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The Big Apple Bomb Squad: How the Yankees Can Escape the AL East Dogfight
- Updated: August 31, 2012
This is the date that we will point to if the Yankees collapse down the stretch.
“What?” you exclaim. “The Yankees? Collapse? Please.”
However, New Yorkers cannot sweep the Bombers’ recent mediocrity under the rug. On the 18th, the Yankees rolled into Oakland with a 57-34 record(or .626 winning percentage); four days later, they shipped out following four one-run losses to the upstart A’s, the obvious start of their six-week slump. Including that series at the Coliseum, the Yankees have skidded through the end of July and August with a 18-20 record through Tuesday night, letting a 10-game AL East lead melt into a 3.5-game margin over the Orioles.
Yes, credit their rivals for complicating matters. The Rays and their super rotation have won 13 of 20 since the return of third baseman Evan Longoria on August 7, and the Orioles have incredibly hung around even with a -39 run differential. Nevertheless, that’s no excuse for the Yankees. An exceptional first half will amount to nothing if they squander it during the stretch run.
It’s understandable why my fellow Yankees fans have sweated during the dog days of August, but it’s important to put things in perspective. The Yankees still have one of the strongest offenses in the game; fourth in the league in runs scored (622), first in slugging percentage (.458), fourth in on-base percentage (.335), and a “measly” eighth in batting average (.265). With a steady pitching staff (11th with a 3.80 ERA and 12th with a 1.28 WHIP), fans shouldn’t complain. The Bombers have sat in the top five of ESPN’s power rankings for 11 straight weeks, and the Worldwide Leader in Sports lists the team as a 95.8% probability of making the postseason. Baring something epic (like 2011-Red-Sox-epic), the Bronx should see October baseball for the fourth straight year.
However, the second wild card places a premium on winning the division. Boiling an entire season down to a one-game playoff would be ridiculously stressful for Joe Girardi, especially if he was forced to burn ace CC Sabathia just to reach the ALDS. Girardi remains adamant that his club must take the AL East crown, but to do so, he must tinker with their current model of success to have his club running on all cylinders come late September.
The Yankees’ manager may be totally fine with having his club slug its way through their schedule, but the team must figure out how to score without the long ball. Leading the majors with 199 home runs, the Bombers have received about half of their runs via the round-tripper, and their win-loss record shows how heavily they rely on home runs. On average, the lineup launches 1.8 home runs per victory, but only 1.1 for each defeat.
Paired with a weak .253 average with runners in scoring position, the team’s dependence on homers doesn’t bode well for the pitcher-dominated postseason. The stars may have aligned for the Yankees during their clutch 2009 championship run, but lightening rarely strikes twice in baseball, and the Yankees haven’t returned to the Fall Classic since.
What this squad needs is a little old-school small ball. In 2012, fans haven’t watched many Yankee victories like last night’s 2-1 victory over the Blue Jays. The winning run crossed the plate in bottom of the fourth, courtesy of a walk, wild pitch (plus good base running), ground out, and sacrifice fly. The Yankees still retain their perfectionist pedigree from the late George Steinbrenner, so expecting them to execute the small things properly should not be asking too much.
Add in a running game, and the Yankees will have a multi-dimensional attack plan. A total of 5 stolen bases on the year(26th in the majors) is inexcusable, even considering Brett Gardner’s season-long DL stint. If everybody took a more aggressive approach on the base paths, the Yankees could maximize their scoring potential.
Take, for instance, center fielder Curtis Granderson. He used to have the perfect blend of power and speed, but has only 8 swipes on the season. His 33 home runs and 75 RBIs may be nice, but his .235 AVG completely limits his potential. His recent approach resembles that of Adam Dunn; a “productive” night in Grandyland is one home run in four at bats with 3 strikeouts. His futility stands as the extreme microcosm of the Yankees’ offense; hit bombs for the win, or bomb out for the loss.
Maybe it’s in the team’s DNA to hit home runs; after all, they are the Bronx Bombers. However, this literal and figurative boom-bust approach might not garner them the AL East title. Their position is precarious right now, but I trust that a renewed focus on smart baseball can keep them in the division lead. In any case, their remaining opponents’ winning percentages average to .495, while the Orioles and Rays sport .517 and .533 marks in this category respectively.
If the Yankees win the games that they’re supposed to, they should earn at least a wild card birth if not the division title. As for the postseason, the big dance has always been a complete crapshoot, especially after the hot Giants and Cardinals won it all in 2010 and 2011. Nevertheless, the Yankees should be set for a deep run if they drop their homer-centric approach and play more small ball.