Tuesday, December 1, 2009

THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN

With the first official skirmish between Scott Boras and the owners now joined, baseball, now, officially can embark on the 2009 off-season. Let the free-agent signings begin. Of course, unlike the regular season when owners in Miami and Pittsburgh, at the very least, must honor competition’s form and actually field a team before they can profit from it. Nothing, alas, will compel them to compete this off-season. Nothing will induce them to vie for free-agents even though the Commissioner’s stimulus package hands them $40 to $80 million dollars for this very purpose. If history is any guide, they’ll pocket the money instead. “George, Randy, Lonn, thanks, we’re going to Disney. Hell, you guys had such a good year; I may even buy the wife that hotel she’s always wanted.”

Take the Pittsburgh Pirates for example. When Scott Boras dared to question the Commissioner’s recent announcement that six franchises lost money in 2009, the Pirates’ President, Frank Coonelly, protested. More accurately, he protested too much. After all, what middle-American franchise can survive on a measly $75 million dollar stipend to supplement the proceeds from 1.6 million tickets sold at a brand new ballpark and from local broadcast contracts?


  • $40 million in central fund monies (shared national TV, marketing, licensing, MLB Network and MLB.Com)
  • $35 million in revenue sharing (the redistributed proceeds from a ~34% tax on each team’s revenue + the luxury tax)
I mean, how’s a team supposed to balance its books when it then has to pay those guys in uniform $49 million dollars in salary. (And The Washington Times’ Thom Loverro had the obtuseness to liken the Yankees to AIG?) Perhaps, Uncle Bud, can donate some of his $18 million dollar salary?

The articles linked as follow corroborate the numbers above. The Daily News; ; The Business of Baseball; ; Payroll Figures; ; Revenue Sharing Allocation

In all seriousness, though, how is one to trust, let alone to sympathize with, an industry where the zeal with which the Bosses shroud their balance sheets is surpassed only by the Mob’s? And to keep them confidential, there is no mendacity they will forgo. The script typically goes as follows. The owners cry poverty. From the ESPN pulpit, baseball’s clerisy decries “competitive imbalance” and warns us ominously “about the future of the game. Talk of salary caps ensues, lockouts threaten, and baseball joins Alice in Wonderland where a Pirates’ greed is noble, a Yankees’ largesse is an evil, and the object of the Game is to profit rather than to win.

The irony is that of the fourteen league pennants won since 2003, teams with payrolls well under $100 million have accumulated six of them. Take the 2008 Tampa Rays ($43 million); the 2003 Marlins ($49 million); the 2007 Rockies ($54 million), each ranked 25th or lower in aggregate payroll. Or one echelon above them, the ’04 and ‘06 Cardinals and the ‘05 White Sox all ranked 11th and 13th respectively. As a composite, they suggest that not only are an owner’s means and munificence not the primary index of his franchise’s win total, they don’t even consist of necessary conditions for the seven October victories required for a World Series.

The outcry for a salary cap only deepens the irony. The balance of power in sports no less than in international politics is subject to the rule of unintended consequences. By binding teams’ spending and encumbering players’ mobility, salary caps yield dynasties their constituent glue by cementing their hold on talent. Take the NBA, for instance. The league has convened 10 championship finals since 2000. Two teams, the Lakers and the Spurs, have represented the Western Conference in 9 of those 10 series, and between them, they’ve won 7 of the 10. Contrast the NBA’s socialized oligarchy with the MLB’s liberal free market system. Professional baseball likewise has totaled ten World Series this decade. Yet 8 different teams have represented the National League; 6 teams, the American League. All total, the Fall Classic has crowned 8 distinct champions. During the same period, only the Pistons in 2004 and the Heat in 2006, managed to break the Spurs-Lakers’ stranglehold on the title.

Of course, the system of Tory capitalism Major League Baseball has chosen over a salary cap doesn’t alone account for the more competitive landscape it creates than the NBA and the greater comparative opportunity it offers teams for upward mobility. Basketball, for example, lends itself to dynasties for discrete, albeit related, reasons. With the acquisition of a single, preeminently talented superstar talent like Kobe, Duncan, Jordan or Bird, one team can dominate the league and monopolize its championship for as long he plays plays. (Nonetheless, the salary cap then accentuates the imbalance because it inhibits the superstar’s rivals from remaking their roster and assembling enough intermediate talent through trades, free-agency, or waivers to neutralize him.) Too many other quirks and caveats distinguish the NBA from MLB for me to gauge whether the salary cap causes, or merely contributes, to King Kobe and his serfs or to quantify its influence—not in this post anyway.

Still, I hardly wish to romanticize baseball’s paternalistic free market either. The six years of vassalage under which a player serves his teams before granted free-agency smacks of a feudal order more than any parallel NBA institution. Apart from its basic injustice, it also distorts the free-agent market. Players rarely reach free-agency before their late 20s at an age well into their career’s prime. The distortion this causes is two fold. On the one hand, the team that drafts him receives two to four seasons when his talent and productivity have peaked at a marked discount. Arbitration rarely awards him his market price. On the other, the team that signs him to a long-term free agent contract pays a surcharge on those seasons later in his career when talent and productivity have started to regress.

Okay, but what does this have to do with my beloved Yankees, you ask? Well, consider its implications. First of all, it means that the signing team pays the drafting team a de facto subsidy. When the Yankees expend $23 million dollars on CC Sabathia for 2010, they, in effect, are compensating him retroactively for 2007 and 2008 seasons when the Indians paid one of the game’s best pitchers $9 and $11 million respectively. Secondly, a market that inflates free-agent salaries illustrates that a $200 million dollar payroll isn’t quite the competitive advantage one might imagine. Far from indicating a team that has plundered a championship by assembling the most prolific roster money could buy, a team with salary obligations 40% higher than its nearest equal likely evidences a surfeit of long-term contracts for veteran players that pays the player well above his worth. It’s no accident then that the Yankees’ payroll has exceeded $100 million every season since 2001 and surpassed $200 million every season since 2005 and yet through those nine seasons, they’ve won ONE World Series. Nor is it a related coincidence that measured by average age, the Yankees, during that same period, have ranked as the 1 or 2 oldest teams in the American League every year save 2002.

The Yankees' 2009 further illustrates the point. This year, the Yankees won 14 more games than in 2008. Yet contrary to the popular canard, the improvement owed less to the $60 million dollars they paid their three new free-agents than to the recuperation and rejuvenation of long tenured veterans. In my next post, I will devote my annual valedictory of the Yankee's season to analyzing the statistics that bear this out.

Monday, November 16, 2009

THE GREAT RESENTERS

"Paul had a sense of injustice early on... If his older brother was in the process of winning, he was lucky. If he won, he had 'cheated'"-- Molly O'Neill, "Coming to the Plate"

Now that didn’t take very long, did it? Barely had the parade ended or the champagne dried before the bile began to ooze and the vitriol to swell. Outside the Castle on River Ave., the Jacobins gather to besmirch the King, to tarnish his crown, and to discredit his accession.

It’s a old and tedious canard Yankee fans know too well. Composed of assumptions so tenuous, logic so facile, and malice so transparent, the argument, distilled to its essence, amounts to two whole sentences. Twenty-nine teams in major league baseball can earn a Championship. The Yankees can only buy one.

Seldom does the ressentiment of hypocrites and socialism of fools provide more titillating comic relief.

WASHINGTON'S CORPORATE POPULISTS
Ever year we witness the photo-op. A professional sports franchise wins a title and the President invites the team to the White House to favor them with his compliments. Congress, otherwise the more deliberate branch, strikes earlier. Not wanting the aura to fade, they introduce ceremonial bills congratulating the team in the days following their victory. With minor excpetion, the resolutions pass unanimously. After which, Congressmen return to their customary business-- self-promotion.

Last week it was the Yankees's turn. So Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano introduced House Resolution 893 congratulating the team on their 27th championship because the nation's poorest and most densely populated Congressional district finally had a reason to boast and preen. They'd partaken of a triumph to call their own, even if only vicariously.

Who could possibly object? Where to find such people lacking a modicum of grace, gallantry, or sportsmanship that they would begrude the Bronx downtrodden their flash of glory? Look no farther than the Capitol building; the U.S. Congress teems with them.

An unprecedented 17 House member, in fact, voted 'no' and reminded Americans of the rancor, pettines, and puerility that has come to epitomize the nation's legislature.

Item # 1: “Beantown’s Jacobin”
Asked why he voted against House resolution 893Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt replied, “For those of us in Red Sox nation, it was a sad, sad day. It tells you something about the corrosive nature of money in sports and politics.”

The distinguished Representative from Quincy, after all, knows whence he speaks. Since 1989, Congressman Delahunt has received $34,000 in campaign contributions from Liberty Mutual Insurance Company-- the fourth largest property and casualty insurer in the United States. A $100 billion dollar corporation, no little thanks to Congressman Delahunt, you and I now insure against catastrophic losses. Under the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002, our tax dollars now re-insure Liberty Mutual for claims owed to terrorist attacks. Coincidentally, Massachusetts’ scourge of money and politics “corrosive” voted for its re-authorization.

Item #2: “The Agrarian Demagogue”
Congressman Bruce Braley, evidently, concurred with the Representative from Liberty Mutual.

Asked why the representative from Iowa's 5th district wouldn't extend New York's Yankees a simple courtesy, his spokesperson said, “Congressman Braley simply could not vote in good conscience for a resolution honoring the moneyed interests of the Wall Street Yankees.” I didn't know the players and coaching staff held second jobs. Then again, Girardi always has reminded me of an investment banker.

Regardless, it seems the side of the hand the Congressman shows "Wall Street" varies with the year. In 2009, the Wall Street Yankees get the back of hand. To the Wall Street Bankers, in 2006, however, the Prairie Populist extended the palm. Since his election, in fact, Braley has accepted $10,000 in campaign contribution from the American Banking Association. (See Open Secret.com)

That the fiscal regime under which major league baseball operates make the supposedly progressive U.S. code-- over which the Congressman ostensibly wields influence no less- seem oligarchic, by comparison, doesn't seem to faze him either of them.

If the Iowa and Massachusetts Congressmen fancies themselves Populist crusaders out to slay Robber Barons and to soak the rich, they would do better to hunt among the coroporations situated in their districts. For example, when was the last time Liberty Mutual Insurance Company indemnified a competitor? What about Iowa’s John Deere & Co: how much did they contribute to the competitive wherewithal of other manufacturers of agricultural machinery?

Apart from the taxes the U.S., New York state, and New York City collect from the New York Yankees, the team also redistributes a share of its profits to its fiercest competitiors. In 2008, the Yankees paid major league baseball $100 million dollars in revenue-sharing fees and luxury taxes. Largesse that comprises 25% of the total $400 million in proceeds Commissioner Selig’s office subsequently donated to small-market franchises like the Pirates, Indians, Padres Rays, and Marlins, among others. In fact, the Pirates and Indians, received $40 million and $20 million, respectively, in subsidies. (See “Revenue Shearing,” by Bill Madden, NY Daily News, August 16, 2009). The Marlins' stipend falls somewhere in between. (Hardball Times, "The Loria of It," March 5, 2008)

If the call of justice in baseball really moved them, Delahunt and Braley would revile the greed and venality of the Pirates' owner, Robert Nutting, and the Marlins' owner, Jeffery Loria, among others, that enable them to pocket monies the Commissioner specifically earmarks for acquiring and retaining their talent. In 2008, the Marlins' $20 million dollar payroll matched their subsidy; likewise the Pirates $48 million dollar payroll approximated theirs. The revenue each team garnered from broadcast rights and ticket sales their owners would have their fans, their cities, and their rivals believe evaporated into thin air. Delahunt and Braley's selective outrage is akin to railing at Pfizer for purchasing Wyeth meanwhile condoning Glaxo for exploiting U.S. tax loopholes to move job overseas.

Meanwhile, the great malefactors of wealth on Wall Street, bankers who receive bailout checks from which they award themselves million dollar bonuses while their companies waste away, find kindred pirates in Pittsburgh and related sharks in Miami.

THE TRANSPARENCE OF MALICE
Then again, demagoguery is Congress’ native language. What's a journalist's excuse?

Observing how the press reported the Yankees's 27th World Series, one would guess that journalism suddenly suspended its profession's sacred ethic of objectivity for sports coverage. A homily about money's insidious and inexorable influence colored the beat reporter's narrative. The columnists, meanwhile, celebrated a belated Halloween. Dispensing with empirical fact, reasoned logic, historical context and intellectual coherence consistency, their columns instead invented ever new and more elaborate theoretical trappings and editorial disguises for a mantra worthy of a New England adolescent: "God, I hate the Yankees." Albeit, it lacks the Red Sox fan's cri de coeur's simple integrity.

To quote ESPN Peter Gammons, “the clich├ęd response to [their] winning the World Series seemed to be a universal ‘The Yankees bought the Series,’ as if somehow they went outside the rules of law and bought Cook or Palm Beach County.” (“Blame the System,” ESPN, November 7, 2009) (I trust that Gammons, in his hyperbole, didn’t intend to evoke Cook County’s notorious thralldom to perhaps the most irredeemably corrupt political machine in American history—not consciously anyway.)

Gammons' blog post hardly mounts the most vigorous or cogent defense on the Yankees’ behalf. Perhaps, Gammons recalls the 2007 season and the immediate parallels it suggests too vividly. If so, he’d do well to remind his colleagues.

Before recapping it, I excerpt a few choice selections from the detractors below.

Exhibit 1---"The Best Team Money Could Buy," by SI.com's Joe Posnanski (11/06/09), "You have a sport where the New York Yankees... spent $50 million more than any other team, that team with three sure Hall of Famers and as many as four others and as many as four others, that team that bought Milwaukee's best pitcher and Anaheim's best hitter and Toronto's No.2 starter and Boston's favorite idiot and the most expensive player in the history of baseball and so on, that team will win the World Series, spray champagne... and tell you that they won because they came together as a group and kept pulling themselves off the ground. "

Exhibit 2 - "“The New York Yankees win the World Series. That is not, in itself, a very remarkable sentence to write…. They have the largest payroll in Major League Baseball for the ninth successive year: $201million" (Times Online, Tom Dart, 11/05/09)

Exhibit 3 -- "Rooting for the 2009 World Series champion New York Yankees is like rooting for AIG. The Yankees are the perfect symbol for the times - bloated excess…While the federal government was bailing out AIG, the Yankees were charging thousands of dollars for the best tickets in a new $1.6 billion ballpark paid for in part with public funding and tax breaks That's like rooting for a bully. Is there really any joy in that?" (Thom Loverro, The Washington Times, 11/06/09)(emphasis mine)

(Actually, "public funding" and "tax breaks" did not finance Yankee Stadium; tax-free NYC industrial revenue bonds enabled the Steinbrenners to borrow money at a lower interest rate because the City guarantees the loan. Hence, the bonds only cost taxpayers if the Yankees default on interest payments-- a remote possibility. What's more, the City can't forgo tax revenue it never would have collected. No NYC IRBs = No New Stadium = No Bonds to tax. But hey why should a few facts stand in the way of good diatribe?)

Exhibit# 4-- "Even Brian Cashman said last night the Yankees are a product of their payroll and then defended it, saying they play by the rules. Which is entirely true... they rose from third place because they simply outspent everybody else on Burnett, Sabathia and Teixeira. It's not complicated.” (All You Can Do is Wear It," by Boston Globe's Pete Abraham, 11/05/09) (Et tu, Pete?)


WHAT, FILTHY LUCRE SOIL THESE PURE BRAHMIN HANDS?
Consider Abraham's argument for a second. It does betray a superficial cogency, does it not? The Yankees finished in third-place and missed the playoffs in 2008. Consequently, in the off-season, they aggressively pursued and successfully signed Sabathia, Burnett, and Teixiera-- the last of the three, by outsmarting and then outbidding their arch rivals. With $60 million in annual salary spent and three premiere free agents corralled, the Yankees returned to the post-season the following year and took home a championship. In sum,


Preface: In 2008, the Yankees didn't qualify for the playoffs.

  • Premise A: In the 2008 off-season, the Yankees, as a consequence, leveraged their preeminence as the league's highest grossing franchise to acquire three expensive, marquee free-agents.
  • Premise B: The following season, the Yankees won the World Series ("Wear It"
  • Conclusion: Because the Yankees spent $60 million this off-season on free-agents to improve their team, they bought themselves a championship.

Follow the money, right?

Only two basic flaws riddle the above syllogism. First, its logic suffers from the classic fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. That is, simply because Premise B (World Series) succeeded Premise A (major free-agent signings) in chronology does not mean the first cause the second. No doubt, it may have. Then again, pure coincidence could account for Premise B supervening Premise A. Or, more likely, a whole array of unacknowledged factors like Posada's and Matsui's recovery from injuries; the augmented offensive production Jeter, Cano, and Melky contributed; Hughes' mastery of the set-up role, among other improvements, just as easily could explain why the Yankees 2009 season surpassed their performance in 2008. Only a sophisticated statistical analysis can separate each factor and isolate its overall contribution.

Second, the press seems to invoke the "Follow the Money" rule rather capriciously; its sudden self-evident truth and received wisdom inspired less by the spending's circumstances than the spender's identity: the upstart merchant or the thrifty Brahmin.

Observe its selective and indiscriminate application to two teams' parallel trajectories.

In 2006, an AL East team-- let's call them TEAM B: 'B' for Brahmin-- possessed a $120 million dollar payroll good for the second highest payroll in baseball. On August 2, 2006, the Brahmins led their division with a 64-42 record and seemed fated for a rewarding October. Somewhere along the way however Manifest Destiny foundered. The Brahmins lost 11 of their next 15 games, suffered a rash of injuries, accused a star hitter of malingering, bickered in the clubhouse, and maligned each other in the press. Then, to culminate the fall from grace, management, to mask its hubris, played the gentility card.

Wrapping themselves in the mantle of impecunious virtue, the Brahmins Front-Office blamed their collapse on an "Uber"-franchise, the New York Yankees. (Management would renew this charge three years later when a certain free-agent first-baseman spurned them and joined their enemy.) Evidently, the money changers-- the Uber-franchise, that is, in the original German-- had purloined Bobby Abreu. A contract the landed gentry, on the other hand, insisted their poverty precluded. You have to sympathize with these poor dispossessed patricians: after all, how is a team with a $120 million payroll, and boasting the league's highest ticket prices besides, supposed to compete with the "Wall Street Yankees"?

So sworn to virtue, the Brahmins meanwhile tumbled from 2nd place to 3rd and in fact, barely averted a losing seaso, finishing 81-81 in 2006 and spending October at home.

Perhaps their superior virtue didn't console them, in the end, after all. Because as soon as the World Series ended, Team Brahmin started to spend like the noveau-riche arrivistes at whom they loved to look down their nose. In one month, they bought the free agent market's three premiere players at their respective positions. (Hmmn, sounds familiar, eh?)

Team Brahmin immediately signed the most expensive and prolific shortstop, Julio Lugo; and a coveted outfielders, J.D. Drew-- recently a Dodger with whose contract these ethical paragons may or may not have tampered. Then, miracle of miracles, they somehow managed to outbid the Uber-Franchise for the best starting pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, paying $50 million just to negotiate with him and another $50 million on his contract. (The Yankees would return the favor three years later with Teixiera, albeit with much screaming and thundering by the Brahmins. To the aristocracy, turnabout is not fair play.)

By winter's end, Team Brahmin spent over $200 million and by Opening Day of 2007, their annual payroll rose from 2006's $120 million figure to $145 million, still good for the 2nd highest in baseball. Although in 2007, the 2nd highest payroll stood a full $30 million more than the $115 million dollar Mets.

THE DOUBLE STANDARD
Recall how the Red Sox-- I mean, Team Brahmin-- fared in 2007 after their spending spree in the preceding off-season? They won fifteen more games and not only returned to the playoffs, they claimed the AL East crown and won their second World Series in four seasons.

Only in the weeks following theit 2007 triumph, strangely, Congressman didn't deplore money's pernicious role in sports. Nor did baseball writers style "screeds" (Posnanski's word, not mine) invoking competiting balance and baseball's "best interest" to disparage Boston's triumph as a championship suborned. To the contrary, the pundits practically fell all over themselves to extol the Red Sox GM Office on their ingenuity and shrewdness and to declare their championship a testament to their ownership's initiative and resourcefulness.


Read the difference in a few selections from two of the same publications I excerpt from above, Sports Illustrated and The Boston Globe:

Exhibit A- "Boston's duo of GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona make a superb tandem. It's refreshing to see a GM and manager get along to this degree. Also, it doesn't hurt that both are terrific at their jobs. Epstein engenders some jealousy for being so good so young." (John Heyman, SI.Com October 29,2007)

Exhibit B -- “A lot has been made of the big-name, big-money stars who helped the Red Sox win, but good teams make smart decisions; and this title, like the last one, was just as much about the throw-ins, afterthoughts and castoffs whom the Sox have given a home.” (“These Are Not Your Father’s Red Sox,” Michael Northrop, Sports Illustrated, November 7, 2007)

Exhibit C -- “Henry, the low-talking hedge funder, has had considerable help in Lucchino, Werner, and of course, the brilliant young GM who has spawned a new generation of BlackBerry-wielding, stat-driven, cold-blooded hardballers intent on reinventing baseball operations” ("Foresight Is Their Specialty", by Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe, November 4, 2007)

Now, had the Tampa Rays recently won a World Series, then their 25th highest, $60 million dollar payroll may have justified the stark discrepancies, indicated above, in the press' coverage and overall narrative. But the Red Sox $143 million payroll in 2007, 2nd in baseball, hardly qualifies them for the role of hero in a morality tale about the power of intellectual sophistication and economic thrift to prevail over Big Business' colossal predatory financial might.

Financial wherewithal leveraged through free agent acquisitions, as such, either explains both the Red Sox 2007 championship and the Yankees in 2009 or neither of them. Or rather, their World Series' triumphs, together with the (i) the Phillies', in 2008 on a $98 million dollar (11th in the league); (ii) the Cardinals' in 2006 on a $89 million (also 11th in the league); (iii) the Chicago White Sox's in 2005 on a $75 million dollar payroll (13th); and (iv) the Marlins' in 2003 on a $49 million dollar payroll (25th): all together they dramatize the lie inside the Resenters' great canard. First, money alone has not and cannot buy a championship in basseball. More importantly, money may not even rank as the most influential factor, among many, in the winnowing process.

The Bombers, their players, personnel department, and ownership deserve better than the deceitful broadsides, begruding acknowledgment, and qualified accolades their championship, by and large, has garnered them. But don't expect it anytime soon. Nothing succeeds like excess-- demagoguery in Congress, duplicity in the press, and in baseball, the sore loser's resentful outcry. Little distorts the mind, deranges the senses, or unleashes the bile more than another title won by the New York Yankees.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

GIRARDI'S REIGN OF TERROR

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the [post] season of light, it was the [post] season of darkness..." -- Dickens, Tale of Two Cities

In a Media Age where sports figures speak in a scripted platitudes worthy of elected officials, seldom has a manager, in an unguarded moment of candor, unwittingly revealed the flaw in judgment he alone can't recognize. "I don't like to think too far ahead," said the Yankees' manager before Game 5 of the 2009 World Series.

So we've noticed. And, now, as a consequence, the season hangs in the balance.

On the threshold of a twenty-seventh championship, two distinct, discrete choices presented themselves to the Yankee manager for how best to allocate his pitching over the 2009 World Series final three games in order to grasp that elusive fourth win that has confounded the franchise since 2000.

Choice A: Start Burnett, Pettitte, and Sabathia, in Games 5, 6, and 7, respectively, all on three day's rest.

Choice B: Assemble a piecemeal start from Gaudin, Aceves, Bruney, and Robertson in Game 5; while preserving Burnett, fortified by five days' rest, for Game 6 and assigning Sabathia, no better or worse for wear than in Scenario A, Game 7. Clinging, as such, to a trump card in Andy Pettitte, holding him aside, ready to enter at a moment's notice should Girardi need, in either two games, to remove his starter early and to enlist his bullpen.

Logic and Reason argued for Choice B. Neurotic compulsion dictated Choice A.

Let us count the ways:

1) Burnett's statistics and temperament, each, militated against a Game 5 start. First of all, Burnett has not fared well on the road this season, yielding 6 earned runs in 6 innings pitched as recently as the ALCS Game 5 in Anaheim. Compare, for 2009, the 4.59 ERA away with the 3.51 ERA at Yankee Stadium and likewise, the disparity in batters' OPS+ against him-- 92 at home; 108 on the road.

2) Second, starting AJ in Philadelphia also promised to saddle him with a lineup bereft of its fifth hitter, Matsui, the DH, in addition to weakening it with a left-handed centerfielder against his left-handed opponent, Lee; to say nothing of the innate offensive deficit Burnett's preassigned catcher, Molina, represents.

3) Third, through Game 2 of the World Series, Burnett already had pitched 232 innings in 2009, the most of his career. While starting Game 5 on short rest-- which most pitchers complain disrupts their control-- threatened further to exacerbate Burnett's singular Achilles Heel. When command of the "hook," as he calls it, inexplicably eludes Burnett during a start, the erratic righty neither can recover his release point or more importantly, his composure, nor compensate with alternative pitches. His confidence consequently flags and his performance suffers. (By contrast, the four outing that account for Burnett's 2.33 lifetime ERA on three days' rest hardly consist of a representative sampling; three of which he started in a single season, 2008.

4) In a similar vein, 37-year-old Andy Pettitte, through Game 3 of the World Series, has thrown 220 innings this year, the most since 2005. The effect of which clearly showed in his last start through which he labored. Indeed, he confided to teammates afterward, "I had nothing," as the ever discreet Johnny Damon then revealed. Now, Pettitte, a pitcher who depends upon controlling a cutter, curve, and changeup, will have to start on three days' rest for the first time since September 2006 in a Stadium, where, he has acted as Burnett's foil and antithesis, compiling a 4.59 at home and 3.71 away. Worse, as of Tuesday afternoon, Girardi wasn't even certain Pettitte could start so soon after he muddled through his last outing. When asked who would pitch Game 6 in Pettitte's stead should the necessity arise, Girardi actually responded, "Gaudin," without betraying the slightest inkling he appreciated the irony.

5) Why did Gaudin pose such an obvious choice for Game 5, despite not having started since September 28th or having pitched since October 20th? Because at the very worst, a Gaudin could have recorded 2 innings and then yielded the final six to bullpen (assuming, that is, the Phillies wouldn't have batted in the 9th). In retrospect, how much worse could they have fared in Game 5 than Burnett, Robertson, Aceves, Coke, and Hughes actually performed?)

6) Finally, the off-day, that followed Game 5 would have alleviated whatever strain a combined six innnings from Aceves, Bruney, Coke and Robertson had exacted. More importantly, in scenario B, Girardi wouldn't have had to worry about sparing his bullpen's second and third tier anyway. For behind Burnett and Sabathia would have stood Andy Pettitte, on 3 or 4 days rest, poised to save the day by pitching 2-3 innings out of the bullpen-- an insurance policy well worth the investment upon considering that Sabathia may have to pitch for his second consecutive start on short rest and his third time this post-season.

Perhaps, Girardi's decision to return to Burnett on three days' rest after he sparkled in Game 2, was justifiable in a vacuum. But in the post-season, a manager no more can confine decisions to a vacuum than he can isolate its direct, foreseeable, and ominous consequences. Indeed, by declining "to think too far ahead" this post-season, his judgment has ranked between reckless improvidence and presumptuous malfeasance. Two taxed and depleted arms now stand between the Yankees and ignominy. From Lemon to Howser and Showalter to Torre, the stewards of post-season failure have been dismissed for far more venial sins.

No tears of my mine will fall should Girardi meet his predecessor's fate. Never have I witnessed a Yankees manager follow one inexplicable, counter intuitive, capricious, and just plain foolish move after another through the course of the post-season. The truncated rotation he devised for Games 5 through 7 only consummates them. Among other, they include (i) mismanagement of his bullpen-- calling it "over-managing" excusing the grievous risk Girardi's churning incurred by conjuring the trivial, earnest faults of the solicitous "over-protective" parent-- (ii) blind obsession with innately unrepresentative statistical samples and abstract, subjective scouting reports to the exclusion of what the current game and his players' immediate performance would suggest; and (iii) irreconcilably contradictory tactics in parallel situations.

In the last instance, compare, for example, his pinch-running decisions in the 9th innings of both the ALCS's and the World Series' Games 5. In Anaheim, recall, the Yankees trailed 7-6 with 2 outs in the 9th inning and no one on base. Fuentes walked A-Rod and Girardi pinch-ran for the 3rd baseman, despite the above-average speed Alex has shown on the bases all year following hip surgery. The manager, then, inexplicably, pinch-ran for Matsui, after he reached base next. A bizarre move in its own right because had the Yankees tied the game, they'd have entered extra-innings with Freddy Guzman and Brett Gardner as their 4th and 5th hitters and without their closer besides, summoned already in the 8th.

Cut to Philadelphia ten days later. Once again, the Yankees ignite a 9th inning rally. With the team trailing 8-5, Posada doubles, Matsui singles, and together, they've reached first and third with no one out and brought, in Jeter, the potential tying run to the plate. Now, the only outcome capable of depriving Damon and Teixiera the same opportunity should the captain fail is, of course, the lethal double-play. Which as it happens, the shortstop's inside-out swing and ground-ball percentage gives him a propensity to induce, a flaw about which his skipper, we know, is well informed. To Girardi's credit, it inspired the inversion of Jeter and Damon in the batting order to begin the season.

So knowing all of this, does the manager pinch-run for the lumbering Matsui on first base? Matsui, pinch-hitting for the pitcher, can't bat again anyway. Meanwhile, the swifter, more agile, base-stealing threat Ramiro Pena maunders inside the dugout. The self-evident benefits-- minimizing the risk of a double play and perhaps advancing another runner into scoring position-- outweighs the meager cost-- sacrificing the roster's last pinch-hitter. Furthermore, by eliminating the seventh run from the bases and in turn, the tying run from the plate, the double play threatened a comeback at least as much, if not more, as did A-Rod's presence on first base in the ALCS' similar circumstances ten days earlier. However for reasons explicable to Girardi and God alone, the manager left Matsui on base. Jeter hit into a double play, for all intents and purposes, throttling whatever chance remained of an improbable, eleventh-hour rally. Two batters later, it formally perished.

THE CANYON OR THE GUILLOTINE?
Working inside the crucible, subject to relentless pressure and the microscope's sharpened scrutiny can both expose and magnify any man's failings.

Observing Girardi's foibles and follies on display this October has been a persistently terrifying, frequently infuriating, and ultimately pitiable experience.

He paces, wincing and grimacing. Riffling through his meticulously organized binder of receipts, invoices, and sales figures, he can't find the answer he needs. His best laid plans have gone awry, but panic prevents him from re-evaluating. Instead, he scraps the book entirely. He'll try anything, so desperate has he become to reap a profit for the $200 million of human capital expended-- whether overworking employees, eliminating days off, hiring and firing his relief, mortgaging futures and/or disregarding deficits. For very soon, Christmas will arrive, Saks River Avenue will close for the season, and the tense, constipated shopkeeper the Bosses have left to manage will have to account for his losses and an opulent display case that doesn't feature a ring. Is he the overzealous, autocratic Jacobin, DeFarge? Or beneath the mask does there lie a pathetic, misunderstood, doomed but noble Carton?

Come what may the next few games, if the Yankees win their 27th championship and lead a parade down the Canyon of Heroes, rest assured, they will have overcome an obstacle greater than the Red Sox, Twins, Angels, and Phillies. The terror that reigns inside their own dugout.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

IN HIS HEAD, HE KNOWS HE'S RIGHT

"In your heart, you know he's right"-- Barry Goldwater slogan circa 1964 election
"In your guts, you know he's nuts" -- LBJ parody of Goldwater slogan

Perhaps Randy Levine devised this Joe's contract with an incentive clause too. For each playoff game the manager can use all his relievers he receives a $1,000,000 bonus. After all, didn't the Levine cabal insinuate that Joe Torre's cavalier style cost the Yankees in the post-season? Somewhere the Baseball Gods are laughing.

Beware half-wits armed with numbers. From Pentagon scientists' "acceptable losses" to hedge fund managers' "rational markets" to baseball manager's "match-ups": inside their little black books lie the mathematical formula for everything from winning a nuclear win to repealing the business cycle to winning the next World Series.

Whatever may come of this October, A-Rod acolytes finally can savor the thrill of watching the Human Scapegoat disarm the pundits, stifle the critics, quiet the jeers, mock the steroid tribunal, and consign Selena Roberts' yellow journalism to the sewers of history. But no one should be more grateful for the Yankees third baseman than his manager. For without A-Rod's sudden flair for the eleventh-hour, plot-turning, Hobbesian dramatics-- "there's goes Roy Hobbes, the best there ever was in this game"-- Joe Girardi already would have returned to Florida. And here in New York, the lynch mob would have tied the noose and started to clamor for Rope Day.

A sentiment that recalls something Benjamin Franklin once said, the "Mob's a Monster; Heads Enough but no Brains." Although in this case, I can't shake the apprehension that Joseph Elliot Girardi's singular brain is precisely the problem. The thin-lipped anxiety, the crew-cut rigidity, the officer's regimented strictness, obstinate certitude, and humorless laughter bespeak a man of unquestioned intelligence yet with a mind so inflexible and doctrinaire no practical wisdom or instinctive truth could violate it. The mind of beautifully wrought abstraction.

How else is one to fathom a manager who has studied all the reports, mastered all the stats, read and re-read, no doubt, every piece of information at his disposal and persists in the same recklessness from which only an inept opponent, blind umpire, and the prodigies of A-Rod (assisted by a bravura supporting performance by Jeter, Posada, Sabathia, and Rivera) have spared his team from elimination?

Why else would the Yankees' manager persist in applying preconceived formulas and "match-up" statistics for managing his bullpen-- rather than allowing his relievers visible, immediate performance to dictate his choices-- when time and again, the results has cost him. (To be sure, Bill James has observed and proven over and over again the naked eye often deceives us. The difference in impact a .275 hitter and .300 hitter make, even witnessed every day, on a team's success can't be discerned. But James never concluded statistics would enable manager's to discard his indispensable faculty, practical discretion.)

Girardi's reliance upon numbers rather than his reliever's performance has resulted in two harmful patterns. The 11th inning of the 2009 ALCS's Game 3 illustrated one: he has removed flourishing relievers in the middle of innings when neither high pitch counts nor run-scoring threats warranted it and replaced them with relievers who then falter . Second and closely related, he has squandered his most formidable relievers, Chamberlain, Hughes, Coke, and Robertson in truncated outings-- calling upon them and then summarily dispatching them-- in early innings of close games. As a consequence, when they flounder or extra-innings arise, he has had to rely upon Marte and Aceves, less proficient arms in critical situations.

Let's recap.

ALDS Game 1
Sabathia, subduing his own post-season demons, shines in his October debut as the Yankees' designated ace. Without dominating, he nonetheless delivers 6 2/3 innings of two run baseball, only one earned. He starts to languish in the 7th but weathers the storm. With the Yankees ahead 6-2, no one on base and one out, Sabathia hits Tolbert, yields a single to Punto, and throws a wild-pitch. Tolbert and Punto advance to 2nd and 3rd. However, Sabathia retires left-handed hitting Span on a pop-fly and then to face, Orlando Cabrera, Girardi makes the obvious and logical move.

The manager calls upon his ostensibly 2nd best reliever, set-up man Phil Hughes. Cabrera battles through 10-pitches but strikes out. Hughes returns in the 8th inning but again labors. 15 pitches through the 8th (25 in total), the Franchise has surrendered a single to Mauer and only recorded 2 outs. Accordingly, Girardi, in a move seemingly dictated by foresight, albeit more ominous in retrospect, summons Chamberlain for a single out. It appears Girardi simply has exercised a perfect opportunity to reacquaint Joba with his old role. But using Joba for two pitches in the 8th, and then using Mariano, despite a five-run lead, for what becomes a 23 pitch, non-save appearance, turns into a recurring pattern that will carry fateful consequences for the future.

ALDS GAME 2
The omens first realize their ill-fated prophecy. After six innings, the game is tied 1-1. While starter Burnett has thrown 96 pitches thus far, his control suffers and his pitches-per-out mount with each inning. So Girardi, wisely, removes him. Enter Joba for the 7th, the 2007 incarnation. Three consecutive 95-mph fastballs retires Span on a groundout. Two more, clocked at 97 and 95, follow to Cabrera, the third, a changeup, induces a feeble groundout. Next follows the Twins most forbidding hitter, presumptive AL MVP, the left-handed Joe Mauer. Coke time? Consult the Book. Mauer is 3 for 4 against Coke with one homerun, true; but he's also 1 for 2 against Chamberlain with a homerun. Statistically significant? Evidently, Girardi thinks so; Joba stays. Chamberlain unleashes 5 straight heaters averaging 96 mph, yet on the fifth, ahead 3-1 in the count, Mauer singles on a ground ball through the middle.

This is the moment when the eccentric, rash, and misguided decisions Girardi's bullpen management has betrayed this October first manifested. Letting Joba pitch to left-handed Mauer but then removing him when otherwise thriving, having thrown only 11 pitches in a tie game no less and insisting that lefty Coke face the left-handed Kubel-- warrants skepticism. Although left-handed Kubel is 0 for 4 against Coke and has proven throughout his career a markedly less prolific hitter against left-handed pitching than right-handed (OPS+ of 68 vs. 109), Joba has fared well against him too (1 for 3 lifetime, a single.)

More importantly, Joba is dominating; his control and velocity are nonpareil; he has only thrown 11 pitches; the day to follow is an off-day; Coke is only good for a batter, after whom, with Cuddyer batting, Hughes will follow. Worse, it's only the 7th inning, Hughes struggled the previous game, and the Yankees confront the possibility of facing extra-innings. Apres Mo, qui?

Isn't Joba too precious a resource to squander via mixing and matching righties and lefties and just for Kubel? Doesn't Joba's unrivalled fastball-slider repertoire in combination with his starter's endurance, of one to two innings at the very least, warrant greater faith in his ability to retire Kubel?

Look what happens as a consequence. Coke retires Kuble but in the 8th, Hughes struggle again. With two outs, he walks Gomez, yields a single to Harris and Punto, Gomez scores. Who's up next? Lefty Denard Span. Now, would have been a good time to use Coke, no? But Girardi can't because he expended him the inning prior. Then, in an unorthodox move, he calls on Rivera. How often has one seen a manager use his closer in the 8th inning of a game he's LOSING. Isn't Marte, after all, on the roster expressly for the purpose of the second left-handed hitter, late in the game? If not, why isn't Bruney? Anyway, Span hits Rivera, another run scores, but Mo keeps the Twins lead to 3-1 into the bottom of the ninth, when A-Rod ties the game.

But now what? Expending Mariano in the 8th inning precludes using him again in the 10th inning. (The two innings recommend against it, as does a pitch count of 27 pitches, following the 25 he gratuitously threw in Game 1.) What's more Girardi squandered Joba after 11 pitches, discarded Coke after a batter, and gone through Hughes already. So Girardi is compelled to use Aceves for the 10th inning. Aceves finishes the inning without giving up a run, but with two outs, he does walk Punto and Span singles before he retires Cabrera. Hardly a flawless outing certainly but hardly one that would demand his removal either. Consider, too, that Aceves is the reliever best equipped to pitch multiple innings because as a reliever, Gaudin is an enigma.

Does Girardi use Aceves then for the 11th? No, of course not. He enlists Marte for a single batter, Mauer, who singles, and then Girardi lets him pitch to Kubel, who does likewise. Remember earlier in the game when he let Joba pitch to Mauer but not to Kubel. Notice the contradiction. Why let Joba pitch to him and not Aceves? Anyway, with Marte failing wretchedly as usual, Girardi brings in Robertson against whom Cuddeyer hits the Twins third consecutive single. Then, Robertson performs a great Houdini act and with 9 pitches, tallies three outs, without a single run scoring.

Now, the manager who relies upon empirical evident rather than statistical abstraction might have concluded that Robertson possesses two essential qualities statistics can't measure-- heart and aplomb. Evidently, Girardi doesn't belong among this company as Game 3 of the ALCS demonstrates.

ALDS GAME 3
Through 6 innings, Andy Pettitte has dazzled, having yielded a single run on three hits and having thrown only 75 pitches. (As late as the fifth, in fact, Pettitte actually flirted with perfection.) In the sixth, Span earned only the Twins second hit against him, stole second, and then scored on a weak grounder through the hole at shortstop. Pettitte however struck out Cuddyer to end the inning.


In the 7th, A-Rod comes to rescue, homering off Pavano to tie the game, followed by Posada to put the Yankees ahead. Now enjoying a one-run lead, Pettitte returns to the mound in the bottom of the seventh and strikes out Kubel on 6 pitches, totalling 81 pitches for the game. Wouldn't it behoove the manager to exhaust every last pitch and inning from a starter who is still well under 100 pitches in the 7th inning and thriving besides? Just 48 hours earlier, after all, Girardi used every single one of his relievers save Gaudin. Doesn't Pettitte's gem recommend in favor of proceeding batter-by-batter at the very least?

Well, consult the magic book. The magic book indicates that in 2008, Delmon Young was 2 for 3, each hit a double. 2009? Nothing. Evidently, that's good enough for the engineer. Girardi enters and removes Pettitte and replaces him with Joba. Young, promptly, gets the double on Joba Girardi feared Pettitte would yield but quickly recovers. (Irony is lost on the humorless however.) Has Joba the pitcher the Yankees nursed through September to fortify his endurance for the post-season-- does Girardi allow Chamberlain to muster this strength to face another batter or two in the following inning after 17 pitches, particularly because through 2 post-season games, Hughes hasn't acquitted himself well in the set-up role? No, of course, not.

Hughes rewards Girardi's faith accordingly by promptly yielding a double to Punto and a single to Span, but Punto overruns third base and all is forgiven. The Yankees win the ALDS in three games and advance. Has Girardi learned from his experience? Does he absorb any of the lessons his bullpen decisions in the ALDS might imply?

Alas, no, the same rigid abstraction, profligate use of relievers, distrust of first-hand observation, unwillingess to acknowledge mistakes or to incorporoate its lessons, thus far, have informed his bullpen management in the ALCS as well.

THE ALCS: THE CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST

In Game 1, CC Sabathia leaves Girardi no room for error. Through 8 innings, the Angels collect 3 hits and a walk and score one run. Mariano is Mariano in the 9th. Girardi's Leninist syndrome recurs, however, in Game 2.

Through 6.33 innings and 114 pitches, AJ Burnett holds the Angels to two runs, largely containing the wildness that accounted for them. Although his infielders don't help him. Cano succumbs to his habit for timely errors and muffs Iybar's routine grounder to 1st. Burnett exits and Girardi assigns Coke the job of retiring switch-hitting Figgins (his career OPS+ 84 from the right side, 24 points lower than the left) and lefty Abreu Coke. Coke walks Figgins and strikes out Abreu. Having reduced Coke to a lefty-specialist, however, the manager summons Chamberlain to face Hunter and Guerrero. Hunter hits an infield single to Jeter, but Joba bears down. He gives Guerrero three consecutive fastballs at 94, 95, and 95, which the Angels DH can only foul off and finishes him off with a devastating slider. All total Joba throws ten pitches against two batters. The Game stays tied at 2 entering the 8th.

Does Girardi learn from ALDS Game 2, then, that in a tie game, at home, with a day off to follow, perhaps, it's a good idea and to ride Chamberlain until either his stuff wavers or Angel batters hit him in order to reserve Hughes to pitch after Rivera, should the game proceeds to extra innings? No, of course not. Before Joba can throw to a single batter in the 8th, Hughes relieves him. Worse, Girardi doesn't even let Hughes finish the 8th inning. With two outs, a runner on second base following a Jeter error that derailed an inning-ending double play, and his set-up man having thrown a total of NINE pitches, Girardi calls upon Mo. What does this mean? In the mere 2.3 innings since AJ Burnett left the game, Girardi has exhausted his four best relievers-- Coke, Chamberlain, Hughes, and Mo-- and the game hasn't even entered the 9th inning.

So naturally, what happens when the manager has to resort to his bullpen's B-list in the 11th inning, after Mo, himself, pitches the next 2.3 innings? Girardi goes to Aceves. He walks the lead-off hitter, Gary Matthews, of all hitters, and the Angels score to go ahead 3-2, entering the bottom of the 11th. The script here gets so bizarrely familiar that I actually wonder whether the Baseball Gods were trying to send the Yankee manager an omen of hubris he finally would recognize: A-Rod homers again, repair the cosmic breach his manager has opened. Aceves and Marte get one batter each in the 12th and Robertson the last soldier standing between Gaudin and oblivion, hold the fort long enough for the New York cold to sabotage the Angels' defense. Yanks win in an error in the 13th.

General Girardi doesn't register the message of course. ALCS Game 3, in fact, brings still more dubious decisons. This time, after Pettitte has thrown 80 pitches and holds a slender lead on the road, Girardi, for some reason, lets him pitch with a runner on first base and to his opponent's preeminent power threat besides. Guerrero makes him pay for it, hitting a home run to tie the game. In the 7th, Pettitte induces Morales to line out to left field and exits. Who follows? The prefabricated formula, of course, calls for Joba.

Thus begin the point at which Girardi's discretion degenerates from miguided to indefensible. In the interest of time and space, I'm going to elide innings 8,9,10, other than to decry Girardi's squandering of Marte and Coke consecutively on Figgins and Abreu for the 7th innings last out and 8th inning's first. The debate Mo's entry in the 9th provokes-- and in general whether a manager should deploy his closer in a tie-game on the road when, in advance, he has decided to use him exclusively for a single inning, in a playoff series he leads 2-0 without an off-day following no less-- deserves its own blog entry. Suffice it to say, I disagreed with it, but its a defensible call. What's more, its myopia, it pales before the delinquency of following Coke with Marte and the inexplicable contradiction that ended the game.

Recall Joba enters the game in the 7th inning with one out to pitch to Yankee nemesis Howie Kendrick, who triples on a first-pitch 96 mph fastball and who scores on a sac-fly. Cut to the 11th inning. Dave Robertson, owner of a 0.00 ERA for the post-season, starts the inning. His repertoire of 93 mph fastballs and a sinister breaking ball dispose of Rivera and Morales in 11 pitches. Kendrick is next. But not before Girardi can consult his magic "match-up" primer and summon Aceves. Why? The authors, evidently, warn Kendrick "sits dead red." From which Girardi concludes his seventh and final reliever before Gaudin, Aceves' and his arsenal of cutters and changeups stand a better chance against Kendrick than Robertson's staple of fastball and curve and 0.00 ERA. But doesn't that beg the question of why Girardi both let Chamberlain pitch to Kendrick in the 7th and Posada call a first-pitch 96 mph? How to explain the contradiction? I can't. Can you? All I know is that two batters later Kendrick and Mathis ended Game 3.

If Girardi sleeps better after these games than I do, I would ask him to think about a quote that occurred to me just before I finally drifted off at 4:00 am. It's hardly profound, but because of the source, it's one Girardi would do well to heed. Man and voice incarnate Girardi's managerial opposite in many ways. The dialectical formed by their thesis and antithesis might even embody something close to an Hegelian enlightenment and Platonic ideal.

The quote, excerpted from his book The Yankee Years, reads, "I don't know how long we're going to be together. But do yourself a favor: never forget there is heartbeat in this game." Rarely has a manager left his successor advice more resonant or true.

Friday, October 2, 2009

ON HOBBESIAN OCTOBERS

Savor the bouquet while it lasts-- 2009 is a good year. Just don't invest in its vintage. Cream pies, after all, come cheap. Champagne that ages, on the other hand, costs far more than $2500 a seat and 50 million dollars worth of Christmas shopping.

I sound churlish and cynical, you say? Perhaps.

Please understand nonetheless that I don't begrudge the Yankees their payroll. To the contrarym I'm grateful for it. To the organization's credit, they spend notwithstanding the revenue levies and luxury taxes Selig's corporate welfare regime costs them; notwithstanding the confiscated and redistributed Yankee dollars that subsidize its staunchest rivals and resentful critics; notwithstanding all the greedy owners who pocket the bounty instead of spending it on free-agents as the "revenue-sharing" system intended and then with utterly shameless effrontery condemn the Yankees for refusing to emulate their avarice; notwithstanding all of the indignity, injustice, and ingratitude the Steinbrenners, as such, must abide; the Sons still honor the Father's vision -- the Game's cardinal law this side of the Field of Dream: if you spend it, they will come.

That is, talent repays its acquisition in victories, pennant races, fan interest, Nielsen ratings, broadcast revenue, and advanced ticket sales. That is, the purpose of professional athletics is to win, so if you're a bored tycoon out to aggrandize your profits or to feed your vanity, don't own baseball team. Go run for mayor or something and leave the battlefield to Men.

No, whatever satisfaction and muted relief September of the "The Inaugural Season" has excited-- especially when compared to "The Final Season's" last month that turned out to be more terminal than climactic-- ambivalence prevails. It's an ambivalence born of vivid and traumatic memories of Octobers past I can't quite shake-- of swarming midges, of a Gambler's revenge, of ominous rally monkeys, of fateful outfield collisions and lethal crashes to buildings, of cosmic curses subverted and of supernatural swoons inscribed.

The last post-season, in fact, I can recall with wistful fondness unfolded six long years ago. One that occurred, it seems, in another lifetime-- reminiscences of a Posada bloop and a Boone blast, echoes of Russ Hodges and shadows of Bobby Thompson. A time when Magic and Mystique guarded the Bronx and the Baseball Gods still smiled on the Yankees.

By contrast, the Ghosts of Hobbes (Thomas, not Roy) haunts recent Octobers -- American League Divison Series that were nasty, brutish, solitary, and woefully short.

And to anyone who has read The Yankee Years-- apart, that is, from Randy Levine, Michael Kay, and Cult Cashman-- the reason for the unceremonious playoff exits that have bedevilled the Yankees ever since didn't dissolve with the purging of Joe Torre.

It's origins lie deeper in the skein of injury, inexperience, ineptitude, and ignorance that stretches from Jeff Weaver to Jared Wright. Would that I were confident that 2009 has broken it.

THE BELLWETHER: AS THE ROTATION TURNS
Don't let the AL-leading 898 runs the 2009 Yankees have scored to date deceive you. The Yankees will travel into the depths of October only so far as their starting rotation will carry them. Trust Verducci no more than Virgil? Then, let history be your guide.

In 2007, the Yankees led the AL with 968 runs scored; in 2006, they did likewise, with 930; and in 2005, they finished second with 886. Their pitching staff, in runs allowed, on the othe other hand, ranked no better than an AL 5th (2006). In fact, it placed as low as 9th in 2005 and fell to 7th in 2007.

By contrast, in the six seasons the Yankees have reached the World Series over the last 12 years, the team ranked no lower than 4th in runs allowed; finishing 4th in 2003, 3rd 2001, 4th in 2000, 2nd in 1999, 1st in 1998, and 3rd in 1996.

Entering the season's final weekend, the 2009 Yankees have yielded 733 runs-- good for 6th in the league. (What's more, their starting pitching and relief pitching, measured separately by ERA, fares no better-- each rates 6th in the AL.)

More ominous still, in every season since 2005, the American League team to emerge from its four post-season qualifiers to represent it in the World Series has been the one that finished the season with the best staff ERA. (See below "No Wang," August 3rd) The Yankees head into the 2009 post-season ranked 3rd among the league's four likely entrants behind both Boston and Detroit.

TO THREE OR NOT TO THREE: THAT IS THE QUESTION
With a good reason, then, much of the debate surrounding the Yankees of late has centered on how best to maximize the team's strengths or perhaps, more accurately, to compensate for its weaknesses. Now that the Yankees have earned the dubious honor of the AL's best record, do they select the ALDS series with the extra off-day that would allow Girardi to pitch 3 starters or the ALDS without it that would constrain him to pitch 4 starters.

The media coverage, as usual, has missed entirely the decision's most vexing element. Joba fixates them so naturally, they identify him as its crux. Good Joba should start. Bad Joba shouldn't. The former prospect means a four-man rotation; the latter calls for three. The one commending the shorter ALDS, the other, the longer one.

All of which begs a more troublesome and elementary question. Does the quality and depth of the Yankees' starting rotation even afford them the luxury of pitching two starters twice? Pitcher A in Games 1 and 4 and Pitcher B in Games 2 and 5. If CC is A, pray tell, who is B? AP or AB? Could any Yankees fan envision a more terrifying prospect since Kevin Brown pitched Game 7 than A.J Burnett pitching Game 5? Supposedly, the Yankees are daring to consider the possibility. Burnett, so goes the logic, is 5-3 with 3.51 ERA at home and 7-6 with a 4.73 ERA away. Meanwhile, Pettitte's performance reflects the same disparity only in reverse-- 8-3 with a 3.59 ERA away and 6-4 with 4.59 ERA on the road.

Or perhaps, Burnett's 0.00 ERA in the post-season holds sway. Of course, the caveat there is that Burnett has a perfect era in the post-season because through eleven seasons, he's never pitched in one. As for Andy Pettitte, well, his heart inspires more confidence than his arm. True, "Andy is a 2nd half pitcher" goes the cliche, which has the virtue, in addition, of being true, but success in August hasn't always carried into October. While Pettitte's lifetime ERA in the second half is 3.61 (five-tenths higher, 4.17, in the first), his post-season statistics fall short of the Pettitte myth. Despite the championship aura surrounding him, in truth, Pettitte's career performance in the post-season parallels his performance during the regular season. Through his fifteen season, Pettitte owns a 3.90 ERA over 457 starts; and over 35 post-season starts, Pettitte is 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA. (The lesser, actually, of a pitcher often maligned for foundering in the post-season, Mike Mussina. Whom, by contrast, over 23 post-season appearances is 7-8 with a 3.42 ERA.)

The greatest virtue, in other words, of starting Joba Chamberlain in Game 4 against the like of Alfred Figaro, Eddie Bonine, or Nate Robertson is its byproduct. The Yankees' best pitcher would start the two games the word "Ace" bespeaks. CC Sabathia would pitch Game 1 and CC Sabathia would pitch Game 5. And if the Yankees face elimination in Game 4, they always could pitch Sabathia on three days rest and defer Chamberlain's start to Game 5 with Burnett (also on three days rest) and/or Aceves prepared to relieve him.

Indeed, the peril and pitfall each scenario courts and none entirely avoids would suggest hiding the whip cream, husbanding the liquor, and keeping the champagne on ice.

Monday, September 7, 2009

THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST?

“And in the lighted palace near, died the sound of royal cheer; And they cross'd themselves for fear, all the knights at Camelot..." T he Lady of Shalott, Tennyson

Oh for the symmetries of history: meaningless September games closed Ruth's House and meaningless September games opens Jeter's. But praise be the difference. Last autumn rang the death knell and dimmed the Stadium lights. This year, the trumpet calls and the drums of October rumble early.

So with the Yankees' return to the post-season growing daily more inevitable, a momentary lull occasions an instant's reflection before October's passion and pleasures, torments and griefs begin.

Reader, please bear with me then. My larger point about the Yankees emerges slowly and warrants a digression through America's other signal calling. If baseball is the national pastime, then politics is its national vocation.

You see, in the decades before crowds thronged ballparks to gawk and to marvel at player's prodigious physical talent and skill, thousand flocked to auditoriums to be spellbound by edifying oratory. Before Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio, there was Webster, Clay, and Bryan. Before the epic battle the audience eagerly anticipated opposed the Yankees and Red Sox across a diamond, it pitted Lincoln against Douglas behind the lectern.

Perhaps, this explains why the two arenas so often borrow from and supply each other's repository of myths, idioms, symbols, and imagery. The media now covers election campaigns, for instance, as journalists might a baseball season. Instead of analyzing policy or investigating facts, the narrative consists instead of a facile, arcane, and largely trivial discussion of tactics and strategies, of turnouts and poll numbers, of the week's winner and losers-- befitting what Joan Didion once mordantly called Washington “Inside Baseball.” Conversely, baseball, over the years, has adopted all the patriotic trappings, civic pomp, and national rites we normally associate with the political arena. Anthems, flag-waving, military pageantry, honored guests and ceremonial pitches. Could you imagine a play, movie, concert, or opera, by contrast, opening with any of these obligatory patriotic rituals?

I mention this because in the exhaustive media coverage about the Brothers Kennedys that has accompanied the Massachusetts Senator's recent death I couldn't help but see in the indirect light it reflects on baseball, in general, and in particular, the Yankees. No, I don't refer to the photographs depicting an already wan Teddy outfitted in Red Sox regalia with a smiling John Henry beside him or for that matter, to the little known friendship between the Kennedys and Steinbrenners and the homage George paid, via his press agent, in the wake of his friend's passing. The connection is more oblique but not necesarily less telling.

As Michael Lewis' Moneyball potrayed it, Baseball-- that is, both the body that governs the league (headed by the Commissioner) and the the individual teams that comprise it: Baseball, despite an identity that today owes as much today to the Money as to the Ball, in attitude, outlook, financial practices and personnel management evokes far less a competitive modern corporation or profitable niche industry than a smug, hidebound country club. It's a Club where insularity, clannishness, exclusivity, solipsism dominate marketplace shibboleths like innovation, adapatability, and efficiency and where a Club member's greatest sin "is not ineptitude but disolyalty." An institution, in other words, not so unlike the local party clubs that together constituted the urban political machines that controlled the country's municipal government from the Republic's founding until well after World War II and that in the late 1940s just so happened to launch the Congressional career of a young, pasty-faced Irish-American war hero from Boston who later ascended to the Presidency.

Only as the Boston Congressman, and later, Massaschusetts Senator's career blossomed and he fixed his ambitions on the Presidency, he abandoned the ways and habits of the machine. His campaigns depended less and less upon the party to marshall votes and to bind allegiance because his family's wealth granted him the luxury of bypass its patronage apparatus and electoral organization. Instead, Jack, and his campaign manager, brother Bobby, tapping Poppa Joe's limitless financial resources, capitalized on the new media, computer technology, and advanced statistical applications the corporate world already used to pioneer the modern campaign-- polling voters, canvassing preferences, testing campaign themes, targetting equivocal audiences, lavishing huge sums on advertising, promoting a personality cult and forging loyalties independent of party.

Consequently, Kennedy, owing no debt to the bosses for his election, once in office, needn't repay it by hiring their cronies. In the Oval Office, Kennedy then could transform the Office of Chief Executive and Presidential cabinet from a spoils system for career bureaucrats and party functionaries into an managerial Elect of the "Best and Brightest" called to higher service. Like the poll, focus group, and televison spot, merit-based Presidential appointment is now such a commonplace, we often fail to appreciate fully just how profound a reform, in this regard, Kennedy initiated.

To quote Gore Vidal, writing in 1961,

"I had not been to the White House since 1957... The corridors were empty. In the various offices of the Executive, quiet gray men in waistcoats talked to one another in low-pitched voices. Last month, I returned to find the twentieth century [] installed. The corridors are filled with eager youthful men... Kennedy is unique among recent Presidents in many ways. For one thing, he had ended the idea that the Presidency is a form of brevet rank to be give a man whose career has been distinguished in some profession other than politics or if to a politician, one whose good years are past, the White House being merely a place to provide some old pol with a golden Indian summer."

THE BRONX BRAIN DRAIN AND BOSTON BRAIN TRUST
How does all of this relate to baseball, you ask; and more importantly to the Yankees?

Well, despite the seeming paradox-- that is, notwithstanding the Kennedy family's deep roots in New England; and notwithstanding the recently departed's allegiance to Fenway, I can't help see nonetheless in the Camelot Presidency, in its rise and in its reign, a parallel to Steinbrenner's Yankees. A story about related ascents that nonetheless arrive at different destinations, a parable about roads not taken and opportunities lost.

Like Jack Kennedy, George Steinbrenner inherited the wealth and status of a prominent, hard-driving, autocratic father and like the President, the Boss, in turn, parlayed this considerable patrimony to win a birthright all his own, achieving success and renown that exceeded his family's expecations and the endowments given him. Likewise, the Ambassador's son and the shipbuilder's heir, once reaching the top, had to weather the persistent, vitriolic attacks of an establishment determined to discredit them as arrivistes and to reduce the value of what they'd achieved to their money. Ill-gotten plunder bought Kennedy his Presidency, they said; filthy lucre, Steinbrenner his Championships.

It is however in how these two embattled men governed once they acceded to the throne however that they parted company. If Kennedy surrounded himself with the Best and Brightest with the uncharacteristic concession here and there to nepotism and loyalists, Steinbrenner governed in the opposite manner.

At first, the owner may have planned otherwise, hiring in Gabe Paul and Al Rosen shrewd and savvy executives to compensate for the baseball acumen he lacked. The policy didn't last. Soon enough the Boss either antagonized or fired his most able personnel, and the best and brightest, with offers elsewhere, shunned the Bronx. Instead of an organization distinguished by the Game's Best and Brightest, it harbored the Obsequious and the Obtuse. (The exception of Gene Michael's tenure during George's expulsion, of course, is the exception that only underscores the rule.)

In fact, the moniker "The Boss" fit so well precisely because Steinbrenner conjured Boss Tweed, New York's infamous party boss. Meanwhile, the Yankees' organization the Boss' tyranny had wrought recalled the machine's waste, incompetence, and mismanagement (and pace, Howard Spira), its corruption. It ran sure enough. Then again, so did Tammany Hall, as long as no one expected efficiency, competitive advantage, or good government, and money continued to grease its wheels. So much, in fact, did the Yankees depart from the Kennedy standard of merit and professionalism that in the Boss' final years the courtiers, opportunists, flunkeys and fools that dominated his Tampa Kitchen Cabinet were probably more qualified to cook (and to drive) than to advise him about baseball.

In the meantime, the baseball front-office that came to exemplify the Best and the Brightest ideal; that prized merit, that valued credentials, and rewarded critical thinking; that adapted the private sector's latest information technology, statistical tools, computer modeling, and advanced media to assembling a winning baseball team just as the Kennedys once did to assembling a winning political campaign wasn't the Yankees at all. It was their arch rival, the Regents of Ressentiment, otherwise known as the Boston Red Sox.

To quote Tom Verducci in The Yankee Years,

"[John] Henry believed in numbers. They made him a rich man. Henry established an alternative money management firm that proudly took human emotion and subjective analysis out of play. It made trading decisions based on a proprietary, objective systems that analyzed trends in each market... Henry saw no reason why data-based analysis should not work in baseball, too... and about 20 years earlier had discovered the work of statstical analyst Bill James and other so-called sabermetricians."

It was the Yankees' former limited partner, Henry, then, who took up the Kennedy mantle and adopting the marketplace's empirical methods, technological tools, and merit system to modernize the GM's office as the Kennedy's once did the political campaign.

True, as Lewis' Moneyball tells the story, Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics pioneered the reform but economic necessity animated them as much as it constained them. Henry's team, on the other hand, had the finanical wherewithal and the intellectual will to realize it in its all manifold applications.

First, the Red Sox set about accumulating as much brain power as possible for his baseball operations, from hiring the Great Bill James himself and courting his many disciples to hiring as many experienced GMs as the sport had to offer. Conflicting titles, overlapping hierarchies, elders answering to their youngers-- none of this mattered.

Nor did Henry apply the hiring criteria the Club (Lewis' invidious term for the baseball establishment) tends to favor. For example, lifelong citizenship in Red Sox nation, friendship with the Henry family, connections to the Mayor, and an aptitude for mollifying tyrants and retaining one's job, say, didn't qualify one for an office. To the contrary, Henry's front-office personnel had to fulfill the same qualifications as the players who fill his team roster-- merit and merit alone.

Then, once Henry installed his brain trust, he encouraged and subsidized them in discovering for the Jamesian empirical method new and innovative metrics and for the latest medical and media technology new and innovative application. According to Verducci, the Red Sox front-office, for example, went about collecting the statistics of every college player in the last decade and then tracking their production through the minors and majors to devise models on how amateur and professional performance correlated. They also numbered one of two teams to send ALL their pitchers to Dr. James Andrews' Institute for biomechanical imaging to identify mechancial flaws and to forestall arm injuries. No doubt, someone in the Red Sox front-office is pouring over the latest Pitch f/x data baseball now collects to explain such anecdotal and physical imponderables as late break, speed, and movement. And in all likelihood, the Red Sox continue to tap Japan for pitching because unlike the rest of baseball, they've probably formulated a metric that predicts how a pitcher there will fare here.

No, the Red Sox GM's office isn't infallible. (As the Kennedy administration's overtures in Vietnam, and John McNamara himself, illustrate, the Best and Brightest err often.) No, they're not immune to personnel mistakes; no they haven't assembled a flawless roster; no, haven't and won't win every year. However, the Red Sox already have built one if not the deepest farm system in the majors despite drafting near the back of the line each season.

To appreciate fully what Henry has accomplished, consider for a moment a parallel world in which the Red Sox possessed the Yankees revenue stream and the Yankees, the Red Sox, but without altering the composition of their respective front-offices. Do you doubt how the two rivals would finish this season or for the forseeable future?

THE CASH-MAN'S YANKEES
With the Yankees the proud owners of the league's best record, it no doubt will seem churlish to criticize the GM's office, petty to disparage it, and willfully blind to ignore the considerable improvement its personnel decisions have registered since 2005.

This year alone the farm system yielded fruits, replenishing and stabilizing the major league roster when criticial injuries claimed A-Rod and Posada, and bolstering the bullpen. Meanwhile, George retreated years ago and mercifully, taken the Tampa HillBillies and Fool's Court with him. And if the Brothers Steinbrenner, in stature, charisma, courage or cleverness won't earn many comparison to Ted and Bobby, the George' sucessors don't appear to meddle with the baseball operations department or to tyrannize its employees.

But then again who knows? Among other frailties, the Boss' legacy of paranoia has survived him. The Yankees endeavor to conceal as much of their inner workings under a veil of secrecy now as ever. "Plans" supposedly exist for everything from Joba Chamberlain's innings count to restoring Chien-Ming Wang' velocity to guaranteeing Alex Rodriguez his hiatuses. "There's a process in place," the GM assures his skeptics. Only no one but the GM is privy to it. Neither the end results nor his faltering explanations, in the meantime, flatter him however. To the contrary, Cashman's "secret plans" for Joba and Wang recall Nixon's "secret plan to end the War," and his mangling of the English language, upon communicating them, bespeaks Dubya. Behind secret veils and contorted syntax typically lies rank duplicity and/or bungling incompetence.

Why did it require three outings in April, for example, before the Yankees suddenly realized the precipitous fall in Wang's velocity betrayed the lasting effects of his lis franc injury? And why did they continue to pitch him and ignore the injury to his arm they risked by allowing him to overthrow to compensate? Why did they promote him if after Wang's third minor league start his velocity still hadn't recovered? Why, finally, did it require Wang's agent to demand a second opinion before Dr. Andrews diagnosed the tear to his labrum? And why did they let him throw on flat ground twice in the interim?

Questions about the GM's management of Joba's innings total abound as well. If the Yankees intended to pitch Chamberlain in the post-season while honoring his innings limit, why didn't they simply defer his first outing until May 1st or May 15 to avoid a hiatus during the season? Back in April, the Yankees could have used Hughes, Kennedy, Aceves for the season's first month or acquired a career AAAA pitcher to use as their fifth starter.

Perhaps, we shouldn't diminsh though what "Cash-Money," as his acolytes like to call him, does well. Cash-Money excels at writing checks. By this, I don't intend sarcasm or a backhanded compliment. I mean it, quite sincerely. As the Red Sox have shown again and again cultivating player's loyalty, earning their good will, and recruiting them to sign isn't easy or evidently, a task at which the Red Sox office excels. Manny, Minky, Pedro, Damon and Lowe: the Red Sox managed to antagonize or to alienate all of them. By contrast, Cashman successfully recruited Sabathia, allaying his misgivings about New York with an escape clause, and seduced Teixiera just as the Red Sox were doing their best to offend him.

Perhaps, the Best and the Brightest necessarily excludes the Obsequious and the Ingratiating.

If so, Cash-Money's Yankees will go only so far as competitive zeal travels between generations; stars gravitate to and shine in the Bronx; and $50 million dollars of payroll separates New York from Boston.

Monday, August 3, 2009

NO WANG, NO WASHBURN, NO WORLD SERIES

If after two years spent firmly entrenched behind their arch rival, the Yankees abruptly discover the roles reversed as they enter the final third of the 2009 season, perhaps one has to allow for the sudden prevalence of blithe confidence and myopic optimism.

In the deep recesses of our historical consciousness, the Red Sox recent superiority, after all, smacks of transience and aberration, a temporary rift in the cosmic order soon righted by the passage of time. While some eternal contract between the dead Ruth, the living Jeter, and prospects unborn underwrites the Yankees' ascendance with 2009 evoking the fitness, compensatory justice, and return to normalcy of a dynasty restored.

To all ye smug, complacent, and myopic, beware.

Two West Coast road trips beckon. Injury has claimed Chien-Ming Wang. Joba nears his innings limit. The 8th inning void, conscripting Hughes and Aceves, has stripped the farm and exhausted the reserves. And with Kei Igawa manning the barricades, a thin, fragile starting rotation stands an injury from disaster.

Meanwhile, the trade deadline has come and gone. The competiton has improved. The Yankees rested.

In the East, the Red Sox's acquisition of Victor Martinez and Casey Kotchman bolsters a faltering lineup, reinforces corners defense, deepens their bench, offers rest to the aged and infirm Varitek, Lowell, and Ortiz, injects youth into a team beset by injury and age, and secures them a catcher and first-baseman for next year. The Central-leading Tigers-- the team the Yankees' current standing would pit them against in the playoffs' first round-- snared Jarrod Washburn, the very starter the Yankees arguably needed and certainly coveted.

As a consequence, the Yankees now face the prospect of an October rotation, should they make it that far, of Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte and Mitre. A post-season rotation about as redoubtable as predecessors featuring Shawn Chacon, Jared Wright, Corey Lidle, a dilapidated Unit, a grounded Rocket and leading straight to first-round exits.

THE THREE-ARMED CRAP SHOOT
The media machine's great cliched metaphor for baseball's post-season is the crap shoot, evoking the image of eight teams huddled around a crap table, the outcome hinging on a dice roll, the hottest arm running the table and sheer luck deciding the winner.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This isn't to deny chance its influence, the indiscriminate injury, the fortunate bounce. Nor is to gainsay that the World Series' winner is often less October's best team than the team that plays best in October. Or more accurately, the team that pitches best. Only, in the American League, the past four post-seasons, the team that pitched best happens also to have been the team with the best pitching.

To elaborate, among the four American league teams to have qualified for the playoffs the last four years, the team that ultimately represented the league in the World Series was the same team which possessed the pitching staff with the lowest era entering October.
For each, the staff's preeminence sprang from the depth of their starting rotation. Last year, Shields, Kazmir, and Garza led the Rays. In 2007, Beckett, Schilling, and Dice-K anchored the Red Sox. In 2006, it was Rogers, Verlander, Robertson and Bonderman, the Tigers; and in 2005, Contreras, Buehrle, Garland, and Garcia. Each team, as a consequence, started a pitcher 3 of every 4 post-season games likely to give them a quality outing-- a quality start defined as pitching 6 innings or more, yielding 3 earned runs or less. (In fact, every one of the above pitchers had accumulated ERAs lower than 4.00 for the season, Dice-K excepted.)
2008- ERA2007- ERA2006- ERA 2005 - ERA
Tam- 3.82Bos- 3.87Det- 3.85Chi - 3.61
LA- 4.00 Cle - 4.05Min - 3.95 Bos - 4.74
Bos- 4.28 LA - 4.23Oak - 4.22 LA - 3.68
Chi - 4.11NY- 4.50 NY- 4.43NY- 4.54


The above graphic shouldn't surprise anyone acquainted with the 1996-2003 Yankee championship teams and the fundamental strength that distinguished them from their feeble progeny. Unlike their offense-dependent offspring, pitching underpinned the championship teams. That success, above all, rose from the rotation's depth and extended as far as its 3rd starter and often unto the 4th: Pettitte, the mainstay, then Cone or Mussina, Key or Wells, Clemens and/or El Duque. A succession of arms that fortified them with their best defense against the losing streak that is so fatal in October.[1] By contrast, from 2004 through 2007, disaster arrived in early October once the Yankees first or second starter succumbed because behind him, the infirm, inept, middling, overwrought and ill-equipped followed.

APRES BURNETT, QUI?: CASHMAN'S LOST GAMBLE
The 2009 Yankees haven't sat in first place this late into a baseball season since 2006. The three pivotal Red Sox series to come and the two arduous West Coast road trips that await notwithstanding, the Yankees, thus far, have earned the mantle of genuine contender. They own at 63-42 record through 105 games. Mere average .500 baseball through September then would bring them to 90 wins. A tad better than than and at 31-26, they would total 94 wins and meet the customary threshold for post-season qualification.

So for the moment, let's court bad karma and for argument's sake, envision how the Yankees might fare against their postseason competition as currently constituted. Wang lost. Washburn forsaken. Joba inactive or relegated to the bullpen, his allotted 150-160 innings expended. Cashman's opportunity to acquire a comparable third starter long expired. The Yankees' rotation consisting of Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, and X.

Extrapolating from the four-year trend indicated above that AL playoff team with the best ERA crowns its World Series representative, I chart the competition below, listing their current staff ERA and the combined ERAs of their top four starters-- i.e., their playoff rotation. (I've excluded Tampa and Texas on the assumption that if either qualifies for the postseason, the Yankees will not.)



STAFF - ERASTR 1-4 ERA
Bos.4.124.07
Det.4.153.16
Chi4.154.11
NYY4.504.22
Ana. 4.75 4.38



In the second column, while I've quanitfied and ranked the AL playoff contenders' likely playoff rotations, I concede, it's not without its inevitable flaws and unavoidable conjecture. In the Yankees' case, for example, their four best starters didn't correspond to their four probable post-season starters, so in prioritizing the latter, willy-nilly, the 4.22 ERA listed above excludes Joba Chamberlain's representative statistics and instead includes Mitre's unrepresentative 13.2 pitched innings and the 12 earned runs he's surrendered while doing so.

Why, you may ask? Because I take the Yankees at their word, trust they will honor Joba's inning cap, and can envision no circumstance under which he would start in the post-season. On his current schedule, he will exhaust his alloted innings by September. They're not likely to enjoy the luxury of skipping his starts, not with Tampa and Texas chasing them, not with enough frequency anyway to spare innings for October. And the scenario, under which they inactivate him for a long period and then kick start him for the post-season would seem to pose a risk as grave, if not more, than ignoring his innings' restrictions altogether.

Despite its provisional value, the chart above nonetheless suggests that if they genuinely harbor championship ambitions, the 2009 Yankees will have to defy history to do so. First, the starting rotation recalls far more the fatal flaw of the 2004-2007 teams than the 1996-2003 teams overriding strength. Second, assuming they play in October, they will have to overcome another recent trend and prove that a staff ERA, ranked no better than third among the AL's four qualifiers, can triumph nonetheless over its rivals. For whomever the Yankees select as their fourth starter-- whether Mitre or some nameless alternative with a fourth starter's league average ERA-- they still would oppose, in Boston, Detroit/Chicago, and/or Anaheim, two teams with more proficient pitching staffs and a third team they can't seem to beat under any circumstances, statistics notwithstanding.

Finally, the chart above illustrates the gravity of Cashman's decision to value the future dividends Austin Jackson could yield over Jarrod Washburn's immediate and tangible return.

(Jackson because among the other four, Joba, Hughes, Montero, and Romine, Cashman deemed untouchable, Austin Jackson, a AAA outfielder whose power either hasn't developed or doesn't exist, his elevation to prized status is the least defensible. I can't argue with hoarding the other four. In the wake of Melky's revival and Gardner's emergence, Jackson no longer is indispensable to the Yankees' future. All three cannot play center, after all, and their power deficits disqualify each from the corners.)

In fact, Washburn represents the margin of difference between boasting the AL's best most playoff rotation and risking association among its least, between winning the World Series and losing again in the first round. For with Washburn replacing Mitre (or a average fourth starter equivalent) the ERA of the Yankees' probable playoff rotation rises to 3.75 and moves them from fourth to first in the ranking above. Conversely, the ERA of Detroits' likely playoff rotation plummets to 3.77 and demotes them to second.

THE NEW WORLD YANKEE

In the Bronx, the new regime's worldview compasses broader horizons than in the past. King George has exited and carried his sentimental, profligate, impatient, win-now, profit-be-damned philosophy with him. Baby Bombers grown on the farm are cherished less for their pedigree, for the affection they earn, or for the solidarity they contribute. No, now, the front-office values home-grown prospects as precious financial assets, as human capital to be hoarded, nursed, husbanded, and ulitmately milked for years to come. Numbers now rule the day- profit and loss, cost-benefit, capital realization, fungible value denominates everything from the price of beer to the worth of Melk. The MBAs have inherited the Crown.

I commend the front-office for irrigating a long neglected, fallow farm, cultivating new talent, injecting youth and bringing the minor league affiliates back to life. The old way of mortgaging the future and plundering the farm augured a slow, suffocating death. Still, Cashman has yet to prove he can identify the focal point in the balance between, at once, capitalizing on his aging, dynastic nucleus' final years of contention while building a new foundation for the future. Instead, the front-office reeks of reaction. Like Russia, the Commissar succeeds the Czar and one extreme follows another. Sure, if peanuts brings you Abreu, eat. Sure if Nady and Marte, fortuitously, exacts spare parts, by all means, floor the engine. But relinquish a single crown jewel for the royal family's last gasp of glory, never.

Cashman serves today at the Steinbrenner's pleasure. Ultimately, he'll have to answer to history and more immediately, the 4 men in the clubhouse, Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, and Rivera responsible for the GM's achievements and to whom he owes one last opportunity.

Pray, Cashman hasn't forsaken it and may the name Jarrod Washburn, otherwise, fade into memory.

[1] In the '96 World Series when Pettitte and Key faltered, Cone rose to the occasion. In the '98 ALCS, when Pettitte wavered, the bullpen unraveled, and the barbarians thronged the gates, El Duque baffled the opposition and held the citadel. In the 2001 ALDS, with the team down 0-2 and the season teetering on the brink, Mussina saved the day and then again, in the 2003 ALCS, staving off ruin, in relief of Clemens.