Monday, March 31, 2008


As Sun Tsu famously wrote in the Art of War, "Every battle is won before it's ever fought."

And for this author, the Yankees lost the 2008 pennant on January 29, 2008. On that infamous day, the Bronx ceded the New York arms race to Queens. The pedigreed Bombers retreated and the Amazing Arrivistes claimed victory in the Santana Offensive[1]

So with the dawn of Opening Day looming just over the horizon, this Yankee fan anticipates the 2008 season with more anxiety, reservations, and pessimism than he has at any time since the early 90's. Not because the Yankees won't fare better than they did in 1993-- the last year they won less than 90 games in a full season and didn't qualify for the post-season -- they probably will.

But rather because in the past few years, the competition has improved as revenue-sharing and the sport's financial prosperity have evened the playing field. Six to seven AL teams now can stake a claim to the crown: LAA, Seattle, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Boston, and the Yankees. What's more, the AL East, in 2008, will stand among the most competitive in baseball, with both the dark-horse Jays and the upstart Rays capable of winning 160 games between them.

So for the first time in over a decade, the Yankees not only are not the presumptive heir, but prognosticators from Peter Gammons to John Heyman find them wanting in the stuff of October aristocracy. (Much as I hate to concur with the Red Reich's Minister of Propaganda and one of George St. Mitchell's Apostles about anything; in this instance, I can't disagree with them.)

The Yankees enter the 2008 season as a team with a conflicted identity-- a lineup of aging, but still prolific, superstars and a pitching rotation fraught with callowness, enigma, and regression-- a team poised somewhere between the greatness of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow.

Sure, the Yankees' offense will keep them in playoff contention all year. But only the most willfully blind, deluded booster could look at the Yankees' 2008 roster and book World Series reservations. Cashman thwarted that possibility by forsaking Santana, gambling that he could parlay youth and austerity into future glory.

As a consequence, the Yankees should consider themselves fortunate if the Stadium doesn't host its last baseball game on September 21, 2008 because the prospects of October baseball hasn't looked this dim in the Bronx since Jimmy Key, Jim Abbot, and Melido Perez headed the Yankees starting rotation.


Now, in an age where Harvard B-School grads run front-offices, Fortune 500 corporations own baseball teams, and politicians claim jurisdiction over sports, perhaps, it's presumptuous to expect anything but scripted platitude, self-serving rhetoric, and cockeyed optimism from the General Manager.

Still when Brian Cashman says the Yankees can win a World Series in 2008 with their current pitching rotation, he speaks with such earnestness I only can only wonder whether he actually believes his own bravado.

And it's here that my worries lie. Because to quote, one of The Yankees Republic loyal readers, the notion that the Yankees' Team can achieve its mission statement in 2008 is about as likely as the Yankee Army achieving theirs. That is, with a rotation of Wang, Pettitte, Mussina, and three fledgling pitchers who, as starters, have not a 100 major league innings between them and who are confined to innnings caps besides, the Bronx's Chief Executive has about as much chance of bringing New York a pennant, let alone a World Series ring, as Washington's Chief Executive of bringing viable democracy to Iraq.

I couldn't agree more.

Still, the Yankees offense should keep the team in contention for a playoff spot all season. The Yankees can count on the 2008 lineup to generate, if not necessarily the most runs in the AL-- the Tigers likely will claim that honor-- they certainly will place among the top three teams in run scored. A reasonable estimate would anticipate them scoring anywhere between the 886 they scored in 2005 and the 968 they totalled in 2007. (Indeed the Yankees haven't produced less than 877 runs in a season since 2002.) A hundred-run continuum along which Giambi, Damon, and Matsui's production will go a long way to determine where the Yankees fall, on the one hand; and how the Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox, Angels, and Mariners' starting pitchers perform against the Yankees' lineup, on the other. Almost 50% of the Yankees schedule consists of games against these five teams.

However, as with most teams, the Yankees ultimate fate in '08 will hinge largely on how their pitching staff fares, their starting rotation, above all. But the bullpen will shape that destiny as well. Indeed, with innings caps confining the starters, the bullpen's performance, will exert more influence, perhaps, than in any season of recent memory.

If the lineup is the ballast that anchors the Yankees ship, their pitching is the hole likely to sink the Ship it. How many runs the Yankees will allow this season stands as the great imponderable,

Since 2002, the Yankees have yielded over 700 runs every season, ranging from a high of 808 in 2004 to a low of 716 in 2003. Despite the anomalous rash of injuries that struck their pitching staff in April last year, the 2007 Yankees' yielded about as many runs, 777, as the year before, 767, and slightly less than the 789 of 2005.

Much of the unpredictability stems from Cashman's dynastic gamble. By forsaking Santana for future glory, President Cashman has entrusted 50-60% of the Yankees starts in '08 to a 39-year Mike Mussina who posted a 5.15 ERA last year and three YIPS. YIPS, an acronym, The Sporting News' David Pinto evidently coined and defined as follows: "A pitcher who has spent no more than one season (partial or full) in the majors, has started fewer than 15 games and whose seasonal age (as of July 1) in the current year is 24 or younger."

Of the 162 starts Yankees pitchers will make in 2008, I estimate YIPS (Hughes, Kennedy, and Chamberlain) will account for anywhere between 60 and 80 of them. (I figure I derive by assuming 180 starter innings for IPK, 160 starter innings for Hughes, and 100 starter innings for Joba and using the 5.5 innings as the average per start, the figure the Yankee starters averaged last year.) Not a very comforting prospect considering how many of even the elite pitchers of our era have fared as YIPS. I include just a few below.

  • 1984 Roger Clemens (Age 21), 133.3 IPs, 4.32 ERA, 1.31 WHIP
  • 1987 Greg Maddux (Age 21), 155.7 IPs, 5.61 ERA, 1.64 WHIP

  • 1987 Tom Glavine (Age 22), 195 IPs, 4.56 ERA, 1.35 WHIP

  • 1988 John Smoltz (Age 21), 64.0 IPs, 5.48 ERA, 1.67 WHIP
  • 2000 Roy Halliday (Age 23), 67.7IPs, 10.64 ERA, 2.20 WHIP

  • 2000 Brad Penny (Age 22), 119.7IPs, 4.81 ERA, 1.50 WHIP

  • 2001 CC Sabathia(Age 20), 180.3IPs, 4.39 ERA, 1.35 WHIP
  • 2002 Jake Peavy (Age 21), 97.7 IPs, 4.53 ERA, 1.43 WHIP

  • 2002 Josh Beckett(Age 22), 107.7IPs, 4.10 ERA, 1.27 WHIP

Evidently, pitchers who dominate in their first season at a young age, like Justin Verlander and Doc Gooden, prove the exception rather than the rule

So with Yankee YIPS accounting for between 60 and 80 starts and Mike Mussina another 25 to 30-- over the last four years, Mussina has averaged 29 starts-- YIPS + Mussina will accumulate 50 to 60 % of the Yankees' total starts this year. Not a figure to inspire confidence in the heart of too many Yankees fans, certainly not this one anyway.

In 2007, Wang, Pettitte, and Mussina accounted for 266 Earned Runs. The rest of their starters yielded another 178. Can Kennedy, Hughes, and Joba match the latter figure? To do so, they'd have to average a 3.64 ERA over their estimated 440 combined starter innings (IPK 180, Hughes 160, Chamberlain 100). I assume 100 starter innings for Chamberlain by figuring he will have accumulated 20-30 innings in the bullpen and will amass another 20-30 in the minors while they build his arm strength and transition him from reliever to starter.)

Should the Yankees YIPS, in contrast, post average ERAs, consistent with the performances of the YIPS listed above, approximately a 4.50 ERA, they'll cede 220 Earned Runs or 42 earned runs above the total yielded last year by Clemens, Hughes, Rasner, Kartsens, DeSalvo, Clippard, and Igawa. And a 42 extra runs allowed translates, using James' Pythagorean theorem, and hold runs scored constant, to about 4 fewer wins. (Which would result in about the 90-win total ESPN's Rob Neyer picks for the Yankees.)

The more you study the numbers, then, the more you begin to see how difficult a task the Yankees confronts entering a season relying on three YIPS and Mike Mussina for 50% to 60 % of their starts while still expecting to contend for a championship.


Another way to illustrate the height of the obstacle the Yankees will have to surmount in '08 to contend is via comparison to the 2007 Blue Jays. (Keep in mind however that the Yankees offense in '08 should be infinitely superior to the injury depleted lineup the Jays fielded in '07.)

Recall that in 2007, the three Jays YIPS, McGowan, Marcum, and Litsch accounted for 439.7 starter innings, approximately the same amount we can expect of Hughes, Kennedy, and Chamberlain. The Jays YIPS ceded 197 earned runs over their 440 innings of work for a combined ERA of 4.03.

But the reason why, according to statistics, the Jays' had the second best pitching staff in the AL is because the rest of their pitching staff compensated. Non-YIP Jay's starters pitched 580.6 innings, averaging about 6 innings a start, conserving the Jays bullpen and enhancing its efficacy when used.

Jays starters pitched, in total, 1020.3 innings and ceded 476 earned runs for a 4.20 ERA. (Compare Yankees' 2007 starters: they allowed 444 earned over 885 inngs for a 4.52 ERA.) As a consequence, the five Jays relievers with the most innings, amassed 317 innings in total and allowed 102 earned runs for an ERA 2.90 ERA. (Compare the ERA and innings totals for the 5 Yankees' relievers with the most innings: over 310 innings, Rivera, Viz, Farnsworth, Proctor, and Bruney surrendered 142 earned runs for a 4.12 ERA.)

The challenge for the '08 Yankees, then, is whether their bullpen can dramatically improve last year's performance. Joba's presence in the 8th inning should helo, for as long as he remains there. But if the Yankees adhere to their plan to transition Joba into the rotation, Ohlendorf, Bruney, or one of three kids recovering from ligament replacement surgery, Cox, Melancon, Humberto Sanchez, will have to replicate him-- a Herculean task for anyone. Meanwhile, Farnsworth, Hawkins, Ohlendorf, Bruney, in their 6th and 7th inning roles, will have to exceed expectations, no small hurdle either.


The '08 Yankees will entertain throughout the season, if we tailor our expectations accordingly. Provided the lineup performs as expected and Wang and Pettitte stay both healthy and productive, the Yankees should flirt with a playoff spot and play meaningful games through the last few weeks in September. However, fans who demand an AL East title, an AL pennant, let alone, a World Series championship in 2008 are likely to suffer the abject October disappointment that recently has become our inheritance as Yankee fans.

[1] Of course, it was a calculated withdrawal. Cashman fancies himself a strategic visionary willing to cede today's battle to win tomorrow's war. One-year victories are fleeting, after all. And so, by husbanding arms and treasure, Cashman plans to construct a Yankee dynasty for many seasons to come.


Brad said...

Wow that was an impressive amount of writing and a lot of words to boot. You still missed the bigger picture. I was, and am a very vocal proponent of trading for Santana not because I'm an insane, win at all costs fan, but because it made good baseball sense. Having said that and having heard all of the declarations from all the pundits at the end of the day we really aren't too far off of where we were this time last year. In fact the Yankees had more uncertainty in their rotation last year. The offense will score a bunch of runs and the pitching will be so so. With a little luck and things breaking just right for the Yanks as well as their competitors, and we have as good of a chance s any of the teams you named. In fact we could easily remove the Ray's and the Mariners and a few others that look great on paper but will fail to perform on the field.

I am also encourged by a few other things this spring. Right off the bat (no pun intended)this sort of reminds me of 1996. New manager, young guy's on the team, and not much hope. We all know how that turned out.

If I were to believe that the teams deemed heir apparent to a tittle in the spring were the only teams to watch I would have expected the Mets vs. Tigers last year, and yet both missed the playoffs. In fact even if we miss the playoffs (and that would suck)I just have to look at the '05 or '06 Red Sox. They missed altogether in '06 only to return in '07 as champions. At some point the unrealistic expectations of us Yankees fans was bound to catch up with us.

Matthew S Schweber said...

Thanks Brad for the comments.

I agree with you about the Yankees offense. While A-Rod and Posada will have great difficulty duplicating their success last year, Giambi, Abreu, and Damon should compensate by excelling their '07 performances.

Still my reservations remain. Not because I disagree with you about how the '07 and '08 teams compare, I don't.

My concern stems from the improvement of all the other teams with whom the Yankees will have to compete. Perhaps, the Rays, Tigers, Mariners, and a healthy Jays team only improved on paper, but superior talent has to assert itself sometime.

And the AL East impresses me as having the most talent among the top four teams in all of baseball. The Jays, in particular, worry me. Injuries notwithstanding, I still judge them to have the best pitching staff in the American League. With Halliday, Burnett, McGowan, and a healthy Ryan and Wells, I can't believe they're going to play below their potential forever.

Meanwhile, how many games can a Rays team with Kazmir-Shield-Garza heading their rotation, and Carl Crawford, BJ Upton, and Carlos Pena anchoring their lineup actually lose? 87? If that.

More importantly, because of the unbalanced schedule, the contenders in the AL West, the Mariners and Angels should have an easier go at both making the playoffs because they have the advantage of playing both the A's and Rangers 19 times.

I'm convinced, accordingly, that to make the playoffs the Yankees will have to win their division-- a feat I'm not sure they can accomplish. And even if they manage to achieve it, then what? They still enter the post-season facing the same deficiency they confronted last year-- no dominating Ace-- and what's more, a staff composed of rookies who will be, in all likelihood, exhausted by the time they reach late September.

Still, I hope I'm wrong and your optimism prevails in the end.

Thanks for reading and keep the comments coming.