Friday, October 2, 2009


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.

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.

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.

No comments: