Yankees hold up thanks to pitching

BY Ken Rosenthal • May 30, 2013

With all due respect to Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner, the Yankees are ready to stop being underdogs, thank you very much.

One look at the team’s American League rankings in various offensive categories, and it’s clear just how much the Yankees miss their injured stars:

Eleventh out of 15 in runs per game.

Thirteenth in on-base percentage.

Tenth in OPS.

“That’s not where the Yankees normally are,” general manager Brian Cashman said Thursday. “We’re used to being 1-2 in OPS, on-base, runs scored. That’s where we live.”

Maybe this weekend, when first baseman Mark Teixeira and third baseman Kevin Youkilis return against the Red Sox (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, MLB on Fox), the Yankees will start to move back home.

They’ve scored just 10 runs while losing their last five games, four to the Mets. Give the Yankees credit for building a 30-23 record with such a makeshift roster. But it’s time for the understudies to give way to the stars.

Overbay, Wells, Hafner and Co., they’ve done their part, helped keep the Yankees near the top of the AL East, provided a nice little narrative. But let no one be deceived.

“If you really want to know what has carried the Yankees so far, it’s the pitching, starting and relief,” Cashman said.

The Rangers are the only AL team to allow fewer runs than the Yankees, whose most impressive quality is the way they avoid beating themselves.

Walk rate? Best in the AL.

Wild pitches? Second-fewest.

Stolen bases allowed? Second-fewest.

Only two AL clubs have hit more batters than the Yankees, but hey, no pitching staff is perfect. The Yankees also rank only 11th in the league in defensive efficiency, the rate at which batted balls are converted into outs. But that statistic is at least partly the result of the upheaval in their infield; their outfield defense, anchored by Brett Gardner in center, is quite good.

Crisp run prevention is a necessity at Yankee Stadum, which carries a reputation of being hitter-friendly (though the park played more neutral in 2012 and is doing the same thus far in ’13).

It also is a necessity for a team that will remain offensively challenged without Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson, not to mention Eduardo Nunez and Francisco Cervelli.

Yet, there are questions about the Yankees’ pitching, too.

CC Sabathia, adjusting to pitching at lower velocities, has yet to show he can still dominate. Andy Pettitte will return from a strained left trapezius Monday, but it’s anyone's guess whether he will hold up physically at age 40. Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees’ best starter thus far, is 38.

Also, check out the batting averages on balls in play of the Yankees’ opponents — .327 in April, the second highest in the AL, and .274 in May, the third lowest. A high opponents’ BABIP indicates poor luck, a low one indicates good luck. So, after two months of opposite extremes — and an especially lucky May — no one should be surprised if the Yankees pitchers regress to the mean.

Which, of course, makes an offensive resurgence that much more important.

Cashman called Granderson’s latest absence “a devastating blow” — the outfielder suffered a broken left pinkie finger last Saturday, just eight games after returning from a fractured right forearm. The injury cost the Yankees not only a defender who proved capable of playing all three outfield positions, but also one of the team’s more disciplined hitters.

A typical Yankees team drives up pitch counts, knocks out opposing starters and feasts on weak middle relievers. But these Yankees rank only 11th in the AL in pitches per plate appearance. Wells and Brennan Boesch, in particular, are free swingers who do not adhere to the team’s normal philosophy.

Teixeira and Youkilis will help in that regard; both are patient hitters who grind at-bats. Both also will help the Yankees improve the team’s .666 OPS against left-handed pitchers, which ranks next-to-last in the AL.

Teixeira, a switch-hitter, hits lefties better than righties, while Overbay, the player who replaced him, barely hits lefties at all. Youkilis, a right-handed hitter, was 1 for 21 against lefties before going on the DL with a lumbar spine strain on April 30, but his career .915 OPS against them is far more telling.

Jeter and Rodriguez, both of whom are expected to return after the All-Star break, also mash lefties and grind at-bats. The problem is, it’s impossible to know how quickly the Yankees’ injured players will return to form — and in some cases, if they will return to form at all. Teixeira, suffering from a partially torn tendon sheath in his right wrist, also is vulnerable to re-injury.

No one expected the Yankees’ replacements to keep the team this competitive for this long, but there was never any question that this group came with an expiration date.

The plucky Yankees were fun while they lasted. The real Yankees — first Teixeira and Youkilis, then the rest — cannot return quickly enough.