What a relief Sunday’s rubber match between the Mets and Yankees was for the Bronx faithful. Not simply because the Yankees took the third game of the series in resilient fashion, rebounding from an initial 3-1 deficit, but because their explosive eight-run seventh inning demonstrated the Bombers’ offense at its best—that is, without any bombs.
After the first two games of the Subway Series, in which the Yankees scored seven of their combined eight runs via the home run (the other run courtesy of a Mark Teixeira sacrifice fly), the usual arguments against this volatile offense gained steam. Sure, this squad can blast home runs with the best of them—but does it depend too much on the long ball?
The answer, to this writer, is a resounding yes. I grew up (perhaps spoiled by) watching the Yankees’ dynasty of the late 1990s. There were stars, to be sure. The young and upcoming talents, led by Derek Jeter, combined with the right mix of veteran leadership (Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, etc.) to resemble a master chef’s recipe with the perfect proportion of ingredients. For the most part, the offense rolled on all cylinders with great consistency.
Most importantly, this team hit home runs, but they were never waiting for one.
I remember looking at baseball cards of my favorite Yankees back then. (Serious question: Do any kids still collect baseball cards? I sincerely hope so.) Part of the young, impressionable fan in me got caught up in the glamour associated with moonshots. I was disappointed to never see a Yankee amongst the league leaders in home runs (except for Martinez’s American League-second-best 44 homers in 1997—coincidentally the one year interrupting New York’s potential five-year run of World Series titles). I took everything else for granted, because seeing-eye singles and two-out Texas Leaguers rarely make their way into the boxscore.
Now, over a decade later and with a completely different ballclub to follow, many Yankees fans yearn for the days when they didn’t have to pray for a three-run home run. Certainly, this lineup is far from a list of nine Jack Custs—it isn’t literally home run-or-bust. The emergence of Brett Gardner as a speedy slap hitter and the über-patient Nick Swisher (although off to a bad start this year) provide balance to the offense. But the Yankees, too often, fall into an all-or-nothing pattern. Either everyone is mashing at once, or they’re all swinging with toothpicks. During times of the latter, everyone expects Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira to come through with the 450-foot bomb, simply because they can.
Numbers can tell the story pretty precisely. Thirty-seven percent of the Yankees’ hits in 2011 have gone for extra bases. In 1998, one of best seasons in Yankees' franchise history, this percentage was 33. The Yankees have currently hit a home run in 4.1 percent of all their plate appearances; in 1998, they hit a home run in 3.2 of all their plate appearances.
Certainly, at first glance, these numbers suggest a stronger, more robust offense in 2011. But one must also note that this Yankees team also strikes out more (18.2 percent of all plate appearances versus 15.9) and is less adept at advancing runners. In situations with a runner on second and no outs, the 1998 Yankees advanced the runner 61 percent of the time; the 2011 Yankees currently advance those runners at a 54 percent clip (two percent below the league average).
Now, obviously this sample size is smaller than that provided by the 1998 season in its entirety, and that 1998 team (which won a then-record 114 regular-season games) is difficult to compare to anyone else. But even novice Yankees fans who remember the squads of the late 90s can recognize the great discrepancies in the current team. This offense is led by individuals.
In recent seasons, as the Yankees have gotten off to their habitual slow start, there has always been one player keeping them afloat, usually by demonstrating exceptional home run prowess. In 2005, a resurgent (and returning) Martinez carried the team on his back, an effort highlighted by an eight-game stretch in May in which he hit eight home runs. In 2009, Rodriguez went on a home run barrage, literally from the moment he came back from hip surgery in early May, to turn around a subpar start to the Yankees’ season. (The Yankees were 13-15 before A-Rod’s return; they were 90-44 after and eventually won the World Series.) This season, Curtis Granderson and his 16 bombs have kept the Yankees in games more than any other offensive contributor.
As the Yankees have shown (especially in 2009), this isn’t a doomed strategy for success. But it’s an incredibly unreliable one, particularly in the postseason. When you start facing the best pitching baseball has to offer, home run power is neutralized and small ball is all the more important. No more evidence is needed after seeing what the Texas Rangers’ rotation did to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series last October.
Innings like the seventh on Sunday versus the Mets are obviously the most grandiose examples of small ball at its best. Jeter and Rodriguez both hit squibblers that were more lucky than anything else, and Chris Dickerson hit a pop fly into no-man’s land in the Mets’ outfield. But it is those kinds of hits, and that kind of luck, that helps build momentum. Home runs are a quick fix.
In a season like this one, with the Yankees battling, at the moment, every team in the American League East, momentum will be key. With Granderson bound to slow down his remarkable home run pace and the heart of the order off to an inconsistent start, the Yankees should channel the approach of their 90s predecessors and emphasize small ball a little more.
All statistics courtesy of baseballreference.com.