Some things, you just know are not going to continue:
Barry Bonds not hitting home runs. (He went yard on Sunday for the first time in almost three weeks, his 12th of the season and 746th of his career.)
Gil Meche pitching like Bob Gibson. (Meche rattled off seven straight Quality Starts from April 12th to May 14th, after having strung together more than three QS only once before in his career, when he made four straight in August of 2004. Over his next two outings, Meche allowed 12 runs in 9.1 innings, losing both games. That's more like it.)
The Yankees being in last place.
Well, actually, we might want to get used to that last one. While they may not finish out the season in last place, at this point the Yankees have probably less than a 5% chance of making the playoffs, much less winning their division. Lemme 'splain...
As of today, the Yankees' record sits at 22-29, seven games under .500, and they are currently 13.5 games out of first place in the AL East. The Boston Red Sox have the best record in baseball, 36-16, but to be fair, they have not had much competition from anyone in their division. As the only team with a winning record in the AL East, their closest competition comes from the patently mediocre Baltimore Orioles, who currently sit a 27-27, 10 games out of first. The Sawx are 15-7 against their division rivals, and other than a 1-1 record against Oakland, they have a winning record against everyone they've played so far, including playoff contenders Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota, and Atlanta, against whom they have a combined record of 12-4. Those facts alone do not bode well for the Yankees chances in 2007, but the news only gets worse from here.
The division title is clearly out of reach. As Jayson Stark recently pointed out, no team in history has ever come back from a 14.5 game deficit (which the Yankees had after losing five in a row this week) to win their division. Some of you staunch Yankee fans may be thinking about the 1978 Yankees, who famously came back from a 14 game deficit on July 19th to wrest the division from the cold, dead hands of the Boston Red Sox, and eventually take the World Series from the Dodgers.
That, however, was a different team, and a different time. Those Yankees, despite the huge hole they found themselves in around mid-July, were actually a pretty good team. For one thing, they had a winning record, albeit a modest one, at 48-42 at the time. They needed to kick it up a few notches after that, winning more than 70% of their games in both August and September, just to catch the Red Sox on the last day of the season and force a one-game playoff for the Division title. Add to this the fact that the Yankees got quite a lot of help from Don Zimmer, the Red Sox manager at the time, whose total lack of creativity and flexibility essentially rode his team into the ground. As Rob Neyer pointed out in his Big Book of Baseball Blunders, Zimmer's failure to effectively use his bench, and in doing so, to keep his players fresh for the pennant drive, turned a team that hit .283/.354/.461 before the All-Star Break into a team that hit .250/.316/.386 after it. The bats just wilted, and all at the same time.
So 1978 was a Red Sox loss as much as it was a Yankees win, and that just ain't gonna happen this year. These Red Sox are too well balanced. They're not playing over their heads like the 1978 team was. That .692 winning percentage is nice, and if they could keep it up all year, they'd win 112 games, but even if they only win 55% of their games from here on out, they'll still finish with 97 wins, and in 2007, that should be plenty to win the AL East. If anything, you can expect their bullpen to falter a bit. They're 7-1 with a 3.07 ERA and 19 saves in 21 chances, which has helped them to a sterling 8-3 record in 1-run games. That probably won't keep up, nor will the pitching staff's 3.23 ERA in road games, but even as those numbers regress to the mean, the Red Sox will remain a force to be reckoned with this year, and should easily hold onto the division.
However, as we have learned over the past 12 years, a team does not have to win its division to have a shot at the World Series. The Yanks are "only" seven games out in the Wild Card race right now, which, on the face of it, does not appear to be an insurmountable lead. Indeed, of the 12 teams that have won the World Series since 1995, the first year we had both a 3-division format and a World Series, seven of the 24 teams to play in the Series (29%) have been Wild Card teams, and three of the 12 (25%) victors have been Wild Card winners. Given that there are eight teams in the playoffs every year, Wild Card teams have been twice as successful as anyone else in the Fall Classic, winning once in four times instead of once in eight.
But does that even matter for the Yankees? As they currently sit in last place in their own division, and 7 games behind AL Wild-Card leader Detroit, is it reasonable to expect a resurgence that could see them get into the playoffs anyway?
Since the inception of the Wild Card in 1995, there have been MLB 96 playoff teams. Among those, 47 of the eventual 72 division winners (65%) were leading their divisions at the close of play on June 1st of that year, and 8 of the 24 eventual Wild Card winners (33%) were leading the pack in that race when the dust had settled on June 1st. In the American League, three of the 12 eventual Wild Card winners were actually leading their division on that date, though no Wild Card team from the Senior Circuit had that distinction. So statistically speaking, teams that are leading their divisions at this point are about as likely to maintain that position come October as teams that currently lead the Wild Card races are to lose that spot by the end of the year. Good news for Cleveland and Milwaukee; Bad news for the Detroits and Arizonas.
But if the news for the Tigers and D-Backs is bad, then it’s positively dreadful for the Yankees. Among the 96 playoff teams since 1995, only nine of them were as far as 7.5 games back of either their division or the Wild Card race at the close of play on June 1st, and of those nine, two were actually leading the Wild Card pack as they trailed their own division. So that leaves us only seven chances in 96 opportunities that a team with a deficit roughly half the size of the one the Yankees’s current hole could actually get into the playoffs, or about 7%. When you make the cut-off 10 games or more, there are only five teams left. Let’s look at these one-by-one and see if we can find any parallels with the 2007 Yankees.
1) The 2001 Oakland Athletics stood at 26-27 and trailed their division leader by 15(!) games on June 1st, which was to be expected, as the 2001 Seattle Mariners would eventually win 116 regular season games, but the A’s also trailed in the Wild card race by nine games at that point. Though they would go only 12-15 in June, they went an amazing 64-19 the rest of the way, with a 2.90 collective ERA from July 1st on. The offense also stepped up, though not quite as much, as the team’s collective OPS jumped about 100 points after the All-Star break. While the pitching staff of the 2006 Yankees doesn’t have a Hudson/Mulder/Zito combo like the 2001 A’s did, they should get a shot in the arm from Roger Clemens, slated to make his first start in pinstripes on Monday against Chicago. That, combined with Pettitte and the now-healthy Chien-Ming Wang and Mike Mussina, should give them all the pitching they need. And the offense, after leading the majors in run-scoring in April, should be able to bounce back from its recent struggles. Of course “able to” and “will” are two different things.
2) The 2002 Oaklands trailed their division by 8.0 games after June 1, but trailed the Wild Card race by 10.0 games, and eventually came back to win it. Only 26-28 after beating Tampa bay that day, Oakland went 77-31 the rest of the way, including a 20-game winning streak in August and September. This Oakland team, unlike the 2001 version, accomplished this almost entirely with pitching. The offense had a .764 OPS before the All-Star Break, and a .780 OPS thereafter, nearly identical. The pitchers however, lowered their collective ERA almost two whole runs, from 4.91 in April and May to 3.10 from June 1st on. Again, the 2007 Yankees have some pitching talent, but probably not that much talent.
For the record, both the 2001 and 2002 versions of the Oakland A’s lost in the first round of the playoffs.
3) The 2003 Florida Marlins, at 26-32, trailed the Atlanta Braves by 12 games on June 1st, and trailed Wild Card leader Montreal (remember when there was a team in Montreal?) by 7.5 games. Of course, the Expos were bound to falter, and they did, having been lucky to do as well as they had to that point. The Marlins had fired manager Jeff Torborg after 38 games, when the team was 16-22, and new manager Jack McKeon had improved the team to “mediocre”, getting them to go 10-10 over his first 20 games, though they would go 64-39 from there on out. They were never a great team, but their collective ERA improved by about 1/2 a run after the All-Star Break (to 3.78 from 4.23) and the offense maintained its pace, scoring 4.76 runs per game before the All-Star break, and 4.46 runs/game after.
The Marlins essentially rode the arms of Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and Carl Pavano (remember when there was a pitcher named Carl Pavano?) into the postseason, and their good pitching and even better fortune in clutch spots lasted just long enough for them to beat the Yankees in the World Series.
4) The 2005 Houston Astros were 20-32 on June 1st, 14 games behind St. Louis for the NL Central division and 9.5 games back in the Wild Card race. Of the teams that eventually went on to the postseason, this team had the worst record as the start of June, but they went 70-41 from June 1st to the end of the year. The offense (.724 OPS before the All-Star Break, .739 after) doesn’t get much of the credit for this team’s resurgence. The staff had a 4.36 ERA at the end of May, but compiled a 3.14 ERA thereafter. Andy Pettitte went 11-2 with a 1.69 ERA after the All-Star break, and several rookie pitchers also showed significant improvement.
This team represents another potentially encouraging note for Yankee fans, as Pettitte’s career numbers seem to show that he gets better as the season wears on (his career ERA is about 1/2 a run lower after the All-Star break). In addition, with all the rookies they’ve debuted this year, there’s a good chance that Tyler Clippard or Phil Hughes or Matt DeSalvo or Darrel Rasner or even (dare I say it?) Kei Igawa could give the Yanks’ pitching staff the kind of boost that the 2005 Astros got from Brandon Backe and Ezequiel Astacio in the second half.
5) The 2006 Minnesota Twins are the most recent example. They were 11.5 games out in the AL Central Division on 6/1, with a 24-29 record, and trailed not just Detroit, but also Cleveland and Chicago in the division, and a bunch of teams in the Wild Card race as well. The Twins had been outscored 281-246 at that point in the year, but they went 72-38 from June first on, outscoring their opponents 555-406 over those 110 games. Mostly, the pitching came together. They had a 6.28 ERA in March and April, to go with a 9-15 record, but after a 4.19 ERA in May, they nover posted another month with an ERA over 3.94. The team was 27-7 when Johan Santana pitched and 20-8 when rookie Francisco Liriano took the mound, and the bullpen was nearly impeccable.
Unfortunately the Yankees don’t have a Johan Santana, though Pettitte, the Yankees’ own lefty ace, has been pretty darn good so far this year (2.51 ERA despite a 3-4 record). For all the rookies that have taken the mound for New York this year, though, only Phil Hughes could be aptly termed a “phenom” and he won’t get much chance to phenominate if his hamstring doesn’t heal soon.
One other possible ray of hope for the Yankees is the fact that they have actually outscored their opponents to this point, 268-244, even though their record doesn’t reflect that. Four of the five teams above had been outscored to this point in the year, and the 2001 Oaklands had just barely outscored their competition after play ended on June 1st, 263-257. The 2007 Yankees need look no further than their 2-10 record in 1-run games. Just being slightly above .500 in that area would be worth six more wins at this point and would put them in a much better position for the wild card, with a 27-24 record, within one game of what you would expect from their Pythagenport projection based on runs scored and allowed. With some luck, and some regression to the mean, the Yankees should be able to improve on that record, but whether they can reverse the trend and make up all that ground is highly doubtful.
So, children, what have we learned today?
A) No team in history has ever come back from such a deep hole as the 2007 Yankees have dug for themselves to win a division.
2) That does’t really matter, because we might still win the Wild Card, which seems to offer as good a chance (or better) to win the World Series as winning the division would.
III) Travis sure knows how to search the data available at www.baseball-reference.com! Thanks to Sean Forman and his peoples for all they do.
iv) If the Yankees are going to win anything other than a crow-eating contest this year, they had better get their butts (and bats!) in gear…
01 June 2007
Some things, you just know are not going to continue:
Posted by Travis M. Nelson at 6/01/2007