AJ. Burnett, Jorge Posada Will Be Key to New York Yankees' Success

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AJ. Burnett, Jorge Posada Will Be Key to New York Yankees' Success
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

As I write this, the Yankees are beating the Tigers in Detroit, 2-1 in the fifth inning. 

A.J. Burnett has continued to pitch well this year, and this game is something of a microcosm of his season. 

He's somehow managed to surrender a run without giving up a hit, or—and this is the real surprise in Burnett's case—a walk. (EDIT: There goes the no-no: Single to right by Ramon Santiago to start the sixth.) If they manage to win this game they'll rise to 18-11, tops in the AL East and second only to the upstart Cleveland Indians in the American League overall.

But how are they doing it? How is this team, without Andy Pettitte, with three terrible outings from Phil Hughes and now possibly two months without their No. 3 starter at all, with four of its starting nine hitters flirting with the Mendoza line for most of the season, still managing to win?

Well, the short and obvious answer is that everyone else is overcompensating. 

Pettitte and Hughes may be non-factors, but Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia—who were picked up on the cheap in the offseason as insurance policies—have delivered handsomely, combining for a modest 3-3 record but for a 2.95 ERA in 58 total innings, which means that they've essentially provided the team with an opportunity to win almost every time they've taken the ball. 

Nobody expected that either of these guys could be this good, much less both of them.

Additionally, Burnett has been quite good, posting a 4-1 record and a 3.93 ERA. That's largely due to lowering both his walk and hit rates by about one from what they were last year, without losing any strikeouts or increasing his homers allowed. 

This may not be wholly sustainable, since FanGraphs says that Burnett's getting a lot more swings at pitches outside the strike zone than he ever has in the past, but the real Burnett isn't necessarily far below this one. 

(EDIT: On the other hand, Burnett gave up a run in the sixth and currently had the bases loaded with nobody out in the seventh, so maybe I wrote too soon...)

The hitters have been the really bizarre part of the Yankees' success this far in 2011.

Though Derek Jeter is hitting only .250 with no power and no steals, Nick Swisher is hitting .223 with only one homer and the speedy, plucky Brett Gardner is hitting just .213 with four times caught stealing in eight attempts, somehow the Yankees are still near the league leaders in runs scored. 

This is because they lead the league in homers by a healthy margin over the Texas Rangers, 46-38.  Jorge Posada's bat has been feast or famine all year, with an average of just .161, but also six home runs.  

Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson are all hitting about .250 to .260, but all have slugging percentages above .500 and Robinson Cano leads the team in the Triple Crown stats, despite having only three walks in 27 games. 

New catcher Russell Martin, after hitting a combined .249/.350/.330 and smacking only 12 homers in his last two years (240 games) with the Dodgers, has already hit six of them in just 25 games with the Yankees. 

Even the bench (Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, and Eduardo Nunez, mostly) has combined to hit a respectable .276/.343/.395, getting a few key hits here and there to spark a rally or win a game. 

The bullpen has been another key to the success, amassing an MLB-leading 12 Saves to go with a 3.26 ERA, which is only about the middle of the AL pack. Fortunately, the starters have lasted long enough that they're also only about the middle of the pack in innings pitched, which hopefully means the relievers won't get burnt out by the end of the year.

But the real question is whether or not the Yankees can sustain this, and I'm not sure they can.  I know Burnett is capable of pitching this well (EDIT: Maybe not: he allowed three more runs in the seventh—one earned—before finally escaping the inning.) and that CC Sabathia is every bit capable of finishing the season with something like his current 2.68 ERA.

I can see Garcia and Colon being useful, if not quite this good for most of the year, and I can see rookie starter Ivan Nova racking up 10-12 wins and an ERA of about 4.50, but I'm not sure I can see all of them happening at the same time.

Similarly, while I don't think the Yankees will finish the year with four starters hitting .250 or worse, neither do I think they will finish the season with five starters slugging .500 or better. 

While the Yankees are first in homers, they're fourth from the bottom in doubles, which means perhaps that some of those homers are due to stay in the park and that therefore some of those runs will have to wait for another hit if they expect to score.

With Derek Jeter ineffective (and now perhaps injured) and without any real help from Gardner or Swisher, the Yankees are going to have a hard time remaining competitive, much less keeping its hold on the AL East. 

And if Jorge Posada doesn't start going form a designated misser to a real DH (he now hitting .154 after an 0-for-four day)  there's no way that the rest of the lineup can compensate.

We see these bizarre splits early in the year all the time and it's really not that unusual for someone like Colon to bounce back or for Posada to just fall apart, but for all of the odd happenings on the Yankees to keep pace all year would be unprecedented. 

The Yankees may continue to win, but their MLB playoff odds will drop significantly without some help from the other half of the lineup. 

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