The Yankees’ 14-7 start to the season has been well-rounded. ESPN reports that the team’s pitching staff is in the top 3 in the AL in ERA, WHIP and BAA while its hitters lead the junior circuit in OBP and SLG, and therefore OPS. In light of these numbers, the strong April should not come as a surprise. The team is playing great on both sides of the ball.
But if the component parts of the offense, or defense, are analyzed independently it become fairly surprising that the team is playing so well. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson are all slumping. The non-Mariano edition of the bullpen has been shaky. Javier Vazquez has underperformed the already low bar many Yankee fans set for him, and so on.
It is not surprising that a team with a top 3 offense and defense is one of the best in baseball. That is to be expected. What is surprising is that a team with so many gears grinding is still fielding a top 3 offense and defense.
The Yankees have been playing well as a team because many of the non-slumping Bombers are exceeding expectations, and Robinson Cano has turned into a walking Wheaties commercial. The conventional wisdom that has emerged from this is that when players like Andy Pettitte or Jorge Posada start slumping, other players like Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez will be ready to pick up the slack … right?
Through 21 games this season Tex is batting .139/.292/.266. Tex’s many defenders argue that he’s a habitual slow starter so this is nothing to worry about because come season’s end the numbers will be there.
Tex did get off to a bad start last year, but his 2009 April struggles highlight just how awful he has been this year. Last season through the 22 games the team played in April Tex hit .200/.367/.371. That’s not worth Mark’s $20-plus million annual salary, but across the board it is better than what he’s done this April.
In fact, unless Tex gets 3 or 4 hits tonight, he will open the 2010 season with the worst month of his career, by far. Only April 2003, his first month as a pro, even comes close, and that season he hit for more power out of the gate. Of particular concern this season are his 18 strikeouts. That’s six worse than last April, in one fewer games so far.
In Tex’s defense, April isn’t an on/off switch for him. Calendar months are not clean cut points in baseball. His total April performance in 2009 was bad, but there were moments in the month when his numbers were entering respectability. His slump actually worsened at the end of the month, and he continued to struggle into early May.
When A-Rod returned after the first week of May, Tex’s average and OPS had fallen from where they were at the end of April to .192 and .720, respectively. This means that even though Tex has put himself in a deep hole to start this season he still has plenty of time to turn it on.
Speaking of A-Rod, he’s mired in an 0-19 slump. About a week ago his OPS was over 1.000. Today he’s batting .250/.340/.438. I’d take that as Tex’s line in a New York minute, but the relative strength obscures the fact somewhat that A-Rod is also off to a bad start. Again, measuring ballplayers with calendar months is arbitrary, but it warrants mentioning that in all probability A-Rod will finish April with only 2 home runs. He hit more than 2 homers in every single month last season. He posted better than a .340 OBP every month last season as well.
In fact, A-Rod has had more than two homers in every single calendar month of his entire career once he became an everyday player in 1996. That includes his sophomore slump 1997 season when he managed only 23 bombs.
None of this is cause for alarm just yet. There is ample evidence to argue that the Yankees’ two big bats will be right where they need to be come mid-season.
In Tex’s case the slower April will be completely meaningless if he repeats his lights-out performance from May 2009. As for A-Rod, while the homer total is low, he has had comparably bad months in many otherwise extraordinary seasons (just not in April). In May 2007, for example, Alex hit only .235/.361/.422 and that was his best season ever.
It is truly impressive that the Yankees are one of the best teams in baseball even though their two best hitters are not performing. As April turns into May the team’s continued success may very well depend upon just how quickly the bombers’ 3-4 hitters get going.