There's not much to say about the Texas Rangers that I didn't say a week or so ago. Despite getting swept at home by the Bombers, they remain in first place in the AL West (thanks to the Yanks' just completed 2-1 series win over the second-place A's), and they've made just one roster move, demoting spot-starter Robinson Tejeda in favor of righty reliever Scott Feldman last Monday.
Due to consecutive rainouts in Boston, the Rangers have played just four games since hosting the Yanks, dropping two of three to the visiting Twins before taking the rain-shortened opener in Fenway behind five scoreless innings by Kameron Loe. Adding in a scheduled off day this past Thursday and the Rangers have played just six innings in the last four days.
So, with nothing doing on the other side of the leger, I thought I'd take this opportunity to take a better look at the home town team, as they could use some lookin' at given the events of the past week.
The normal order for this sort of thing is to start with the hitting and follow up with the pitching and to only sometimes bother with the fielding. Let's invert that.
A year ago the Yankees were a game below .500 and in fourth place in the AL East, 5.5 games behind the surging Orioles. This year they're seven games over .500 and tied with Boston for first in the division with the third best record in the American League.
A year ago the Yankees were dead last in the league in defensive efficiency (their rate of turning balls in play into outs). This year they're fourth best in the AL.
The Yankees are second in the American League in ERA with a 3.77 mark and while that's a legitimate ranking (they're also second, also to the Tigers, in defense-independent ERA with a 4.07 mark), the dramatic improvement in team defense has clearly contributed to their overall run prevention.
So how did it happen? The primary defensive upgrade the Yankees made this offseason was at long last acquiring a legitimate centerfielder. Fielding stats are specious at best, and a 35-game sample size of such are even more dubious, but Baseball Prospectus ranks Damon as a barely average defensive centerfielder thus far this year. That may not sound like much, but Bernie Williams and Hideki Matsui (Tony Womack didn't begin playing in center until later in the year, though he was just as dreadful as the rest) were so poor in the middle pasture last year (Bernie improved in the latter half of the year to bring his fielding numbers up to just shy of average), that "barely average" represents a tremendous improvement.
Meanwhile, Robinson Cano appears to be making a breakthrough at second base, going from barely average last year (or significantly below, depending on your source), to comfortably above thus far in 2006 and seems to be improving daily. Elswhere, Alex Rodriguez early-season struggles at third have been replaced with legitimate gold-glove-level play, surpasing his fine work there in his first year at the position. The forward leaps by Cano and Rodriguez have gone a long way toward compensating for Derek Jeter's return to his old form at shortstop.
One would think that the injuries which will increase Bubba Crosby's playing time in the field and will give Melky Cabrera an opportunity to overcome the poor first-impression his fielding has made in the Bronx could further increase the Yankees defensive efficiency, but it turns out that Hideki Matsui was actually having an excellent season in the field prior to breaking his radius in an attempt to make what would have been an outstanding sliding catch. Matsui was bound to regress himself, but now it seems the Yankees outfield defense will do well to simply break even with it's performance thus far, though alarmingly, given less ground to cover, Bernie does appear to represent an upgrade over Sheffield in right.
On the mound, the Yankees owe a great deal of their success to Mike Mussina's sudden discovery of a nearly unhittable 70-mile-per-hour changeup and the dominant performance that has resulted. Mussina, who will start tonight, is fourth in the league in strikeouts, third in the league in K/BB ratio and ERA, second in the league in WHIP, and tied for first in wins.
Collectively the five Yankee starters (and there really have been just five of them thus far) have compiled roughly a season's worth of work (35 starts, 208 2/3 innings) and have a 19-8 record with a 3.92 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP. This despite the complete collapse of Randy Johnson's mechanics. In fact, taking Johnson away, the other four Yankee starters, including Jaret Wright, are 14-4 with a 3.52 ERA.
The bullpen doesn't even need to subtract it's worst performer to beat even that, posting a 3.46 mark despite abysmal performances from Tanyon Sturtze (7.59 ERA) and Aaron Small (12.00 ERA). The reason is that the top four men in terms of innings pitched (Rivera, Farnsworth, Proctor and Villone) have combined for a 2.37 ERA, and that doesn't even count LOOGY Mike Myers who has allowed just one run (you all remember which one) in the process of recording 26 outs. Regression is sure to set in with Proctor and Villone, but Rivera and Farnsworth could actually improve on their performances thus far. Meanwhile, if the Yankees can wise up and replace Sturtze and Small with men such as rookie Matt Smith, who retired all seven men he faced in a brief call up, they could be well on their way to having their best pen since the glory days of Stanton-Nelson-Rivera.
As for the offense, 1,000 runs seemed like a distinct possibility until wrist injuries swiped two of the team's top hitters. Consider the following:
Through and including the Saturday April 29 game with Toronto in which Gary Sheffield hurt his wrist in a collision with Shea Hillenbrand, that is, the games with both Matsui and Sheffield in the line-up, the Yankees were scoring 6.36 runs per game, which projects to 1,030 runs over a full season.
Absent Sheffield, save for a key pinch-hit and a injury-addled 0-fer, from April 30 to May 10, the Yankees with Matsui but without Sheff scored 5.88 runs per game, which projects to 953 over a full season.
In the four games since then, the Yankees have averaged just 2.5 runs per game without either. Obviously that's a tiny sample, but it's alarming nonetheless and it equals the offense's worst four-game tally of the season (ten runs), the first coming against Harden, Haren, Escobar and Ervin Santana in the second through fifth games of the season. This last stretch came against Wakefield, Zito, Halsey, and Haren. Save for Halsey, whom they beat, though not resoundingly, that's not an unimpressive group, still having a bottom three of Bernie, Bubba and Melky most nights will put added pressure on the pitching and defense. Fortunately, they look like they just might be up to the task.
Tonight the Yankees take on last year's ERA champ, Kevin Millwood, who's currently sporting a 5.13 mark.