Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Amidst the furor Hank Steinbrenner recently stirred about Joba Chamberlain's role, his thwarted desire for Johan Santana, and the travails of the Yankees starting rotation, he actually succeeded in obscuring the other glaring deficiency currently beseting the New York Yankees-- their slumbering offense.

Through 21 games this year, the Yankees have scored 94 runs, a total that places them 8th in the American League. Worse, 15 of them stem from a single game on April 16. Exclude their fifteen-run bender against the Red Sox and the Yankees have averaged less than 4 runs per game. Accordingly, if one is apportioning blame for the team's mediocrity, the lineup's paltry offensive output should bear its burden alongside Hughes, Kennedy, and Mussina.

Of course examining the precise proportion of each's contribution would require facility with mathematical derivatives beyond this writer's skill.

Then too there is what I call the Donne fallacy ("no man is an island"). That is, examing the effect of a team's pitching and hitting independently always distorts your analysis because on the field, the starting pitcher and his lineup inextricably influence each other. Treating pitching from hitting as separate spheres, then, doesn't truly capture the interactive system encompassing the field. For example, even the worst pitcher can quell a formidable lineup through 6 or 7 innings staked to a 7-run lead. Alternatively, even the best lineup will press, sabotaging its potential and defeating itself, mired in a 7-run hole.

Still, for the sake of argument, let's assume runs scored and runs allowed are genuinely independent variables. Applying the Jamesian Pythagorean theorem (Runs Scored^2 / Run Scored^2 + Runs Allowed^2), the Yankees' mound and plate performances translate into a 10-11 record through 21 games, an extrapolation very close to the reality: the Yankees presently stand at 11-10. So for argument's sake, assume the Yankees, actually, had scored more runs. At an additional run per game, the Yankees would have produced 115 runs, to date-- a number roughly equivalent to the Red Sox's current AL-league leading 119 runs scored. And 21 additional runs, according to the Jamesian Pythagorean theorem, would have resulted in two more wins or a record of 13-8 instead of 11-10.

Now, were the Yankees enjoying a .621 winning percentage, instead of playing .500 ball, Hank Steinbrenner might have had less reason to vent his frustration with the Yankees' current starting rotation yesterday. Then again, perhaps not. His acquiescence to Cashman's decision not to acquire Johan Santana probably will rankle him every time Hughes proves ineffective. And if I can't endorse Hank ranting in the press-- it certainly won't help Hughes any-- I certainly can empathize with his frustration. Santana would have alleviated much of the burden the under 24 yr olds must now bear themselves.

Still, young pitching is invariably erratic. It's not fair to punish Hughes and Kennedy, then, for Cashman's hubris. For the Yankees lineup of veterans and superstars, on the other hand, there is no excuse.

Of course taking the Yankee lineup to task indiscriminately obfuscates the problem as well. It's not the whole lineup, after all, that hasn't performed up to its ability and to fans' expectations. Rather, in team's overall offensive futility, a few hitters have distinguished themselves especially (Damon's recent surge excludes him from this ignominious company):
  • Cano at .173/.212/.247, 1 HR and 5 RBIs
  • Giambi at .120/.286/.340, 3HR and 7RBIs

What's interesting however is to observe the divergence in fan's reaction to each. Few revile Cano. Perhaps because they recall that Cano struggled in the beginning of last year as well. And he did; yet not nearly as badly as he has foundered this year. Through April of 2007, Cano also had only 1 HR and 8 RBIs but he otherwise was .270/.320/.337, numbers dramatically better than the .173/.212/.247 splits enumerated above.

The same fans that shrug off Cano, however, would as soon flog Giambi. In a recent visit to Pete Abraham's LoHud Blog, in fact, I discovered a consensus of otherwise astute contributors in favor of designating Giambi for assignment. Why the difference? Well, many, I suspect, deny Giambi the indulgence they extend Cano because of Giambi's age, bloated contract, and his evident defensive shortcomings. (The time his play robs fan favorite, Shelly Duncan, no doubt, fuels their ire as well.) Most of the clamor to cut Giambi nonetheless seems irrational. A reaction I can only attriubute to the lingering resentment his steroid use and injury-plagued tenure in Pinstripes still produces.

Whatever the reason, they're not alone. Even some of the more rational and objective voices have joined the chorus. The widely esteemed, Steven Lombardi, of "Was Watching," agrees and he has brought his stat book with him to lend their argument credibility: Lombardi compares Giambi's numbers against "finesse" and "power" pitchers, purports to show that Giambi can hit the former but not the latter, concludes that Giambi's skills have regressed, and argues the Yankees should cut him.

I'm not convinced. I don't entirely accept the validity and reliability of the metric Lombardo employs. He cites Baseball Reference's taxonomy of finesse pitchers, defined as pitcher who strike out or walk less than 24% of batters faced, and power pitchers, those who strike out or walk more than 28% of the batters they face. The finesse/power metric, for example, classifies Chien-Ming Wang as a finesse pitcher by a considerable margin. Would Giambi really fare much better against Wang, a finesse pitcher, than Becket, a power pitcher, for example, against whom Giambi is 27 Plate Appearances is .236 with 2 HRs and 6 RBIs?

Anyway, I found a rebuttal that convinced me otherwise. The Replacement Level Yankees Weblog ran a convincing statistical analysis that attributes Giambi's woes, in part, to a streak of especially bad luck. "Is Giambi Cooked?" (April 20, 2008)

The pieces authors compiled stats on (i) the number of balls Giambi has put in play per plate appearance over the last few years and a comparison of (ii) his walk to strikeout ratios. From the relative constancy in the latter they concluded that Giambi actually has not undergone a marked regression in his plate skills. From the former they deduced that Giambi's dreadful numbers thus far stem, in part, from a streak of woefully bad luck.

Of course, Replacement Level persuaded me and WasWatching didn't largely because the former's analysis conforms more closely to (i) what I've Been Watching and (ii) too acute a memory of 2005 and 2007.

In 2005, if you recall, Giambi just had returned from a nearly season long absence to which his pituitary tumor had relegated him. And after a month in which he'd hit .224/.395/.373 with 3 HRs and 6 RBIS, the Yankees wanted to send him to the minors. Meanwhile the hanging jury on talk radio wanted to lynch him from the highest tree. Fortunately, Torre's loyalty to Giambi didn't waver. And with a little patience and perspective, lo and behold, Giambi suddenly snapped out of his doldrums, and with a superb June and July, he ended the season hitting with impressive numbers .271/.440/.558, 32 HRs and 87 RBIs and won the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Then too, last year, I still recall with indignation all the fans who had concluded Bobby Abreu was finished and were prepared to bury him alongside Giambi. In May 2007, Abreu hit .208/.267/.274 with 1 HR and 9 RBIs after an April in which he didn't fare much better. Still, by the end of the year, Abreu compiled stats close enough to his career averages .283 vs. .300/.369 vs. .408/.445 vs. .500 that it made all the brouhaha in April and May about Abreu's skill regression seem risible in perspective.

Quite simply, one month, perhaps even two, does not a season make.

To be sure, Giambi's proclivity to pull the ball and the defensive shift played against him have diminished his offensive proficiency-- he's not the Giambi of 2002-3 and never will be. While the Giambi who hits so effectively to left-field during Spring Training, regrettably, vanishes come April.

Nonetheless, I recall too many Giambi at-bats through the season's first 21 games (a mere 13% of the season), during the series at Fenway in particular, when he hit the ball hard, if right at a outfielder, and which afterward led me to believe the numbers lied. A subjective impression, I concede, but one which Replacement Level's statistical anaylsis would seem to reinforce

Accordingly, nothing would surprise me less than for Giambi to rebound in the months of May and June, when the Yankees play over 50% of their games at home, when the weather improves and the RF porch beckons-- nothing would surprise me less than to see Giambi trotting around the bases to the guilty roar of the amnesic and fickle mob.

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