Yanks showing they're for real with winning formula
Scoring first, strong pitching the two keys to New York's strong start
By Marty Noble
NEW YORK -- They're in first place. Again. Or should the word "again" be prefaced, as in "once again?" The current standings seem accurate enough, unless some twisted hacker has been playing "Poseidon Adventure" with them. As they appear, they should prompt a few double takes and a loud "what?" spoken in an incredulous tone. Their standing is at least borderline startling.
Derek Jeter is Captain-emeritus. The rest of the Core Four has reached that comfy middle-aged stage that is rightfully identified as rest for the Core Four. Even Bernie Williams is officially retired now, and Paul O'Neill hasn't battered a water cooler in more than a decade. Whatever post-career influence those fellas once had must have dissipated by now.
CC Sabathia is without a victory in six starts and his ERA resembles Mickey Mantle's career home run total. Alex Rodriguez is hot and cold. Carlos Beltran's and Stephen Drew's averages are on the Interstate. The catcher is batting .239, the third baseman .230, the shortstop .209, the team .246. And the slugging percentage of the New York Yankees -- the Bronx Bombers -- is reminiscent of Stan Musial's career on-base percentage, .417.
And they're in first place. Read that again with some astonishment.
Their season is 31 games old. And we know championships can't be won in the first 31 games; they only can be lost. Predictions for that sort of scenario hardly were difficult to find a month ago, when the digit to the left of the hyphen was a 1 and to the right was a 3. The record reached 1-4 before a renaissance began. Incidentally, said revival has hauled the Yanks to the top of the standings in the American League East. Honest to Babe Ruth, it's the truth. They even have squatter's rights, they've been in first for 17 days.
How can this be?
This is not a smoke-and-mirrors job, though the two guys who work the eighth and ninth innings regularly do deal in a different sort of smoke that makes many of these games seven-inning affairs. The leads that Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller protect, though, come from somewhere other than the deep pockets of the Boss' descendants. The Yankees and manager Joe Girardi, in particular, are doing something quite right.
The top of the order has been energizing and sizzling, and Mark Teixeira is a power factor again. But can their production and the rebirth of Chris Young -- read that again, too ... with unabashed astonishment -- be that impactful?
The Yankees appear to be quite real -- 3-1 against the Tigers, 2-1 against the other first-place team in town, 4-2 against the Red Sox and 3-3 against Saturday's Stadium guests, the Orioles. The Yanks haven't fared well internationally, 2-4 against the Blue Jays. But that could be the exchange rate. And they've won five of six games against the Rays, the team directly south of them in the standings when play began Saturday.
Girardi would have put a hefty deposit on a 19-12 start had one been on the market while he was in Tampa, Fla., this spring dealing with the ifs and issues of A-Rod, injuries and Betances' lost-and-found velocity.
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So much has changed in the game over the last 25 years, but one truth has held -- scoring first remains a dependable down payment on success. The team that does wins about 62 percent of the time. So unlike Saturday, when the Orioles took a 4-0 lead, the Yankees need only to stay the course and score early and early. Playing .620 baseball and participation in the autumn tournament have been holding hands for decades. These Yanks have scored first in 18 games and won in 15 of those instances. Those figures yield an .833 percentage that certainly would guarantee involvement in October were it carried to the autumnal equinox. No team has a better record when scoring first.
That the Yankees have outscored their opponents 31-14 in the first inning is primary among contributing factors to their standing.
Now that 12-9 and 14-11 games have all but disappeared from the landscape, pitching again is the greatest determining factor. And these Yanks -- without so much as one pitch from an Andy Pettitte, an Ivan Nova or a Hiroki Kuroda, merely 358 from Masahiro Tanaka and relatively few effective ones from CC (Currently Counter-productive) -- are pitching well, surprisingly so.
Through Friday night, their starters had the fifth-lowest ERA in the AL, and their relievers, the third lowest. Their overall ERA, 3.26, was the lowest in the league. Six earned runs in nine innings in the 6-2 loss to the O's on Saturday doesn't change the ERA that much.
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Even with their handsome start, squatter's rights and a reliable bullpen, the Yankees are promised nothing. Setup relief is always a fickle factor, and Miller's elbow -- the one he wouldn't subject to an MRI examination before signing -- has no warranty. The rightfully unheralded rotation is getting by -- it has a 12-8 record -- but it's averaging 5.85 innings per start. Though that figure ranks fifth in the league, it also means the 'pen is working a lot. Oddly, the Yanks' lone complete game was Sabathia's one formidable start -- a loss in Detroit on April 20.
The staff has been good enough to put a team batting .246 in first place. But the more frequent reliance on the bullpen, the less likely the bullpen will remain reliable. And -- repeat -- Miller was purchased sans warranty.
But it's worked so far. The Yankees are a first-place team. And so what if folks are asking, "How have they done that?"
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.