On Saturday, May 8, the Yankees were flying high after routing the Boston Red Sox 14-3 at Fenway Park. The resounding victory pushed the Yankees’ record to 21-8 and moved the team to within one-half game of the Rays. Since then, however, the Yankees have been in a free fall, compiling the league’s worst record over the last 15 games at 5-10. Making matters worse, the Rays (10-5) and Red Sox (10-5) share the league’s top record over the same time period. As a result, the Yankees now stand 5 ½ games from first place and only two games ahead of fourth place.
Over the course of the day, we’ll take a look at the reasons why the Yankees have struggled so mightily. This installment begins that process by examining the offense.
Offensive Statistics From May 9 to May 23
(Sorted by Usual Spot in the Lineup, excludes pitchers)
Injuries have obviously played a role in the Yankees demise. On offense, the collective impact of losing Curtis Granderson, Nick Johnson and Jorge Posada has taken a toll, which was further compounded by more short-term injuries to Nick Swisher and Marcus Thames. However, injuries alone do not explain the team’s poor record over the last two weeks. After all, the Yankees should have enough star power to at least partly compensate for even three key losses, especially when you consider that two replacements, Marcus Thames and Juan Miranda, have combined for a line of .265/.419/.530 in 62 PAs.
Over the last 15 games, the Yankees real problem has not been who wasn’t in the lineup, but rather the poor performance of the remaining all stars who have been playing. In particular, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira have really struggled; Jeter for the entire month and Teixeira since hitting three home runs against Boston on May 8.
Jeter’s anemic line of .224/.278/.269 over the last 15 games has been particularly concerning because of how poorly he has looked at the plate. In addition to swinging at an inordinate number of pitches out of the strike zone (32.3%), Jeter has also posted an alarming groundball rate (4.1:1), which has come at the expense of the number of line drives (16.4%).
Jeter’s inability to spark the offense has been further compounded by Joe Girardi’s inexplicable decision to bat Brett Gardner second. Over the same time period, Gardner has posted a line of .219/.286/.297, meaning the top two hitters in the Yankees lineup have been getting on base at a rate of less than 30%. Is it any wonder the team’s offensive output has dropped from 6.03 runs/game before May 9 to 4.73 runs/game after? Furthermore, employing Gardner’s slash and run approach in the two hole has prevented the Yankees from leveraging the more infrequent rallies that they have been able to muster. Over the last two weeks, Gardner’s win probability added (WPA) has been an abysmal -0.68, by far the worst on the team.
With so few runners on base, I guess you can’t blame Mark Teixeira for struggling. His line of .213/.294/.344 has more resembled his slow April than the hot start he had in early May. Having such low production in the middle of the lineup has been a major drain on the Yankees offense, but Teixeira can’t blame all of his struggles on the failures of those batting in front of him. Even when he has had a chance to hit with runners on base, the Yankees’ first baseman has still come up lacking. Since May 9, Teixeira has had the second lowest WPA on the team at -0.42.
As you can see, the Yankees’ weakness over the last 15 games has been the top of the order, not the bottom. With such dismal production from the first three hitters in the lineup, it makes the output of Alex Rodriguez all the more impressive. While Jeter, Gardner and Teixeira have all withered, Arod has posted a line of .317/.379/.567, including four home runs and 13 RBIs. Even more important, Arod has also come up with a number of big hits. His grand slam against the Twins on May 14 and two run, ninth inning homerun against the Red Sox on May 17 saved the Yankees from near certain losses. With a WPA of .590 over the Yankees current 15 game malaise, Arod has been one of the few bright spots in a very dim period.
Behind Arod, Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher have chipped in with occasional production, but neither has been able to sustain a hot stretch to help pick up the slack. In the case of Swisher, his negative WPA also highlights what has become a team-wide problem: hitting with runners in scoring position. Over the past week alone, you can point to at least six occasions when the Yankees failed to take advantage of having a runner on third with less than two outs. Considering that four of the Yankees’ last five losses have been by margins of two runs or less, failing to capitalize on scoring chances has clearly been a problem.
At the bottom of the lineup, guys like Thames, Cervelli and Miranda have actually done more than their fair share. Unfortunately, the exception to that has been Randy Winn, whose WPA of -.428 has compounded his overall poor performance. As if often the case with a sore thumb, Winn’s anemic bat has really stuck out…and struck out…often with the game on the line. Key strikeouts against Phil Coke on May 10 and Jonathan Papelbon on May 18 are just two examples of when the Yankees found themselves in the challenging position of relying on Randy Winn with the game on the line.
One reason the Yankees have been able to strand so many base runners is because they have still been able to maintain an OBP of .349 during the recent downturn, a mark that would still be good for second place in the American League. Considering the failure of the top three hitters in the lineup (Jeter, Gardner and Teixeira all have OBPs under .300), that’s actually a pretty amazing accomplishment. However, the team’s slugging percentage has taken a dive, which combined with a failure to hit with runners in scoring position has put the brakes on the offense. In their last 15 games, the Yankees have only hit 12 homeruns, which for most team would be a power outage, but for the Yankees represents a total grid failure.
Undoubtedly, as the Yankees get healthy, the offensive outlook should improve. The return of Curtis Granderson, for example, should permanently remove Randy Winn’s unproductive bat from the lineup, which in and of itself would be a major upgrade. Granderson is the only reinforcement on the near-term horizon, however. In the meantime, the Yankees need to be more creative, something Girardi has not shown a propensity for being. For example, having Gardner in the two hole was ill conceived from the onset. Nick Swisher, who has had an OBP of .410 since May 9, would be a much better fit. Will Girardi realize his mistake or remain stubborn? Such a simple lineup adjustment could help stem the tide, but if Girardi continues with his laid back approach, the Yankees may not be able to keep their heads above water.
Aside from a lineup shuffle, the Yankees also need to find a permanent replacement for Randy Winn. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Winn is released upon the return of Granderson. Still, with Gardner starting to get exposed, Brian Cashman would be wise to get on the phones in search of a player capable of sharing time in LF and as a DH. Someone like David DeJesus comes to mind.
Finally, until the Yankees return to be the Bronx Bombers, if they ever do, Girardi needs to be more proactive in his managing style. In Tampa, Joe Maddon has been very aggressive with his offense, which has scored 241 runs despite being just above league average. As much as I usually disdain the bunt, Girardi needs to use it as a weapon to mitigate against the struggles of guys like Winn, Gardner and Jeter. A squeeze play or well timed bunt here or there, and the Yankees could have salvaged an extra victory or two over the past two weeks.