After an understated yet solid offseason, this is not what Yankee fans had in mind. Boston suffers from a total and utter lack of pitching? Maybe. Rays charge out at the hand of a heavy hitting offense? Perhaps. Yankees look all around sorry, while the Orioles blast off to a first-series sweep? No way.
I looked at the last ten missed playoffs for the Bombers to see if there was any reason for panic. After all, the Blue Jays and Rays, if not the Red Sox too, are all formidable playoff contenders. Should the Yankees be worried about their pitching? How about their age? Are we stirring up drama where there should be none?
Firstly, I concede that there’s nothing scientific – perhaps nothing even worth noting – in that chart. It’s a mish-mash of first series’ won and lost, first months deemed successful (16-7 in ’88, for example) and entirely unsuccessful (6-11 in ’91, for example).
Secondly, the last time the Yankees found them swept in a first series was during the famed 1998 season, in which they both lost a two-game series to open the year against Anaheim and won 114 games, nearly a major league record.
Here though, we see a few legitimate concerns:
RIVERA BLOWS A SAVE: The immortal being suddenly looked mortal on Opening Day, throwing his fastball with less oomph (more than a mile per hour slower than last year’s average velocity) and his cutter, too (nearly a mile per hour slower than last year’s average). He uncharacteristically walked two and looked hittable, and though it would be rash to jump to any conclusions, a drop in velocity could mean a drop in effectiveness. We’ll give the man time; he deserves it.
JETER HITTING 1ST: Speaking of deserving things, Girardi seems content to trot out Jeter leadoff against lefties and righties, instead of selectively hitting him at the top of the order against the former folk. Look, I applaud Jeter for his professionalism throughout his career and for his innumerable contributions to the Yankees dynasty and years thereafter, but it’s a foolish and surprisingly naïve thing, trading strategy for honor and pride. He’s man enough to take hitting sixth or seventh against righties the right way. No pun intended.
GARDNER SITS AGAINST LEFTIES: No one will mistake Gardner for being a masher, especially not against lefties. To take out his speed and defensive finesse in order to give Eduardo Nunez at-bats is downright foolish, though. Against lefty David Price in game two of the series, Gardner rode the pine while Jeter slotted in as the DH and Nunez as the shortstop. Sure enough, Nunez committed an error, bobbling the groundball hit to him by Desmond Jennings. After the next two were retired calmly by Hiroki Kuroda, he surrendered two walks and a single, allowing for two unearned runs to score. Sure enough, the Yankees lost by two runs. Nunez is a prized (perhaps wrongly) prospect who brings speed to a cornerstone position, so I understand the desire to play him. His defensive returns, however, are hideous (he’s cost the Yankees 18 runs over his 144 game career) and he’s been more than half a run below replacement in his career. So I ask pointedly: why the hell is Brett Gardner sitting for this kid? Don’t make it a trend, Joe.
KURODA IS BOMBED: All legitimate Kuroda-related concerns were present against the Rays in game two. His 8 hits and 4 walks surrendered in 5.2 innings were bad. His one home run was worrisome. He only struck out two Rays, and only hit the plate 55 times while making 95 pitches. More importantly, he continued his career long trend of struggling mightily against left-handers. Possessing a FIP of 4.11 against lefties and a strikeout 5% lower than his rate against righties, Kuroda walked 4 lefties, gave up 7 hits (including one homer), and put together a one-game FIP of 12.44. A PitchFX graph from BrooksBaseball.net shows Kuroda’s at-bat outcomes against lefties; when he walked ‘em, he missed terribly, and when he gave up hits, they were generally meatballs but consistently all over the place. I worry about him facing a lefty-heavy lineup like the Red Sox in an even less friendly park than the Trop.