It’s no secret that the 2022 Yankees offense hasn’t gotten off to the start that everyone was hoping for after a less-than-stellar 2021 season. Heading into tonight’s action, the Yankees have averaged only 3.09 runs per game, a scarcity of runs only exceeded by the lowly Diamondbacks Orioles and Tigers so far this season. From the glass-half-full perspective, the pitching staff has been generally great, which has kept the team competitive. Yet even the most optimistic among us have to admit that any hopes for reaching the postseason and making an extended run are pipe dreams if the position players don’t start crossing the plate with far greater frequency.
Yet there are two key reasons for hope. First, it’s very early in the season, so there’s plenty of time to turn things around. Secondly, the Yankees’ franchise has set precedents where some teams have really struggled to score runs coming out of the gate, yet ended up raising the Commissioner’s Trophy at season’s end anyway. With the enormous caveat that this should not be taken as a prophecy and rather simply an interesting topic of discussion, let’s look at some Yankees teams that started the season with major offensive struggles over their first 11 games, but turned things around and ended up winning it all.
Coming off their first World Series win in 15 years the previous season, the Yankees were expecting another return to the Fall Classic in 1978, and it was assumed their powerful and deep lineup would lead them to the promised land again. Yet the start to the season certainly didn’t look like one that would end with a second consecutive World Series win, as the bats averaged only 3.36 R/G over their first eleven. They scored three runs or fewer in 7 of the 11 games, which resulted in a disappointing but tenable 5-6 record thanks in large part to solid pitching.
They continued to struggle throughout most of April but led by very good seasons from Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, and Reggie Jackson, the Bronx Zoo crew turned the season around when the weather warmed. (As fans likely remember, they needed every bit of the offensive turnaround while completing one of the greatest in-season comebacks in baseball history.) After their stunning come-from-behind win in Game 163 backed by long balls from Jackson and Bucky Dent, the Yankees would finish third in the AL in OPS+ and fourth in R/G. That, of course, combined with a legendary season from Ron Guidry, led the Yanks to an ALCS win over the Royals and a World Series win over the Dodgers, for the franchise’s 22nd championship.
Luke their successors, the 1977 Yankees came into the season with sky-high expectations after having reached the Fall Classic for the first time in 12 years, then adding the aforementioned future Hall of Fame slugger Jackson to an already-formidable lineup. To say things didn’t exactly go according to plan would be a bit of an understatement, as the batters managed to score only 3 runs per game over the team’s first 11 outings — and that’s counting a seven-run explosion in Game 11 against the expansion Toronto Blue Jays. Their 3-8 record was the worst in MLB at the time, and with their temperamental owner having recently returned from his first suspension from baseball, many feel that this was the official start of the Bronx Zoo days of the ‘70s.
Of course, there was just too much talent on the team for such an underwhelming performance to last too long. Reggie went on to lead that potent lineup with a 150 OPS+, and the team would end up averaging 5.13 R/G on the season on their way to their first championship in 15 years.
Yet no Yankees championship team came out of the gate more slowly than the Joe DiMaggio-led 1947 group. Over the season’s first 11 games, the ballclub was held to three runs or less eight times and twice lost games by a score of 1-0, culminating in an anemic R/G average of 2.91. Fortunately, the Spud Chandler and Allie Reynolds-led staff were even stingier than their opponents’ staffs and led the team to a 7-4 record and a first-place standing in the AL despite the lack of offense. (Dominant pitching carrying a meek offense? That sounds like these Yankees all right.)
Of course, DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, and a 22-year-old utility player named Yogi Berra started swinging the bats better, and when they did, the rest of the AL had little chance against the combination of power offense and great pitching. They’d go on to guide the Yanks to a 97-57 record and a World Series win over their crosstown rivals from Brooklyn that October.
Whether or not the 2022 iteration of the Bronx Bombers can turn things around remains to be seen. The questions of whether this is indeed a very good lineup, and if the cream will eventually rise to the top to score runs in bunches will be answered over the next five months. Perhaps this offense will just turn out to not be very good. (Somewhat tangentially, another question is “Was there something in the water in the Bronx in the ’70s that led to two consecutive awful starts from two great offenses?”)
Regardless, if safe to say that if things stay on the current path, the 2022 season is likely to be as gratifying as last year’s underwhelming performance.