In the aggregate, the 2011 Yankees are not much different than our beloved 2009 team. After 44 games the teams are separated by just one game (the 2009 team was 25-19), and both had gone through rough losing streaks earlier in the season. Yet there one major, noticeable difference between the two teams that is evident even at this point. The 2009 Yankees had mastered the art of the comeback, while the 2011 team has struggled to erase deficits.
Just one time this season the Yankees have won a game when trailing after seven innings. They’re 2-14 when trailing after six, so that counts the victory over the Mets yesterday. Perhaps the most damning of all records is their 2-12 mark when trailing after five. That is, with 12 outs remaining, they’ve managed to erase just two deficits all season long. That doesn’t seem to be the mark of an elite team.
The Yankees’ mantra of patience is well known by now. Make the starters throw a lot of pitches so you can get to that vulnerable relief corps. Even if they don’t score runs in bunches off the starter, they can get to the weaker pitchers by making sure he throws 100 pitches in five or six innings. This year, however, that has not worked in their favor. The third time through the order against a starting pitcher the Yankees have hit .254/.320/.446. The first time facing a relief pitcher in a game they’ve hit .233/.318/.416. That’s not exactly taking advantage of lesser pitchers. Unsurprisingly, the 2009 team trashed relievers the first time they saw them, hitting .279/.373/.477. That’s how you stage late-inning comebacks.
Just how bad is the Yankees’ current record when trailing after five? The 2010 Pirates, the worst team in baseball, went 13-79 when trailing after five, a .141 win percentage. That’s essentially where the Yankees are at right now. Even the 2010 Yankees, who didn’t seem to have the same comeback luster of their year-earlier counterparts, had a 14-47 record when trailing after five, a .230 winning percentage.
(Of course, even those comeback-happy teams had a .273 win percentage when trailing after five.)
There are two ways of viewing this, of course. One is to take the first 44 games as a portend for the season and declare that the Yankees lay down too easily. The other is to realize that they’re probably not going to fare as poorly as a 100-loss team. Their record when trailing after five currently stinks, but it is not necessarily predictive of anything. In all likelihood, they’ll start to beat up on relievers more often and mount some late-innings comebacks. That should add a few more wins and a greater sense of aura, if you will, to the team.
The 2011 season has been frustrating for many reasons, and the team’s inability to score runs off of crappy relievers is just one of them. It is, thankfully, one area that they’re almost certain to turn around. It won’t get worlds better; as we saw, the 2009 team still lost the great majority of their games when they trailed after five. But rest assured that they’re not doomed to fail in these situations. Sometimes early season results can be more frustrating than indicative of true talent.