Monday, September 29, 2008


Now that the Yankees's 2008 season has expired and injury and ineptitude have done their worst, the post-mortem has commenced. In the forthcoming months, the columnist and talk radio hosts will pore over the rotting flesh, pronounce their cause of death, and deliver their nostrums on how to resurrect the body for next Spring. Unfortunately, most will confuse the illness with the symptoms or propose cures more lethal than the disease.

Naturally, the Yankees GM's office won't help to clarify matters either. Their vested interest in the regimen they prescribed for this season precludes an objective autopsy, certainly not one they're going to publicize anyway. The Cashman mantra has become, "Never admit error, never apologize, never express regret." Accept responsibility but never say why.

Already the Front-Office has begun to circulate the convenient half-truth that the Yankees didn't fulfill expectations because injuries struck and their hitters failed them. But when only two pitchers in your entire rotation have started 25 or more games and when you enjoy the dubious distinction of the only pitching staff in baseball without 3 or more starters who threw 115 or more innings, something far more endemic is amiss.

Still, Cashman insists he didn't seal the Yankees fate in January by entrusting 40% of his rotation to two pitchers under 23 with less than 100 major league inning between them. As recently as this Sunday The New York Times quotes him defending himself by citing the Minnesota Twins' example of Blackburn, Slowey, and Perkins. Of course, Cashman omits the caveat. All three of the Twins pitchers are 25 and over, and the Twins boast a long, venerable history of evaluating and developing young pitchers that the Yankees don't possess. Indeed the struggles Maddux, Glavine, Clemens, Sabathia, Haren, and Beckett all underwent in the major leagues when they were 20, 21, and 22 provide the far more apposite and informative precedent that Cashman conveniently skirts.

And with Johan Santana a Met, CC Sabathia already telling friends he wants to return home to the West Coast, and the Blue Jays offering the oft-injured AJ Burnett a lucrative 3-year contract extension, the Yankees confront yet another off-season in which an ace will elude them and another Spring with a starting 5 of Wang, Youth, Senescence, Injury-Risk and Enigma.

Worse, many of the writers who cover the team and pride themselves on independent judgment have succumbed to the front-office's cant and have espoused the snake oil cures they're peddling.

Writers like John Heyman and Joel Sherman, to name two, will ascribe the Yankees' ills this year to the precipitous decline from the 968 runs they scored in 2007 to the less than 787 runs they scored in 2008. And then in the very same column, the prescription they advance would rid the Yankees of two of their most productive hitters this season, Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi, without identifying commensurate replacements. '3' and '5' hitters with .375 and over on-base-averages and .850 OPSs don't grow on trees. Or when they do, to pluck them, Scott Boras will charge 150 million dollars. Meanwhile, placing faith in the recovery of a catcher with a torn labrum and a Japanese DH with chronically arthritic knees to mitigate the loss rings less of a cure however than than the sound of whistling as you pass the grave.

In the Pythagorean formula Bill James derived, we must acknowledge, he, in many ways, revolutionized our understanding of the game. For the debate about the respective importance of pitching and hitting to a team's performance had raged since the game's beginning. Yet it was not until James' revelation that we discovered we could quantify the relationship.

Winning Percentage = RS^2 + RA ^2 / RS^2. As simple and self-evident, perhaps, as E=mc^2, but relying just as much on the inspiration of genius to see it.

However, the Jamesian theorem also carries with it a danger. It lend itself to fallacy because it encourages analysts to examine Runs Scored and Runs Allowed in a vaccum, as separate and independent variables, and to forget that baseball is a complex and interdependent system.

That is, the Yankees RS total does not rise or fall on its lineup's performance alone. The team's RS total depends as much on the other half of the equation-- their opponents' RA, i.e., the potency of their staff and the proficiency of their defense.

Blaming the Yankees' anemic lineup this season in general and the shortfall in production from A-Rod, Cano, and Posada for the Yankees fate in 2008, then, tells a partial and misleading story. It's like attributing a patient's anemia to the fall in his red-blood cell count without ascertaining whether he's eating enough iron or whether his g.i. system is digesting it.

To be sure, the Yankees scored fewer runs in 2008 than 2007 not only because they're team OBA and RISP, .369 and .290 respectively in 2007, fell to .342 and .262, respectively, in 2008 but because their opponents' pitching improved as well-- the opponents, in particular, in the AL EAST

In 2008, the Yankees scored 789 runs in total, 323 of those runs scored against the AL East opponents. In contrast, in 2007, the team scored 420 runs against the same four opponents, and 968 runs in total. I enumerate the break down by team below.
  • 2007.................................................2008

  • Baltimore -- 107.................................Baltimore-- 91
  • Boston -- 93.......................................Boston-- 93
  • Tampa-- 133......................................Tampa-- 76
  • Toronto-- 87......................................Toronto-- 65
  • TOTAL= 420...................................TOTAL= 323

The 97 run decline accounts for approximately 50% of the difference between the Yankees total runs scored in 2007 and 2008. 968 (2007) - 789 (2008) = 179 total run differential. 97/179 = ~54%

In fact, 26% of the total decline in the Yankees RS total over the last year stems from the Yankees' performance against one team, the Rays (47/179). Which is the result one should expect against a Rays pitching staff that dramatically improved from 14th in the AL (5.53 ERA) in 2007 to 2nd in the AL with (3.80 ERA) in 2008.

Add to this the improvement in the Blue Jays staff ERA from its 4.00 ERA in 2007 to its 3.51 ERA in 2008 and together, the Jays and the Rays, pitching staffs explain ~40% of the decline in the Yankees' run production from 2007 to 2008 [47 (rays) + 22 (jays) / 179 (run differential)].

The Orioles and Red Sox pitch staffs' performance, by contrast, varied little from their performances the previous year. The Orioles pitching staff practically duplicated its futility of 2007, a 5.17 ERA, by posting a 5.13 ERA in 2008. The Red Sox staff ERA, meanwhile, stayed about the same as well, declining from 3.87 to 4.01. (The Yankees' staff ERA, on the other hand, improved by about as much, from a 4.49 ERA in 2007 to a 4.30 ERA in 2008). And the Yankees RS totals against the Red Sox in 2007 and 2008 mirror each other, and the RS totals against the Orioles over the two years don't differ much either.

Further illustrating that the decline in Yankees' RS total owe far more to their opponents' improved pitching than their lineup's inadequacies, the Red Sox lineup's experience, in many ways, parallels the Yankees.

In 2008, the Red Sox scored 839 runs, 2nd in the AL. (In 2007, the Red Sox scored 867 runs, 3rd in the AL.) Yet they didn't fare much better this year against the Jays and Rays than the Yankees did. In 2007, the Red Sox scored 113 against Tampa; in 2008, 87. In 2007, the Red Sox scored 91 against the Jays, in 2008, 60.

Three of the top four rotations in the AL (1st Toronto, 2nd Tampa, and 4th Red Sox) are in the AL East. Collectively, the Yankees will play 33% of their games against them.

The first three starters of the Rays' likely 2009 rotation posted the following numbers: Kazmir (3.50 ERA), Shields (3.56 ERA), Garza (3.70 ERA) = 552 innings

The Red Sox: Matsusaka (2.90 ERA), Lester (3.21 ERA), Becket (4.03 ERA)= 552 innings

The Blue Jays: Halliday (2.78 ERA), Litsch (3.58 ERA), and if he stays, Burnett (4.07 ERA)[ if not McGowan (4.53 ERA), by June]= 643 IPs

The Yankees' likely rotation for 2009? If its Wang (4.00 ERA)(200 IP), Mussina and/or Pettitte (4.00 ERA)(200 IP) and if for the remaining 300 IPs they have to rely on Chamberlain (2.76 ERA)(65.1 IP) and Hughes (6.62 ERA)(34 IPs), then in 2009, our post-mortem may very well commence in August.

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