Sure, the Yankees can hit better ... but will they?
MAY 23, 2014 12:36p ET
Thursday, Chicago White Sox lefty Chris Sale made the Yankees look silly for six innings. No big surprise there. Sale is fantastic. But the Yankees have scored only eight runs in their last four games (including a 13-inning affair). After Thursday’s loss, Joe Girardi said, "We've ran against three pretty good starting pitchers, but I know we’re capable of hitting better than this."
Granted, Girardi’s "this" refers to just a few games. But anything might happen in a few games. What’s more interesting is the whole season. So how well have the Yankees been hitting this season? They're eighth in the American League in scoring, which seems exactly right since they're 10th in on-base percentage and sixth in slugging percentage.
Before we review where the Yankees have room for (theoretical) improvement, let's look at what's gone well for them.
First on the list is Mark Teixeira. After a lost 2013, Teixeira's on track for his biggest season since 2009, when led the league in homers and RBI. It's unlikely that Teixeira will remain on this track, but hardly impossible; he's a good hitter, and sometimes good 34-year-old hitters have great seasons.
Meanwhile, 26-year-old rookie Yangervis Solarte is hitting almost as well as Teixeira — he’s got an .870 OPS through Thursday — which is pretty surprising, considering his .736 OPS in 263 Triple-A games. Let's just say Solarte's current numbers are a lot less likely than Tex's.
Brett Gardner’s been over his head some, too, but not ridiculously so. We're talking about maybe a few extra runs, scattered over two months. But Gardner's batted .405 on balls in play (BABiP), and a little bird told me Gardner won't keep batting .405 on balls in play.
And that's really about the extent of the Yankees' good "luck" (which I put in quotation marks because another little bird told me some of you don't believe there's any luck in batting).
What about the bad "luck?"
First on the list is Brian McCann. One of our best hitting backstops, McCann's been dreadful this season. Part of the problem is McCann's lousy BABiP, but his walk rate is also way down. McCann is swinging at slightly more pitches this season, both inside and outside the strike zone, but you have to think he'll be good (if probably not great) for the rest of the year.
Second is Alfonso Soriano. It’s been a long time since Soriano was a great hitter. But he’s always been a good hitter — well, except for his rookie season in 2001 and his nightmare season in 2009 —but this season he’s not been good at all. At this point in his career, Soriano would be a fine role player. But an everyday player at a position that demands a potent bat? His .850 OPS after joining the Yankees last season was a mirage; Soriano’s true abilities are well-represented by his .789 OPS over these last five seasons. And his sub-par on-base percentage means his OPS is even less impressive than it seems. Oh, and he’s 38, with only five walks in 44 games this season. This might be the real him.
Third is Carlos Beltran, off to a slow start before going on the DL a couple of weeks ago with an elbow injury. He’s supposed to take some swings next week; if that doesn’t go well, it looks like a surgery that will cost him most of the summer.
And then there’s Jacoby Ellsbury, who’s been neither bad nor good, with an OPS+ exactly league-average of 100. You might think he’s underperforming, and he probably is ... but by how much, realistically? Ellsbury was of course tremendous in 2011, when he might well have been the best player in the AL. But even including that brilliant season, Ellsbury’s career OPS+ is 107. Is the 100 this season really so far out of line? He’s capable of hitting better and probably will. A lot better, though? I doubt it.
Speaking of old, Ichiro Suzuki is batting .369 in part-time duties. Ichiro’s having a bizarre season — his strikeout rate’s way up, but he’s also got a .462 BABiP — but it’s also just 69 plate appearances, and so anything’s possible.
Add all this up, and what do you get? Sure the Yankees are capable of hitting better. The Astros are capable of winning 100 games this season. But we have to concern ourselves with likelihoods. And I just don’t see a great deal of room for improvement here. McCann should hit a lot better, Soriano and Ellsbury somewhat better. But Solarte should hit a lot worse, Teixeira and Gardner somewhat worse. Beltran’s a big question mark, but pessimism seems more sensible than optimism. Roberts and Jeter are just hanging on.
So yes, they’re capable. But while the moves the Yankees made last winter made sense at the time (to me, anyway), they didn’t add up to a particularly good lineup, unless everybody was healthy and Jeter bounced back. Even with just an average lineup — what they’ve got now, essentially — the Yankees figured as a competitive club if their pitching held up.
Their pitching hasn’t held up and isn’t likely to hold up. And yet, they’re still competitive in the bizarrely average AL East. It’s tempting to say the Yankees are dead, with all the injuries and the age and the apparent malaise. But we can’t say that until somebody in the division shows some real life.
Which somebody will. Who you got, though? I liked the Blue Jays before the season, but there's probably some life in the Red Sox and Rays, too. Maybe it's not a good division. But that doesn't mean it's not interesting.
Other interesting things: astrophysics, and Rob Neyer's Twitter feed.