Are The Yankees The Real Thing?

This wasn’t supposed to be the New York Yankees’ year. Alex Rodriguez’ comeback was dismissed, no one gave much thought to Mark Teixeira coming back, C.C. Sabathia looked shot and now Derek Jeter’s retirement—on top of Mariano Rivera’s the previous year—stripped the team of its heart and soul. Yet, here the Yankees are at the All-Star break, sitting in first place in the AL East. Is it time for those of us avowed Pinstripe-haters to be very afraid? That’s what this post will seek to answer.

New York is always a tough team to evaluate statistically because of the extreme hitter-friendliness of their home park. How much credence can you give big numbers for a batter? How much concern should shakier stats from a pitcher cause? Given that opponents are going to outhit their season-long averages in Yankee Stadium, and New York’s pitchers are going to outperform their averages on the road, how much should park effects count?

There’s no set answer—in spite of numerous sabermetric analysts that try to put a hard-core number on everything. All we can do is put it out there and for your consideration and say that’s why the fact the Yankees being second in the AL in runs scored, while ranking 11th in ERA should not lead us to conclude they are all about hitting.

Let’s break apart the Yanks by the four key components of winning—putting runners on base, hitting for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

GETTING RUNNERS ON: New York is keyed by an excellent tandem at the top of the order. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are each in the high .300s and both are base-stealing threats. Teixeira and A-Rod have always been patient power hitters and that’s no different this year. Brian McCann is respectable—and has a good career track record in this regard, but the bottom drops out of the offense at the bottom of the order.

HITTING FOR POWER: Teixeira has 22 home runs and his 62 RBI lead the American League. A-Rod’s popped 18 home runs. McCann is slugging .471. The most pleasant surprise has been Gardner. A contact hitter batting in the 2-hole, Gardner has hit 10 home runs and is slugging .484. The disappointment is Ellsbury, whose power was supposed to be lifted by the short dimensions in the Bronx, but he’s instead slugging a meager .376.

STARTING PITCHING: This is a combustible mix of problems and potential. The Yankees have consistently good work from Michael Pineda and Adam Warren. The return of Ian Nova from what’s been an injury-plagued year and a half has started reasonably well, as he’s produced a 3.42 ERA in four starts. Masahiro Tanaka, plagued by injury for a year, has made 11 starts and been respectable, at a 3.63 ERA. Sabathia continues to struggle, at 5.47.

If Pineda, Tanaka and Nova can stay healthy—and in all three cases that would be bucking their personal histories—this rotation is going to be pretty good. But if injuries came and Warren’s surprise first half turns into a pumpkin, this could get ugly.

RELIEF PITCHING: The bullpen is the core of the team. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are a lights-out tandem in the eighth and ninth inning, each with a buck-53 ERA. Justin Wilson is a reliable seventh-inning man and manager Joe Girardi has always been pretty good about producing decent middle relievers through mixing it up to get the matchups he wants. New York is fifth in the AL in bullpen ERA and if you factor in their park and the dominance of the back end, there’s a good argument that they’re the best.

The big problem that this review exposes is depth. The offense is extremely dependent on five players—Ellsbury, Gardner, Teixeira, A-Rod and McCann. The pitching staff is extremely dependent on Betances and Miller continuing to dominate and the rotation is an injury or two away from crumbling. For those of us that long to see the Yankees fade, this is what we lean on.

But there’s other factors that have to be considered. For one, this review didn’t look at defense because of its difficulty to quantify. But you don’t need sabermetrics or a scout’s eye to know that Gardner in left field, Ellsbury in center, Stephen Drew at second and Didi Gregorius at short are going to scoop up most everything. Watching the Yankees play the Red Sox in Fenway this past weekend, it was the quality of the defense that stood out the most.

New York is also going to get Carlos Beltran back in rightfield sometime soon. While this is another case of relying on an aging vet, Beltran can shore up the attack. If Chase Headley could find the form that made him a rising star at third base in San Diego a few years ago, it would be a huge lift.

Finally, we don’t know what trades are going to be made over the next seventeen days, but it’s impossible to imagine the Yankees standing still.

The betting market in Las Vegas isn’t all-in on this Yankee team yet, a departure from the norm. New York is 8-1 to win the American League pennant, trailing the Royals, Angels and even up with the Astros. The Baltimore Orioles are 9-1, meaning Vegas is giving only marginal credence to New York’s four-game lead over the Birds to even win the AL East.

The AL East is packed, and last-place Boston is only 6 ½ back, so the standings say it’s anyone’s game. I’ve watched almost all of the Red Sox games and have no confidence in my own team’s ability to make a run. Tampa Bay can’t hit and Toronto can’t pitch.

Either the Yankees or Orioles are going to win the AL East. I picked Baltimore at the start of the season and stand by it here. But to answer the question from up top, yes, it’s time for us Pinstripe-haters to be afraid.