After watching the Yankees for the past week I understand why football is such a popular sport. Each team plays once a week and there are only sixteen games before the playoffs. A few surprises occur each year, but for the most part the strong teams win and the weak teams wilt. A loss, especially to a weaker team, might sting, but there is a six-day recovery period during which the pain subsides. Even more beneficially to the psyche, you can tune in on Sunday, forget about football for the next six days, read a notes column and the injury report the following Sunday, and then enjoy the next game. None of this is true for baseball.
As Earl Weaver said, “This ain’t a football game; we do this every day.” Playing every day makes for great entertainment. It means that nearly every night from April through October we have something to watch. Yet because baseball happens every day it is much more prone to random outcomes. Dave Cameron explained this in July after the Dan Haren trade. While a season as a whole might end somewhere close to expectations, the day-to-day events will fluctuate. I recommend Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb for a more thorough explanation. He discusses it in the context of the stock market, but it applies directly to a baseball season.
This all leads to the way the Yankees have played for the past week. Starting two weeks ago the Yankees rattled off eight straight wins. If not for a walk-off home run last Wednesday they would have followed it with seven straight losses. Thanks to Nick Swisher the Yanks have only lost six of their last seven, but that one win is little more than a consolation. The Yankees are playing like crap, and things won’t get easier this week. Something has to change — though that’s always the case when a good team slumps.
The past week has taken a particularly significant emotional toll on the fans because of a few factors. It starts with the Orioles, a team the Yanks certainly should beat, and it continues onto the Rangers, a team the Yankees could face in the first round of the playoffs. It certainly has something to do with the nature of the losses, four of which were by a single run and two of which resulted in walk-offs. It also concerns the depth of the slump. To this point the Yankees have not lost six of seven. They have lost five of seven as recently as July 30 through August 6 and back in May they lose five of six. But six of seven and a three-game sweep? That’s uncharted territory for the 2010 Yankees.
Thankfully, the Yanks could take a few positives even from a swept series. On Friday and Saturday they scored 11 runs combined, or 5.5 runs per game, which is a tick above their season average of 5.34 per game. They might have left a combined 32 runners on base and gone 6 for 30 with runners in scoring position, but that means that they were getting men on base an into scoring position in the first place. If they keep doing that they’ll eventually drive home more runs. But last weekend they caught a few bad breaks in those situations.
On Saturday A.J. Burnett pitched better than he has in a month. The curveball wasn’t all there, but his fastballs worked just fine. He generated between seven and 10 swinging strikes — Baseball-Reference, PitchFX, and ESPN all have different numbers — and recorded six strikeouts in four innings before rain forced him from the game. The seven base runners were no picnic, but the four hits he allowed came on just eight balls in play. In other words, with a little more command he would have been phenomenal. If he can find that little bit between now and October he’ll make the playoff rotation decision quite a bit easier.
And, of course, there was Derek Jeter. On Friday night he went 1 for 7, dropping his OPS to a season-low .693 and his AVG to a season-low .260. In one of those AB he fouled a pitch off his knee, which made it easier for Joe Girardi to hold him out of the lineup on Saturday. On Sunday he came back with a fury, seeing 27 of Cliff Lee’s 108 pitches and going 1 for 2 with an RBI double and two walks. No matter what happens in the final few weeks 2010 will be the worst season of Jeter’s career. But if he can revert to 2009 Jeter for the next month and a half all will be forgiven.
Any time a team gets swept amid a 1-6 skid it’s easy to dwell on the negative. The Yankees suffered from bad bullpen outings and untimely hitting, but those are things they showed that they can do over the long haul. As was the case with previous slumps, they’ll bust out of this one in short order. It’s easy to forget that when they’re in the middle of it. There is no week-long recovery period after a tough loss. Instead they go out and play the next day. When the slide continues it can become a frustrating experience. But when they break out of it the feeling is pure joy. I think we’re in for a happy few weeks ahead.