Raise your hand if you thought the Yankees would have the best record in the American League midway through May? While it shouldn’t come to a complete shock that the most decorated franchise in baseball history is once again on top, it has definitely raised a few eyebrows.
You see, 2013 wasn’t supposed to be the year for the Bronx Bombers. Ironically, in the past, most experts and analysts always have the Yankees destined for October baseball, but that wasn’t the case this year. Grantland’s Jonah Keri had the Yankees at third place in the AL East with an 85-77 record trailing the Rays and Blue Jays. Every expert over at CBS had the Yankees also no higher than third in the division. As a matter of fact, two writers, Jon Heyman and Scott Miller had the Yankees in the cellar. And what about the World Wide Leader in Sports? Only one of the 43 “experts”, Mark Simon, picked the Yankees to win the AL East. To ESPN’s credit, six other experts did at least have the Yankees in the Wild Card, but it is quite comical that the overwhelming majority had either the Rays or Blue Jays winning the division.
To be fair, it took a lot of guts to pick the Yankees to win the division in the preseason. With half of the starting lineup injured, the Yankees signed some players who would have been all-stars in 2006. The problem was, it’s 2013 There was no Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, or Derek Jeter to fill out the Yankee’s lineup. Instead, the Yankees called on Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, and one of the least likely candidates to ever sport the historic Yankee pinstripes, Kevin Youkilis.
Forget the bats though, what about that pitching rotation? Besides Sabathia and maybe Kuroda, who knew what the Yankees were going to get on the mound? Will Michael Pineda ever start for the Yankees? 40-year old Andy Pettitte returned for his 17th season and despite how great he has been throughout his career with New York, it’s was a little worrisome that a team’s No. 3 ace could have a son just a few year’s away from playing alongside him. Even if Pettitte could return to form, that would still leave two empty spots in the rotation for the Yankees.
Instead of bringing in an ace in the offseason, the Yankees decided to give Phil Hughes, David Phelps, and Ivan Nova another shot. Nova had a fantastic start to the season last year, but has been hampered with multiple injuries this year. Phil Hughes’ record shows that he has had a fairly good run with the Bombers (54-38) but he has allowed way too many runners on base in his career. Last year Hughes allowed more hits than innings pitched and throughout his seven years with New York, he has pitched 675 innings and allowed 664 base hits. Phelps was a rookie last year and finished with a strong ERA (3.34) but didn’t have a great sample size to validate it. So overall, the Yankees rotation heading into the season wasn’t terrible; it just wasn’t as strong as it had been in past years.
Almost as important as the starting rotation itself, what would the Yankees be able to get out of The Sandman, Mariano Rivera? After missing the majority of last season with a torn ACL, the 43-year old future Hall of Famer said he would return for one final run. The question heading into the season though was, how long would that run last? Well so far, Rivera has held up his part. The league’s all-time leader in saves has yet to blow one this season. He’s 16/16 and has only gotten more comfortable on the mound.
So what are the Yankees doing right? On the outside, the Yankees don’t seem to be doing anything special. According to ESPN.com, they rank 12th in runs, 14th in BA, and 16th in OBP, which comes as a surprise considering how patient Yankee sluggers usually are at the plate. They are also right smack in the middle in Extra Base Hits, ranking 15th with 112.
What they Yankees have been great at this season though, is making the most of opportunities at the plate when they matter. The team ranks sixth in BA, second in HR and RBI’s, and first in SLG% with runners in scoring position, according to Yahoo! Sports. The team also has double-digit comeback wins.
What does this mean? It means that although the Yankees aren’t getting on base any more than most teams in the league, they are converting their base runners into runs scored when they do reach base. The Yankees have been great clutch hitters this season. Another quirky stat, ESPN’s Beane Count ranks the Yankees as the 4th most efficient team in the AL. The Beane Count statistic takes into consideration how many homeruns and walks a team produces at the plate and also how many they allow in the field.
Robinson Cano has led the way for the Yankee sluggers. Fresh off a new agency swap in leaving the prestigious Scott Boras for Jay-Z’s hot new Roc Nation Sports, the 30-year old star proved he wanted to be the new face of New York.
So far this season, Cano has done everything to prove he is right. He’s batting .306 with 10 homeruns and 25 RBI’s and is ranked in the Top 10 in SLG%. He leads the team in hits, homeruns, and runs batted in.
And as of yesterday, Curtis Granderson has returned to the Yankees starting lineup after missing the first 38 games of the season with a broken arm. Granderson’s return will help spark the Yankees offense and add more firepower. Granderson has hit at least 40 homeruns and has driven in at least 100 RBI’s in each of the past two seasons. While it’s great to have Granderson back, it’s only fair to credit the Yankees who stepped up in his place.
After being a huge miss for the Los Angeles Angels the past two years, Vernon Wells is feeling less pressured and it has shown. Wells is batting .300 with nine homeruns and 22 RBI’s. Wells is second to only Cano in hits and homeruns.
In addition to Wells, veterans Lyle Overbay and Travis Hafner have played nicely for the Bombers so far. Overbay has been steady at first base in Mark Teixeira’s absence and has six homeruns and trails Cano by just one RBI with 24. Hafner has also been a pleasant surprise for the Yankees. He leads the team in OBP% and has hit six homeruns and driven in 18 runs in 32 games. Even Youkilis got a few Yankee fans to believe in him before he went down with a back injury. Youk had 17 hits in 17 games and had a few moments to make Yankee fans temporarily forget that he once sported a Red Sox jersey.
Where the Yankees really have been terrific this season though is on the mound. That same questionable rotation heading into the season is among the best in baseball to start the season. The Yankees rank fourth in ERA, fifth in walks allowed, sixth in Quality Starts, and ninth in strikeouts.
To little surprise, Hiroki Kuroda has picked up where he left off last season. Kuroda has a 5-2 record with a dazzling 2.31 ERA. Sabathia and Pettitte both have four wins and have 3.19 and 3.83 ERA’s respectively. In the bullpen Adam Warren, David Robertson, and Boone Logan have taken care of business so far. With Rivera being as reliable as ever, these guys have held their own in the seventh and eight innings.
The best news is that it will only get better for the 25-14 Yankees. They have the ninth most difficult strength of schedule in the league, so it’s not like they’ve had it come easy to them. In addition, the Yankees will slowly get Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter back in the lineup. Even Alex Rodriguez will return at some point this season, though it is undecided whether that is a good thing or not.
The Yankees have five games at home against Seattle and Toronto this week before going on a brief road trip. Who would have ever thought that an offseason without a star signing from the Yankees would result in the success early on this season? GM Brian Cashman wouldn’t quite consider it Moneyball, but the alternate moves by the Yankees this past offseason have paid off at a discounted price thus far.