Given that the Yankees are on top of the AL East with a 2.5 game lead, this may seem like a niggling matter to bring up. Given that Robinson Cano and Russell Martin both hit home runs last night, it may seem like an inappropriate time to bring this up. Given that the Yankees have played just 14 games, maybe it’s too soon to worry. Still, the question keeps coming up, so we might as well address it. Can the Yankees win being a "home runs-only" team?
One of those clichés upon which some broadcasters and other hack baseball types like to fall back is the idea that a team that is too dependent on the home run will somehow be incapable of building runs when they need to do so. This seems to imply that it’s a bad thing to hit a lot of home runs, a meme which goes back to 1948, when Leo Durocher tore up the roster of a Giants team that had called "The Window-Breakers" for their record-setting home run pace. Durocher claimed the team was one-dimensional, decrying its lack of speed. It was thanks to Leo’s desire for a more flexible roster that future Hall of Famer Johnny Mize went from leading the NL in home runs to sitting on Casey Stengel’s bench as a member of the 1949 Yankees.
Durocher was only partially right. Hitting home runs is never a bad thing unless you do it to the exclusion of all else. Consider last season’s Blue Jays. In 2010, the Jays hit the third-most home runs ever, 257. They handily led the league over the Red Sox (211), yet they didn’t figure anywhere near the top of the league in runs scored, finishing 6th. They hit home runs and a good number of doubles as well, ranking second in the league in that category. However, they weren’t interested in running, walking, or hitting for average, with the result that their team on-base percentage ranked only 12th in the league.
As a team, the Yankees have gotten off to their best home run start ever, and they lead the league by eight longballs. Yet, their average runs scored per game, 5.50, is only a fraction higher than that of the number-two Kansas City Royals (who thought I would get to type that at any point this year?) due to their surprisingly weak on-base abilities. Eighth in walks, sixth in batting average, the Yankees are just sixth in on-base percentage. They have hit few doubles, have and have also stolen just six bases this year, tied with the Red Sox for 12th in the league (the Orioles are last with four). Should their prolific long-ball bashing cool, one hopes it is replaced by a shower of singles.
Several Yankees have been surprisingly impatient. Russell Martin and Robinson Cano have taken just one walk apiece. Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner have just four apiece, a pace that puts each on a pace for fewer than 50 walks. Gardner is perhaps the most surprising. Last year, he set a record for patience, seeing 4.61 pitches per plate appearance. This season he’s down to 4.16 and his walk percentage has gone from about 14 percent to eight percent. Both still qualify as patient, but no longer exceptionally so. It was reasonable to expect that a Gardner with a healthy hand would put more balls in play, but seeing him on a pace for perhaps 50 walks is just as shocking as the weakness of his overall results.
It’s early yet, and there is plenty of time for some of the Yankees not yet wearing their strike-zone goggles to put them on. And then there is Derek Jeter. He has actually been fairly patient so far, walking in almost 10 percent of his plate appearances. It’s what he has done in the rest of his times at bat that are the problem. Last season, Jeter set a personal high by hitting almost two grounders for every fly he hit. He has now nearly doubled that rate, hitting 3.5 grounders for every fly ball, and his line drive rate is an untenable 10 percent. Unless a hitter has Gardner-level speed, it’s impossible to hit for any kind of an average this way, and power is just an impossibility. The Captain has just one extra-base hit this year, a double. He may have needed to junk his spring-training swing, but he had better come up with something quick, because the future is looking short and dark, contract extension or not.