Mercifully, the All-Star break is over and Yankee baseball is back. It has been a tumultuous season so far, featuring serious injuries to several important contributors and maddening underperformance with runners in scoring position, but also plenty of pleasant surprises. Despite everything that has gone poorly for the Yankees this season, they are in great position to make a playoff run. At 53-33, the Yankees own the best record in the majors, despite playing in a division where no team is below .500, and they are eight games up on their nearest competitor. They lead the league in home runs and wRC+, though they are only 6th in runs scored. Despite injuries to Michael Pineda, Andy Pettitte, and CC Sabathia, they are 2nd in the league with a 3.71 xFIP, largely driven by the pitching staff’s 8.45 strikeouts per 9 innings. With this strong first half in the books, I figured I would take a look at some of the storylines to watch for the second half, which will play an important role in determining if the Yankees can hold on to their division lead.
MVP candidate Cano
Robinson Cano is having a monster season for the Yankees so far, and is well on pace to eclipse his career highs in a number of offensive categories. He has slugged 20 home runs with a wRC+ of 150, and his fielding is significantly improved according to UZR (small sample size warnings apply). All this combines to make Cano the 7th in the majors with 4.3 fWAR at the midway point. If the season were to end today, Cano would be a strong candidate for AL MVP, along with usual suspects Josh Hamilton and David Ortiz, and rookie phenom Mike Trout. Cano’s 2012 production has been very impressive, and it will be interesting to see if he can sustain this form going forward. Recent history suggests that it is difficult for a Yankee player to win the award unless he is far superior statistically to his competition, and right now, Cano is not in that position. Nonetheless, if Cano continues to mash and some of his competition begins to fall off (such as Trout) or get hurt (Hamilton), Robbie would be in good position to win his first MVP.
Coming into the season, significant questions abounded about Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, and whether they would be able to stick in the rotation as consistent contributors. Michael Pineda’s Spring Training shoulder injury weakened the Yankees’ rotation depth, and put increased pressure at least one of the Hughes-Nova duo to emerge as a solid mid-rotation starter. Hughes got off to a poor start to the season, and both players have had serious problems surrendering the long ball, but of late, both have settled in. They’ve shown the ability to strike batters out (8.31/9 for Hughes, 8.16 for Nova) and limit walks (2.08 for Hughes, 2.69 for Nova) a combination that limits the numbers of runners on base when the inevitable longball comes. Both have been able to pitch deep into the game, which is important for keeping the Yankee bullpen well-rested and effective. Hughes and Nova have shown that they can pitch in the low-4 ERA range, and with the Yankee offense, they will win a lot of games. However, it remains to be seen if they can improve their statistics by cutting down on the home runs. They were surrendering them at an unsustainable pace earlier in the year, but have improved in that area recently (particularly Hughes). While both have looked very good of late, Hughes in particular has teased Yankee fans throughout his career with strong performances only to regress significantly, and hopefully he can avoid that outcome.
What will Joba bring to the table?
While most of us gave up on Joba Chamberlain being a 2012 contributor after his awful trampoline-related ankle injury, his impressively quick recovery has him in position to return to the Yankees sometime in August. Chamberlain, looking noticeably svelte, was recently clocked as high as 97 in his first outing in the Gulf Coast League, a sign that his velocity has returned following Tommy John Surgery. The velocity bodes well for his ability to be a successful bullpen contributor this year, but command could be a big question. Joba never had pinpoint control to start with, and it is often said that command is the last thing that comes back to a pitcher who has had Tommy John. Joba’s willingness and ability to use his devastating slider is another question that he will have to answer. The pitch is his primary 2-strike weapon to earn strikeouts, but often pitchers who have Tommy John will cut down on their slider usage, to avoid putting additional strain on their elbow. If Joba does have to throw fewer sliders, he may need to have another offering to flash so hitters can’t just sit on the fastball. I don’t expect Joba to be back to his old self right away, but the good news is that in a bullpen with Rafael Soriano and David Robertson, he won’t be relied upon to pitch in high-leverage situations immediately. If he earns those innings with his performance, great, but if he has some struggles as expected, they will hopefully be in fairly low-pressure situations.
Is Russell Martin this bad?
Russell Martin’s offensive production has fallen off across the board compared to 2011, and he is currently batting below the Mendoza line with an anemic .181 average. After being exactly league average in 2011 (100 wRC+), Martin has fallen to being 20% worse than the average hitter (80 wRC+). Outside of a strong couple of games against the Mets, Martin really hasn’t put together a strong stretch this season that might give hope that he is starting to come out of it. The unfortunate sign is that Martin’s struggles have actually lasted longer than this season. He started strong in 2011, but his numbers dipped dramatically after the first two months. When we see a player struggle for this long, there is always concern about whether the player is in decline or injured. While the 29 year-old Martin seems too young to be over the hill, the physical toll of catching every day could accelerate this decline. I am hopeful that Martin can improve, but not optimistic that he will. If there is any consolation here, it is that his contract is up at the end of the 2012 season, and the Yankees caught a break by having Martin turn down their 3-year extension offer in the offseason. This also means that the Yankees will likely be in search of a new catcher for the 2013 season.