Every time we post about a position player, there is one inevitable response. Commenter Yanks the Frank provided it in the Michael Young thread. “Can he pitch?” The Yankees’ pitching problems have taken center stage this winter, highlighted by the retread pitchers they’ve invited to camp. There will be opportunities to acquire another pitcher or two as the season progresses, but until then they have to find a way to stay close to the Rays and the Sox. As has been the case in years past, the offense provides the key.
If we look back to 2007 we can see a Yankees team that faced massive pitching problems early in the season. They had brought back Andy Pettitte that winter, but as a whole the staff appeared weak at worst, fragile at best. Carl Pavano actually started Opening Day that year, because Andy Petitte’s back had disrupted his spring training schedule. Pavano, Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Jeff Karstens, and Kei Igawa composed the rotation to open the season, while Chien-Ming Wang sat on the DL with a hamstring problem. That cast of characters, plus a shaky bullpen, led to a 5.02 ERA and 5.34 FIP. The former was the fourth worst in the majors, the latter the second worst. The starters, as expected, took the brunt of the beating, to the tune of a 5.94 ERA, third worst in the majors.
A high-powered offense as the Yankees can overcome such pitching ineptitude. But in April 2007 they failed to overpower opposing pitching staffs. Their .339 wOBA ranked seventh in the majors, but it was also their worst month of the year. Numbers are typically down across the board in April, but as the Yankees showed throughout the year, their offense was far better than seventh in the league — the team’s .362 season wOBA ranked first in the majors by a decent margin. If they had produced the best offense numbers in April maybe they would have scored more than 131 runs and won more than nine games. Instead, it was Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, and Derek Jeter producing numbers. No other Yankee had a wOBA over .330 in April 2007.
Offensive struggles continued in May, too. In fact, the team scored fewer runs per game in May than they did in April. That month the team .344 wOBA ranked fifth, but again it was a small handful of players producing, while others, such as Bobby Abreu, batting in the three spot, fell off. The pitching had actually improved, but with the offense stalling again, the Yanks couldn’t get much going. And so they stumbled again, finishing 13-15 on the month and owning a cumulative 21-29 record on the season. It was only then that the offense really kicked in.
Once the offense started producing everything started to come together. Adding Roger Clemens and, eventually, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy to the staff helped further solidify run prevention unit. But even as the team’s pitching improved after April — the team ERA went to 4.28 in May and 4.05 in June — the team didn’t really start rattling off the wins until everyone in the offense started hitting to his ability. This could be a familiar situation for the Yankees in 2011.
While 2007 stands out as a team that stood out offensively and faced pitching challenges, 2008 is perhaps a better example. The team again struggled out of the gate, and again it was mostly related to the offense. The staff was bad, a 4.56 ERA in April, seventh worst in the majors, but the offense couldn’t get anything done. Their April wOBA was .322, which was middle of the pack. The team, despite injuries and down years, finished with a .338 wOBA, seventh in the majors. Had they produced the 7th best wOBA in April, maybe they would have overcome the poor pitching. But they didn’t, and everything went downhill from there.
This year the Yankees’ staff could produce Aprils as bad as 2007 and 2008. It’s the reality they face with the current construction of the pitching staff. But the results need not be similar. If the Yankees can open the season in a similar manner to last year — .362 wOBA in April, best in the majors — they can overcome the back end of the pitching staff and keep pace with division foes. That should buy them time until they can improve on the staff. The situation might appear bleak, and it’s tough to ignore the pitching issues. But the Yankees have an offense that temporarily overcome poor pitching. If they can perform at a level they couldn’t in 2007 and 2008, they should be able to weather the storm until more pitching becomes available.