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April ended with an oddity we had not seen in 34 years: the Dodgers and Yankees each finished the month with a losing record. There is no mystery why this happened. The two teams respectively ranked 21st and 27th in OPS and 12th and 30th in runs—yes, the Yankees scored fewer runs in April than all other teams, even the sad-sack Braves. By the way, Los Angeles and New York spent at least $28 million more on players than any of the other 28 clubs.
The rhetoric coming out of Los Angeles and New York is the clichéd stuff you always hear when teams get out of the gate slowly: “It’s early … wait until the weather warms up … these players have proven track records … we’re trying to do too much … the quality of the postgame steak and lobster is down.”
Forget the clichés, as you always should. One of these teams should be very worried, and it’s not the one that gave more plate appearances to 25-and-under players in April than any other team. It’s the team that still is trying to play a brand of baseball that is passe: living on home runs by old, unathletic pull hitters. You know you are in trouble when your third baseman devolves into the second coming of Morrie Rath 103 years later and joins him as the least powerful April hitters the American League has ever witnessed. (More on Morrie’s incredible story below.)
Let us count the other ways the Yankees are in trouble:
• They went 8–14 in April. Their .364 winning percentage was the seventh worst in that month in franchise history and the worst in 38 years in any April in which the team played at least 19 games.
• You can lose a pennant in April. Of the 143 previous teams in baseball history that played worse than .375 baseball in April (minimum 20 games), only three made the playoffs (1989 Blue Jays, 2001 Athletics, '15 Rangers), and none won a pennant. Based on precedent, that gives the Yankees a 2.1% chance of making the playoffs.
• They hit an MLB-worst .189 with runners in scoring position in April.
• They gave 251 plate appearances to players 36 and older; those players hit .223/.303/.397. No other club gave even half as many plate appearances to such aged players.
• Only six times all season has a Yankee scored from second on a single, the fewest in baseball (out of 15 chances).
• They pull the ball more often than any team except Cincinnati and Toronto.
• They have the fewest infield hits in baseball (eight).
• They have hit fewer line drives than any team except Milwaukee and Tampa Bay.
• Alex Rodriguez, 40, has hit .194 over his past 75 games. Carlos Beltran, 39, has hit .254 over his past 54 games. Mark Teixeira, 36, has hit .204 over his past 34 games. Brett Gardner, 32, has hit .213 in his past 67 games. Jacoby Ellsbury, 32, has hit .241 over the past calendar year. All are past their prime years.
• This is the seventh Yankees team to lose as many as 15 of its first 23 games. None of the other six made the playoffs. Only one wound up winning more than 71 games: the third-place 87-75 unit of 1984.
• The Yankees rank 27th in defensive efficiency, the measurement of how often a team turns batted balls into outs.
• This 8–15 start has happened with no significant injuries.
Don’t worry, the Yankees aren’t about to keep this up and finish 56–106. They are due to heat up. But the main issues with this team appear systemic, not transitory: age, lack of speed, lack of range, lack of situational-hitting skills and weak starting pitching. (New York's starters rank 25th in innings, 27th in ERA and 28th in batting average against.)
The 2005 Yankees, a team on the cusp of aging out of its dominance, started 9–14 yet recovered and still made the playoffs. But it did have Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui in their primes; at least three players who had accrued the benefits of steroid use (Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield); and the boost of 22-year-old rookie Robinson Cano, who made his debut 11 years ago today. Can infielder Jorge Mateo, 21, who is tearing up high A, or outfielder Aaron Judge, 24, off to a mediocre start in Triple A, provide a shot of energy this time?
New York's biggest problems are these: It isn't going to get younger, it isn't going to get faster on the bases or afield and, hitting the ball in the air to one half the field as often as these players do, it's not going to suddenly become a great rally team. (Their annual rankings in RISP the past five years: 15, 13, 14, 13, 30). The way back is through the home run ball, especially from their older players.
Chase Headley, 31, looks like yet another player past his prime. He is batting .156 on nine singles. Only one other AL player ever came to bat at least 71 times in April and failed to get an extra base hit with fewer than 10 singles: our man Morrie Rath.
Rath was born on Christmas Day 1886 to Charles Rath, who was born in Germany 50 years earlier. Charles immigrated to Philadelphia at age 11 and ran away from home at age 16 to roam the wild West as a frontier trader, merchant and buffalo-hide buyer.
In April of 1913, while playing second base for the Chicago White Sox, Charles’s son Morrie went the entire month without an extra-base hit. But he had an excuse: During spring training that year in Paso Robles, Calif., Rath dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool and banged his head on the bottom. He was sidelined for a week and felt the effects of the blow to his head well into the season. Even though Rath hit .167 that April, he drew 21 walks in 18 games, posting a robust .400 on-base percentage. (Headley put up a .268 OBP last month.)
More famously, Rath earned a place in baseball history when he led off the bottom of the first inning for Cincinnati against the White Sox in Game 1 of the 1919 World Series. Chicago pitcher Eddie Ciccotte plunked his former teammate with his second pitch, the secret sign to the gamblers that the fix was in.
After retiring from baseball, Rath ran a sporting goods store in Upper Darby, Pa. On Nov. 18, 1945, Rath, said to be fighting depression for years, sat down in his living room above the sporting goods store, wrote a note to his beloved wife, Edna, that said, “I’m taking this way out before I go crazy,” picked up a gun and shot himself. He was 58. We are left to wonder, knowing what we know now about possible long-term effects of head trauma, what role, if any, the swimming pool accident played in his last years.
If you believe his statement, Dodgers pitcher Josh Ravin, the latest player busted for PED use, didn’t care enough about his career or reputation to check what was in the supplements he took—supplements he said he turned to because of weight loss from an illness. “I was not as careful as I should have been,” he said.
Ravin was busted for Growth Hormone Releasing Peptide 2, a banned substance athletes use to stimulate the pituitary gland to produce more growth hormone for increased muscle mass and improved energy and endurance. GHRP-2, which users believe is safer than synthetic HGH, can be taken in oral form under the tongue, through the nose or in injectable form. Anecdotal evidence suggests GHRP-2 could serve as a masking agent for HGH and to fool the old T/E ratio tests. It now can be picked up by the more advanced mass spectrometry tests baseball began using in 2014 on at least one sample from every player.
A Royals minor league outfielder, Mike Bianucci, then 28 and a Texas League All-Star, was suspended 80 games last June for testing positive for GHRP-2, ending his season and apparently his career. He went on the voluntary retired list this spring.
Ravin, 28, had spent 10 years in the minors before his MLB debut last year. All these years into drug testing, how can a player not be taking certified products? How can they not be calling the union’s help line number to be sure of a product? Is failing to do so supposed to be an excuse for getting busted? Dozens upon dozens of players keep getting caught, and we keep getting these “dog ate my homework” excuses.
Eleven years later, former outfielder Matt Lawton still stands as the rare player who actually took ownership of his decision to juice, saying he turned to steroids because of injuries and poor performance. “I made a terrible and foolish mistake that I will regret for the rest of my life,” he said then. “I take full responsibility for my actions and did not appeal my suspension.” Word around baseball is that several more positive tests may become known in the coming weeks; the league is just getting through the backlog of spring training tests and appeals (Ravin, Chris Colabello and Dee Gordon all flunked tests in spring training and were suspended only in the past 11 days). If so, don’t wait for the next guy to be as stand up as Lawton.
A quick look at some trends one month into the season:
• Strikeouts per game are up for an 11th straight year, but offense continues its uptick from the final two months of last season. The marks for both OPS (.724) and slugging (.404) in April were the highest in the month in six years.
• Still, what would Gene Mauch have thought of today’s game? The sacrifice bunt is creeping closer to extinction. The four lowest rates of sacrifice bunts all occurred in the past four years—and now it’s down 20% from the record low of last year and half of what it was in 1993.
• And oh, what would Billy Martin think? April saw the fewest stolen bases in that month since 1991, when there were four fewer teams. Run prevention keeps making for a more static game.
• Yankees reliever Dellin Betances had thrown 355 first-pitch curveballs in his career without giving up a home run, until David Ortiz got him last Friday. Only six of those 355 first-pitch hooks had ever been put in play.
• Until Saturday, when Ortiz and Rodriguez did so, two 40-year-olds had never homered in an AL game. It has happened five times in the NL, all in 2006, with Barry Bonds and either of Giants teammates Moises Alou and Steve Finley.
• The Braves finished April with five home runs and no triples—the first team to have thresholds that low since the 1980 Mets (excepting strike-shortened Aprils). And no team had more plate appearances with such few homers and triples in April.
• The Twins are 0–15 against winning teams. More surprising? The Cardinals and Yankees combined are 5–19 vs. winning teams.