The Long Ball


For fans of a team that (as we go to press) hasn’t yet caught the Red Sox for the lead in the AL East or even clinched the wild-card berth—not to mention having lost 11 of 20 postseason games over the last three seasons—Yankee fans have gotten awfully arrogant in the last couple of months. Then again, they may have reason to be.

For the first 74 games of the season, the Yanks were 36-38 for a won-lost percentage of .486 and looked like they were going to be the first team since Buck Showalter’s last year, 1995, to be under .500 at the All-Star break. On July 2, they beat the Minnesota Twins 5-1 to begin a comeback that has, as of Sunday, September 23, resulted in a 52-24 record and .684, tops in the major leagues over that span.

In the second half of the season, the Yankees haven’t just looked different from other Yankee teams in recent years headed for the postseason; they’ve looked radically different from the Yankees in the first half of
this season. What’s responsible for the turnabout? Some of the changes are subtle.

The Bench. The Yanks had an abominable bench before the acquisition of infielder Wilson Betemit and second-string catcher Jose Molina and the calling-up of Shelly Duncan. In truth, their bench isn’t all that great now, but the upgrade—marginal for some teams—has been huge for the Yankees. Betemit has hit four homers and driven in 20 runs in 32 games; Miguel Cairo, essentially the man he replaced, had no homers and just 10 RBIs in 54 games. Molina, .321 with just one home run in 24 games, has been a monster compared to the man he replaced, Wil Nieves, who had no home runs and a .164 average in 26 games. Duncan, who filled in as an outfielder and at DH, has hit six home runs with a .541 slugging average—higher than anyone on the team except A-Rod and Jorge Posada—in just 30 games.

Pitching. Phil Hughes hasn’t yet blossomed, but at 4-3 with four quality starts, he’s been Sandy Koufax compared to Kei Igawa, who had just one decent start and an ERA more than two runs per nine innings higher than Hughes.

The Yanks’ staff has also been shored up by two pitchers who were just a gleam in their eye at the beginning of the season: Ian Kennedy (a 1.89 ERA in three starts) and, of course, the absurdly under-used Joba Chamberlain. Joba’s impact has been minimal only because the Yankees have kept him on too short a leash (just 21.2 innings in 16 appearances, with a ridiculous ERA of 0.42). If they’d let slip this dog of war, it could dramatically change the Yankees’ postseason chances.

First Base. A handful of recent hits by Doug Mientkiewicz has obscured how awful he was before the All-Star break, hitting just .226 from April through June with four home runs while playing what’s supposed to be the premier hitter’s position in baseball. The Yankees were so desperate that at one point they played Miguel Cairo, perhaps the worst hitter in the league. After Mientkiewicz went out with an injury, Andy Phillips filled in well, hitting .292 with 25 RBIs in 61 games. Jason Giambi’s return from the DL bolstered both the first-base and DH spots.

The Batting Order. The Yankees’ biggest change since July 2, though, didn’t involve any new players but four old ones. What really changed their season was the explosion of four mainstays of last year’s team. For the first three months of the season, Johnny Damon, Bobby Abreu, Robby Cano, and Melky Cabrera, in 1,064 at-bats, combined for a .257 batting average. Over the last three months, in 1,130 at-bats, they have hit a collective .306. Not only that, but their power numbers have shot up as well—just 15 home runs for the four of them from April to June, and 38 home runs since.

In the first half of the season, especially over a stretch when Hideki Matsui missed two weeks with a hamstring, the Yankees’ hitting was in jail; since then, the batting order has been the best in the major leagues. That all four players have had a strong resurgence—not to mention that A-Rod is topping all of last season’s numbers and Posada, at age 36, is having his best season ever—can’t be written off as coincidence. Nor do the Yankees think it is: They all credit their rookie batting coach, Kevin Long. Over the winter, Long worked with Alex Rodriguez, eliminating his high leg kick and helping him to get around better on inside pitches. The results, however, didn’t start showing up until the second half of the season.

Says Bobby Abreu: “It took a while for Kevin’s instruction to sink in. He had us all swinging inside-out, going with the outside pitch to the opposite field, and making contact again put us back in our groove.” And if hitting is the Yankees’ strong suit as they look toward the postseason, a good case could be made for Kevin Long as the Most Valuable Yankee of 2007.