Friday, May 15, 2009

THE PAST THAT NEVER DIES: 2009's FIRST QUARTER REPORT:

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety..." Anthony and Cleopatra
"As full of grief as age; wretched in both..."-- King Lear


The season dies an ignominious death. An august, hallowed Stadium closes. Autopsies ensue.

Management confers; the Front-Office re-evaluates. A new regimen looms.

Coaches are dismissed. Old players depart, without ceremony. New players enter, with fanfare. Fans gush. Rivals complain. Critics hector and whine. Suddenly, yesterday's disappointment evaporates and tomorrow's expectations soar.

Finally, Spring arrives, and hope abounds as a grand new Coliseum opens. Columnists evoke the Golden Age. Pundits foresee a dynasty resurrected. Executives congratulate their own triumph.

Only then, they play the games. And the results? The results, inexplicably, exasperate and disappoint. Despite the dramatic changes, Despite the lavish expenditures, Despite the giddy confidence, the outcome on the Diamond somehow doesn't differ from last year or for that matter, the year before.

On May 15, 2009, the Yankees stand at 17-17. If you hear an eerily familiar ring in it, you haven't succumbed deja vu, just the recurrence of an unpleasant memory. For something like it has happened before-- twice in fact. Last year, through 34 games, the Yankees were 17-17, and in '07, the team was a nearly identical 16-18.

What explains the Sisyphean fortune of an organization that with all its financial might, pushed the Rock of Fate up the hill only to see it return whence it came.

New York Post columnist Joel Sherman attributes it "to beautiful karmic justice," the fruits of building a "$1.5 billion temple to exclusion and greed." (New York Post, May 14, 2009). Sherman, it seems, fantasizes a Jobian world in which God visits injury on the prosperous for the sin of having too much money. In March, Sherman wrote of Alex Rodriguez after doctors diagnosed his hip injury, "“His insatiable needs and greeds... Phil Helmuth at his side, Warren Buffet involved in his contract negotiations, Madonna in his bed... has blown up [on him].”-- "Alex Has Time to Get Hip" Sherman, NY Post, March 6, 2009. (To which one might add an author's note, "And, conversely, Mike Lupica in my columns." Albeit, with comparatively more coherent and lucid prose-- hardly the most dazzling accomplishment considering the prototype.)

(The irony, of course, is that for all his criticism of Yankee elitism, Sherman's theodicy bespeaks the ressentiment of the Boston Brahmin. From Yawkey to Henry, Red Sox ownership has sought to impose upon baseball the manner and ethos of the Mayflower Yacht Club-- turning it into some patrician clique where modesty, forbearance, and genteel bon homie prevails and the brash upstart and impudent noveau-riche know their place. May the Landsdowne Gentry kindly eat cake. )

No, the Yankees' recurring lackluster starts isn't owed to supernatural causes, karmic or Calvinist. What links the 2007, 2008, and 2009 Yankees and largely explains their lackluster starts is the common trait between them-- the frailty that has endured notwithstanding the brand new free-agents, the revamped and replenished roster, the deeper, fortified rotation. In a word, their age.

In 2007, the Yankee roster averaged 30.7 years of age. In 2008, it was 31.4. In 2009, it's 3o.4. The average age of their lineup has varied even less: 30.6, 31.3, 30.3, respectively. And age's greatest handicap, as the Yankees Disabled List for the months of April and May the last three seasons dramatically illustrates, is its vulnerability to injury.

In 2008, injuries disabled A-Rod, Jeter, Posada, Bruney, and the Yankees' prospective third starter, Phil Hughes, in April and May. (Matsui joined the walking wounded in late June.)

In 2009, injuries, again, have sidelined A-Rod, Jeter, Posada, Bruney, and the Yankees' prospective third starter, Wang, in April and May. (Nady, Molina, Marte, Matsui, and Coke have joined this year's walking wounded besides.)

Sure, the bizarre parallels invites superstitious associations. But the stark truth is that three of the four players on whose health the Yankees' fortune depends because the organization cannot replace their production -- Rivera, Posada, and A-Rod-- will be 34 or older by season's end. And all the conditioning in the world can't arrest the aging process nor can it immunize them from injury. Indeed, barring the sudden emergence in the organization of worthy successors, this Achilles Heel will imperil their championship aspirations for the foreseeable future.

IGNORE THAT INJURED HITTER BEHIND THE CURTAIN
Wait, the skeptic demurs, the 2009 Yankees, through 33 games, have scored 181 runs (5.48 per game) which is 4th in the AL. Meanwhile, they've allowed 200 runs (6.6 per game) which places them at 14th, dead last in the AL. How then can injuries to A-Rod and Posada, among other less critical players, inform why the Yankees have languished in April and May of 2009?

Well, the two American league teams who rank 1st and 2nd in Runs Scored happen to be the two teams leading the Yankees in AL East standings at present, the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox.

Leave aside Toronto for a moment however. Indeed, truth be told, what distinguishes the Red Sox and Yankees at the moment isn't Runs Scored but Runs Allowed. (Boston ranks third in the AL in runs scored and excels the Yankees 5.68 to 5.48 in average runs per game.) Nonetheless, the 3.5 games that separates them is owed largely to the full less run per game their pitching has allowed-- the Red Sox's average 5.2 RA (10th in the AL) to the Yankees' 6.06 RA (14th, dead last).

This returns us, however, to the 4th indispensable Yankee, I alluded to above. The appreciation due him notwithstanding, the Yankee season no longer rises and falls on Derek Jeter, not anymore. No, the 4th indispensable Yankee is the one easiest to take for granted-- Chien Ming-Wang.

What, you say, Heresy! Get Thee to the Stake and Await Thy Doom: Wang isn't even the team's Number #1 starter! CC Sabbathia now is.

Sure, every available index-- from the inning totals Sabathia has averaged, to the ERA he has posted in Cleveland, to the Cy Young Award he won--suggests he can be the Yankees' premiere starter, their pillar, their ace. But he hasn't fulfilled that role just yet, not entirely and only the gauntlet of the full season will determine, definitively, whether CC can claim the mantle.

Regardless, the AL East is not the NL Central. CC alone, accordingly, is not enough. For their duel with Boston, the Yankees will require a second.

IF WANG BE DONE, THE HEAVENS MAY FALL
Recall the enigma with which we began-- why the Yankees stand 17-17-- and where it led-- to the 14th and last place the Yankees occupy in the AL in Runs Allowed. To appreciate the importance of Wang, consider the following hypothetical. How would the Yankees have fared thus far had Wang been Wang?

That is, replace Wang's three wretched 2009 outings and Hughes' checkered three with the average performance Wang's career statistics would lead one to extrapolate over six starts. Suddenly, the gap between New York and Boston narrows considerably.

In 6 combined starts in 2009, Hughes and Wang pitched 17.67 innings and surrendered 34 earned runs, totalling an ERA of 17.32.

By contrast Wang's historical statistics would project him throwing 38.76 innings over 6 starts (6.48 IP per start) and yielding 18 earned runs, the total his 4.09 ERA would predict.

This significance for the Yankees' Runs Allowed is two-fold.

1) First, over the 17.67 innings Injured Wang and Phil Hughes actually pitched, a hypothetical Healthy Wang would have cost the Yankees 16 less runs. The saving doesn't end there however.

2) For over the 21.1 of the innings-- see above 38.76 IPs [Hypothetical Wang]- 17.67 IPs[Injured Wang+Hughes]-- that the Yankees bullpen had to absorb after Girardi removed Injured Wang and Phil Hughes (approximately the next 3.5 innings per game afterward)-- during those 21.1 innings a healthy Wang would have pitched instead, the Yankees bullpen yielded another 20 runs.

Accordingly, in 2009, had a healthy Wang pitched and merely matched his career averages in ERA and in Inning Pitched, the Yankees, through 33 games, would have surrendered no more than 184 runs and perhaps, as few as 170 runs.

Using James' Pythagorean Theorem expectation (Rs^2/RS^2 + RA^2= Win %), we can deduce that with a healthy Wang pitched the Yankees would have won between 1.5 and 3 more games, the difference between undifferentiated mediocrity (.485 baseball) and post-season contention (.560 baseball) and at present, the distance between Boston and New York in the standings.

Or consider Wang's importance this way. Assume for the sake of argument, for a moment, that Sabathia realizes his full potential in Pinstripes, and in 2009, CC manages to duplicate Mike Mussina's performance in 2008, amassing a 3.37 ERA over 200+ innings. One ace merely would have replaced another. Then what? Remember what derailed the Yankees in 2008? Once injuries claimed, in succession, the two best starters behind Mussina, Wang and Chamberlain, the Yankees season, effectively, ended. On August 4, 2008, Chamberlain's final start in Texas, the Yankees were 5.5 games behind the Rays and 2.5 games behind the Red Sox. By months end, they'd fallen to 12 games out of 1st, and 7 behind the Red Sox.

And if not Wang, whom? Would any Yankee fan care to bet that A.J. Burnett can replace the innings totals, the consistent quality starts, the reprieve for the bullpen and ballast for the rotation that Wang reliably conferred. As for Andy Pettitte, was last year the aberration or the omen? Meanwhile, the Yankees, wisely, have excluded Joba from the second's role, a priori. On his current pace, his inning cap is likely to expire sometime in August.

At this writing, Wang is poised to start on Sunday, May 17th for AAA Scranton and rumors abound that it will be his last in the minors. I hope not-- not if Wang's velocity continues to stall at 90-92 mph, 3-5 mph lower than he typically throws. To appreciate how precipitous the decline in Wang's velocity, witness the following chart I copied from Fangraph.Com. By plotting his fastball's velocity through 2007, 2008, and 2009, the graph dramatically illustrates 2009's deviation from his prior two years-- the range contracts, the apex and nadir fall.



Nothing could harm Wang's confidence, recovery, and season-- and with it, the Yankees' fortunes-- more than his returning prematurely only to endure another battering.

Wang's velocity compensates for his sinker's occasional habit of moving laterally instead of dropping vertically; it also enables his slider and change up to deceive hitter by changing speeds. Without it, Wang is no more formidable or reliable than Sidney Ponson. And without Wang, the 2009 Yankees are no more formidable than the 2008 incarnation and no less liable to recapitulate the latter's fate through its first 34 games as through its final 128.

2 comments:

Forstadt said...

just a bit premature, now that the yanks are on a roll. how quickly the tides turn.

signals3_t5 said...

the report of the 2009s



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