After beating Roy Halladay on Tuesday night, I figured the Yankees would have an easy go of it against the Phillies. Yet, the team’s offense could not oblige. The A.J. Burnett/Jamie Moyer mismatch came out the wrong way, and although Andy Pettitte threw seven strong innings, Kyle Kendrick made himself out to be an NL Cy Young award contender. By all accounts, it was a trap series.
As the usual post-game reaction unfolded on Twitter, Mark Feinsand of the Daily News let slip an interesting comment. Constrained by the medium’s 140-character limit, he said, “Tampa Bay has lost, so the Yankees will remain in a first-place tie if they lose. Not that they deserve it – or that it matters on June 17.” It seemed to be an overreaction at first by someone in the media who knows that the Yanks are under pressure to steamroll their way to the AL crown ever year, and the fans grew defensive. Yet, after some back-and-forth with Feinsand, I began to understand what he’s saying.
In essence, no team has played “deserving” baseball yet this year. Through that phrase, Feinsand didn’t mean that the Yankees were a bad team; he simply meant that they’ve not been an impressive team yet. They haven’t made a statement against teams they will need to beat to reach the World Series. With the best record in baseball, they’re not a bad club, but they haven’t shown the ability to dominate as the club did during its second-half run in 2009.
The Yanks have seemingly reached first with the highest win total by beating up on the little guys. In their 25 games against teams currently under .500, the Yanks are a whopping 20-5. As the Mets learned last weekend, it’s good to play the Orioles. Against teams that are currently over .500, the Yankees are just 21-20. Comparatively, the Tampa Bay Rays, co-leaders of the AL East, are 17-13 against teams currently over .500 and just 24-12 against teams under .500. The good teams will, as the Yanks have done, beat up the bad teams, but the great teams should also beat up the good teams.
But the question isn’t actually one about deserving first place. Rather, the question is a little more meta than that. Should we, on June 18th, care that the Yankees aren’t playing particularly well against good teams? Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer is no. Last year’s World Series championship Yankees went 51-24 against teams under .500 and an impressive 52-35 against teams that finished over .500. Getting there was the hard part.
As Joe detailed in a post on a similar topic in mid-August, the Yankees were just 24-29 against teams that were, at that point, over .500 and 40-13 vs. teams under .500. (Some of the teams that were over .500 in August ended the season below .500, and thus, the team’s total losses vs. .500 teams actually declined from August to October.) Joe noted that of the nine previous World Series winners, only four had winning regular season records against .500 teams. The Wall Street Journal had inspired Joe’s post, and the relevant piece of information remains so today: “The typical profile of a World Series champion in recent times is a club that cleans up on the weak and breaks even against everyone else.”
Right now, the 2010 Yankees fit that profile to a tee. They’re playing .512 baseball against the good teams and .800 baseball against the bottom-feeders. If those trends keep up, the Yankees should have a date with the dance in October, and at that point, as we know, all bets are off. The current club may suffer from bullpen problems, and it may have a weak bench. But today, they deserve a share of first place.