After a slow start to the 2012 season, the Yankee win machine has gone into overdrive over the last several weeks. The team’s nine game win streak (and counting) is its most visible success, but the Yankees were playing well before they began this string of victories. On May 21st the Yankees hit something of a low point to their season. They’d lost three games in a row, two to Cincinnati and one to Kansas City, and were flirting with a .500 record. Since then the Yankees have gone 19-4 and have catapulted themselves to the best record in the AL. How have they done it?
The media narrative surrounding the current Yankee win streak is that the team has been uneven offensively while great pitching has motored them to victory. This is flat out untrue. While it is true that the Yankees have struggled to get hits with runners in scoring position, and that the team is scoring fewer runs per game than it has in several seasons, the totality of this offensive malaise translates into the second highest team wOBA in all of baseball. Only the Rangers have a higher wOBA than the New York Yankees, with a .347 mark narrowly edging the .342 mark in the Bronx. The Yankees also have the second highest team SLG in baseball, at .452 and the fourth highest team OBP at .336. It is therefore patently false to think that the team has anything less than a juggernaut offense. Only the Rangers hit more than the Yankees. And while the team has struggled to hit with runners in scoring position, the offense is too potent for that to continue. A correction will come, and when it does, look out.
The poor hitting narrative isn’t the only misleading fact floating around about this team. The other untruth is that the team has great starting pitching. For the season the team has had mediocre starting pitching. The Yankees rank 13th out of all teams in baseball in starter’s fWAR, at 5.7. The team ranks 15th in starter’s ERA at 4.08. The team ranks 12th in starter’s innings pitched, at 404.0. None of these results is great, but none is terrible either. These data certainly don’t suggest the starter’s have powered the team’s season.
It is true that the Yankees have gotten strong starting pitching during their current win streak. Over the past fourteen days the Yankees have played twelve games and their starter’s have posted an fWAR of 3.7 and an ERA of 1.86 (2.32 FIP). Those numbers are pretty good. They are not, however, the best in baseball. Over that same stretch the Red Sox have a higher starter’s fWAR of 3.8 and a comparable FIP of 2.46 but the Red Sox starters have posted a 4-5 record over that stretch and the Yankee starters have gone 9-1. It is therefore misleading to suggest that the starters are entirely responsible for this hot streak. They’ve pitched well, but there is another, similar team getting comparable performance to different results. (There’s a huge reason for this. During this stretch the Yankee starters have a LOB% of 81.3% while the Sox have one of 64.5%. That’s worth some runs.)
The one immutable truth to the Yankee season, and really to most of the recent Yankee seasons, is that the team has one of the best bullpens in baseball. The relievers rank third in fWAR at 2.9. They rank third in ERA at 2.63 and they rank third in FIP at 3.27. So it’s pretty safe to say the team has the third best bullpen in the bigs. Third is great, but it isn’t the stuff of nine game win streaks.
Putting the pieces together, two things become clear. First, the Yankees are applying the same formula they have for the past few seasons: great hitting and relieving carrying middle of the road starting pitching. This recipe has been true pretty much since 2009, when the team needed to shorten its rotation for the playoffs to compensate for a lack of starting depth. It’s true again this year and it stands to reason that any team that hits a lot and can use solid relievers to hold leads is going to win some ball games. The second thing that stands out is that the Yankees are getting lucky (old school fans might call it gritty play, but this is a new school blog so I’m calling it what it is: luck). We don’t need to turn to complex stats to prove this. Looking at the team’s recent win streak, the come from behind win against the Mets last Sunday and the extra-innings victory against the Nationals this past Saturday both stand out as victories that either team could have won. The chips fell in the Yankees favor so they picked up the victories, but in baseball it is foolhardy to count on something like that moving forward. The Yankees are still scoring only 4.8 runs per game, their lowest output since 2008, while allowing 3.9 runs per game. The team is beating opponents by less than a run per game, meaning that the team is winning a lot of close games, something it struggled with in 2011. As a result, the Yankees are now outplaying their Pythagorean by a couple of games after underplaying it last season. This kind of success is precisely the stuff of long win streaks, but it is also the kind of random outcome that turns against a team. In 2011 the Yankees had a similar recipe for winning (top hitting and relieving with decent starters) and struggled in these situations. This year the opposite has been true — so far. Later this season the Yankees may find themselves on the short end of some of these close games.
The Yankees are enjoying a powerful winning streak that has rocketed them to a 1.5 game lead in the AL East and the best record in the AL. The team has achieved this using a method that it has tried and tested. It is fielding a top flight offense and bullpen to overcome decent starting pitching. In the Joe Girardi era that is the Yankee way. It is also true that the Yankees should not expect this win streak to continue. Luck has played a huge factor in it, as it does in any series of close victories in baseball. The bad news for Yankee fans is that at some point in the future the team will probably be on the losing end of, say, something like the call at the plate on Saturday that prevented the Nationals from winning the game. The good news is that by then the team will probably be hitting with runners in scoring position, as any talented hitting team will.