boston. Mariano Rivera pitches into a bases-loaded, no one out jam before pitching himself out of trouble and helping the Yankees to a series split with Boston.


  1. stop sucking yankees.


    devoted fan.

  2. I think that the Yankees can still make the playoffs. They need to start hitting like they are capable of and not giving away at bats. They need to work the counts and get starting pitchers out of the games. When the Yankees are winning they play "unmanageable" long games.