At 51-37, with the third best record in baseball, leading the Wild Card and just three games back in the AL East, the Yankees had a fine first half. Yet it was a tumultuous three months, wrought with streaks and injuries and strange trends, causing mass panic at times among Yankees fans. Over the extended All-Star Break, we’ll go over each position to see what went right, what went wrong, and how things look for the second half. We already looked at the starting pitchers, relievers, corner infielders, catchers, and middle infielders, so now it’s time to take a look at the outfielders and designated hitter.
Coming into the season with no fewer than five outfielders on their projected Opening Day roster, the Yanks figured to sport a solid but relatively unspectacular outfield in 2009. Johnny Damon, Nick Swisher and Xavier Nady figured to man the corner outfield spots and work in some kind of harmonious rotation where everyone stayed rested and productive. Centerfield was going to be occupied by Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner, whichever one happened to be hitting at the moment. Hideki Matsui was expected to contribute nothing beyond DH duty, which was fine.
After posting a .765 OPS as a unit in 2008 (20th best in baseball), the team figured to see an improvement in its outfield production this year given their depth. Damon was expected to produce at a similar pace to his first three years in pinstripes, while everyone assumed that a rebound for Nick Swisher and slight step back from Nady would combine to produce at the very least average production. Gardbrera was a bit of a crapshoot, and in most circles it was believed the team would probably need to go out and get someone at some point. Matsui just had to be Matsui, or close to it.
Aside from a season-ending elbow injury to Nady just eight games into the season, everything has gone better than expected. Swisher has rebounded from his down year in Chicago while Cabredner has been better than anyone could have expected. Johnny Damon is enjoying the best season of his long career, just in time for his contract year. As a unit, the Yanks rank third in AL with an .815 OPS, trailing two of their AL East counterparts. You get one guess who those two teams are. Hideki Matsui has stayed relatively healthy and is having his best season since 2005.
It’s hard not to be pleased with the production the Yankees have gotten out of the outfield and DH this year. Aside from Nady everyone’s been able to stay on the field, and there’s more bodies than spots so there should be enough opportunity to keep the seemingly ageless Damon fresh.
Amazingly, Damon is having the best season of his career at age 35. However, it looks like the New Yankee Stadium has contributed greatly to his resurgence, as his home OPS is more than 200 points greater than his road OPS. He’s taken to the two-spot in the order like he’s been hitting there his entire career, which I think is what most of us figured would happen.
Unfortunately it’s not all good news for Johnny, because his defense in left field has been downright dreadful in 2009. Whether you trust newfangled defensive metrics or just judge defense with your eyes, it’s easy to see the Damon went from an above-average left fielder to one that’s shaky at best. In the team’s final two wins of the first half up in Minnesota, Joe Girardi replaced Damon with Melky Cabrera in the late innings for defense. More than likely we’ll see that continue in the second half.
Melky Cabrera & Brett Gardner
After winning the centerfield job outright in Spring Training, it took only 15 games or so for Melky Cabrera to reclaim the job. In what looks like an annual occurrence, Melky started the year on fire (.326-.394-.517 through May 13th) but trailed off afterward (.261-.320-.395 since). Gardner did pretty much the opposite, starting slow (.214-.273-.257 through May 12th) before picking up the pace (.322-.398-.492 since). The two have combined for a .293-.361-.439 batting line, fourth best among centerfielders in the AL and behind only the Orioles in the AL East.
Gardner has been a hero on defense, putting up an ungodly 20.1 UZR/150, trailing only Colby Rasmus and Franklin Gutierrez. Melky’s been solid, but as usual he tends to get overrated because of his arm. As a whole, the Gardbrera tandem has given the Yanks everything they could have wanted and more.
Nick Swisher & Xavier Nady
We weren’t sure how Girardi was going to get both Swisher and Nady regular at-bats this year, but that problem took care of itself barely a week into the season. Swisher has handled the everyday job with aplomb, doing his usual schtick of getting on base (.360 OBP) and hitting for power (.464 SLG). While he’s prone to the occasional botched play, overall he’s been slightly above average in right field with a 1.8 UZR/150. While it would be nice to have Nady healthy for the depth, Swisher has held down the fort just fine.
It’ll be easy to talk about Matsui’s first half since all he’s done is hit, and hit he has. His .264-.367-.517 batting line is his best in years, and while the common perception might be that the New Stadium is artificially beefing up his numbers, Godzilla’s road OPS is more than 60 points higher than his home effort. While his knees look ready to explode whenever he has to run, Matsui’s a hitting savant that produces in all situations against any kind of pitcher regardless of what arm they throw with.
Expectations for the second half
Brian Cashman added some insurance in Eric Hinske not long before the break, which helps mitigate what would have been a disaster should another outfielder go down with injury. It’s tough to expect Damon to continue his career year, but a regression to his previous performance would be acceptable. The real question is whether or not Melky and Gardner can keep it up in center, because the Yanks have less than three weeks to decide if they need an upgrade.
I guess the expectation for the second half is what it was coming into the season, rock solid production but far from spectacular. Anything else is gravy.