Just to be clear, before anyone bookmarks this post to point back to in October if the Yankees don't win the division, this is not me coming out and saying that the Yankees are absolutely going to win the AL East this year.
/checks the title of the post
Crap. Maybe it is. Well whatever. I'm feeling pretty good about where the Yankees stand right now and I'm not going to apologize for it. The doom and gloom of May has been replaced by a very successful June, and that's despite the fact that there are still some glaring problem areas in the team's overall performance. The Yankees have risen while the rest of their AL East competition has either floundered or treaded water, and with 90 games to play to iron out their remaining issues there's reason to be confident. That confidence comes with plenty of "ifs," "ands," and "buts" attached to it, and this season has already taught us that even the most unthinkable can happen, but here are 5 things that can counter a lot of the IA&Bs as we move closer to the 2nd half of the season.
1) The Rotation's HR Rate and The Lineup's RISP Struggles Have to Turn Around Eventually
Despite what the MSM tries to tell us, hitting a lot of HRs is never a bad thing. Giving a lot of them up, however, is and that's something the rotation has continued to do with regularity even through their strong June. Presently, there isn't a Yankee starter with a HR/FB rate below 10.9%. Ivan Nova's rate of 16.0% is still well above his previous career average, as is Andy Pettitte's of 16.3%. Even Phil Hughes' 16.0% rate after his HR Derby pitcher audition in Atlanta last week is high by his standards. For a group like these guys with the ability to generate swings and misses and plenty of groundballs when they're on, it's reasonable to expect that some of these HRs have been BABIP luck-aided, and eventually some of these flyballs will start falling into gloves instead of fans' laps.
Speaking of BABIP luck, the Yankees' continued exercise in RISP Fail should start to turn around when that luck changes as well. As a team, the Yankees have a .281 BABIP this year, tied for 24th in MLB. That number dips even lower to .228 with RISP, a surefire cause for the team's dreadful .219/.326/.392 slash line this season in that situation, and when compared to their other peripherals, a sign that a lot of bad luck is in play. The Yankees rank near the top of MLB in team BB rate (9.3%) and LD rate (21.3%), near the botom in team K rate (18.3%), and are first in ISO (.196). There's no way that those numbers should add up to such poor results with RISP. The law of averages will swing back in their direction at some point and the RISP hits will start to come.
2) Joba and Aardsma Are Coming Back
Not much, if anything at all, was expected from these 2 this season, and that expectation was lowered after Joba Chamberlain's trampoline accident. But as June winds down, David Aardsma is climbing the rehab ladder in the Minors and Joba is starting to throw BP sessions and showing no ill effects from his ankle surgery or the slight blip on his TJS recovery radar that the ankle injury caused. Barring any setbacks, there's a good chance that both of these guys are back in pinstripes and back in the bullpen by the end of the summer. Given the way the bullpen has already performed in their and Mo's absences this season, that shouldn't be a comforting thought for opposing teams. At best, Joba and Aardsma, even at less than 100%, give the Yankees a deep stable of high-strikeout bullpen killers to work with down the stretch. At worst, they struggle to find their command and the Yankees are still left with plenty of 'pen depth both at the Major League and Triple-A level.
3) Robinson Cano is Back to Being Robinson Cano (And He's Typically a Strong 2nd-Half Player)
April was one of the most un-Cano months we've ever seen from Robbie. He put himself in a big statistical hole by hitting just .267/.323/.389 (.310) wOBA with 1 HR and 4 RBI. Since then he's done a slow burn back up to a much more recognizable .302/.369/.572 season line (.396 wOBA) by hitting .312/.364/.606 in May (.409 wOBA) and .329/.424/.734 so far in June (.473 wOBA). Cano has the balance back in his swing, he's shown a lot more patience at the plate this season (9.4% BB rate), and history suggests that his hot hitting won't slow down anytime soon.
For his career, Cano averages a .380 wOBA in July, .372 in August, and .376 in September, the 3 highest values by month in that category. He's a finisher, and he's heading into his best months on a torrid power streak. With the inconsistencies around him in the lineup, another strong 2nd half will go a long way in solidifying the team's offensive production.
4) The Trade Deadline Is Looming
The offseason moves have been hit or miss recently, but one thing the Yankees have done well in the past few years is use the trade deadline to fill roster holes. In 2009, they added Eric Hinske, Jerry Hairston, Jr., and Chad Gaudin before the deadline for next to nothing. In 2010, they added Austin Kearns, Lance Berkman, and Kerry Wood for about the same. Last season, they surprisingly stood pat at the deadline, not finding anything that suited their needs (at least not at a price Cash was willing to pay). With their limited roster flexibility, it's hard to imagine the Yanks making any kind of a big splash at the deadline this year, but it's reassuring to know that they have the upper-level depth and strong cache of high-ceiling prospects in their lower levels to put together a package for just about any player they desire.
5) Everybody Else Has Issues
It's perfectly fair to continue to touch on the number of HRs the Yankees are giving up or their RISP Fail issues as major weaknesses. But they've managed to seize the lead in the division in spite of those problems, and looking around the rest of the AL East landscape, it's not like everybody else is without flaws. The Orioles have questions in their rotation and a relatively weak offense; the Rays have an even weaker offense, could be without Evan Longoria for an extended period of time, and have issues in the back end of their rotation; The Fraud Sawx are a mish-mash of injuries, inconsistency, and underperformance, and the return of Carl Crawford isn't going to change that; and the Blue Jays are just the Blue Jays. There isn't a team in this division that can say it has fewer issues than the Yankees, and probably no team better equipped to handle those issues than the Yankees.
I'm not trying to get too far ahead of myself here, but the Yankees have righted their ship and the horizon is looking pretty sunny right now. They still haven't gotten the offense and pitching staff clicking at the same time, but with 90 games left to make that happen and a 3-game advantage in the division, that's good news for them and bad news for everybody else.