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Speed, Power, Heat: An Inside Look

Posted: Tue May 12, 1998

 Sports Illustrated Cover
Are the Bronx Bombers ready to make another run at the World Series? After last season's disappointing finish, the New York Yankees have jumped out to one of the best starts in baseball history. In this week's SI, senior writer Tom Verducci draws some conclusions about the game's flagship franchise.

CNN/SI asked Verducci a few questions about the piece, which reaches newsstands and subscribers starting Wednesday.

VERDUCCI SOUNDS OFF:
Will the Yankees win the Series? (400K)

CNN/SI: Is the Yankees' early success a case of a lot of people playing well at the same time, or are they really this good?

Tom Verducci: I actually think this is how good they are. I think they are a great team that's hot right now, but when they cool off I don't think they'll cool off by much. They don't have a Griffey in there, and they don't even have a Tony Gwynn, but 1 through 9, everybody in their lineup battles the pitcher. Every batter is a tough out. And their clutch hitters, the big guys in the middle of the lineup, take a lot of pitches, they really make the pitchers work. And I think basically they wear down people. There's no spot in that lineup a pitcher can look forward to. Sometimes you'll pitch around a guy and pick somebody else in the lineup you want to get out—I don't think you can do that with this Yankee lineup.

CNN/SI: You write in the story that during spring training manager Joe Torre gave everyone the green light to steal bases. Where did this sudden fondness for running come from?

Verducci: In the second half of '96, when the Yankees picked up Darryl Strawberry and Cecil Fielder, their personality changed from a National League-style, aggressive team to a traditional, American League, let's-hit-some-home runs kind of team. And they actually stayed a little bit too much that way last year as well. When they got to spring training this year—obviously getting Chuck Knoblauch will help your running game—I think Torre wanted to remind them about being aggressive. So when he gave everybody the green light, he wanted to find out which guys would run in which situations. And he got a better feel for how aggressive guys are, and he realized this team does like to run.

To me, Derek Jeter is the perfect example of that, because Jeter was a big base-stealer in the minor leagues, and, in his first couple years in New York, he didn't run as much. Now he's much more comfortable, he knows pitchers better, and his stolen-base percentage has been terrific, which means he's picking good counts to run on and good situations to run.

CNN/SI: What kind of influence has Darryl Strawberry had on this team?

Verducci: He's healthy now. Last year his knee just never was healthy; he basically couldn't hit last year. He was just a one-legged batter. I remember Gene Michael, who's now a Yankee scout, telling me in January, after watching Strawberry work out down in Tampa, "If you are in any rotisserie league, take this guy." Michael saw that the snap was back in Darryl's swing. The other thing is that with his legs healthy, he's also running. And a lot of times you look at stolen bases as the measure of a running game, but the Yankees like to take extra bases, and Strawberry's been very good about that. If you have a DH who runs the bases well, and who will hit 20 home runs for you, it's a bonus.

CNN/SI: What about the success of Hideki Irabu? Was it just a matter of him getting acclimated to this country?

Verducci: Looking back on it, I think the Yankees would definitely say they rushed Irabu last year, and all the hype about being the Japanese Nolan Ryan certainly didn't help. He really wasn't in shape to pitch last year—he was heavy, he didn't have the benefit of spring training, his arm strength wasn't there—and the Yankees asked him to come out and be Nolan Ryan right away, which was, looking back on it, unfair. This year he's a little bit lighter—he's not a fitness freak by any means—but he's a little bit lighter, and his stuff is just so much better. He's throwing a lot harder now, he added a two-seam fastball, his curveball—Mel Stottlemyre worked with him on that—is much sharper than it was last year. So the whole package is better. Plus, except for maybe one or two rare instances, he's really kept his composure on the mound. Last year any little thing, an umpire's bad call on a pitch, would set him off and it would lead to a home run. Now he's just not giving anything away on the mound, he's very composed, and he has good stuff.

CNN/SI: You mention David Cone's injury problems and David Wells' inconsistency in the story. Is the starting rotation the Yankees' most glaring soft spot?

Verducci: One of the things that makes the Yankees so good is, if they lost one of their everyday players for a month with an injury, I really don't think there would be a big dropoff. It wouldn't be like the Dodgers losing Mike Piazza or the Mariners losing Ken Griffey. The Yankees have got great depth. But pitching-wise, especially with David Cone, they'd be in a spot of trouble. Cone's knee injury kind of scared them a bit. It looks like he's going to be fine, but it kind of reminded them of just how valuable Cone is. His last start before he got hurt, his split-finger was back and his velocity was up. I don't think he's ever going to be back to where he was completely—that's just age and wear and tear—but he is a solid No. 2 behind Andy Pettitte, and I think if you take him out of there the rotation falls apart a little bit.

But you talk about depth; that's where Orlando Hernandez comes in. He's sitting down there in Triple-A right now, ready to pitch in the big leagues. I think the Irabu experience last year has scared the Yankees off in terms of rushing anybody, but if one of their starters did go down, and they needed somebody tomorrow, it would be Hernandez. One of the reasons they pushed to sign Hernandez, Torre told me, was that to make the Knoblauch deal they had to give up Eric Milton, and Milton would've been that guy in Triple-A, the panic button in case somebody went down. Now they've got Hernandez and they're very comfortable with that.

CNN/SI: It's obviously early, but where does this team rank in terms of the best you've seen?

Verducci: I think the 1998 Yankees might be a shade behind the 1986 Mets because they don't have the dominating pitching that that Mets team had—I mean, 108 wins, that's the most anybody's won in the last quarter of a century. I don't think the Yankees are going to win that many games, but I do expect them to get over 100 victories, and that's only happened once in this decade—the '90 A's team—in the American League.

CNN/SI: So you think even with expansion weakening the competition, this Yankees team might be among the best teams in the last 10 or 20 years?

Verducci: In order to get into that category you have to win a championship, there's no doubt about that. You tend to get forgotten if you don't. The '95 Indians team was kind of hurt by the strike because it wasn't a full season and then they lost to the Braves in the World Series. But that was one of the most dominating offensive teams I've ever seen. I don't think the Yankees can slug with that Indians team, but I think what makes the Yankees so unique in this day and age is they are so complete. And they are so deep. You look at teams like Atlanta, which is short in the bullpen; Cleveland, which is short in starting pitching; the Dodgers, who really aren't balanced with left-handed hitting—all these teams you can point to flaws, but you look around at the Yankee team, and they're not short anywhere. And that's what sets them apart. That's why I think probably they'll wind up between 101 and 105 wins. I'll be surprised if they don't.

Tell us what you think. Sound off on the CNN/SI Message Boards.

Cover photograph by Brian Lanker

Issue date: May 18, 1998