A Chink in the Armor?

This is an article that was originally published on HardRockSports.com.

As the All Star break looms, Hardrock Sports columnist Scott A. Ham thinks it’s time to take a look at the good and bad of the Yankees season.
 


We’re approaching the All Star break and that can mean only two things: three days without competitive baseball and its time to take stock in our teams.  While the National League benefits from one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory, the AL is slowly waking up from a mediocre beginning.  The AL Central continues to be a joke while Seattle and Toronto are trying to make the West and East a lot more interesting.

All this should spell good news for the World Champion New York Yankees.  After all, they won 114 regular season games last year and survived the one stumbling block they encountered in Cleveland during the post-season en route to a World Series sweep.  This league should be ripe for another Yankee dynasty to emerge.
 
Slow down, turbo. These are NOT the 1998 Yankees. Yes, going into the weekend series with the Mets they are 51 – 32, a solid 19 games over .500 and 4 games ahead in the East, but this team isn’t performing near the level of their predecessors.  
 
Call it karma, Murphy’s Law, or the unwritten principle that nothing is a guarantee in baseball. Either way, the Yankees so far in 1999 have had their successes and their failures.  I’m going to shed a little light on both.

The Great

Derek Jeter – I’m growing a little tired of the debate over the best shortstop in the American League – ARod, Nomar, and Jeter – for one simple reason: we won’t have the answer until they retire.  Two years ago, Jeter wasn’t quite in the class of Arod or Nomar, but as the ’99 season is proving, Derek has closed that gap and may be ready to surpass them.
 
Jeter has been the focal point of a Yankees’ offense that has drifted from dominating to non-existent.  He’s posted an OPS (slugging percentage  + on base percentage) of 1.089, a distinct improvement over his .860 before the ’98 break.  That number will more than likely drop a notch by the end of the season, but if history is any indication, it could actually rise, as Jeter’s OPS has increased in the second half over the last three seasons by .061.  
 
In all likelihood, this won’t happen unless Jeter’s power numbers increase.  After a torrid April (1.217 OPS), Jeter’s numbers have been on a slow decline while maintaining a steady batting average. Barring injury, he will get two hundred hits for the second season in a row and most likely will drive in one hundred runs for the first time in his career.  
 
Probably the most impressive fact about Jeter is how he’s worked to improve his hitting. After batting .304 (.862 OPS) against right-handers over the last three seasons, the right-handed Jeter is hitting .398 (1.128 OPS) going into the All Star break.
 
 
David Cone – There was some talk at the end of the ’97 season about what could be left in David Cone’s arm.  After enduring two arm surgeries in three seasons, including an aneurysm in 1996, age and the wear and tear of thirteen seasons of pitching looked to have caught up with the former Cy Young winner.  Twenty wins and a World Championship later, Cone faced the same questions leading into the ’99 season.    
 
Instead of being a 36-year-old pitcher on the decline, Cone has actually improved.  He’s been averaging 6.2 innings per start, having only one truly bad outing, allowing 5 earned runs in 5.2 innings to the Phillies.  Over 113 innings, Cone has allowed 90 hits, averaging 7.1 hits per nine innings, a vast improvement over the 8 per nine innings he averaged in ’98, while giving up 4 less home runs going into the break.
 
If there’s been a point of concern with Cone this year, it’s been his walk total.  After walking only 59 batters last year in 207.2 innings, Cone has walked 51 already this season.  With fatigue usually playing a factor down the stretch, this number could rise even more along with Cone’s ERA.
 
 
Mariano Rivera – Some may argue the true value of closers in a bullpen, but you can’t argue how effective Rivera has been.  Since joining the Yankee bullpen in ’96, Rivera has posted a 1.92 ERA, collecting 105 saves.  He has struck out 252 batters, while allowing only 81 walks and 205 hits.  In a word, he has been dominant.
 
 
The Good

Bernie Williams – What, a .342 batting average with 52 RBI’s is only good?  Well, yes.
 
Bernie’s been having a good season, no doubt there.  After signing a huge seven-year, $87.5 million contract in the off-season, Bernie entered the upper echelon of Major League ballplayers.  And to a degree, he has been exactly that so far this season, posting a .937 OPS.  Bernie’s scored 65 runs and driven in another 52, which ain’t too shabby either.
 
There’s only one problem: the power numbers just aren’t there.  A .514 slugging percentage is okay, but Bernie hit .575 last year, .603 before the All Star break.  The lack of power has left the Yankees’ cleanup spot less productive than had been expected and forced Torre to mix-up the order in hopes of jump-starting the offense.  Bernie landed in the two spot and instantly fell into a groove.  It was good for the offense for a while, but Bernie didn’t get the big bucks to be a table-setter and has since returned to the cleanup spot.
 
Chances are, Bernie’s numbers will rise.  He’s never played more than 144 games in a season and so far this season has avoided injury.  Over the second half, Bernie has remained pretty consistent and looking at his average, you have to figure the power will come around.
 
 
Chili Davis – When Chili Davis tore up April with a 1.091 OPS, Yankee fans were left to wonder what ’98 would have been like with a healthy Davis for a full season.  Instead of 125 wins, could it have been 128?  130?  After all, nobody expected the 39 year-old DH to come out swinging in ’99 after slugging .447 in 35 games last year.
 
His numbers have since cooled off a bit, an interleague June spent mostly on the road removed his DH position for a week.  The break may have taken Chili off of his stride, but he’s started July off well, going 8 for 27 with 2 HRs.  His switch-hitting bat is a key component to the Yankees’ lineup, both sides producing a decent average and more power from the left side. Davis’ numbers typically drop in the second half but the long vacation in ’98 due to the reconstruction of his ankle could help him down the stretch.
 
 
Hideki Irabu – No, that’s not a typo.  Despite hitting a packet of turbulence in spring training and an equally horrible start to the season, Irabu has turned what could have been his swan song with the Yankees into a mildly successful season. How so, you ask?  His record is only 5 – 3, but what has he done for us lately?
 
Since May 5th, Irabu has started 8 games, posting a 3.38 ERA, averaging 6.1 innings per start.  Not bad for a fifth starter.
 
 
The Bad

Jorge Posada/Joe Girardi – The Yankees’ catching situation has been nothing short of dreadful.  First, they put a good catching prospect in Mike Figga on waivers, allowing the Orioles to pick him up.  This isn’t a tremendous loss because the Yanks are deep with talent in the catching position.  Aren’t they?
 
If by deep you mean sunk, you may be onto something.  Posada’s a veteran prospect at this stage in his career and Girardi’s a seasoned veteran with good catching skills.  What last year looked like an ideal situation to groom Posada for the starting job has slowly shed some doubt on the Yankees’ catching future.    This August, Posada will be 28 years old and on the downswing while Girardi is a second string 35 year-old catcher making $3.5 million in his option year.  
 
How bad is Posada this season after being so highly touted?  Try a .657 OPS in 55 games, 50 strikeouts in 187 at-bats, 11 passed balls, and a sharp decline in his caught-stealing ratio.  Girardi isn’t much better on the offensive front with a disturbingly low .506 OPS in 35 games.  While defensively he is much more solid, Girardi likely will not be back next season, making Posada’s downward trajectory all the more concerning.
 
 
The Bullpen – Delete Mariano Rivera from the equation and the Yankees’ relief corp. has struggled.  After losing Jeff Nelson early in the season, the revolving door that is the Yankees’ pen has seen the likes of Tony Fossas, Jay Tessmer, Todd Erdos, and the recently acquired Allen Watson.  Jason Grimsley has been decent at times, his 4.20 ERA reflecting the few struggles he’s had over 45 innings.  Ramiro Mendoza, the Yanks sixth starter, has struggled even more than Grimsley, posting a 4.46 ERA and making the decision to leave Irabu in the rotation look like a no-brainer.
 
Left Field – The turf is fine, it the players I’m concerned about.  The Yankees have been rotating the most ineffective platoon in baseball, utilizing Shane Spencer (.770 OPS), Chad Curtis (.694), Ricky Ledee (.553) and Tony Tarasco (.482). The lack of offensive production has not only hurt the bottom of the Yankees’ order, but also started a whirlwind of trade rumors.
 
Shane Spencer started to solidify the position over the last couple of weeks, showing good signs of power and raising his average 35 points, but found himself in the hospital with an irregular heartbeat.  
 
The Ugly

Andy Pettitte – Pettitte’s numbers have been weak to say the least: 5.56 ERA, 100 hits over 87.1 innings, and a 2.2 IP, 6 earned run shellacking at the hands of the Cleveland Indians.  Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre claims the rough first half isn’t due to control or lack of movement, but is more mentally related. That may not be a good sign as many pitchers have dropped in recent years due to their inability to focus on the mound.
 
What turns the situation from bad to ugly is the firestorm that has surrounded Pettitte’s decline from previous success.  Rumors are that the Yankees are shopping Pettitte, possibly for a left fielder (see above).  While this may simply be a ploy to see what kind of interest there is, the prospect of trading a proven 27 year-old left hander with a successful track record is not comforting when looking at the ages of David Cone and Roger Clemens.
 
Chuck Knoblauch – Knobby didn’t exactly have a stellar inaugural season with the Yankees in ’98, but the rest of the team’s performance more than made up for him.  While his OBP has risen slightly so far this year, he’s still not producing anywhere near what the Yankees expected when they traded four prospects, including the highly touted pitcher Eric Milton to the Twins.  
 
Chuck’s case of the Steve Sax throwing yips last year has mysteriously risen again, only this time in much worse form.  After committing 13 errors over the entire ’98 season, Chuck has 16 already this year and has a zone rating of .803.  A lot has been attributed to personal problems in his life leading to less focus on the ball field, but none of this will help him when it becomes contract time, especially with D’Angelo Jimenez awaiting his chance in the minors.  
 
 
But What Does it All Mean?

I have made a lot of arguments about what has gone wrong with the Yankees this year, but in spite of it all, they still remain in first place in the AL East.  The team has a lot of talent and knows how to win, characteristics that can carry you quite far in the post-season.
 
But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.  The Yanks have shown a lot of weaknesses the first half and while their pitching ranks in the top three in the league, there are enough holes that can be exploited.  Unlike last year, this team can be beat fairly easily, whether by a terrible pitching performance or the slumbering nature of the offense.  When running on all cylinders, they look like the ’98 Yankees, but those occasions haven’t found the consistency Joe Torre would like.
 
The second half holds a lot of questions that can only be answered in the post season.  The team has severely underachieved, leaving the possibility of a hot streak at any moment that could ignite the subdued arrogance that festered in the clubhouse last year.  Cleveland remains the biggest obstacle in returning to the World Series and it will take the pitching staff to be running at full speed to surpass them.  If the Yankee’s rotation hit’s their stride come playoff time, look for the Yanks to make another appearance in the Series.
 

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