The second half of the Yankees' season breaks into three distinct parts. The first, completed on Thursday, was what I've been calling the "cupcake" portion of their schedule, 28 games against the weaker teams in the league including Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Baltimore, Chicago, and the roughly-.500 Blue Jays. The Yankees went 20-8 (.714) over that stretch to propel themselves into the playoff hunt. Tonight they begin the second leg of their second half, a stretch of 20 games in which 17 come against contending teams, and 14 come against Cleveland, Detroit, and Boston, the teams they are chasing in pursuit of a playoff spot.
With that in mind, here's a look at how the Yankees have performed against the cupcakes, and some thoughts about how that performance might translate against the contenders.
Offense: While the Yankees have risen to the challenge against the weaker teams in the American League, it still remains to be seen if they can continue their success against the contenders. One encouraging sign is that they didn't just defeat the cupcake teams, they destroyed them, averaging 7.64 runs per game over the last 28 games.
Robinson Cano .419/.479/.743, 18 XBH
Jorge Posada .385/.505/.692
Hideki Matsui .342/.382/.694, 12 HR, 29 R
Bobby Abreu .350/.409/.612, 33 RBI
Melky Cabrera .368/.405/.604, 10 2B, 3 3B
Shelley Duncan .314/.385/.743 (5 HR in 39 PA)
Wilson Betemit 5 for 14 (HR, 6 RBI, 3 R, BB)
Wil Nieves 4 for 11 (4 2B, 4 RBI, 4 R, 4 K)
Counting stats listed for Cano, Matsui, and Abreu are team bests over the last 28 games.
Andy Phillips .279/.309/.356
Miguel Cairo 1 for 8 (2B, 2 BB, 3 K, SB)
Jose Molina 2 for 11 (2B)
Johnny Damon hit .129/.333/.129 and was 1 for 2 on the bases through the first ten games after the break, then hit .371/.444/.532 and went 4 for 5 on the bases over the final 20. He played in nine of those first ten games, but only 15 of the last 20, and his hot-hitting began after his first game off of that stretch. Of course, that game was game one of the double header against Tampa Bay on July 21, so Damon didn't really get a day off as he played in the nightcap, but the obvious conclusion is that Damon is more productive when given regular rest, which is exactly how Joe Torre has been using him over the past three weeks.
One wonders if the presense of Wilson Betemit should prompt Torre to start giving Derek Jeter additional days off as well. Jeter hit .338/.377/.477 with four stolen bases in as many tries over the first 15 games of the cupcake schedule, but just .234/.345/.340 with one steal in two tries since then, picking up just three extra base hits in his last 60 plate appearances. Jeter played in all 28 cupcake games, starting 27 of them.
Alex Rodriguez hit .278/.412/.630 through and including the game in which he hit career home run number 499. He then endured an 0-for-19 slump (though he did walk six times, twice intentionally, and was once hit by a pitch). Since snapping that slump two games before hitting number 500, he's hit .348/.414/.522.
Rotation: Here's where I start to worry. The Yankees only received a quality start in half of the last 28 games. Of the four primary starters, Andy Pettitte was the only one not to have a disaster outing (more runs allowed than innings pitched). Indeed, per the stats below, Pettitte, not Chien-Ming Wang, has been the Yankee ace in the second half. Admittedly, Wang's fluky disaster outing against the Blue Jays on Wednesday soured his numbers considerably, but even before that game, Pettitte had a better ERA over six starts than Wang had over five (though Wang did lead Pettitte in WHIP).
Phil Hughes and Matt DeSalvo both made one start, neither did particularly well.
The x-factor here, of course, is Phil Hughes. Based on his one start after coming back off the DL, Hughes simply needs to build up his endurance, as he appeared to tire very quickly. If Hughes can start giving the Yankees quality starts out of the fifth spot in the rotation (something that spot failed to do in five tries over the last 28 games), it would not only help the Yankees' chances of winning every fifth day, but would also reduce the bullpen's workload, increasing the Yankees' chances of winning on days the other four starters take the ball.
Bullpen: The Yankee bullpen posted a 3.74 ERA over the last 28 games, but if you factor in unearned runs that number jumps to 4.55, which means this pen has been allowing a run every other inning. That's a problem. The good news is that, as with Cairo and Igawa above, some of the worst offenders have been shown the door.
Farnsworth is still around, but at least he's being used in low leverage situations now, such as with his team down 11 runs as was the case on Wednesday when he threw just his seventh 1-2-3 inning of the season (in 48 tries). Karstens most recent failure came in the finale of the Toronto series, so I'm holding out hope that he'll be replaced on the roster in the very near future.
Conclusion: Great hitting, questionable pitching. That's not how you beat good teams. Beginning with the promotion of Shelley Duncan on July 21, the Yankees have upgraded their bench (replacing Kevin Thompson, Miguel Cario, Wil Nieves and Chris Basak with Duncan, Wilson Betemit, Jose Molina, and Jason Giambi), their rotation (with the return of Hughes), and their bullpen (mostly addition by subtraction thus far, though Joba Chamberlain looked extremely promising in his one appearance in Toronto). The latter two will have to result in significant improvement, however, if the Yankees want to stay in the playoff hunt over the next 20 games.