The Yankees Need Their Stars

During March, there was one story you heard repeatedly; the Yankees are screwed. Coming off a winter in which they let Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Rafael Soriano, and Eric Chavez go elsewhere in free agency, the team looked old and thin. Then the injuries started mounting. Derek Jeter’s ankle didn’t heal properly. Curtis Granderson had his forearm broken by an errant pitch. Mark Teixeira’s wrist hurt. Kevin Youkilis achy back started acting up again. They were eventually joined on the DL by Andy Pettitte, Francisco Cervelli, and Eduardo Nunez, and that doesn’t even include perpetual rehabbers Alex Rodriguez and Michael Pineda.

And yet, two months into the season, the Yankees are 30-22, currently standing with the third best record in the American League. Despite all the big names missing from the line-up, the Yankees have just kept winning, and it has spawned some suggestion that maybe the Yankees didn’t need all those high priced veterans to begin with. Maybe they’d be better off with the young kids who no one has ever heard of and who didn’t have enough money to buy a small island, or in A-Rod’s case, a big island.

Don’t believe it. The Yankees 30-22 record is a mirage, and their underlying performance suggests that the team needs Youkilis, Teixeira, Jeter, and the rest to keep the Yankees in the playoff race.

The offense, specifically, has been a huge problem. The line-up has combined for a .312 wOBA, just 10th best in the American League, and that doesn’t even account for the fact that they play in a ballpark that increases offensive performance. By using a park adjusted metric like wRC+, which does account for Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field, their offensive production has been eight percent below the league average. For context, that puts them squarely between the Astros (10 percent below average) and the Mariners (five percent below average), neither of whom are going anywhere near the playoffs this year.

So, how have the Yankees managed to keep winning with an ineffective offense? Their pitching has been absurdly great when it matters. Here is how stingy the Yankees have been at run prevention by situation:

Bases Empty: .261/.315/.420, .321 wOBA (#8 in AL)
Men On Base: .241/.303/.393, .302 wOBA (#4 in AL)
RISP: .207/.285/.339, .272 wOBA (#1 in AL)

With no one on, the Yankees pitching staff has basically been pretty average. Put a guy on base, they’ve gotten pretty good. Put a guy in scoring position, they’ve been unhittable. To give you an idea of how dominant allowing just a .272 wOBA is, Clayton Kershaw has allowed hitters to post a .268 wOBA against him in his career. The average Yankee pitching performance when under threat of allowing runs has been about equal one of the game’s best pitchers.

Yes, some of this is because they have two of the game’s great bullpen arms in Mariano Rivera and David Robertson at the back end, able to come in and put out any fires that might arise in close situations. But, this isn’t all just the bullpen bailing out the starters. Hiroki Kuroda has allowed a .179 wOBA with runners in scoring position, while Andy Pettitte is at .233. Even the back-end guys have been pretty good under duress, as Phil Hughes (.297) and David Phelps (.304) have pitched better with runners in scoring position than they have with the bases empty.

This is not normal, by the way. Pitchers perform best out of the wind-up, when they can align their defense in a normal way and don’t have the distraction of opponents dancing around on the base paths. The league average pitcher in 2013 has allowed a .312 wOBA with the bases empty, .319 with men on base, and .317 with runners in scoring position. The Yankees are the clear outlier here, performing far better in clutch pitching situations than they have with the bases cleared.

Some may look at those numbers and laud the heart and mental toughness of New York’s pitchers, but history says that it’s mostly just random variation that won’t last. Teams with good bullpens like New York’s can do a bit better than average in these situations, but there’s just no way the Yankees keep limiting opposing hitters to a .272 wOBA with men in scoring position. That can’t last, and when the pitchers stop bending and start breaking, the Yankees lack of run scoring is going to look like a much bigger problem.

Vernon Wells hot streak in April was a nice story, and Lyle Overbay hasn’t been awful filling in at first base, but the Yankees simply have to score more runs if they want to keep pace in the American League East. Robinson Cano and Travis Hafner cannot carry this team to the playoffs. Granderson, Teixeira, and Jeter might not be as young or as healthy as they once were, but they’re still much better than the alternatives that New York has on the roster. If the Yankees want to keep winning, they’ll need their high priced players to get healthy and start hitting the ball over the fence.

The Yankees clutch pitching kept them in the race while they survived the injury bug, but their context neutral performance suggests they’ve performed more like a team that should be around .500. While the narrative about the Yankees having no hope to win with this aging, injury prone roster was overblown, the overall assessment of this group not being good enough to contend was correct. The Yankees need their star hitters back.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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