TORONTO: The season is too young to start deconstructing the Yankees’ fast start and ask what’s going on. Repeat: There’s no need to drill down into the statistics — the sample sizes are just too small. Still, it’d be crazy to ignore what’s happened in the past 10 games and the apparent ease in which the Bombers have avoided the inferno that everyone (yes, including me) assumed was waiting for them.
Instead of a systemic collapse, the Yankees are on the kind of roll that historically demoralized the rest of the AL East. They beat the Blue Jays, 5-3, in 11 innings on Saturday with a cocktail of great starting pitching (Hiroki Kuroda), lousy bullpen work (David Robertson) and some old-fashioned good luck from the hapless Jays, who botched Ichiro Suzuki’s sac bunt in the 11th and turned it into the decisive two-run play.
Sabremetricians were probably ready to strangle Joe Girardi for bunting with two on and none out with a tie score. Modern-day metrics say it’s heresy to give away outs — except when it works to perfection. Jays’ lefty Aaron Loup fired the ball wildly past Brett Lawrie at third base, bringing home Vernon Wells and Francisco Cervelli.
Wells didn’t deny the Yankees caught a break, but he heard no argument, either, when he said, “taking advantage of a mistake is the sign of a good team.” And that begs the question: just how dangerous are the Yankees?
Crazy discussion, isn’t it, considering so many of the parts are past their warranty. GM Brian Cashman cannibalized the transaction wire and produced a replacement roster that shouldn’t have been a threat to anyone, not while Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are all missing. Andy Pettitte already has skipped one start because of back spasms, CC Sabathia still hasn’t found his fastball and Ivan Nova has forgotten the algorithm that made him so effective two years ago.
So what is going on with the Yankees, now 10-6? Somehow Vernon Wells is over .300, and Kevin Youkilis is playing well enough for club officials to (privately) hope A-Rod stays on the disabled list indefinitely. And Pettitte, despite a few aches and pains, has picked up nearly 2 mph on his fastball from last season, averaging 89.2 — his best stuff since 2003 according to Fangraphs.com. The 40-year-old lefty is sequencing his pitches so intelligently, hitters have found themselves consistently outfoxed. The AL’s line-drive ratio against Pettitte is a mere 10.4, down almost 33 percent from 2012.
OK, it’s early, there’s no getting around that caveat. Pettitte, as well as Kuroda, will have to do more than simply conquer April. The Yankees’ two oldest starters will have to successfully march into the jaws of the July-August dog days for the Yankees to have a chance at a 90-win summer. But if early-season momentum means anything, especially given how barren the roster is, then Kuroda has won first-month MVP honors.
His work against the Jays qualified as a miniature classic, spanning 7 innings with just one run and three hits. Kuroda generated 14 swings and misses from the Jays, including six of his 26 split-finger fastballs.
At 38, Kuroda shows no sign of decay, which is saying something considering Sabathia, at 32, is starting to address the possibility that he’s no longer a power pitcher. He’s dropped almost 3 mph off his fastball and is averaging under 90 mph (89.6) for the first time in his career. Kuroda, on the other hand, has been a machine. Until the Jays scored a run in the eighth inning (in the midst of Robertson’s meltdown), Kuroda had been bulletproof over 20-plus innings. And talk about anti-aging: He topped out at 94.3 mph against the Jays. Kuroda’s blistering four-seam fastball, coupled with his killer splitter, the one that drops like it’s been caught in a wind-shear, has made it impossible for the AL to break through in 2013.
Opponents are 0-for-24 against Kuroda after he’s allowed a runner on base, which is to say, the man doesn’t crack. And that brought Saturday’s conversation right to Girardi’s doorstep, since the manager decided to pull Kuroda after Colby Rasmus’ one-out single in the eighth.
The Yankees were leading 3-0 at the time, Kuroda was at 108 pitches, and Robertson, who hadn’t allowed a run this season in five appearances, was ready. Girardi’s logic was flawless as explained the decision to separate Kuroda from the ball.
“It’s a long season,” Girardi said, “and I don’t want to kill these guys.” What seemed like a safe bet turned into a near-catastrophe, though, as the Jays pummeled Robertson for three runs, eventually sending the game into extra innings.
Afterward, Toronto manager John Gibbons spoke ruefully about the weight of great expectations, and how his Jays are realizing what a burden it is to become the industry’s off-season darlings.
“We’re just not playing well enough, we’re not playing to our ability,” Gibbons said. “We had two shots to win (Saturday’s game). When you have momentum, you have to come back and win those games.”
Gibbons isn’t panicking, not yet, anyway, not this early in the season. Just like the Yankees, he knows the sample sizes are too small to take seriously. But there’s no mistaking the karma in the two clubhouses. Already six games out of first place, the Jays never thought April would be this messy. The Yankees? They’re loving every minute of it.