No Yankee fan can be happy with how this month has played out. It started with series losses to Tampa and Toronto, an unsatisfying 4-game split with Boston, a very lucky 2-game split with Texas, and a mortifying split this weekend with Kansas. The latter 'failure' is particularly upsetting on paper, since KC is one of the four worst teams in the American League. Also, yesterday's defeat came at the hands of yet another untested young pitcher, Brian Bullington, who has never had success on the big league level. In fact, he didn't even have a win prior to yesterday's start. But as always, a new face utterly mystified the Yanks, who managed 2 hits in 8 innings and wasted a rare gem by AJ Burnett.
The dissatisfaction is real, but is it warranted? As awesome as it would be to play professional sports for a living, the month of August seems like a rough time to be a major leaguer. The excitement of the early season has worn off, and the all-star break is in the rearview mirror, but it's too soon to think about the playoffs. The heat can be intolerable, injuries start to stack up, and it must be a struggle to avoid mental and physical fatigue. For a team like the Yankees, with a good shot at the postseason, maybe stasis isn't so bad. Pettitte is out, the bats are hibernating, and they've had to play in some truly hot locations, particularly Arlington, Texas. Is it reasonable to be happy with what appears to be a muted effort? Can a Yankee fan be satisfied by an approach that looks an awful lot like treading water?
Let's peek at the numbers. First, the standings. The Yanks are 6-8 in August. When the month began, here's how the AL East looked, with standings and games back (apologies for the crap formatting):
And here's how they stand today:
In other words, nothing significant has changed. Toronto gained some ground, but Tampa and Boston were treading water, too. And when you look at those teams, you realize that they've been dealing with a lot of the same issues facing the Yanks. Niemann is out for Tampa, Boston's entire staff and bullpen have been struggling, and neither team could take advantage of the Yankee lapse. In August, nobody has it easy.
I sorted the standings by month, and it turns out Boston has allowed 67 runs this month, the most of any AL team besides Detroit. Like the Yanks, their run differential is only +1. The Rays are faring slightly better at +6, but a poor road record has consigned them to 7-7 on the month.
In fact, only three teams in the league have managed a record more than one game over .500 thus far in August. They are: Baltimore (9-5), Toronto (8-5), and Minnesota (10-4). Only the Twins really had anything to gain.
Then I got to wondering...is it possibly smart to take it easy in August? Not that any team is sandbagging, but could limited energy output (signified by losses, in this hypothesis) benefit a team in October? Is it unwise to peak in the dog days of summer? Here are the August records of every World Series team for the past few years:
Tampa Bay: 21-7*^
St. Louis: 13-15
Chicago White Sox: 12-16
Houston Astros: 13-14
St. Louis: 21-7*^
New York: 17-12
Los Angeles: 18-11*
San Francisco: 18-10*
That's as far back as ESPN will let me go. Unfortunately, these numbers don't show very much. Of the 16 teams listed, the ones with asterisks are those whose August records surpassed their season winning percentage. In other words, 9 out of 16 teams (56%) underperformed in August, based on their own season standards. But obviously, underperforming is fairly subjective. In 2003, the Yankees went 17-12, which is by no means a bad month. It just happened to pale in comparison to the rest of their season. Seven of the 16 teams had what we'll call 'exceptional' August runs, even if it fell below their season standard. Six teams were mediocre to poor- either one game over .500 or below. The last three were modestly successful.
You'll also notice the carrots next to certain teams. That ^ signifies that they had their league's best record in the month of August. It's only happened with four of the last 16 World Series teams, and only twice for the eventual champion. Conversely, there have been 3 World Series champions whose August record was below .500.
Dishonest but Statistically True Conclusion*: You're 150% more likely to win the World Series if your August record is below .500 than if you have the best record in your league!
In truth, it seems you can't predict a team's future based on August, either positively or negatively (unless you want to say that the team with the best August record in their league has a 25% chance of making the Fall Classic). And this post has been a long, convoluted way of saying that even though current conditions and results haven't been favorable to the Yanks, I'm not worried.
And either is Yogi Berra.