I’ll be kicking off a player-by-player analysis of the 2007 Yankees in the coming days, but before that, here’s a quick look at the team’s collective performance.
The 2007 Yankees stumbled out of the gate. With Chien-Ming Wang on the disabled list, Carl Pavano became the default Opening Day starter and blew an early lead. The Yankees would comeback to win that game, but went 2-3 on the homestand, then 3-3 on their first road trip as Pavano and Mike Mussina also hit the disabled list. They returned home to sweep the Indians behind a trio of rookie starters (Chase Wright, Kei Igawa, and Darrell Rasner), but then lost their next seven straight, including four to the Red Sox. That losing streak dropped them below .500, where they would remain until mid-June.
On May 30, the Yankees were in fourth place, 14.5 games behind Boston in the AL East. They won 14 of their next 17, including two of three in Boston and a 8-1 homestand against interleague opponents, but followed that up with a disastrous 1-7 road trip through Colorado, San Francisco, and Baltimore that ended with a rain-suspended game which the Yankees led, but wouldn’t officially win for another month.
On July 2, the Yankees were still a losing team. Though they had crept back up to second place in the East, they were 37-41 overall, 10.5 games behind Boston, and in sixth place in the Wild Card race, nine games behind Detroit. That night and the next, they beat the Twins by a combined score of 13-1 behind Roger Clemens and Chien-Ming Wang. Beginning with those two games, the Yankees went 56-27 over their final 83 games–good for a .675 winning percentage, the best in baseball over that stretch. By season’s end, the Yankees stood just two games behind the Red Sox and beat out the Tigers for the American League Wild Card to extend their franchise streak of consecutive postseason appearances to 13, one short of the Atlanta Braves’ record.
While the Yankees’ second-half schedule was littered with what I termed “cupcake” opponents, the distribution of their opponents was not that unbalanced. Forty-one of the Yankees first 79 games came against teams that finished with winning records, while 40 of their final 83 came against eventual winning teams. The Yankees went 17-24 in those first 41 games against winning teams and 26-14 in the final 40, which is evidence that the change in the Yankees’ fortune had more to do with how the team played than who their opponents were.
True, the weakest of those winning teams, the Toronto Blue Jays, accounted for 14 of their 40 games against winning teams in the second half and just four of their 41 games against winning teams in the first half, but even if you remove Toronto from the equation, the Yankees went 16-21 (.432) against the remaining winning teams they faced in the first half and 17-11 (.607) against non-Toronto winning teams in the second half.
The Yankees had the best offense in baseball in 2007 as they scored nearly a half run more per game than their closest competitor, the NL East Champion Philadelphia Phillies. As a team, the Yankees hit .290/.366/.463 and posted a 123 OPS+, the later a dead match for Derek Jeter’s career figure. The Yankees were also fourth in the American League in stolen bases and had a higher success rate than two of the three teams ahead of them.
The offense’s splits were telling, however. The Yankees scored 5.40 runs in the first half, which ranked a close second to the Tigers. In the second half, however, they scored an incredible 6.63 runs, a 1074-run pace over a full season. That, more than anything else, was responsible for their second half surge.
As for where all those extra runs came from, here’s the second half change in OPS of the eight Yankee regulars to start throughout the season:
Only Jeter, who was hobbled by leg injuries, saw a meaningful decline in his production, while five of the eight regulars enjoyed a significant-to-tremendous increase in production. In addition, Brian Cashman made huge upgrades on the bench by replacing Wil Nieves (.164/.190/.230) with Jose Molina (.318/.333/.439) and Kevin Thompson (.190/.261/.333) with Shelley Duncan (.257/.329/.554).
Replacing Miguel Cario’s .252/.308/.318 with Wilson Betemit’s .226/.278/.417 didn’t actually make much difference this season, nor did any of the changes made at first base where, save for Doug Mientkiewitz’s final 12 games, everyone was consistently underwhelming.
The Yankee rotation was in shambles early in the year with Wang starting the season on the DL, and Pavano and Mussina hitting the DL after making two starts a piece. Jeff Karstens, who was supposed to break camp as the fifth starter, opened the season on the DL due to elbow soreness, tanked his first start after coming off the DL, then had his leg broken by a comebacker in his second start. Darrell Rasner made six starts before having a finger on his pitching hand broken by a comebacker. Phil Hughes tore a hamstring while pitching a no-hitter in his second start. Tyler Clippard, Matt DeSalvo, and Chase Wright, none of whom was supposed to see the majors before 2008, combined for 13 starts. And Kei Igawa still managed to pitch his way off the roster by early May.
In total, twelve pitchers started for the Yankees in the first half of the season, including seven rookies and five men who were making their major league debut. Only three men made more than eight starts–Andy Pettitte, Chien-Ming Wang, and Mike Mussina–and of those three, only Pettitte didn’t spend time on the disabled list.
Roger Clemens replaced Matt DeSalvo in the rotation in early June. Igawa returned from triple-A to replace Tyler Clippard at the end of that month, and in early August, Phil Hughes returned from the disabled list to replace Igawa, giving the Yankees five solid starters for the first time all season. Not that things went quite that smoothly. Hughes struggled in August. Mussina pitched his way out of the rotation by the end of that month, and a variety of injuries limited Clemens to two starts in September. Still, things were better than they had been. Andy Pettitte came up aces in the second half to anchor the rotation, and 87 percent of the Yankees’ games in the second half were started by one of their top five starters (Wang, Pettitte, Clemens, Mussina, Hughes).
Looking at the staff ERA, however, the pitching staff as a whole was almost exactly league average in both the first half and the second. That doesn’t follow the narrative above, and it seems unlikely that the bullpen could have been good enough in the first half to compensate for the rotation’s struggles, or bad enough in the second second half to mask the rotation’s improvement.
Unfortunately, I don’t have access to those sorts of combined splits. What I can tell you is that the starting rotation was almost dead average on the season in ERA and walk rate, ranked below average in both strikeout rate and innings per start, but was actually better than average in home runs allowed (the last of which owes something to the pitcher-friendly dimensions of Yankee Stadium).
As the Yankee rotation stumbled in the early going, one of April’s big stories became the resulting strain put on the Yankee bullpen and the relievers’ resulting collective ineffectiveness. Through the first 18 games of the season, the starters averaged just 4.87 innings per game. Luis Vizcaino, especially, was awful in late April because he had pitched in eight of the Yankees’ first twelve games. Mariano Rivera, meanwhile, was supposedly awful because he wasn’t pitching enough (or so went the argument after Rivera blew his first two save opportunities–in actuality, Mo pitched in five of those first twelve games, a 67-game pace over a full season, exactly his career average, though only one of those five appearances was a save opportunity, which he blew).
As the rotation improved and ate up more innings, the bullpen also improved due to it’s decreased workload, but it was never what you’d call good. On the season, the Yankee bullpen ranked 22nd in the majors in ERA and was worse than average in both walk rate and home run rate compared to the other 29 pens in the majors. Dumping Scott Proctor in the Betemit trade and replacing him a week later with Joba Chamberlain was a huge upgrade, but that didn’t happen until August. Meanwhile, releasing Mike Myers ultimately to make room for Edwar Ramirez, while it seemed like the right move at the time, didn’t pay off quite the same way. True, Myers was dreadful with the White Sox in September, but he posted a 2.66 ERA in pinstripes, while Edwar posted a 7.64 ERA in his second stint in the majors.
The Yankees had the fourth most efficient defense in baseball in 2006 (measured by their rate of turning balls in play into outs), but dropped to 14th in 2007. On the up side, Alex Rodriguez made a marked improvement over his lost year at third base in 2006. The defense of Mientkiewicz, Phillips, and even Betemit and Miguel Cairo was a nice improvement over Jason Giambi at first base. Melky Cabrera’s arm made him an upgrade over Johnny Damon in center, and Damon’s late-season use in left field was a huge improvement over Hideki Matsui. Best of all, Robinson Cano tied Orlando Hudson for the third best Ultimate Zone Rating in baseball at second base. On the down side, Derek Jeter, whose late-season decline seen in the OPS figures above was the result of knee problems that also reduced his already limited range in the field, ranked dead last in the majors in UZR among shortstops. Matsui, when he was in the field, was the third worst left fielder in the AL, and Bobby Abreu was merely average in right (in fact, Rodriguez was merely average at third as well, but it was still a huge upgrade on his 2006 performance).
The Yankee catchers, meanwhile, ranked 17th in the majors by throwing out just 24 percent of opposing baserunners, while allowing the second most successful steals in all of baseball. Wil Nieves was worse than that. Jose Molina was better, and Jorge Posada hit that 24 percent right on the head. No one tried to steal on Josh Phelps during his inning behind the plate in Boston.
Looking at the big picture, the Yankees’ principle goal for this offseason should be to keep their offense together by extending Alex Rodriguez and resigning Jorge Posada. They still have a hole at first base, but with Jason Giambi, Shelley Duncan, and Wilson Betemit all under control for 2008, they should be able to piece the position together and get acceptable production.
The rotation will improve itself with a full season from Phil Hughes and the addition of Joba Chamberlain and possibly Ian Kennedy, all of whom will not only solidify the rotation. The only concern there is how many innings each of those kids should be allowed to pitch. Kennedy’s 165 1/3 innings were the most of the trio in 2007, as Hughes’ time on the DL prevented him from building on his 146 frames from 2006, and the Joba Rules held Chamberlain to 116 innings in his first professional season. The general rule is that young pitchers should not increase their innings by more than 30 percent over the previous year. That would give Kennedy plenty of leeway for a full season (though the Yankees should still be mindful to keep the 23-year-old below 200 innings), but limit Chamberlain and Hughes to 150 frames, as Hughes wound up throwing almost exactly as many innings as Chamberlain this year. Exactly how to manage their workloads will be one of the challenges facing the organization and its new manager in 2008.
Lastly, the bullpen needs a-fixin’, particularly with the loss of Chamberlain to the rotation. Chris Britton, who was inexplicably held back at triple-A for much of the 2007 season, should be part of that solution, but he’s only (believe it or not) a small part. Ross Ohlendorf and Jose Veras, who pitched well enough in September call-ups to earn postseason roster spots, could be parts as well, as could Humberto Sanchez and J.B. Cox in the latter half of the season, depending on how quickly they recuperate from their early-2007 ligament-replacement surgeries. Beyond that, my enthusiasm for Edwar Ramirez and Brian Bruney has faded and, though he had a solid season in Scranton, T.J. Beam never convinced me he could get major league hitters out and tellingly didn’t get so much as a sniff from the big league club this past year when even Colter Bean got called up . . . twice!
I’ll explore the Yankees’ bullpen options more in future posts, starting with my player-by-player postmortem (I really do expect to get to the pen this year, really). For now it’s enough to know that the bullpen is the aspect of this Yankees team that needs the most attention. After hiring a manager, that is. And resigning Rodriguez and Posada. (Yes, Rivera too, but he’s part of the pen). If they fail to bring back those star players, “this” will be a very different Yankee team.