Friday, June 22, 2007


“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice… Let me disclose the gift reserved age.”—T.S. Elliot


Have you received the death notice? Did you attend the funeral? Did you send flowers or make a charitable donation? I hope so. Because in case you missed it, the 2007 Yankees died. The experts declared it. Time of death: late May.

The Yankees cannot resurrect the magic of 1978, WFAN’s Yankee correspondent Sweeny Murti wrote (“This is Not That 70's Show,” May 29, 2007). The New York Post’s Joel Sherman advised the Yankees to start investing in tomorrow (“Cut-Bloat Biz, 05/30/07). John Heyman of SI.Com titled his article on the first installment of the ‘07 Subway Series, “Dead Yankees Have Issues” (May 18, 2007). While an anonymous scout informed The New York Daily News’s Yankees beat reporter Mark Feinsand that the Yankees won’t “pull this out... This is not a good team,” and described Bobby Abreu as “a piece of garbage.” (“Scout Rips Yankees” June, 1, 2007).[1]

The press corps even consulted a doctor to confirm the diagnosis. Dr. Rany Jazayerli calculates that the Yankees will finish 80-82: 20 games out of first place in the AL East and 9 games in back of the wild card winner. (Wild Card: Yankees Down, SI.COM, June 1, 2007) A deduction that has about as much scientific validity as Marx’s prediction that capitalism would perish. The Good Doctor relies on the customary failure of teams which falter in April and May to qualify for the playoffs. Of course, his premise betrays an obvious fallacy. Few teams that founder in April and May in years past are very good in the first place-- few of them, that is, rival the 2007 Yankees in talent, payroll, experience, and above all, in the aberrant rash of injuries they've suffered. (In April and May, 6 Yankees starting pitchers spent time on the disabled list: Wang, Mussina, Pavano, Karstens, Rasner, and Hughes.)

Now, baseball reporters, I concede, are a myopic and morbid lot to begin with. Each game demands a compelling story line. And what better than the sudden, unexpected death of the wealthy and powerful to furnish a climatic plot, wrenching pathos, and riveting drama? Still, a collective reprimand is in order. Before you publish an obituary, it is customary to wait for a corpse. But New York’s baseball scribes seemed eager to sign the Yankees’ death warrant with the body warm and a pulse still audible.

Well, if 20 games in June can illustrate any large truths about a team’s fate, it is as follows. The reports of the Yankees’ demise are greatly exaggerated.

To be sure, the body has not yet experienced a full recovery. Whether it will or not, only time will tell. For now, Yankee fans can take heart however, that the cancer is in remission.


Perhaps, it was only natural that the Yankees 14-game deficit last month would recall to many 1978. In fact, to illustrate how fickle the tabloids are, when the Yankees closed the division gap to 9.5 games on June 12th, The New York Daily News’s back-page read, “Spirit of 78.” God forbid! Beware the scribe’s comeback fantasy. It’s the death wish narrated in reverse.

In any case, the analogy to ‘78 is inapposite. The ‘78 Yankees were 14 games out of first-place on July 20th (and in an era without the wildcard, besides). Only the Baseball Gods’ intervention delivered them. Jehovah visited six plagues upon Boston. As the Red Sox lost Luis Tiant, Bill Lee, Jim Rice, Jerry Remy, Dwight Evans and Rick Burleson to injury. To embellish upon something Otto von Bismark once said, “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, the United State of America” and, it would seem, the New York Yankees.

As Americans celebrate the Spirit of ’76 every summer so should Yankee fans cherish the Miracle of ‘78. (I highly recommend reading Roger Kahn’s October Men to his end.) However, we shouldn’t confuse history with prophecy. That is, the Baseball Gods aren’t likely to stage the Resurrection twice in one century. Red Sox Nation would have to sustain injuries not only to its Reich’s Marshall Curt Von Schilling but to Jonathan Papelbon, Manny, Pedroia, Lugo, and J.D. Drew as well to portend a Second Coming. In other words, if the 2007 Yankees fall 14 games out of both the division lead and the wild-card race in late July, start praying.


Still, recollection of the recent past should have chastened those eager to draft death notices in May.

Just last year, the Minnesota Twins won the AL Central despite being 25-33 on June 7th, 11.5 games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers and 11 games behind the Chicago White Sox in the wild-card race. In fact, as late as August 7th , the Twins were 10.5 games behind the Tigers.

In fact, the ’07 Yankees-- with the MVP season Alex Rodriguez is having and their switch-hitting catcher Jorge Posada challenging for the batting title—bear an odd resemblance to the ’06 Twins led by Morneau and Mauer. Perhaps, Wang and Pettitte can’t match the dominance Santana and Liriano achieved in the second-half of the season. But the Yankees top four starters are every bit the equal of Santana, Liriano, Silva and Bonser. And for all the confident assertions that the Red Sox won’t collapse because their starting pitching is too good, ask yourself the following question. Are Beckett, Dice-K, Von Schilling, and Wakefield really better than the ‘06 Tigers rotation of Rogers, Verlander, Bonderman and Robertson that went 19-31 over the last seven weeks of 2006? Is the bullpen of Timlin, Okajima, and Papelbon stronger than the Tigers’ late-inning triumvirate of Rodney, Zumaya, and Jones was last year?

A few other recent precedents that should hearten Yankee fans:

  • In 2005, the Yankees were 10-14 on April 31st and 39-38 on June 30th-- 5 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. On June 30th, they also were in 5th place in the wild-card standings, 3.5 games behind the then wild-card leading Twins. The Yankees finished with 95 wins that year and won the AL East.

  • In 2005, the Indians also happen to have had a wretched start in an AL Central race that the White Sox appeared to clinch in May. The Indians were 42-35 on June 30, 2005, 11 games behind the White Sox and 9.5 games behind them as late as September 7, 2005. Yet by September 22, 2005, the Indians had closed that lead to 1.5 games. In fact, had the Indians not lost three straight games the last weekend of the season, they would have qualified for the Wild Card, not the loser of that final Red Sox-Yankees series.)

  • On May 30, 2005, the Houston Astros were 19-32, in 12th place in the wild card standings, 10.5 games out of 1st. (On June 30th, they were 35-41 and in 9th place, 6.5 games out.) The ’05 Astros, of course, eventually won the wild-card and the NL pennant.

  • On May 30, 2003, the Florida Marlins were 26-31 on May 31st, in 8th place in the wild-card standings, and 8.0 games behind the wild-card leader. On June 30, they were 42-42 and 5.5 games behind the wild-card leader. The ’03 Marlins, as we all remember too well, won the wild-card and went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series.

  • Finally, in 1995, in the 144 game strike-shortened season, the Yankees were 26-31 on June 30th, 7 games behind the Red Sox in AL East. That lead increased to 16 games, incidentally, on August 28th. In fact, as late as August 31, 1995, the Yankees were in 7th place in the wild-card standings and 9.5 games behind the Angels, the team they overtook to make the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.

To be sure, no one should conclude from the history I list above that the Yankees necessarily will recover fully from their spring coma and qualify for the playoffs. Remember: history isn’t prophecy. However, the so-called baseball experts who wrote the Yankees off on Memorial Day should be ashamed of themselves. Many of them have covered baseball for decades. By now, they should know better: April and May do not a season make.


True, the Yankees’ recent play bodes well. Pitching, as always, is winning’s keystone. And if the team’s starting rotation stays healthy, Wang, Pettitte, Mussina, and Clemens will join the company of the AL’s three elite starting staffs—the Tigers, the Angels, and the Red Sox. (The Indians won’t deserve mention among this group until Paul Byrd, Cliff Lee, and or Jake Westbrook match Sabathia and Carmonas’ performances thus far.)

Nonetheless, the Yankees’ inability to find a reliable starter to fill the fifth spot in the rotation will continue to plague them unless Igawa can replicate his recent success at AAA or Philip Hughes heals more quickly than anticipated. Ordinarily, a team can flourish despite having an erratic fifth starter. But the Yankees abysmal start foreclosed that luxury. For the Bombers to entertain designs on the AL East, they’ll need a quality start every fifth day to overcome a seven to nine game deficit. And lest you think the Wild Card is a desirable consolation prize, keep this in mind: if the Yankees qualify for the playoffs via the Wild Card, they’d likely have to travel 3,000 miles to open a five-game series against the one team they can’t seem to beat-- the Anaheim Angels. Certainly not an enviable proposition, albeit a more desirable one, I suspect, than not making the playoffs at all.

Four other players whose performance holds the key to the Yankees success or failure are Abreu and Damon, on offense, and in the bullpen, Vizcaino and Farnsworth.

The Yankees owe their June revival, at least offensively, largely to one player-- Bobby Abreu. Through 17 games in the month of June, he’s batted .403 with a .523 OBA, 2HRs, 12RBIs, and 4SBs. More importantly, he’s averaged 5.72 pitches per at-bat. Both the number of pitches Abreu sees and his perpetual presence on-base, in turn, have catalyzed A-Rod. In fact, the two players’ statistical vicissitudes coincide: each thrived in early April and in June and foundered in May. Because of Abreu’s discriminating eye, A-Rod, while on-deck, can evaluate almost the entirety of an opposing pitcher’s repertoire, identifying his pitches’ speed, break, and location and gauging the quality of his stuff. (All the more critical for a batter like A-Rod who likes to outthink pitchers and to guess what they intend to throw him.) What’s more, with Abreu on-base, opposing pitchers can’t walk A-Rod or throw him pitches out of the zone. Abreu, accordingly, is the pivotal hitter in the Yankees lineup, as the third batter often is. Indeed, whether he thrives or falters in the second-half of the season will go a long way into deciding the Yankees fate.

Damon fulfills a similar role. He’s the lineup’s catalyst, enabling them to hit-and-run, to steal bases, and to generate runs via speed. He enhances Jeter’s strengths in the way Abreu helps A-Rod. With Damon on first, the first-baseman has to hold on him on the bag. This expands the hole between first and second and allows Jeter to maximize his in-side out swing to go to right-field. Damon and Jeter’s importance as catalysts will only increase if Giambi remains on the DL for all or most of the season. Without Giambi, the Yankees will have to generate runs through “small-ball” rather than homeruns. Indeed, at the moment, A-Rod is the only Yankee with a double-digit home run total. Posada has hit 9 and Matsui has 8.

Which makes the recurring injuries that have sapped Damon’s power and bat speed so troubling. As they’ve proven, the Yankees can win without Giambi. But to lose Damon to a prolonged stint on the DL or to chronic, nagging injuries which effectively accomplish the same result will deal them a mortal blow. It’s no coincidence that the Yankees’ offense has sputtered in games when Melky Cabrera leads off. No hitter with a .308 on-base percentage belongs in the leadoff spot. (In fact, his numbers, when batting a lead-off, are even worse. During his career, Melky has batted lead-off in 37 games. In those games, his is batting .185AVG with a .222OBP. Why Torre continues to bat him in the one-hole notwithstanding certainly confounds me. )

It might behoove the Yankees then to place Damon on the DL to allow his strained oblique muscle and aching calves to heal and to acquire a DH or an outfielder who can alleviate the loss of Damon’s production. The Oakland A’s just designated Milton Bradley for assignment. He would fill this role adequately. Besides, because the A’s have only 10 days to trade him, the Yankees also wouldn’t have to surrender much.

Sure, Mark Teixeira would make an excellent addition to the lineup, strengthen their infield, and insure the Yankees’ against the gaping hole A-Rod’s possible departure in the off-season could leave. (Look for my forthcoming post about why the Yankees otherwise cannot afford to let A-Rod opt-out of his contract.) However, if the Rangers insist one or more of the following prospects-- Philip Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, or Jose Tabata—then the Yankees should (and probably will) decline. No team should yield premiere young pitching prospects for a player who qualifies for free-agency in a year and, because he’s a Scott Boras client, won’t forgo it by signing a contract extension. (One certainly should take such a risk on a player who has intimated he wants to play for the Orioles some day.) Still less, should the Yankees mortgage their future by squandering young pitching talent because their farm system is so deficient in promising position players; worse, their major league roster is old. Of the starters the Yankees play everyday only Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera are under 32. (A-Rod turns 32 on July 27th)

On the pitching side, if Vizcaino and Farnsworth can solidify their respective roles and pitch consistently, the Yankees’ bullpen will evolve from a liability into strength. Farnsworth’s role is critical for the obvious reason that he pitches the 8th inning and sets-up Rivera. At the moment he has a 4.76 ERA, a 1.58 WHIP and opposing batters are hitting .261 against him. If these stats don’t improve, the Yankees are going to have trouble winning 90+ games.

Vizcaino, on the other hand, is the Yankees best insurance against Torre’s tendency to overuse Proctor and Bruney in the innings before Farnsworth and Mo. As Vizcaino’s past four outings demonstrate, when he can throw his slider accurately and with the necessary tilt, he paralyzes left-handed batters. If he continues to excel, Vizcaino enables Torre to limit Myers, in late inning situations, to that one power left-handed bat most productive lineups boast-- an Ortiz, Hafner, Carwford, or Morneau, for example-- that can wreck a game. And it would give Torre something of the versatility and flexibility to mix and match pitchers that the combination of Graeme Lloyd and Mike Stanton conferred in the late 90’s.


To qualify for the playoffs, the Yankees will have to garner approximately 95 wins. Since the wild card’s inception, only three AL wild-card qualifiers have fallen short of the threshold:

  • (i) the ’96 Orioles won 88 games;
  • (ii-iii) ’98 and ‘99 Red Sox won 92 and 94 games respectively; and
  • (iv) the ’00 Mariners won 91 games. (I exclude the ’95 Yankees because the strike truncated the season to 144 games.)
  • The AL wild-card qualifier won 95 games in ’06, ’05, and ’03.
  • In ’97, ’01, ’02 and ’04 respectively, the wild-card winner earned 96 wins, 101 wins, 99 wins, and 98 wins.

Now, history, to reiterate, isn’t prophecy. In fact there’s good reason to argue that this year the AL wild-card winner won’t need to reach 95 wins to qualify because there's greater parity throughout the AL than years past. The AL Central has three good to very good teams, the Tigers, Indians, and Twins. Even the White Sox can win 80+ games if Konerko and Dye begin to hit and GM Kenny Williams doesn't dismantle their major league roster. (Let's hope not; the Red Sox have 7 games remaining against the White Sox.) While in the AL West, Oakland and Seattle each could win over 85 games.

At first blush, one might conclude, that this hurts the Yankees because more teams could contend for the wild-card. But the strength of the West and the Central division actually helps the Yankees. First of all, it dramatizes the weakness of the AL East, by comparison. The Yankees’ current record of 35-35 would place them in 4th place in either the Central or West; they sit, however, in 2nd in the AL East. And with the unbalanced schedule, it’s the AL East teams the Yankees play 18-19 times. The corollary to which is that the AL Central and AL West teams each have to play their division rivals 18-19 times, which, in turn, should diminish their overall win totals and thereby reduce the number the Yankees would have to garner to surpass them. With Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, and Chicago, on the one hand, and Anaheim, Oakland, and Seattle, on the other, all knocking each other off, the Yankees might not have to earn 95 wins to qualify for the playoffs, after all. And even if they do, they still have an advantage over AL Central and West teams because the weakness of the AL East makes the drive to 95 all the easier. I list below the remaining games the Yankees have against their AL East division rivals.

  • Baltimore 15 games Estimate (11-4)
  • Toronto 14 games Estimate (9-5)
  • Tampa 14 games Estimate (10-4)
  • Red Sox 6 games Estimate (3-3)
  • {Royals 10 games [Estimate (7-3)]}

The Yankees play 43 games against division opponents who are 80-117, .406; and if you include the Royals, 53 games (that's 58% of their remaining schedule) against teams with a combined won-loss record of 109-161, a winning percentage of .403

Compare this to the wild-card leading Cleveland Indians's remaining schedule.

  • Detroit 11 games
  • Minnesota 13 games
  • Chicago 12 games

Cleveland plays 36 games against opponents who are 107-92, .537


How to get to 95 wins?

Let assume for argument’s sake the Yankees go 37-16 (.698) against the Orioles, Blue Jays, Devil Rays, and Royals. That would give them 72 wins. They will need to win 23 more games against the opponents listed below.

  • Angels 6 games Estimate (2-4)
  • Detroit 8 games Estimate (5-3)
  • Cleveland 3 games Estimate (2-1)
  • Mariners 3 games Estimate (2-1)
  • A’s 3 games Estimate (2-1)
  • Twins 4 games Estimate (2-2)
  • Giants 3 games Estimate (2-1)
  • Red Sox 6 games Estimate (3-3)
  • White Sox 3 games Estimate (3-0)

That means they would only need to go 23-16 (.590) in the above 39 games to win 95. Not an impossible prospect, by any means. And as I argue above, this year the Yankees might be able to qualify for the wild-card with less than 95 wins.

The Yankees may not make the playoffs in the end, but start planning their funeral at risk of your own.

[1] I hope whoever this “scout” is he’s soon out of a job. Abreu’s revival this month suggests that not only is he a poor judge of talent but that he also evidently can’t distinguish between a slump and skill erosion. What’s more, calling a playing a “piece of garbage” is, quite frankly, the kind of crude, artless locution one expects to hear from the demos’ renowned Yankees critic, Jerome from Manhattan, not from a so-called baseball professional.

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