Despite the departure of their big stick (and defensive genius) Torii Hunter, the Twins are fourth in the AL in runs scored. How have their bats done it? A nicely balanced line-up that has compiled the second-best team BA (.279, just .001 behind league-leading Boston) and some of the best situational hitting in the game.
And despite the chasm left in their starting rotation by the departure of ace Johan Santana and the absence of emerging star Francisco Liriano, they’ve managed to play their way into second place in AL wild-card contention behind Boston and just ahead of New York. How have their arms done it? The Twins’ starters have walked an astonishingly few 125 batters all year. That is not just the lowest total in the league, it is 43 fewer walks than the next lowest walk total held by the St. Louis Cardinals and 73 fewer walks than the average for AL starting rotations. So they must be striking out a good number, right? No. The Twins’ starters rank 26th of 30 in the majors for fewest strikeouts compiled so far – 342. They pitch to contact and allow their perenially strong defense to do its job. And they win lots of close games.
Of course, when you spend a lot of time in the stike zone you also run the risk of getting pounded by a strong line-up, and last night the Yankees took advantage – all 13 of the Yankees’ eligible position players got time last night – six compiled at least two hits each and only 4 of them (including just one starter) – Moeller, Christian, Giambi, and Sexson – went 0-fer.
This series with the Twins and the upcoming weekend series with Boston are a big test for the Yankees, who seem recently to be thriving on adversity – a good thing, since this season has been full of it. I don’t know a YF who is strongly optimistic about this team’s chances of playing in October, but there are hopeful signs emerging – at least for the offense – despite the huge loss of Jorge’s bat, a loss they’ve more or less had to overcome since the start of the season anyway.
They are entering the months in which Robbie Cano and Bobby Abreu usually hit their respective strides (Cano is a career .280 BA/.730 OPS hitter in the first half of the season and .338/.919 hitter in the second; while Abreu is coming up on August – a month during which his career numbers are .323/.956). If they stay true to form while A-Rod and Giambi continue mashing as they have to-date (there is no reason to think either will slow down), and Damon and Jeter can simply play to their averages, the Yankee offense could very well – finally – start to roll.
The big questions remain with the pitching:
1. Can the starting pitching continue to do as well as it has in recent weeks? Pettitte – another perennial second-half star – has been as good as ever in his recent starts and Mike Mussina is arguably pitching his best baseball ever, and doing so consistently. One hopes Joba can stretch his impressive ERA into slightly longer outings, but regardless, barring injury (no small thing with two old guys here) there is no reason to think this top three can’t continue to punch above its weight the rest of the season. The crux of the issue is the bottom 2/5s of the rotation. It’s a bit tiring to hear that the Yanks have won all four of Ponson’s outings without mention also being made of the fact that he has enjoyed more than 10 runs/game of run support so far from the Yanks offense. Let’s just say that this is not sustainable. And Darrel Rasner remains a bit out of his league. So the answer to this question can not be any more confident than possibly. But if the offense is indeed warming up, perhaps it can overcome shortfalls in the starting pitching, even if not to the tune of 10 runs/game.
2. Especially given the bottom 2/5s of the starting rotation, can the bullpen continue its no-less-than-amazing performance to-date? Only the Rangers’ pen has thrown more innings than the Yanks’ relievers and yet the Yanks bullpen has compiled the 4th best bullpen ERA in the AL (3.41). In fact the three teams whose pens have better ERAs have thrown 48 (Oak), 66 (ChW), and 73 (Tor) fewer innings than have the Yanks pen. By carrying an extra arm through much of the season and by managing the relative load of each reliever well, Girardi has ensured that no reliever has been unduly taxed despite the large cumulative IP total of the pen (it is nice for once to look at the IP total of relievers in the league and – for the first time in years – not see 1 or 2 Yankees right up there on top). And with Brian Bruney – who entered the season absolutely resurrected and throwing bullets before getting injured – scheduled to return next week, this corps of hurlers should get another shot in the arm. So the answer to this one is a much more enthusiastic why not?
By not making any panicky deals in this off-season or so far during the season, the Yanks seem to be staying on course to try to build on the young talent they have been trying to cultivate from within. If they can stay in the post-season race long enough for Damon to be fully recovered and Wang to return, and if they avoid any more catastrophic injuries (a big "if" to be sure but it is every team’s big "if" and by the law of averages the Yanks have hopefully had their share by now!), they might just do more this year than many of their faithful have been expecting from them in 2008. The next 5 games won’t be determinative, but they’ll certainly test whether the Yanks’ recent success is simply them finally starting to show their true colors or rather a team with gaping pitching holes getting by with lots of smoke and mirrors.