This came up recently for me in a conversation I was having with a friend. He asked me, "What did the 1996 or 1998 teams have in hitting that 2003 doesn't?" The question was asked of me on Thursday, during the Yankees game right after they had been no-hit. At the time, the Yankees had just manufactured a run in the bottom of the first inning.
That's right, I said manufactured.
In that inning, Alfonso Soriano walked to lead off. Derek Jeter attempted to sacrifice bunt him over and ended up with an infield single. Jason Giambi hit a groundball to move Soriano to third and put himself at first, and then Todd Zeile finished it off with a sacrifice fly to score Soriano and tie the game at one.
The Yanks went on to win that game by one run, 6-5, and they didn't hit a single homerun.
That's the way the Yankees played until recently. The free-agent acquisitions of homer-happy Giambi and (theoretically) Hideki Matsui, as well as the emergence of a certain Alfonso Soriano as a power hitter have drastically changed the identity of the team from their championship years.
Instead of getting on base anyway they could, via a walk or running out a ground ball, or shooting a base-hit to right field, these Yankees rely heavily on a homerun. The three-run-homer approach to the game had been perfected with Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics a few years ago, when virtually everyone on the team was capable of either drawing a walk or knocking one out of the park – Jason Giambi included.
But how reliable a method is this of actually winning championships – something that Joe Torre and George Steinbrenner have maintained is their primary focus all along?
Returning to my friend's question, I decided to do a little research comparing the '98 Yankees with this year's version. Since this season is far from over, I checked their AL rankings in certain offensive categories, to see just how they stacked up because totals aren't available yet. Here's what I found (all rankings out of 14 and through June 14):
The 1998 team, generally considered one of the best teams of all time, outranks the 2003 version in every area except for homeruns. All of the rankings are close, with the exception of one very glaring difference, strikeouts. In 1998, the Yankees struck out the tenth most times (i.e., nine teams struck out more out of 14). But in 2003, the Yankees have struck out the second most times in the American League (second only to the Toronto Blue Jays).
So what does this mean? The Yankees are still walking at a torrid pace, and they're hitting homeruns by the bushel. But they're striking out a ton more than they were in 1998. Obviously, the players are different, but if my friend was right, shouldn't they be better?
I told him what I had found, and through talking with him further, found that a lot of people don't recognize how much different – and worse – a strikeout is than another kind of out.
Its quite simple really, strikeouts accomplish absolutely nothing. A groundball out, or a flyball out have at least some chance of doing something more meaningful. With a man on first or second base, a ground ball to the right side of the infield moves him over another base. With the runner in scoring position, a base hit will score him, or if he's on third a sacrifice fly will get the job done. Striking out gets you none of that, and a little later on in Thursday's game, the Yankees proved my point.
In the eighth inning, the score was tied again at five runs apiece. With the help of a Jeff Bagwell error, the Yankees managed to load the bases with nobody out – a sure-fire way to score some runs.
But not for these Yankees. Juan Rivera popped out to second base to record the first out. Soriano dropped a bloop hit into right field to plate a run, but keep the bases loaded, and still only one out. A fly ball scores a run, or with the Astros a double-play depth, a deep ground ball will score a run too.
But Derek Jeter struck out swinging, and Jason Giambi struck out swinging as well, inning over, only one run scored.
That did it for me; I was determined to find some kind of statistical basis for what was wrong with the Yankees. And I found the answer in a statistic that one of my other friends had come up with last year, Contact Percentage.
It's a simple statistic, used to measure the percent of the time that a batter puts the ball in play, not counting walks. The formula is (AB-SO)/AB. I don't count walks because I figured it would be silly to penalize the batter for doing something positive – which a walk generally is. A more accurate statistic would include walks and hit-by-pitches, but since they're not really part of the conversation here anyway, I've decided to leave them out.
At any rate, here are the contact percentages for the 2003 Yankee regulars, followed by the average contact percentage of those players (numbers accurate through June 14):
Do those two names at the bottom of the list look familiar? If they don't, that's because neither of them are playing right now. Both Bernie Williams and Nick Johnson are out of the lineup with various injuries, and have been for some time. And if you take a look, right around the time that Williams, the Yankees' leader in C% by far, got injured and stopped producing, is when they started to stumble.
In case you were wondering, that average C% of 80.8% drops to 79.6% without Bernie and Johnson. It's only a 1.2% difference, but it's certainly a difference. If you remove Matsui's numbers the average dips further, and with Matsui batting lower in the order, his bat is having less of an impact.
For comparison, the 1998 Yankees – who were phenomenal at manufacturing runs – had an average C% of about 82.3%, for the regular players who I accounted for.
Well I never answered the question posed at the very top of this article, in the title. What's wrong with the Yankees? In short, there's nothing wrong with them that can be fixed. The injuries to Bernie Williams and Nick Johnson have deprived the Yankees of two key hitters. Bernie and Johnson are both excellent contact hitters that do not strike out very often. Without them, the Yankees are having trouble manufacturing runs and have had to rely on the homerun as their main source of scoring.
The problem with the homerun is that it is a terribly streaky thing. It's unpredictable, unreliable and inefficient because it leads to more striking out. Bigger swings lead to bigger whiffs.
The bottom line is, the Yankees will continue to struggle into Bernie Williams returns, which will hopefully be around the All-Star break. When Bernie comes back healthy, and Nick Johnson returns as well, I expect we'll see the offense that we witnessed at the beginning of the 2003 season return.
Until then, watch out for the long ball, and don't worry too much. The Yankees are still in first place, and that's all you can really ask for.