Now that we are over one month into the season, it’s fair to say that the Yankees have held their own. Despite the prognostications in the off-season with the losses of players like Russell Martin and Nick Swisher, and the increasing number of Yankees on the disabled list- Kevin Youkilis, Joba Chamberlain, Francisco Cervelli, not to mention an aching David Robertson- the Yankees have far exceeded expectations, and it has been a pleasant surprise. Another great surprise? The resurgence of Travis Hafner.
Hafner’s biggest Achilles heel has been injuries the last few years. Since 2008, Hafner has only appeared in more than 94 games once (118 in 2010). Further, since 2006, Hafner has only hit above .280 once, and includes a dreadful 2008 and 2012 season, during which he hit around .200.
While the middle years, where he hovered around .270 were respectable, they were a far cry from his offensive power years from 2004-2006, when he set career marks in OPS (1.097), OPS+ (181), and SLG (.659). Moreover, during that period, Hafner averaged just about 100 walks, well over 100 RBI, and an OBP over or close to .400. That also does not include the home run numbers, where he hit less than 25 (24) once, and even hit 42 in one year (2006). His success and downward offensive trends have been tied to limited playing action as a result of injuries, so there was little anticipation that Hafner would have a resurgence of sorts in the Bronx.
Fortunately, that is exactly what has happened. As of Friday night, in just about 84 plate appearances, Hafner is hitting .304/.429/.638, with an outstanding OPS+ of 189, and an OPS of over 1.000. Moreover, in only 23 games, Hafner has already produced six homers; heading into Friday’s game against the A’s, he led the Yankees in average with runners in scoring position, hitting .346. To put these numbers in perspective when comparing to 2012: as of May 3, 2013, Hafner already has half the amount of homers; half as many RBI; and almost half as many hits as he had in all of 2012 in just about 1/3 of the plate appearances.
One aspect to Hafner’s resurgence has been limiting his duties entirely to being a DH, something that Brian Cashman adamantly mandated in spring training. In doing so, the Yankees will not repeat the same issues that they had with Andruw Jones in 2012- wearing down an already fragile player and thereby limiting his production. Instead, they have done the opposite by limiting his responsibilities to maximize his production, all of which came at an extremely reasonable price ($2M/1 year) given his atrocious last few years in Cleveland.
Further, the Yankees have begun to benefit from something that, ironically, their rival Red Sox have already been using for years: dedicating a player to the full-time DH position. Unlike in past years, where Joe Girardi has used the DH spot primarily to get a player’s bat in the lineup without having him in the field (which does serve a purpose), this year, that position usually belongs to Hafner. By identifying a player who can succeed in that role- such as he, with a frail body but a great bat when healthy- the Yankees have found a cheap, creative way to help make up for some of the run production lost with the off-season departures.
The season has just begun, but there is already a number of things for Yankees fans to be amazed and optimistic around. They have been able to more than keep pace with the American League East, and have found ways to hold down the fort in the absence of key pieces and even key replacement pieces. As the season progressed, if Travis Hafner keeps up this surprising pace and continues to benefit the Yankees with his significant offensive output, he may be one of the best scrap-heap additions that he has made in recent years, and continue to be a pleasant surprise