You might have heard the Yankee lineup is in rough shape. Rumor has it that Bud Selig is going to declare the Yankee lineup a National Disaster Area this weekend. I haven’t heard much about the Yankee pitching staff lately, though. Have you? I mean, I assume they have some pitchers, right? I seem to remember a big fella named after a holy day, a couple of wily veterans, some kind of legendary closer, a guy with short pants, and the one with an awful moustache named after a Star Wars character. They still around? Weren’t they pretty good last year? Hold on a moment . . .
Okay, so I looked it up, and those guys are totally still on the Yankees! In fact, with the exception of Rafael Soriano, who should be ably replaced by the ageless Mariano Rivera, Freddy Garcia, who was a replacement-level pitcher last year, and Cory Wade, who was almost a win below replacement, every pitcher who threw 30 or more innings for the Yankees in 2012 is returning on the 2013 team, and with the exception of Phil Hughes, who will open the season on the disabled list but is expected to return to the Yankees rotation on April 11, they’re all healthy.
Last year, with essentially the same pitching staff, the Yankees were fourth in the American League in run-prevention allowing just 668 runs, or 4.1 per game. Given the similarity of this year’s staff to last’s, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect a similar performance, though they’re sure to get there a different way (perhaps more innings but a higher ERA from Andy Pettitte, effectively absorbing Garcia’s performance, maybe less from Hughes but more from Ivan Nova and David Phelps all adding up to a similar total of innings and runs allowed, perhaps Joba Chamberlain absorbing Cody Eppley’s innings with similar cumulative results, etc.).
Of course, a large part of run prevention is fielding, but in Vernon Wells, Brett Gardner, and Ichiro Suzuki, the Yankees will actually open the season with better defensive outfield than they had at any point last year. Their best glove man in the infield, Cano, is still there, as erratic as Eduardo Nuñez is, he’s replacing a 38-year-old Derek Jeter, the catching tandem is a defense-first proposition, and the release of Juan Rivera on Thursday suggests that the slick-fielding Lyle Overbay is going to get the bulk of the playing time at first base in April.
So, if the Yankees are going to prevent runs as well as they did last year, how much can they afford to give up on offense without dropping out of the playoff picture? I spent most of March with the idea in my head that every team in the AL East is going to win 85 games this year. That obviously won’t happen, but I did offer up the idea in SI.com’s "expert" predictions that no team in the division would win 90 games. Last year, the Tigers and Cardinals both made the postseason with 88 wins. The Tigers did so by winning almost by default in a weak division, but the Cardinals did so as a Wild Card entry, meaning every team with 88 or more wins in the National League made the postseason last year. In the AL, the best team not to make the playoffs was the Rays, who won 90 games. Given that many of the league’s best teams appear to have taken a step backwards since last season (not just the Yankees, but the Rangers and Angels, and, by virtue of their having so exceeded expectations last year, the Orioles and A’s), I think it’s reasonable to assume that 90 wins will be enough to get an American League team into the postseason this year.
If the Yankees allow just 668 runs, how many runs would they have to score to win 90 games? Using Bill James’ Pythagorean formula, which translates run differential into winning percentage, if the Yankees scored 747 runs and allowed 668, they’d win exactly 90 games. That 747 runs would be 57 fewer than they scored last year, a drop from 4.96 runs per game to 4.61. That offensive performance would still put the Yankees in the top third of the league in terms of run scoring, but it’s evidence that they don’t need to produce at the same level as they did last year to get back to October.
What does a 747-run offense look like? How about the 2012 White Sox, who scored 748 runs? Looking at the 2012 Sox, that seems like an attainable goal. The White Sox received sub-par production at four positions (second base, shortstop, third base, and left field), average production in center field and designated hitter (with Adam Dunn undermining his 41 home runs and 105 walks with a .204 batting average and 222 strikeouts at the latter position), and were only modestly above average at three positions (first base, right field, and catcher). The team’s most valuable player was Alex Rios, who was worth roughly four wins on offense, per Baseball-Reference’s Offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR), having undermined a strong season in which he hit .306 with power and speed by drawing just 26 walks and posting a .334 on-base percentage.
By way of comparison, Robinson Cano, one of the few healthy Yankees from the 2012 lineup, has been worth an average of about six wins at the plate over the last three seasons per oWAR. If the Yankees can get a six-win performance out of Cano again this year (and I fully expect they will), that allows them to fudge the White Sox’s formula of two average players and three above-average to two above-average and three average while still carrying four sub-par bats. That might still seem like a stretch for the 2013 Yankees as they currently stack up, but prompt and productive returns by Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, and Mark Teixeira, all of whom could be back before the end of May if all goes right, could help considerably, and, of course, any improvement in pitching and defense gives the offense even more room for regression.
Now, I’m not terribly optimistic about Jeter, Teixeira, or Alex Rodriguez returning when expected, or about any of those three or Granderson producing at their expected levels once they do, so I still have the Yankees falling behind the Jays and Rays in the East and missing the playoffs this year, but it should be a close miss, not a big one, and if a few things break the Yankees’ way and against the Jays and Rays, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Yankees return to the playoffs on the strength of what is still one of the best pitching staffs in the American League.