Monday, August 3, 2009


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 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.

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.)

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.


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.