For the first month of the season the Yankees have been an enigma wrapped in a conundrum surrounded by last week’s tabloids. To the casual observer, focused on watching the Knicks win or Microsoft lose, everything seems peachy keen, hunky-dory, and copacetic in Yankeeland. The team is winning games at a typically Yankee-esque pace—their 20-9 is the best in the American League and trails an Atlanta Braves team fresh off a 15-game winning streak by only half a game. By the end of the year, that adds up to 112 victories.
But peek beyond the W column, and it’s a different story. This is not the team that won three world titles by taking pitches, drawing walks, and making pitching coaches look at their pitch counter like it’s a losing lottery ticket. The millennial Yankees are last in the league in walks, and second from last in the league with a .341 on-base percentage. More to the point, they’re second from last in the AL in runs scored per game.
This raises two big questions: How did the Yankees suddenly become less patient than a NASDAQ day trader? And why do they keep winning anyway? Inquiring minds want to know.
Let’s talk about where the problem isn’t. Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Paul O’Neill are all getting on base at a respectable .360ish clip, and Jorge Posada, with a .436 OBP to match his .663 slugging percentage, has made Mike Piazza, at least for the moment, the second-best hitting catcher in town. But outside the heart of the order, the team has been swinging like Squirrel Nut Zippers on speed. Chuck Knoblauch, Shane Spencer, and Clay Bellinger all have reached base less than 30 percent of the time, while Alfonso Soriano, Jim Leyritz, and Roberto Kelly have OBPs under .200. It’s enough to make you miss dearly-departeds like Darryl Strawberry (.500 OBP in 1999), Chili Davis (.366), and yes, even Chad Curtis (.398 OBP).
But the personnel swapping alone isn’t enough to explain the drop-off. Pitching coaches around the league seem to finally be wising up to the Yankees’ master plan. They’re pointing to Monument Park and saying to their pitchers, “Babe Ruth is dead; throw strikes.” And the strategy seems to be working—sort of. They’re keeping the Yankees off base, and off the scoreboard pretty effectively, but so far this season, it’s mostly meant a quality start followed by an L.
The sports talk answer to this puzzle is pretty simple: “The Yankees, they’ve got a lot of character. They’re a real clutch team, Chris, and when the game’s on the line, they really get the job done.” Actually, there’s some evidence to back this up. The Yankees are 7-1 in one-run games, and 2-0 in extra-inning games. They’re hitting .368 in close and late situations. They’re hitting .318 with the bases loaded. And in the age of the reliever, they’re hitting .303 from the seventh inning on, but only .259 over the first six.
Let’s step back for a second. If clutch hitting exists—and most baseball scholars consider this an open question—how does it work? Hitting is all about reaction, and how exactly do you improve your coordination on demand? Is it adrenaline? Is it focus? If that’s the case, why then, can’t a hitter zone in or get pumped up in the third inning, and render those late-inning heroics unnecessary?
But baseball is a zero-sum game—hitters succeed to exactly the same degree that pitchers fail. (Remember that the next time someone suggests that 90 percent of baseball is pitching.) And entropy being what it is, it’s a lot easier to explain how a pitcher screws up than to explain how a hitter improves. Just call it the Reggie Bar factor.
Take Sunday’s game against the Orioles. It’s the bottom of the eighth, bases loaded, and Scott Brosius is at the plate, Yanks trailing 4-2. Oriole reliever Mike Trombley is on the mound, and he saw Brosius drive home a run with a bases-loaded walk two innings ago. He starts out high and outside. Ball one. Déjà vu all over again. Let’s hear Jim Kaat’s call. “[Orioles manager] Mike Hargrove knows the Yankee hitters; he knows they’re not going to swing at many bad pitches,” he pontificates, before inserting a reality check. “Although that hasn’t been the case in the early weeks of 2000, their reputation certainly precedes them.”
Trombley regroups and throws a good slider to get ahead 1-2. But Trombley believes what Hargrove believes, and he assumes he can’t get Brosius to chase strike three off the plate. And he knows that bouncing a breaking ball is going to score a run. So he simply hangs a halfhearted slider. Grand Slam. Change the dramatis personae, and virtually the same scenario was played out on Friday with Posada’s walk-off homer, and on Saturday, with Tino Martinez’s ground-rule double in the eighth. Sure, these kinds of deus ex machina endings are entertaining, but as Kaat hinted, for the first month of the season, the Yankees have been resting on their reputation.
But not for long. Essentially, one of two things will happen. Either Joe Torre will give Spencer, Johnson, et al., some pine time, and the rest of the Yankee hitters will make adjustments, make pitchers pay for zoning fastballs early in the count in the early innings, and resurrect the Job-like offense that we’ve come to know and love. Or we’ll have to sit through more afternoons like Sunday, in which the Yankee bull pen, which had been a virtual leper colony all season long—untouchable—gives up a couple of runs at the end of a nail-biter, and the Bombers start ending up on the short end of those one-run decisions.
Either way, O’Neill summed it up pretty well after Sunday’s debacle. “We’ve had some games we shouldn’t have won and we did. And today we have a game we should have won and we didn’t.” You can say that again.