The Yankees will likely never be cast as the little engine that could, nor should they be. They are too big, too expensive, and too talented to be massive underdogs or to fly under any radars. This is not to say they are too big to fail. After all, when your annual mission statement is to win it all, not only is failure an option, it's a statistical probability.
Nevertheless, the 2011 version of the Yankees have certainly defied expectations, performing at a level, especially of late, that at least this diehard follower of the pinstripes simply didn't see coming. Just a few of the pleasant surprises:
Pitching – Starters. The Yankees have a pitching problem — they have too much of it. OK, I don't really believe this. As long as AJ continues to make a mockery of the phrase "number 2 starter", I think the Yanks have just what they need and no more, that AJ is now blocking the spot of more worthy pitchers, and that 2/5s of what they're currently relying upon is likely to fall apart physically at any moment. But even the fact that "the Yanks have just what they need" is a real surprise, driven home by the fact that the Yankees held pat at the trade deadline. While CC is having as good a year as he has ever had – which is really saying something – there have been three pleasant surprises here:
- Bartolo Colon, having not pitched since 2009 and having not thrown more than 100 innings in a season since his Cy Young 2005 campaign, has now thrown 109.0 IP, compiling a 3.30 ERA (he has never completed a season with an ERA that low), and a 8.1 K/9 rate, which is 11th best among AL starters with at least 100 innings and is better than any K/9 he has compiled since as far back as 2001.
- Freddy Garcia has also found the fountain of youth in the Bronx. Having thrown more than 100 innings in only one season since 2006, and having not compiled a sub-4.00 ERA since 2005, Garcia has now thrown 117.1 innings compiling a 3.22 ERA that is better than all but 6 (much more predictable) AL East standouts: Beckett, Sabathia, Shields, Romero, Hellickson, and Lester. Garcia's resurgence hasn't received as much attention as Colon's in part because, unlike Colon, he hadn't fallen completely off the radar last year and also because he hasn't appeared to be nearly as dominant as Bartolo in games. He keeps on eating innings but unlike Bartolo, who has resurfaced as a legit power pitcher racking up the K's and increasing his fastball velocity into the 7th and 8th innings of games, Garcia is getting results with a true bend-but-don't-break contact-pitching approach. Only the A's Gio Gonzalez has a higher WHIP than Freddy's 1.295 while maintaining as low an ERA.
- Unlike Colon and Garcia, at only 24 years old Ivan Nova - with his 10-4 record and 3.81 ERA – has been more a revelation than a rediscovery. He has seemed to get steadily better with every start, most recently with his dominant 7.2 IP, 10 K, 0 BB, 1 ER performance in Chicago last night. I imagine you'd be hard-pressed to find a Yankee fan that wants to see him sent back down to Scranton Wilkes-Barre at this stage, but with AJ stubbornly occupying the # 2 slot and holding a fat contract with another 2 years remaining on it, and with Hughes' re-emergence having perhaps (finally) begun, this may still end up being Ivan's fate.
Pitching – Relievers. Girardi's genius for managing relievers is eveident once again. He has squeezed every ounce of talent out of a bullpen that, with the exception of Mariano, looks very little like what it did coming out of Spring training. With the 7th and 8th inning guys (Joba, Soriano) having both missed huge portions of the season, Robertson, Ayala, Noeci, and Logan have all stepped up huge.
Consider how the Yankees' pen currently ranks among AL teams:
- ERA: 3.04 – 1st
- Opponent OPS: .655 – 1st
- WHIP – 1.29 – 3rd
- K/9 – 8.11 – 2nd (t-OAK)
Offense – Power. It is probably least surprising that the Yankees score a ton of runs or that they lead the majors in HRs. On the other hand, if you had told me in Spring training that they'd have 2 of the league's top 3 homerun hitters at this point in the season and neither of them would be named Rodriguez I would have been pretty surprised. The notoriously slow-starting Teixeira and suddenly-extraordinary Curtis Granderson have led the power surge for the Yanks, but as has been the case for years, there is legitimate power all up and down the line-up.
Offense – Speed. The Yankees have stolen more bases (112) than any team in baseball other than the Padres and they have the best steal percentage (77%) in the AL, despite the fact that primary speedster Brett Gardner started the season getting caught on 6 of his first 11 attempts. He has since successfully stolen 24 of 28, including his last 19 in a row. Gardner and Eduardo Nunez, who stole 5 on 5 attempts in 2010 and has stolen 15 on 19 this year, have led the Yankees' speed attack, but here too they have threats up and down the line-up (Granderson, Jeter, and even Martin all have good speed and have swiped their share of bases).
I continue to suspect that this team's starting rotation is simply not sufficiently built for October, but they're tied for the best record in the AL right now, they're playing some great team baseball, and are a joy to watch. Now onto Boston…