The 2010 Yankees are off to a better start than last season's World Champions. Fans may gripe (I know I do), but numbers don't lie. The Yankees have emerged as the best team in baseball. The Pinstripes have the best overall record in the Bigs and have the largest run-differential. Even Baseball Prospectus' Hit List, which is meant to be a statistically informed measure of how good a team is, has the Yankees in first. None of this means the Yankees will hang onto first place. Their competition is good. But, the team didn't really burst into first last year until late July, after the All-Star break.
In spite of all this evidence, I've been feeling worried about the 2010 Yankees in a way that I don't remember being worried about the 2009 team. This year's success (to date) has rested heavily on the unexpected. Phil Hughes is a frontline starter, not Joba Chamberlain redux. Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner deserve serious All-Star attention, something no one predicted. Andy Pettitte isn't just defying age, he's getting younger! And Robinson Cano is baseball's VORP leader (and he'll win a batting title someday, too).
I've been more nervous following this year's team because the heroes aren't named Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter. That's a name-brand group of players I can trust. Right now my perception is that many, but not all, of our best players are due for a statistical correction that will torpedo the team. I wasn't worried this way about last year's team because even when those guys were laboring against the dregs of the NL they were getting contributions from the players we expect ... right? To answer this question I've done my best to present this year's and last year's offenses this far in the season. The data say my memory is wrong.
A-Rod is the biggest data point standing out, to me, followed closely by Jeter. I had no idea Alex's slump had become so bad by this time last year. I do recall that Rodriguez sat for a couple games in Florida to rest, but I would not have guessed that his OPS was actually worse at this point in the season last year. Obviously Alex had missed almost half the team's games this time last season, which diminishes the poor performance somewhat, but that doesn't change the fact that the 2009 Yankees were getting a weaker performance from their cleanup hitter than the 2010 Yankees. It also means that when Joe Girardi was quoted on YES during last night's game saying that he would not at all be surprised if Alex hit 30 home runs, he was serious.
I remember Derek Jeter's 2009 as an unmitigated tour-de-force. The numbers above indicate otherwise. I recall Derek starting slowly in 2009, but I would have guessed that he was batting above .300 by this point last year. I would have been wrong.
Derek is obviously not repeating his 2009 season, at least so far, but he's not as far off his pace as I would have thought. For example, given that Jeter hit .334 last season we then know that he needed to pick up .035 points on his average from this point last year onwards. If Derek were to repeat that performance this year he would raise his average to .317 for the year, which is exactly what his career average was coming into this season. My guess is his OBP and SLG wouldn't be far off.
Once again, my memory served me wrong. Derek isn't keeping the pace he did in 2009, but he's not as far off as I would've guessed at this point in the season. 2009 is the best predictor of 2010, meaning that it is entirely possible Jeter's numbers at year end will be what we've come to expect.
Derek and Alex aside, the numbers between the two teams don't align perfectly. Teixeira is horribly off his 2009 pace (in other news, water is wet) and this year's team isn't as strong offensively as last year's team was after 71 games. The 2010 Yankees have only five players with an OPS above .800 versus eight (!) for the 2009 Yankees. Still, the numbers show that the 2010 team isn't as far off the 2009 pace in offense as I would have suspected, and has a better record.
That record, of course, is due to pitching. Here memory serves and the numbers confirm.
Four of the five Yankee starters are better this year than they were last year. CC Sabathia is slightly better this year than he was at the same point last year, which gives me goose bumps, because he torched all of baseball in the 2nd half in 2009. Phil Hughes is pitching better than Joba Chamberlain did last year. Javier Vazquez has been a roller coaster, but he's pitching better than Chien-Ming Wang. And Andy Pettitte is dazzling. Even Mariano Rivera has stepped his game up from the same point last season. Only A.J. Burnett has been off his game from the pace he set in 2009, and not by as much as analysts are making it out to seem.
Taken as a whole, the 2010 Yankees have a better record this far in the season than the 2009 Yankees because the entire team has played better. The offense is not as strong, to be certain, but the team's offseason moves emphasized pitching and youth. Curtis Granderson is the only position player new to the team not on the DL. His bat hasn't quite been what I'd hoped, but he combines to give us a stronger defensive outfield than the team has had in years.
It was right about this point that last year's team took off and never looked back (except for that awful three game sweep in Anaheim). The question is if this year's team keeps pace. That depends largely on Jeter, Tex and A-Rod. If Derek and Alex have comparable upswings to what we saw last season, and Tex rights the ship even a bit, then the offense will be firing on all cylinders, hopefully complementing a pitching staff that continues to dominate.