It's not even July 4 yet and the Yankees have been buried more times than Kenny from South Park. The latest last rites were issued on Sunday after New York's ninth loss in 11 games, a slide which has once again made an AL East pennant look like a pipe dream (11.0 games back) and the wild-card consolation prize an impossible dream (9.0 games back behind five teams).
I'm not ready to kick dirt on the 2007 Yankees, though a comeback at this point seems about as likely as an Obama-Clinton ticket in '08. Rallies of this magnitude do happen on occasion (see: Yankees in '78, Braves in '93), and are often celebrated in book, movie and song for decades to come. But to expect it to happen is not realistic and quite possibly bad for your own personal health.
If the Yankees are going to get back into the race, they will have to overcome their biggest problem so far: an inability to win close games. New York is an AL-worst 5-13 in one-run games compared to 18-9 in games decided by five runs or more. The disparity has led to a six-win difference between their real record of 37-41 and their record based on run-differential (pythag) of 43-35.
There is a school of thought in Sabermetric circles that results of one-run games often come down to pure luck. Sometimes, that may be true. But I don't think that is the case with these Yankees, who have handicapped themselves in close games by poor bullpen management and suboptimal roster construction.
• First, the bullpen. As a whole it's not a terrific group. Yankees relievers lead the league in walks with 143, and part of that is a function of how often they are called upon -- only the Rangers and Royals have pitched more innings out of the 'pen. Yet the Yankees' bullpen has only 175 strikeouts, 11th in the AL. Kyle Farnsworth, in particular, is one guy whose act has worn thin to say the least.
To sum up: Yankees relievers walk a lot of batters and don't strike out many batters. That's not a recipe for success in any league I've ever heard of.
The one exception to the mediocrity in the bullpen is Mariano Rivera, who is on the Halley's Comet schedule of relief duty. Joe Torre long has been criticized (both fairly and unfairly) for the faulty use of his bullpen, but last Tuesday against the Orioles took the cake. Tied 2-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth, Torre brought Scott Proctor in to start the inning. Proctor allowed the first two runners to reach base before getting an out. Instead of bringing in Rivera, who had made one appearance in the previous nine days, to preserve the tie, Torre stuck with Proctor, who issued two walks to end the game. A tie game in the bottom of the ninth is one of, if not the highest, of high-leverage situations in a ballgame. If that's not the time to bring in your best reliever, I don't know what is.
The stunning development led to this brilliant rant by Jay Jaffe on his Futility Infielder blog:
"If Torre couldn't be bothered to use a rested Mariano Rivera in the face of a sudden-death bottom of the ninth to thwart a potential three-game losing streak and 1-6 slide, then this team, this season, maybe even this regime is beyond redemption."
• Second, the bench. This is what I mean by bad roster contruction: Miguel Cairo has started 15 games at first base, five fewer than the equally feckless Josh Phelps. But don't blame them. They were just filling in for the fearsome Doug Mientkiewicz. (It's been asked before and worth repeating: Why did they let Carlos Pena go?) Is there anybody on this bench who does anything at an above-average major-league level? Wil Nieves, Andy Phillips, Kevin Thompson, Cairo ... this isn't exactly the Bomb Squad.
Fortunately for the Yankees, these are problems that can be addressed. Quality backups aren't too difficult to acquire via trade, though finding the right reliever or two to fix the bullpen will be costly. Unfortunately for the Yankees, time is running out quickly for any of their moves to make a difference.