Since the start of the Yankees’ dramatic turnaround this month, 26-year-old left pitcher Sean Henn has seen almost no action.
This is not a coincidence.
“Everybody here has tasted winning before,” said Henn, a long reliever, in a clubhouse interview prior to New York’s ninth straight victory on Thursday. “The clubhouse is filled with perennial all stars and future Hall of Famers.”
Prior to June, Henn had been getting regular work bailing out the aging starters in the Bronx, appearing in 16 games through May 10. New York, plagued with a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness, has run through 12 different starting pitchers already this season, losing half of them to the disabled list. Even their recently signed savior Roger Clemens had to delay his comeback start because of something called a “tired groin.”
But then in June, something clicked for the Yankees, who are the oldest team in baseball. So far, they’ve gone 11-2, on the strength of solid starting pitching and clutch hitting from their star veterans. They've averaged an obscene seven runs per game this month, and outscored opponents 92-51.
And guys like Henn, who has made just one appearance in June, have gotten to sit back and watch.
So can it last, this amazing resurgence built on the backs of geezers?
Certainly, any roster stocked with as many former stars as the New York Yankees is certainly capable of playing spectacular stretches of baseball. Lesser teams have done it—the Tampa Bay Devil Rays won 12 in a row a few years ago en route to a last-place finish. The 2001 New York Mets rallied from a mid-August record of 54-68 to go 25-6. The 1987 Milwaukee Brewers began the season at 13-0, but lost 12 straight a month later. None of these teams had the number of players with the past success of those on the 2007 Yankees.
But those Yankees are old.
A player’s peak, according to conventional baseball wisdom, is from 27-31. It simply becomes harder for the older player to hit that curveball as consistently, and his hot streaks are not as hot, and fewer in number. The days a pitcher has his best stuff become less frequent.
The Yankees, meanwhile, started the season with just two regular players under the age 33, and they have seen plenty of downward sloping performances already. Designated Hitter Jason Giambi, 36, is unlikely to help the team this season, between his heel injury and the specter of suspension by Major League Baseball for his impolitic admission of steroid use during an interview last month. His replacements have been uninspired, and based upon their numbers, unenhanced.
Center Fielder Johnny Damon, who is 33, has been a shadow of his former self all year, with a .254 batting average, 3 home runs, and injuries that have limited his mobility in the field.
Catcher Jorge Posada, meanwhile, is a poor bet to keep up his current (highly impressive) level of play. Not only is a he a catcher, a position whose demands tend to wear players down over the course of a season, but he is a 35-year-old catcher whose average on balls in play is among the highest in baseball. His .354 batting average is 80 points above his career mark of .274. His luck could well continue, but it is far from a sound bet—and the only Posada insurance the Yankees possess, Wil Nieves, owns a career batting average of .146.
Right Fielder Bobby Abreu’s torrid June has pushed his numbers toward his career norms, though the 33-year-old will need another month of hitting .500 to make up for his April and May slump. He is unlikely to struggle as badly as he did in the first two months—but neither is he a .500
Second Baseman Robinson Cano, the one Yankee regular in his twenties, seems to be reverting to form, though that is likely to be closer to his .297 average from 2005 than his .342 mark in 2006.
As for that famous left side of the infield, Derek Jeter’s .328 average, .408 on base percentage and .451 slugging is near enough to his career norms that expecting him to continue at this level is reasonable, though Jeter is 33, and playing a demanding defensive position with continually diminishing returns.
Alex Rodriguez, meanwhile, is slugging .675, 99 points above his career norms, and more than 150 points ahead of his 2006 pace.
The starters seem formidable enough, with Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens and Chien-Ming Wang. But Tyler Clippard, the fifth member of the rotation, has a 5.32 ERA, even including his strong major league debut against the Mets. And though Clemens is pushing 45 and Mussina’s 2007 start raising eyebrows over both his ERA (5.12) and velocity (fastballs reaching 85-86, rather than 89-90), there is no margin for error.
Pettitte, who is 35, has battled injury difficulties this season while seeing his strikeout rate plummet (just 50 in 92 innings). A starting staff would be susceptible to injuries anyhow—one with this many red flags is unlikely to survive the season close to intact. We’ve already seen the faces of the Yankees’ Plan B, from Kei Igawa to Darrell Rasner. Only phenom Philip Hughes showed much promise—but emblematic of the Yankees’ April/May, he hurt his hamstring and had to leave a no-hit bid, then injured his ankle while
rehabbing his hamstring. He is doubtful to return before September.
The bullpen is of potentially greater concern. While Mariano Rivera—who is 37 and missed most of last September with an arm injury—has rounded into form, the other major contributors thus far, Scott Proctor, Brian Bruney, Mike Myers and Luis Vizcaino are on pace to appear in 86, 80, 80 and 75 games, respectively. (Kyle Farnsworth is on pace for a measly 72). With only Bruney under 30, this usage, which was even more extreme prior to this two-week stretch of good starting performances, could cause a severe reduction in effectiveness over the second half of the season.
And given the fact that in their combined 164 innings of work so far, Proctor, Bruney, Myers, Vizcaino, Farnsworth and Henn have walked a total of 96 batters while striking out 105, it seems only a matter of time before the opposition runs start piling up.
The Yankees are reliant on players in the post-prime stage of their careers for well over half of their lineup, 60 percent of the starting staff, and even their closer. Meanwhile, none of the younger players alongside these vets have any real track record of success, save Cano, whose 2007 troubles were widely predicted.
So far, the team’s great run of recent form, talent and past achievements have overwhelmed what looked to be a case of team-wide, terminal fatigue.
“That lineup is so talented,” said former Yankee first baseban Tony Clark, now with the visiting Diamondbacks, after his team suffered yet another beating at Yankee Stadium on June 14. “There are guys who have always produced up and down that lineup. You had to know they would turn it around.”
Now let’s see if it will last.