With the New York Yankees’ 6-0 loss to Kansas City on May 17, the team completed a tough stretch of the schedule by losing five of seven games on the road. The offense had disappeared; cracks showed in the bullpen; and newly anointed ace Michael Pineda looked vulnerable after the best game of his career. After such a surprising start, MLB analysts wondered if the Yankees had peaked and would now regress to the mediocrity most had projected for New York. Here’s a look at both sides of the coin.
Reasons for concern
At the start of the season, we figured the Yankees would only go as far as the health of the rotation took them. While Michael Pineda and C.C. Sabathia have stuck in the rotation to varying degrees of effectiveness, Masahiro Tanaka has already missed five starts on the season and will not return until late May at the earliest. Even with Pineda in ace form in 2015, the Yankees are going nowhere unless Tanaka’s right arm is involved. While they could use his help now on this rough patch, his presence will be essential later in the summer.
Replacement starter Chase Whitley is now gone for the season after being diagnosed with elbow ligament damage, an injury that forced an early end to Chris Capuano’s rehab and ended in the Yankees fifth loss in six games. With the rotation’s health and effectiveness so precarious, the Yankees are again forced to rely on Sabathia, a dangerous proposition for any club.
The offense is another cause for concern. After getting out to a promising start, the Yankees have struggled to score runs with a lineup that is dependent on Gardner and Ellsbury at the top plus Teixeira and A-Rod in the middle. Even with Carlos Beltran coming out of his season-long funk, Chase Headley (.236 BA, .285 OBP) and Brian McCann (.237 BA, .290 OBP) are nowhere near providing enough support for the anemic middle-infield tandem of Gregorius (.204 BA, .269 OBP)and Drew (.197 BA, .264 OBP). Scoring 11 runs in six games (five losses) is the mark of a team in a dreadful place offensively.
However, not every sign points to doom on the horizon.
Signs of strength
With the close of the series in Kansas City, the Yankees concluded a run of 30 games in 31 days, including 17 days straight. This preposterous stretch took them through Detroit, Boston, Toronto, and Tampa Bay twice, with two brief homestands in the mix. Through the test, the Yankees held onto first place and emerged with a much more manageable schedule in the coming months.
Personnel-wise, they will be getting Tanaka back near the start of June and should expect better performance from Capuano once he gets settled. The bullpen tandem of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances is being justly celebrated. Through a combined 36 appearances (38.2 IP), the relievers have struck out 61 batters. Both have an ERA of 0.00 and have saved 14 out of 15 games. There is no better back end in the game.
The top four of the batting order (Ellsbury through Teixeira) are delivering exactly as promised, and probably better in the case of the aging sluggers. However, the rest of the lineup (especially McCann and Headley) will need to put runs on the board in order for the team to continue on its pace. One could argue the bottom half of the lineup is due for a hot streak after such a prolonged slump.
Elsewhere, though the Yankees would never publicize such a thing, the absence of Derek Jeter at the top of the order and at shortstop is doing wonders for run production and prevention in 2015. Didi Gregorius is proving a valuable asset, if only defensively. And no other team in the division (especially the favored Red Sox) is showing signs of strength as of the third week of May. The AL East remains any club’s for the taking.
It will still come back to pitching, though. A healthy Tanaka and Pineda can match up against any starters in the game. Throw in the expected return of Ivan Nova (midsummer) and the Yankees should have much better baseball to come. For now, there is no way to conclude they have already peaked in 2015.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and are current at the start of play May 19.