We're 53 games into the season, the Yankees are in second place. On the one hand, they get to keep those 30 wins no matter how the rest of the season goes. On the other hand, they just got swept by the Mets (the Mets!), and there are some other danger signs. Some are obvious: they're relying on old players whose most recent track record is either sucking (Ichiro Suzuki), being injured (Travis Hafner), or both (Vernon Wells), and their run differential and strength of competition is that of a .500 team.
What concerns me the most, though, is the team isn't walking. They haven't drawn a walk since the ninth inning of Monday's game. Thursday night, they not only didn't draw a walk against Dillon Gee and his 58 ERA+, they were never in any danger of drawing a walk: not a single batter went to three balls in a plate appearance.
The watchwords of the Managed-By-A-Guy-Named-Joe-era Yankees have been power and patience. Remember when Pedro Martinez was the Red Sox ace? The Yanks would grind out at-bats and build up his pitch count so they could get to Boston's bullpen, because Pedro's kryptonite was that he pitched like Carl Hubbell for the first 100 pitches and like Carl Pavano after that. (Forgetting that in the 2003 ALCS cost Grady Little his job.) So they'd take lots of pitches and get him out in the sixth.
But this year? Not so much. The Yanks have drawn 142 walks, which (as of Thursday morning) is 24th in the majors, 17 walks worse than the league average of 159. This puts them in company with the Houston Astros (who have drawn 143), and ahead only of the Phillies, Brewers, Royals, Marlins, and the two Chicago teams. This means the Yanks draw walks on the same level as four of the six last-place teams and three other below-.500 teams.
By contrast, last year the Yanks finished third in the majors in walks with 565, behind only Tampa Bay and Atlanta, and 75 walks above league-average.
In 2011, they led the majors with 627, 126 above league average, and 49 walks ahead of the next best team (the Red Sox).
In 2010, they were second to the Rays with 662, 136 over league average.
In 2009, the last time they won the World Series, they led the majors with 663, 109 walks over league average.
In 2008, the last time they didn't go to the playoffs, they finished 19th in the majors with 535 walks, 10 walks less than league average. A lot of this can be chalked up to replacing Jorge Posada (13% walk rate in his career) with Jose Molina (5% walk rate), but still.
This goes a long way toward explaining why the Yanks are right around league-average in runs scored at 218, right in the middle of the pack. Again, the last time the Yankees weren't first or second in the majors in runs scored was 2008. Then it was just Posada-for-Molina, but this year we've got Lyle Overbay (.294 OBP) replacing Mark Teixeira, Ichiro (.288 OBP) replacing Nick Swisher, Chris Stewart (.292 OBP) replacing Russell Martin (and yes, Francisco Cervelli will come back, but does anyone believe his .377 OBP is sustainable?), and Jayson Nix (.314 OBP), Eduardo Nunez (.290 OBP), and David Adams (.280 OBP) replacing Derek Jeter, Kevin Youkilis, and Alex Rodriguez (in essence). When the free-swingin' Robinson Cano has the second-best OBP of your regulars (after Hafner), you're in trouble. The only way to score runs is to put people on base, and the Yanks ain't doin' that.
The team's best hope is on the other side of the ball. One of the hallmarks of Joe Torre's starting pitching was good control, mostly because he had guys like David Wells, Mike Mussina, David Cone, and Andy Pettitte on the staff. In 2002—which I maintain was the second-best team of the Joe Torre era—they gave up just 403 walks, and it was only that high because of Roger Clemens, the sole member of the starting rotation whose BB/9 was above 2.2 (he was at 3.2, and the lone pitcher on the team to give up more than 50 walks for the year). The next year was even better—the team gave up just 375 walks. That year, Wells issued a mere 20 walks in 213 innings pitched. His BB/9 was 0.8, which is nuts. Since then, the only major league team to give up fewer than 375 walks were the Johan Santana-led Twins in 2005 and 2006—even the "four aces" Phillies of recent vintage have never been that low.
In Girardi's era, though, not so much. Since 2008, the Yanks have finished 8th, 18th, 18th, 15th, and 4th in walks allowed. (Yes, they won the World Series while giving up more walks than 17 other teams did.)
It's both the bullpen and the rotation keeping runners off base, too. David Phelps is the only person on the entire staff with 20 walks (he has exactly 20), and the three of the four primary starters (CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Phil Hughes) have BB/K ratios of 3.29 or higher. In the bullpen, Mariano Rivera and Boone Logan have ratios of 8.00 and 9.00, respectively, and Preston Claiborne doesn't actually have a ratio because in 14.2 innings he has yet to give up a walk (and has 11 strikeouts). Okay, I expected Mo to be amazing, but I somehow missed that Logan had the best BB/K ratio on the team (to go with a 233 ERA+, second highest on the team after Claiborne, who has a horse-choking, and totally unsustainable, 698 ERA+).
Luckily, Girardi's superpower is bullpen construction, and the rotation was always going to be a strength even with CC's struggles, Hughes's inconsistency, and Pettitte's age.
With this offense, they're gonna need it...