Batting average might not be the most useful analytical statistic, but that doesn’t render it useless. Instead, like OBP and FIP, it tells us one thing, namely how frequently the team records a base hit or home run. Like OBP, this is a binary statistic. Either the player recorded a hit or he didn’t. The denominator might present problems, but the stat still serves its purpose. To their credit the Yankees have a high team batting average, .275, fourth in the majors (and fourth in the AL). A few weeks ago, however, they were a bit higher on the list. Interleague play has bumped them down a bit.
Even so, interleague play went pretty well for the Yankees. They lost only one series, but they swept one as well. With their win over the Dodgers on Sunday they finished their NL tour with two wins in every three games, which is a bit better than their overall season win percentage. Yet, again, they did it while lowering their team batting average. The key to winning in the NL, it appears, was the team’s ability to not just hit the ball, but hit the ball hard. The Yankees certainly crushed the ball during the past few weeks.
(Just to be clear, I’m counting the first Mets series in the pre-interleague stats because it would be a pain to subtract that one too.)
Before their game on June 11 against the Astros, the Yankees as a team hit .282. During their 15-game interleague romp that fell all the way to .249. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, since the Yanks had trouble putting men on base in the last two games of the Phillies series, and really even into the Mets series. The team slugging predictably fell, from .452 to .410, but more importantly that also represented a drop in ISO, from .170 to .161. So not only did the Yankees hit the ball less frequently during interleague play, but they also did not hit for as much power.
The Yankees also didn’t get on base at nearly the clip they had achieved earlier in the season. From Opening Day through June 10 the team had a .364 OBP, but from June 11 through last Sunday they were at just a .337 mark. So what, then, did the Yankees do well during interleague? Pitch, of course. They also hit home runs a bit more frequently, once every 30 PA, against one every 33.87 PA earlier in the season. That might not seem like a huge change, but for two players it was.
The core of the lineup, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, started blasting the ball when facing NL opponents. To start the season Teixeira hit a home run every 30.68 plate appearances. During interleague he hit one every 16.75 PA. A-Rod showed even more improvement, hitting one every 31.86 PA before, and one every 15.67 during the NL stretch. Both of these are close to their career marks. A-Rod has hit a home run ever 16.69 plate appearances in his career, while Teixeira has hit one every 19.53 PA.
Clearly, A-Rod and Teixeira are among the heroes of interleague. Teixeira hit .246/.358/.474 overall, meaning he’s showing power and patience but still not the ability to find the open field consistently. (He would have hit .280/.388/.509 with just two more singles.) A-Rod similarly hit for a poor BA but made up for it otherwise, hitting .256/.362/.563 in his 47 interleague PA. Robinson Cano also hit well, though not like his overall season, at .293/.369/.500 in interleague. Brett Gardner was the beastliest of them all, hitting .349/.440/.395. Jorge Posada, too, crushed the ball, .268/.373/.512.
The laggards? They include Nick Swisher (.233/.288/.350), Derek Jeter (.241/.343/.379 — though we’ll forgive him because he walked in 13.4 percent of his PA), Curtis Granderson (.200/.267/.400), and Frankie Cervelli (.267/.290/.400). It’s not that they performed excruciatingly poorly — nearly half of Granderson’s hits went for extra bases, Swisher’s 14 hits ranked third on the team in that span, and Cervelli did hit for some power — but rather it’s just the random fluctuations of baseball. Some guys will hit well and some guys will hit poorly. The Yankees just happen to get their best performances from their best players, Jeter notwithstanding. That’s certainly a positive.
What we’re looking for with the return to the AL is for the offense to all fire at once. If Teixeira’s and A-Rod’s recent performances are indicative of their return to form, the offense could become something special. We might not see it immediately — the Yankees do, after all, face Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez in the next two games — but by the All-Star break we could see what this offense can really do. I said it before the season and I’ll say it again: this offense has the potential to be better than last year’s. With a few breaks we just might see it in action soon.