Law of averages caught up to Yankees

Sure, it's pretty amazing to see a no-hitter thrown by six pitchers, and all the more so when the no-hitter comes against a team that hadn't been no-hit in nearly 45 years.

But it's not really that surprising, what happened Wednesday night.

Why? Because if you're trying to predict which team's going to be no-hit, there's really only one thing worth looking at: team batting average.

Yes, the Yankees are third in the American League with 352 runs, but that's relevant only if you're trying to predict whether or not they'll be shut out in a particular game. If you want to know if they're going to be no-hit, you need to look at batting average ... and the Yankees don't have much of a batting average.

Heading into last night's action, the Yankees were 10th in the American League with a .265 team batting average. So while it's tempting to think that the Yankees just shouldn't be the victims of a no-hitter, the fact is that we shouldn't be all that surprised when a .265-hitting team gets no-hit, even if its ancestors have won 26 World Series.

Don't believe me? In 1973, the Oakland A's won the World Series. In 1974, the A's won the World Series again. And in both seasons, they were on the wrong end of no-hitters. Surprising? Not really, once you discover that in 1973, the A's were sixth in batting average (in a 12-team league), and in 1974 they were 11th.

Still don't believe me? In 1990, the Oakland Athletics won the American League pennant. They also were no-hit (by a hurler named Nolan Ryan). Surprising? Not really, once you discover that in 1990 the A's were 12th in batting average (in a 14-team league).

All of which is to say: Being no-hit isn't any reason for panic, because this team isn't really built for base hits, anyway. This Yankees lineup is built for walks and home runs, and right now they're first in walks and second in home runs. It's a strange lineup, really. Seven Yankees have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, and Alfonso Soriano has the best batting average (.295) among them. Part-time players include Todd Zeile (.211), Juan Rivera (.197), Bubba Trammell (.213) and Enrique Wilson (.190). And as it happened, both Zeile and Rivera were in the lineup last night, which certainly didn't hurt the Astros' chances.

Derek Jeter doesn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, but he's not exactly setting the league on fire, either. After striking out three times Wednesday (and walking once), Jeter is batting .261. Of greater concern, though, is the on-base percentage (.325) of the 28-year-old Jeter, who 1) entered the season with a .389 career OBP, and 2) is making $16.5 million this year.

I know I'm not exactly the first to point this out, but Jeter's production has been falling steadily since 1999, when he might have deserved the MVP Award (which went to Ivan Rodriguez instead).

Year OBP Slug OPS
1999 .438 .552 .990
2000 .416 .481 .897
2001 .377 .480 .857
2002 .373 .421 .794
2003 .325 .426 .751

It's tempting to assume that Jeter's not fully recovered form his shoulder separation, and that he'll start hitting either this season or, at worst, next season after he's had a winter to recover.

Maybe. But the best evidence suggests that the power he showed in 1999 was something of a fluke, and also that his 2002 numbers were the rule rather than the exception. And if that's the case, the Yankees' fortunes this season could have a real impact on Jeter's image. To this point, a lot of people don't have any idea that Jeter has gone from being a truly great player to a merely good one, because he still has that postseason glow about him. But if Jeter finishes this season with another sub-.800 OPS and the Yankees don't play in October, then what kind of case will his defenders make?

"Chemistry" is a great argument when you're winning ... but when the winning ends, you have to fall back on the actual performance. And when the performance looks like this, it's pretty hard to justify $16.5 million.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.