Mid-season Report Cards, Part 1

Recently, every major league team played their 81st game of the season. With the All-Star break just around the corner, this can only mean one thing: the season is already halfway over. And that can only mean one thing: report cards! We decided to break it down into four sections, overall performance, infielders, outfielders and pitchers. Welcome to part one.

Offense: B+ The Yankees have scored the third most runs in the American League (473), are tied for the sixth best team batting average (.272), have the third best OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage, .819), and lead the league in walks (387) and homeruns (127). So why only a B+? Because they could be, and should be, doing much better. The Yankees have as stacked a lineup as anyone in baseball. Raul Mondesi, a third or fifth place hitter on most other teams, generally bats eighth for them. Top to bottom, they feature so much talent that they should be leading the league in almost every category. Yet they have had several stretches this season when they've failed to score runs with any kind of consistency.

The Yankees' biggest problem is stranding baserunners. Yes, they draw more walks than anyone in the game, but they don't manufacture runs like they used to. Instead, they wait for a homerun from one of their big guns and end up striking out far too often. The Yankees are 13th out of 14 AL teams in sacrifice hits, 12th in sacrifice flys, they lead the league in grounding into double plays, and they have a measly .227 batting average with the bases loaded (22/97). All of these factors contribute to the Yankees missing out on a lot of scoring opportunities. If the Bombers want to hold off the hard-hitting Red Sox and Blue Jays, they're going to have to correct this problem. Part of that will come when the injured Bernie Williams and Nick Johnson return, but the Yankees still have their work cut out for them.

Starting Pitching: B+ Starting pitching has been a key factor in each of the Yankees previous six seasons when they won four World Series. This year, the rotation got off to an insanely hot start, rolling off 16 victories before suffering their first loss. But since that time, the rotation hasn't been as sparkling, and has looked very human on many occasions. Mike Mussina has been the most consistent starter, posting a 3.29 ERA, and only having one or two really bad starts. After Mussina, David Wells has been a strike-throwing machine. Wells has allowed just six walks all year long, and has a sterling 10-3 record to go along with it. Roger Clemens has been good, but often times he has been just good enough. He leads the league in strikeouts however, and recently posted his 300th career victory.

Once you get past those three though, it has been something of a crapshoot. Andy Pettitte has a very sub-par 4.78 ERA and his record was below .500 for a while. He has been better lately, bringing his ERA down from its high point of 5.33. Jeff Weaver has been almost unbearable for the majority of the year. He started off well, but then went six weeks without winning a start from May to the end of June. He also has been better lately, but he still isn't the pitcher the Yankees were expecting when they traded for him last year.

Overall, there isn't much the Yankees can do about their rotation. Mussina, Wells, Clemens and Pettitte are all grizzled veterans and can be counted on to pitch to the best of their ability. Mussina, who looked like an easy Cy Young candidate through the first month or so of the season, has looked human lately but certainly has the ability to regain his form and make a run at 20 wins. Weaver is the only pitcher that can improve his game. He is still young enough to make some mechanical and/or mental adjustments to make himself into the pitcher that the Yankees know he is capable of. Until then, the Yankees will make do with what they've got, which isn't bad at all.

Bullpen: C- At the beginning of the season, everyone was down on the Yankees bullpen. Mariano Rivera was on the disabled list, as was Steve Karsay – who ended up being lost for the year. The Yankees were relying on Juan Acevedo to close games, and things did not look good. Since that time, Rivera returned at full strength and Acevedo was put out to pasture and the bullpen has improved.

Relief pitching, like starting pitching, had always been a strong point of the Yankees during their championship years from 1996-2000. Names like John Wetteland, Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza told opposing teams to score early, or not score at all. 2003 has been an entirely different story.

While the bullpen has been better, it is still the weakest link for the Bombers. Rivera has been Rivera, but past him there isn't a single reliable arm in there. Antonio Osuna, who has been their best choice for the setup role, is currently serving his second stint on the disabled list with a strained groin. Chris Hammond has been good, but often looks entirely too hittable. Sterling Hitchcock, Al Reyes and Jason Anderson aren't intimidating anyone, and newcomer Dan Miceli has yet to show what he's made of. Overall, the bullpen has a 4.12 ERA and a 1.402 WHIP, right in the middle of the AL pack.

So what can the Yankees do? Karsay isn't coming back, and Osuna might have to deal with his groin injury for the rest of the year (it's the kind of injury that nags). The Yankee farm system is pretty bereft of good prospects to trade for an Ugueth Urbina or Scott Williamson. The Yankees best prospect is Brandon Claussen who, after shutting down the Mets a few weeks ago, looks like a player that could contribute down the line and definitely shouldn't be traded. The Yankees have to wait and see what Jose Contreras can contribute when he returns, and hope that Miceli regains the form he had in Cleveland. Other than that, if the Yankees can't find a creative way to get a top bullpen guy, this is a problem that can only hurt them, especially in the postseason.

Defense: C+ Defense is also one of those areas in which the Yankees used to excel, but are now merely adequate. The Yanks have committed the fifth most errors in the AL (63), and have a fielding percentage of .980. For comparison, Seattle leads the league in fielding with a mark of .990. Nobody on the Yankees is particularly poor, and nine of those errors belong to the since departed Erick Almonte. Derek Jeter has just a .960 FP, which does little to refute the accusations that he is an overrated defensive player. Alfonso Soriano has also committed 10 errors already.

Perhaps the most telling defensive statistic is the number of unearned runs allowed. The Yankees have given up 34 unearned runs, which is fairly average but leaning toward bad. In the AL, Seattle leads this category with just 15 unearned runs, and Cleveland has 51 to bring up the rear.

Defense isn't something that can necessarily be taught at this stage in a player's career. But guys like Alfonso Soriano will continue to improve. One thing that begs to be pointed out is the play of Hideki Matsui in centerfield, which has been nothing short of excellent. Matsui has been so good, that there have been rumblings of Bernie moving to left field when he returns from his knee injury. While this isn't something that's likely to happen this season, it could happen next year. Bernie is a decent centerfielder, but he isn't great by any stretch. Matsui taking over there – where he played in Japan – could greatly benefit the Yankees.

Overall: B+ Hey, as of this writing the Yankees are still in first place. They've got to be doing something right. All of the Yankees' faults are magnified by the expectations that they have on them. When a team has won four championships in the last seven years, and 26 of them all time, everyone expects them to be perfect and untouchable. That certainly isn't true here in 2003, which makes the Yankees look like they aren't even as good as they are. This is still a very good ball club that should be headed to the postseason without much trouble. That being said, the playoffs are a different monster and the Yankees may not have what it takes to succeed there. But right now, at the middle of the season, the Yanks are in first place. And that's what really matters.


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