Over the past few seasons one thing in particular has plagued the Yankees like no other: slow starts that leave the team battling to break the .500 barrier in May and June, when league-leading teams are beginning to pull away and the contenders for the playoff spots are taking shape.
There have been numerous theories as to why the team starts slow, ranging from the older players being slow starters to some of the Latino players not being able to play well in cold weather (which could explain poor October performances), to a tough schedule...
All of these theories have some merit, but the true answer, supposing there is one, is more complicated than that.
Let's take a look at some numbers provided by the fine folks at River Ave Blues.
As they state, the stats are BAA/OBP/SLG for April, and then the regular season:
Jorge Posada, C
Rest of Season: .276-.381-.472
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Rest of Season: .295-.383-.558
Robinson Cano, 2B
Rest of Season: .311-.341-.488
Derek Jeter, SS
Rest of Season: .318-.383-.461
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Rest of Season: .305-.388-.572
Johnny Damon, OF
Rest of Season: .291-.354-.439
Xavier Nady, OF
Rest of Season: .279-.332-.450
Nick Swisher, OF
Rest of Season: .242-.351-.446
Hideki Matsui, DH
Rest of Season: .300-.372-.491
There are a few observations to make:
1) If the Yankees believe that the players being slow starters is the primary cause of the spring malaise, they did themselves no favors by picking up Teixiera, who is an admitted slow-starter.
2) Of the players listed, Robinson Canò is the only Latino player born and raised outside of the US or a US territory, so even though his April numbers are historically worse than the rest of the season (young as he is, he's already known as a slow starter), it's impossible to blame an entire team's slow start on one player. Okay, so it's true that the best part of the Yankees' 2008 season, right after the All Star Break, also coincided with Canò remembering how to hit, but it also coincided with some excellent starting and bullpen pitching.
3) Matsui's numbers are also somewhat significantly poorer in April than in the rest of the year, but it's unlikely that the excuse that he can't play in the cold weather would hold much weight-Matsui is from Japan, not the Dominican.
So what you end up with is a line-up where some, but by no means all or even most, players are slow-starters, and the Yankees themselves don't seem too concerned about this-Teixiera's April/rest of the year split may, in fact be the most notable out of everyone listed.
The next thing to look at is the schedule that the Yankees have played in April over the past few years.
In 2007, the Yankees had a fairly favorable April schedule. Aside from opening at home and a traditional weekend series in Boston, all of the other games were either played in "warm" cities or domes. It should also be noted that half of their losses came against teams like Toronto and the-then last place Rays.
In 2008, you will, of course remember that the visit of one Pope Benedict XVI meant an extended road trip for the Yankees, a trip that included the likes of Kansas City, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland. In fact, over the entire month, the Yankees had only two games in a dome, and Baltimore, which is somewhere in between a cold and warm city.
The 2009 schedule presents similar challenges as the 2008 schedule--playing in a lot of "cold" cities in April--Kansas City, Detroit, Boston and, of course, New York. While the Yankees don't have anything like a 19-game road trip, they do play in three other teams' home openers--though, perhaps thankfully, the Red Sox are not among them.
So what does this mean? Do the Yankees have a legitimate gripe about the Aprils that they have been playing?
Well...no. The Yankees aren't the only team that plays in cold weather in April, and a schedule in which the Yankees only played in domes or on the West Coast before the middle of the month would probably attract more notice than last year's Road Trip of Doom.
Do some players have a harder time playing in cold weather? Sure.
Cold weather tends to favor the pitcher over the hitter since the ball doesn't carry as far, and in 2007, where Yankee pitching was such that Carl Pavano and Kei Igawa were the one and two starters, the simple argument is that the Yankees were not well-constructed in terms of pitching, which, among other, more noticeable things, meant that there was an inability to pitch around the cold weather.
However, 2008 doesn't really hold that weight, when both Wang and Pettitte were holding their own and Mussina was learning how to pitch like Jamie Moyer. There is the above argument that cold weather stifles offense, but last year's Yankee offense was stifled all year--it wasn't just April at work.
Perhaps, then, the answer to why the Yankees keep starting slow can't be answered by any one answer-each season is a unique case, and what causes the Yankees to start slow in one year might not be what causes the same slow start the next.
What is clear, though, is that the Yankees can't afford to start slow. They don't have to go 28-0 in April, but they can't go 11-17, not when divisions are decided by a game or less. It was, after all, a fairly common refrain last September--if only we had won that one game in April or that one game in May, we'd be in the playoffs right now!
Hopefully, in 2009, come September we'll be saying something else--something to the tune: "Damn, am I really glad we swept that homestand back in April, it means we're going to play in October." Only, you know, less forced than that.