Thursday, October 28, 2010
For this Yankee fan, the end of a season invariably tinges the days that follow with an inconsolable emptiness. For six months the game's daily drama and the team's unfolding fate weaves its narrative into the fabric of life, and then, with the abruptness of death, defeat rends the thread, familiar faces recede, and the vivifying tonic that brightens the evening and crowns the day suddenly evaporates. No mourning rituals, No redemptive meaning, No residual solace. Only an aborted plot -- a deus ex machina ending to an unfinished novel.
But this year I can't but wonder whether defeat, in the end, might not serve a greater good; whether, for some within the Yankee hierarchy, it isn't justly deserved.
No, not the players, of course; their season came to a premature, unceremonious, and ill-favored end. Too many sprouted and flourished this year; too many battled and excelled; too many suffered through injuries and persevered through pain not to achieve a success short of their aspirations. The star arrival of Robinson Cano; the budding efflorescence of Hughes and Gardner; the grizzled marvels of Pettitte and Mo; the steadfast yeoman mettle of Tex and A-Rod; and the redoubtable, 300lb Atlantean pillar holding it all up, the double YES, Si Si: would that they received accolades equal to their pluck, tenacity, and splendor and to my gratitude.
In the franchise's upper reaches, however-- from the manager up to the highest echelons of its business department-- Yankee Pride, recently, has meant something more like Yankee Hubris. And if the financial executives don't account for the team's latest defeat, they certainly could benefit from the chastened reflection and withering self-scrutiny rarely stirred in its absence.
Reevaluation ought begin with the 1.5 billion dollar Colosseum and its unintended yield-- exorbitant ticket prices inflated beyond what many can pay or the market will bear; a permanent supply of vacant seats; lower tiers filled with passionless, fickle dilettantes, a permanent corporate gentility ringing the field whose luxury box amenities and royalty suite perks a Prateorian guard has to protect against the descent of the ardent, demonstrative, raucous Pinstripe faithful now confined to remote bleachers and nosebleed grandstands and treated like an unwelcome hoi polloi.
In the new Stadium, Yankees have erected the modern equivalent of an Elizabethan Theatre or Metropolitan Opera House. Class hierarchy and status symbol abide everywhere and personify the very caricature the Yankees' spiteful rivals ordinarily have to cite a 200 million dollar payroll to portray. Only with a World Series to inaugurate their luxury Palace, none but the churlish could complain. This year, however, no championship trophy will silence the objections. Season ticket-holders will vote with their feet. Fading novelty, grossly inflated prices, and PSL contracts' imminent expiration may deliver a reckoning Randy "Shlayger" Levine and Lonn "them eat" Trost hadn't bargained for-- the law of diminishing returns. And the usual blend of strident defensive broadsides and smug Olympian rationalizations to which they've resorted when the subject has arisen in the past won't save them.
May they reap what they've sown-- a drought followed by the whirlwind.
More worrisome however than the financial department's arrogance is the dogma that has gripped the team's baseball operations. Manager and GM, it seems, have turned statistical analysis into a theology, and with it, they've fallen prey to the blindness which afflicts the converted in his zealotry.
In an interview Michael Kay conducted on his New York radio show, he recently asked Brian Cashman, "Do you have a problem with Joe [Girardi] going strictly by the numbers? Would you rather he go by the gut?"
To which Cashman responded, "I definitely don't want people going by gut. I wanted people to make informed decisions. It's about being educated and being informed... If you can set yourself in a position to have a rational process in place, then you'll put yourself in a position to succeed more than fail. And I think gut is just irresponsible."
It must comfort the GM to imagine that he and his skipper can manage events on the field according to a "rational process." Unfortunately, the game no more unfolds according to an empirical formula or yields to collective control than do financial markets, international relations, or population growth. Too much human enigma separates statistical probabilities from scientific certitude.
Now, one hardly expects a GM to know much about history or philosophy but had he read Rousseau or Freud or simply studied late 20th century Russian history, he might have recognized in his worldview what we might call "the fetish of reason". After all, the Marxists, too, thought that they could isolate the laws of history and deduce from them the future.
Likewise has sabermetrics seduced Cashman and Girardi. From them, it seems, they've forged a crutch from what best serve as a tool and in the process, have forgotten that intuition and instinct are at least as integral as reason and logic to sound judgment. One problem with placing too much faith in them is that statistics illuminate what has happened more clearly than they forecast what will. Even inside the Diamond, heart and emotion, desire and will, singularity and contingency, chaos and luck, too often, still prevail. The fastidiously prepared and studiously memorized "match-ups" contained within a black book do not determine the outcome, even if one somehow could choose the metric most applicable to the situation at hand.
With a one-run lead in the 6th inning of Game 4 of the 2010 ALCS, for example, which statistic should the Yankees manager heed? With David Murphy at-bat and Benjie Molina to follow, should Burnett's complete history against Murphy and Molina, respectively, control? Or is it Burnett's performance against them in 2010 that matters? Or is it perhaps his overall performance this year in similar middle-inning predicaments? Or rather, is it how he fares after a 100 pitches; or with 2 outs; or at Yankee Stadium; or in the post-season; or if you walk Murphy, with men in scoring position? Or how does one weigh any of Burnett's figures, moreover, against the corresponding numbers Boone Logan, a reliever limited largely to lefties and one or two innings, has compiled?
Even if Girardi bases his decision on the numbers, he still has rely on an educated guess-- on inductive reasoning-- for the right statistic to choose. A "gut" decision isn't "irresponsible". It's inevitable.
Now, would the Yankees would have won the 2010 ALCS had Joe Girardi discarded his black binder and ignored the statistics and chosen more wisely in the situation described above? Probably not. The numbers may not forecast the future but they don't lie about the past. When his team bats .100 points less than his opponent's over six games and his pitching staff yields, on average, three and half more runs, even the canniest of managers isn't likely to stave off defeat. Still, Girardi's decision-making in the series certainly didn't help. Whether it was intentionally walking Murphy in Game 4-- putting the tying run in scoring position and the go-ahead run at first-base-- or whether it was his folly of repeatedly opting for Logan, Robertson, Mitre in critical situations-- most notably, Robertson, in Game 6, despite batters' .440 average against him -- meanwhile shunning Joba or saving Wood until too late, his discretion eluded him. Instead, much like last year during the postseason, pressure seemed to paralyze the manager so that rather than allowing the game's situation to dictate his decision, he fell back on some preconceived notion the statistics had inscribed.
Which suggests that the manager's fixation with the numbers actually indicates a failing more fundamental and more troublesome-- it implies either an incapacity to learn from mistakes because of a worldview so circumscribed it can't recognize or assimilate error and a character so rigid it cannot adapt or grow. Indeed, because past proficiency does not guarantee future success, on the probability that Girardi lasts another 3 years I wouldn't hazard a bet.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Figure Sabathia will make Girardi's task easy. Averaging 3.79 pitches per plate appearance, the Twins rate about league in plate discipline. And with his ace receiving a much-need eight day respite, the manager will let C.C go as deep into the game as performance, pluck, endurance, and mettle will carry him.
The pratfall, unfortunately, is apt to occur much later and thus at a moment all the more pivotal. Imagine Game 2 with the still not fully recuperated Pettitte reaching a 100 pitches sometime in the 6th inning or perhaps, in Game 3, while a still young Hughes battles his way into the 7th before his innings totals reach unchartered terrain and his efficacy wanes.
Like most contests between the Yankees and Twins in the postseason, the game will be close at the time. Perhaps, the teams will enter the 6th or 7th tied or with a run separating them. Imagine Pettitte's cunning and guile holding the Twins at bay through six until the aging veteran surpasses the hundred pitch mark and the fatigue sets in. Or perhaps, the fastball and curves Hughes was throwing innings earlier on the corners starts to drift into the zone as he pitches his unprecedented 182nd inning in a season.
The Twins capitalize and within the blink of an eye, mount an incipient rally. A walk, a single, and with runners in scoring position, Joe Mauer waits on deck. And as the momentum suddenly shifts, game and series enter a watershed moment and upon the outcome, the Yankees' post-season fortune suddenly hinges.
The camera, naturally, will pan to the dugout. The shot will frame Joe Girardi frantically flipping through pages in his trusted black binder, searching for the key that will unlock the enigma his decision confronts with him. As usual, the expression on the manager's face will betray everything. The furrows in his forehead will deepen, he'll rock on his haunches, and an unseemly grimace will imply he hasn't had a bowel movement since January.
Having arrived at the answer his homework holds, the diligent student will stride to the mound, signal to the bullpen, and remove his disgruntled starter. Summoning his one and only lefty, Girardi will hand the ball to Boone Logan. But the modest .711 OPS the AL's reigning MVP has compiled against left-handed pitching and the two hits in seven plate appearances he's accumulated against Logan won't matter. Star will abuse novice and double down the line. Still, Girardi made the conventional call. Few can quibble with his decision.
But next ensues the Girardi hallmark-- the decision that defies common sense and eludes cogent reason. It begins with the genuinely perplexing question. Should he stick with Logan to face right-hand hitting Delmon Young because left-hand hitting Thome follows? Young's .927 OPS against lefties certainly excels his .781 against righties, as one might expect, but the disparity in Young's splits pales in comparison to his successor. Thome's OPS is 1.154 against righties and .769 against lefties. Further obscuring the answer, Logan hasn't faced either. Inside the dugout, the spinning wheels accelerate.
Eiland trots out to the mound to stall. Girardi returns to black binder. The camera this time features him riffling its pages frantically for the answer it doesn't contain. "Matchups"-- Girardi's favorite shibboleth for what he may or may not realize are statistically insignificant sample sizes-- won't decide the question. Neutralize Young with Joba or Robertson and lose Logan. Or gamble with Young and neutralize Thome. And the only means the manager has to resolve the dilemma will be to exercise the very faculty in which he has proven time and again he is desperately lacking-- instinctive judgment or if you prefer, intuition. A faculty Girardi's behavior often suggests he doesn't merely distrust but that he, moreover, represses consciously. As such, here is where Girardi, time and again, falters, and the reason why isn't all that opaque or complicated.
So often we hear the cliche about baseball. "Baseball isn't like the other professional team athletics." In baseball, the harder you try, the greater you fail. Batters press. They squeeze the bat. They step in and out of the box as their thoughts overwhelm them. They obsess about the pitcher's repertoire, his situational tendencies, his pitch sequence, prior at-bats against him. On the other end, pitchers, tormented by anxiety or frustration, sabotage their native gifts as well. A starter aims the ball instead of pitching it. He fixates on the umpire or overthrows.
How often, for example, have we observed A-Rod's obsessive conditioning, relentless work ethic, and assiduous study come back to haunt him? How often have his virtues, under pressure, instead of relaxing him, conspired to derail his talent? Or by contrast, how often have we observed the far less talented Jeter marshall his aloof, Olympian coolness and thrive as consequence. So, too, Bernie and his lovable but inscrutably serene abstraction.
Each provides an object lesson in the role the mind plays in baseball. Together, they dramatize the vacant mental state best suited to baseball. The Buddhists call it nirvana-- literally, the extinction of consciousness. For only by extinguishing thought, do we alllow the body's natural instincts, the muscle's ingrained memory, and the athlete's sublimely acute reflexes to assert themselves. Where reason yields, man can react. And in the land of the Diamond, the vacuous mind reigns. (Or in Boston, if you prefer, the Idiot is King.)
No less with managers does this axiom apply. Recall 1995 and the ALDS. Was there ever a more devoted, industrious, intellectually prepared manager than Buck Showalter? Yet in Game 5, after Showalter had exhausted and deflated his closer the two previous nights, he let David Cone nearly destroy his arm by throwing just shy of 150 pitches. Then he removed Mariano Rivera, after he easily retired two batters, only to hand the game to Jack McDowell. I needn't remind how the drama ends. Still, how did Showalter not know he possessed the most dangerous weapon Panama ever created? How could a manager so prepared, so reflective, so knowledgeable about the inner workings of the game possibly blunder? (By the way, it's no accident either that just a year later, the manager whose temperament shared much in common with his captain and his star center-fielder, rehabilitated his closer, discovered the greatest reliever of all-time, and won a World Series with much of the same talent.)
Ah, the fault, dear Brutus, lies deeper within. For high-strung, tightly-wound, smoldering managerial aggression, few but Billy Martin can equal Buck Showalter. Though Girardi certainly belongs in the discussion and therefrom his flaw stems.
Alas, Girardi's temperament less resembles the Yankee manager he once worked for than Joe Torre's predecessor. No one should gainsay Girardi's intellect or fail to applaud his work ethic. But the most innovative and advanced information money can buy are no substitute for receptive instincts and discriminating judgment. In fact, statistics, too often, encourage the fallacy the numbers are clairvoyant. No, like player, like manager, only a mind at ease can intuit the moment and unleash his subconscious to respond accordingly.
The Yankees enter the 2010 post-season, if not necessarily with a less talented team than in '09, than certainly with a older and on paper, less formidable one. As a consequence, Girardi's decisions at critical moments are apt to determine the Yankees' fate more now than before. But in the hours before game time, the manager would better serve his team by spending less time scrutinizing video or studying his opponent's weaknesses or pouring over scouting reports than in a yoga room or with his kids or on the phone with A-Rod's therapist. Whatever it takes to relax him.
Otherwise, when that pivotal moment does arise-- as, no doubt, it will-- Girardi won't use the statistics that crowd his binder. Instead, the statistics inside will use him.
In which case, the only numbers which will matter will inscribe one-way tickets on flights leaving New York.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
The Yankees won a World Series' last year, but it wasn't because of Joe Girardi. To the contrary, they won in spite of him.
For some reason, the frequently mercurial and arbitrary rationale governing Girardi's allocation of his bullpen earned him the extenuating charge of "overmanagement". The characterization is misleading however. Haste is no less culpable a vice than complacency. A manager's consistently premature removal of his relievers jeopardizes his team no less than unwarranted faith in them. The former, in fact, begets the latter. Using and discarding his best relievers, as Girardi so often did through the playoffs, ultimately compelled him to rely on inferior ones. Having deployed and removed Robertson and Chamberlain before circumstances warranted, Girardi had then to rely on the likes of Coke, Hughes (8.54 ERA in the '09 post-season) and Bruney. The most infamous instance cost the Yankees Game 3 of the ALCS and perhaps, Game 5 as well. Mismanagement wears many guises.
Last night in Tampa, a new one arrived. With the Yankees having lost three consecutive games and six of their last seven; with the team playing to decide 1st place; and with the Bombers tied 0-0 in extra-innings against the divisional rival poised to snatch the pennant from them, to whom does the manager entrust the game? One of his most forbidding relief pitchers, Joba Chamberlain? No. One of his most consistent andd reliable arms, David Robertson? No. Instead, the manager selects two of his worst. First, Chad Gaudin. Next, Sergio Mitre. Gaudin comes within one strike of walking in the winning run. Mitre promptly finishes the job by ceding the game winning homerun.
Perhaps, Gaudin and Mitre superficially impressive ERAs hypnotized Girardi. If so, don't let them deceive you. A closer look at the game logs available on Baseball-Reference.Com reveals that Gaudin owes his 4.00 ERA largely to stifling teams like Oakland, Seattle, and Kansas City. Likewise, Mitre and his 3.65 number. Neither fares well against opponents that can hit. AL East teams have a combined .300 batting average against Gaudin in 2010; against Mitre, it's not much better.
Joba Chamberlain, by contrast, despite his inflated 4.72 ERA has amassed a 2.00 ERA over the 18 innings he's pitched since July 30, and through all of 2010, he's held AL East teams to a .215 batting average. While Robertson boasts a 2.64 ERA since the 1st of June.
So with 1st place hanging in the balance and the Yankees in danger of losing for the seventh time in eight games, where exactly were Robertson and Chamberlain? Indeed, after Girardi's baffling decision sealed his team's fate, reporters asked the manager this very question during the ritual post-game interview. Consider not just his guarded and circular responses but his adamant refusal to elaborate upon them.
- Kim Jones: "In the extras, to go Gaudin and Mitre there, in those spots... did you have everyone available?"
- Girardi: "No, I did not... So I used the people available and we'll go from there," says the manager with a dismissive flick of his hand.
- Kim Jones, again, "Any injury concerns there?"
- Girardi: "Well, they've [Chamberlain and Robertson] been used a lot lately so it's something we thought we had to stay away from."
- The Daily News' Mark Feinsand: "Joe, Joba hadn't pitched since Friday, the two days off didn't help?"
- Girardi: "We just thought he needed another day."
- Feinsand: "Was it something you saw?"
- Girardi: "No, No, we just thought he need another day."
- Jones: "Was it the pitchers who indicated to you that something wasn't all right"?
- Girardi: "No, we talk to our guys and make sure they're all right. We communicate with them them and that's what we do."
Unfortunately, the transcription above doesn't fully communicate Girardi's terseness in response. Worse than the manager's condescending refusal to justify why he felt it necessary to rest Chamberlain for a third straight day (or to withhold, Robertson, for a second) are his curt antagonistic tone and his surly contemptuous manner.
Granted, Kim Jones, still, after all these years, can ask some inexplicably foolish and bumptious questions, but her inquiry above reflects the very questions that occurred to practically every Yankee fan watching last night's game and as it happens, to the YES broadcasters calling it.
First of all, unless Chamberlain is injured or has complained of arm fatigue, it defies explanation that he would NOT be available last night. Joba has pitched a sum total of ONE inning since Wednesday, September 8th, five days ago. And Robertson hasn't pitched much more either. He has pitched a sum total of TWO innings in the identical period.
No one denies the value of apportioning relief pitchers' innings and resting their arms as the season nears its end and the team prepares for the probability of playing in the post-season. But the significance of the Yankees' game with the Rays' didn't materialize out of thin air. A pennant race has embroiled the two teams for months now. If Girardi didn't anticipate the importance of having his premiere relievers rested and available in advance of the series, then the manager, at best, has been remiss. Still, Girardi claims he expect his two relievers to be available Tuesday. But what if neither is needed Tuesday or Wednesday? (Thursday happens to be an off-day.)
In that event, Girardi hasn't just been remiss in squandering his best starter's remarkable outing against his team now leading the Yankees in the standings. Should it prove unnecessary, in fact, for Girardi to use either Joba or Robertson Tuesday or Wednesday against the Rays, then Girardi's allocation of his relievers over the last week and a half will look outright delinquent. Don't forget: while ostensibly "conserving" his bullpen, Girardi also deployed his forty-year-old closer Friday night in 90 degree Texas heat-- a Texan heat that contributed to at least two Yankees starters sustaining injuries over the last four seasons.
Watching Joe Girardi's post-game interview last night recalls something The New Yorkers' Roger Angell wrote a few years ago in a review of "The Yankee Years" about the current manager's predecessor. No, Torre can't claim to have distributed the bullpen's workload with any more foresight, prudence, or equity than his successor. Yet as Angell observed, in a game that, too often, encourages men to act like boys, Joe Torre never ceased to play the role of adult among men. (Perhaps, this explains why the Yankee players who deported themsevles likewise through Torre's tenure and continue to do so to this day have stayed so loyal to him.)
Girardi could stand to learn from them a lesson or two in civility and professionalism. Because treating the press like a petulant and antagonistic adolescent would a captious parent, however exasperating the loss, profits no one. We forgive an adult the occasional unhinged outburst. But smoldering disdain leaves a toxic odor that lingers for a considerably longer duration.
After all, professional athletes earn our respect and our admiration through their willingness to fail in public and to stand at their lockers afterward and to endure with stoicism the disappointment and the criticism it incites.
If the Yankees manager can't fulfill the expectations the world asks of his players, when his contract expires, he should do us all a favor and find another job.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
During the winter's cold, dreary months, the Yankees needn't worry that another new York mistress will steal my heart. For no other team commanding my allegiance has won a Championship past my toddling years. And from the events of the last week, it would seem the Knicks aren't likely to fill that void anytime soon.
In the wake of Lebron James' rebuff, many a fellow Knick fan will wish to vent his or her dejection, frustration, and ire upon the athlete who spurned his team and to denounce him for the media circus "His Decision" excited. However justified the sentiment may be justified, its target isn't. Call the "King" what you will; but, he, at most, is the catalyst for our tribe's fury and vexation. Abject failure and risible ineptitude has characterized the Knicks since the time Lebron James attended high school in Akron. And the reasons for it lie in origins older than a single off-season and stem from causes more fundamental than the choices of a few free-agents.
Apprehending the latter begins with the following question: why does the colloborative decision of 3 millionaire athletes to work together generate an outcry while the conspiracy of 32 billionaire owners to cap their wage escapes mention? After all, LeBron James did not create the system where salary caps protect billionaires' pocketbooks, constrict the number of teams eligible to bid, and relegate others to decades of competitive oblivion. Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh did not create a system where one single team actually could afford 3 of the game's top ten players because no other franchise could offer either one individually or all three collectively more money. Nor, of course, did LeBron James create the economic regime that accounts for the same three or four teams representing their conference in the finals every year and for the same five franchises, over the last decade, winning the league's championship. In fact, since the NBA instituted the salary cap for the 1984-5 season, only 7 of the league's 32 teams have won a championship: the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, Spurs, and Heat. By contrast, over the same thirty-five year period, SEVENTEEN different Major League Baseball teams have won the World Series.
Critics nonetheless complain all the time about Major League Baseball's revenue disparities, competitive imbalances, and its players' inflated contracts. Yet the Miami Heat just accomplished a feat equivalent to signning Albert Puljols, Hanley Ramirez, and Joe Mauer and no one decries the NBA's financial system. Not even the Yankees have the financial wherewithal to match such gluttony, signing 3 of the game's best and youngest players to six year contracts while they're still in their prime. Of course, that's because, in baseball, Puljols, Ramirez, and Mauer earn an amount commensurate to their worth.
THE TYRANNY OF LITTLE LORD JIM
Sure, LeBron James may imagine himself the "King," but Knicks fans shouldn't let the presumption fool them. He is not the sovereign responsible for the Reign of Errancy that has cast a pall over the Garden and has turned the name "Knickerbocker"-- a name steeped in the pride and dignity of Dutch New Amsterdam-- into a word synonymous with epic pettiness, paranoia, and melodrama in the executive suite and chronic losing, failure, and farce on the court.
How else to characterize the stewardship of an owner who prizes subservience to success? How else to judge a CEO who rewards incompetent GMs because they are servile and ingratiating but who dismisses ingenious coaches and trades gifted players because they are outspoken and defiant? How else should we judge an executive as transfixed by his competitors' advertising billboards as their basketball talent? How else do we regard a businessman who decides the most effective way to forestall bad press isn't to address the ineptitude accountable for generating it but instead to intimidate the journalists responsible for reporting it? How else to perceive the son who stands to inherit a media empire but whose own father appoints him to manage an entertainment arena because there, he, ostensibly, can inflict less damage? (Little did the father suspect that his idiot son would generate so much unflattering press he'd come to personify his family's entire operation.)
Yes, James Dolan's sovereign idiocy has ruled Madison Square Garden for eleven years now. So pathetically deluded is the man, in fact, that he confuses necessity with courage. "It takes courage to play where the lights shine brightest," Dolan said about the Knicks' acquisition of Amar'e Stoudemire. Courage? Only if valor includes a surgically-repaired knee, a league-maximum un-insured contract, and a $100 million dollars.
Few failed, of course, to miss the veiled slight contained beneath the facile praise. Cablevision's entitled son may possesses a little more tact perhaps than Kwik and Loans' founder but they share the identical sense of entitlement. Like Dan Gilbert, Dolan intended to deprecate the character and to question the heart of a player who possessed the ability and the discretion to refuse him. After all, why should the NBA's most coveted player select a team that has accumulated the league's worst winning percentage since 2002? Why would he join a franchise that even with his own addition has little chance to win a championship? Why should he choose to play for an owner eligible to bid on him only by accident? Indeed, who knows that but for Anucha Brown Sanders' lawsuit and David Stern's plaintive urging, the man James Dolan recently dispatched as his emissary to court the King might still be running the Knickerbockers. God bless the sexual harassment suit! No, the only MSG entertainment, at present, that rightfully deserves the lion-hearted is the circus-- the Ringling Brother's, that is, not the Knickbockers'.
IN PRAISE OF VISIONARY TYRANTS
Of course, in his thin-skinned self-pity and vindictive paranoia, Little Lord Jim has inspired comparison with another infamous tyrant who haunted New York sports for decades. His recent death, no doubt, will inspire eulogies that soften or expurgate his worst cruelties and excesses; that exaggerate his nobility, generosity, and compassion; and that credit him with historical legacy he probably doesn't deserve. A sentimental distortion about which I've written before. (http://theyankeesrepublic.blogspot.com/2009/03/boss-turtleneck-last-yankee-king.html)
In fact, I can't help recalling that famous cover Sports Illustrated published in 1993 upon Steinbrenner's return to baseball following his second suspension.(http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/featured/9370/index.htm)
Dressing the Boss in King George's garments titillated at the time, but perhaps Napoleon's garb would have been more symbolically apt. Sure, the Emperor conjures an image of the tyrant par excellence, the man whose appetite for empire no amount of conquest could sate. But Napoleon, in conquest, also heralded liberation. He emancipated peoples enslaved and disenfranchised for centuries by Popes and Kings, ushering the Enlightenment into the heart of benighted Europe and projecting East the liberty, egalite, and fraternity the Rights of Man contemplated.
Likewise, for all his abuses and depredations, Steinbrenner emancipated the professional athlete from the clutches of owners' exploitation, parsimony, and prejudice. Capitalizing on Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson's availability, he built the Yankees Empire but in doing so, also eliminated the last vestiges of the reserve clause's oppression and commencing the era of free agency.
A visionary leadership responsible not only for resurrecting baseball's preeminent franchise from the moribund futility to which CBS's neglect had consigned them, but also for inaugurating the team-owned, regional sports network and raising the value of his team by over a hundred times the amount he paid for it.
It was also Steinbrenner's founding and launching of the YES Network, in fact, that provoked his turf battle with Little Lord Jim. And the lawsuit the Dolans' instigated to abort the YES Network before its birth exemplifies much of the difference between Little Lord Jim and Emperor George III and the diametrically divergent fortunes their teams have enjoyed under their respective tutelage.
The Dolans, on the other hand, illustrate the insidious complacency and ruthless incompetence all monopolies breed. When faced with upstart rivals, monopolies don't endeavor to improve their own product to stave off the competition. They don't adapt to new cirumstances. They don't rejuvenate their infrastructure. They don't innnovate and invent new products or search out new revenue streams. Instead, they throttle the competition. They muster their political power to abort its inception or they throttle it through litigation. Tactics the Dolans have deployed over and over again, whether to derail the Stadium the Jets envisioned on the West Side Long Island railyards or whether to deny the YES network access on Cablevision systems.
It should surprise no one then that under Little Lord Jim's stewardship the Knicks entrusted their franchise to a charlatan who ensnared it in a salary straitjacket and slowly mortgaged its future while ownership did nothing. Celebrated coaches and talented players with the temerity to defy him Little Lord Jim fired or ordered traded. While to this day for his former GM's ingratiating smile and shrewd obedience, the Monopolist rewards him still. Rumors already abound of the charlatan's imminent return.
For seven years, the expiration date on LeBron James' contract read July 1, 2010. For seven years, "the King" spoke of transforming his star into an international icon and the fertile opportunities America's media capital presented. For seven years, the man galivanted about New York City effusing with affection for its vitality. For seven years, he attended Cleveland Indians games, flaunting a Yankee cap and touting the Bombers' commitment to excellence. For seven years, he acknowledged the thrill playing at Madison Square Garden represented.
Yet for the first five of those seven years, Little Lord Jim approved trade after trade and ratified contract after contract that made acquiring the one athlete that could transform his franchise's woeful fate less and less a possibility. Were it not for Anucha Brown Sanders' charges and David Stern's urging, indeed the False Prophet Isiah still might be nodding and smiling while the organization he led burned.
Credit Donnie Walsh for managing in two years to remedy enough of his predecessor's damage simply to offer him a contract. But qualifying for seat to bid isn't quite the same as winning the auction. And the five years of executive complacency and misprision that preceded Walsh unfortunately prevented him from offering the King the very thing the Emperor could offer Reggie Jackson thrity-four years earlier; could promise him indeed the very thing every professional athlete cherishes, above all-- the opportunity to win and to win as often as possible in the limited time his game gives to him. Who better than Steinbrenner to know about greatness and egomania and to woo Reggie with the narcissist's most coveted role-- the opportunity to play Messiah and to lead his team into the Promised Land after years of futility, ignominy, and aimless wandering.
Of course, the Little Lord Jim didn't entertain the possibility. No, the entitled son of Cablevision thought too highly of New York's innate appeal and to the promise he could offer of acceding to the billionaire's throne, just like him. Indeed, about what product does the cable billionaire know more or is he more equipped to sell than his own sense of entitlement? What could James Dolan possible know, after all, about "courage"?
THE CIRCUS IS COMING
You can, if you wish, choose to believe the Garden's premiere clown or its amateur conspiracy theorist and to excuse the near decade long reign of errancy that Donnie Walsh ended only yesterday.
It may rankle less to think that as Spike Lee claims, "it was rigged." That James, Wade, and Bosh conspired years ago to play together and intended from the outset, besides, to do so for the Heat and in Miami besides. From which it follows naturally that the Knicks are free from blame and maybe, it's true that after the years of havoc, Isiah Thomas wreaked, the franchise couldn't redeem itself. By 2008, the team couldn't recover quickly enough both to assemble a contending roster AND to secure cap room to offer three free-agents maximum contracts.
But one inconvenient fact belies the argument. Dwayne Wade didn't invoke his Larry Bird rights. He didn't sign with Miami for the additional $30 or so million the Heat could pay him. You see, were Wade, Bosh, and James determined to play for one of their three original teams precisely so the host player could reap the extra-money, then indeed, their collaboration would have foreclosed the Knicks. Only Dwayne Wade signed for $3 million LESS than Bosh and James ($107 million to $110). What this means is that had Isiah Thomas' Eddie Curry albatross not still encumbered the Knicks payroll, Walsh could have opened enough space in New York's payroll for all three players and would have occupied a position no less advantageous than the Heat. The Big Three might have decided, in advance, to play together but who says they necessarily decided to do so in Miami? Who says New York wouldn't have attracted them had the Knicks been in a financial position to crown them its Royal Family?
Of course, perhaps the latest dream the Garden is pandering already has persuaded you to renew your season tickets, to continue to tune to MSG, and to cultivate the hope that Carmelo and Paul will join Stoudemire to save the Knicks. And if you believe that, well, I have a team to sell you in Brooklyn. For at the Garden these days only clownish escapades, circus melodrama, and magic illusion seems to grow.
Thanks, but no thanks. While Kobe and James vie for supremacy and one of the NBA's Elite 7 franchises racks up yet another championship, I'll conserve the time, money, and energy and in the dark and frigid depths of winter, warm my heart beside baseball's Hot Stove, where free enterprise percolates, where competition sizzles, where balmy Bronx summers loom around the corner and where the Emperor's legacy burns forever bright.
For to err is Dolan; but to see the future is Stein.
Friday, May 28, 2010
"Basketball scorers count mechanical errors, but those are a record of objective facts: team A has the ball, then team B has the ball... But the fact of a baseball error is that no play has been made but that the scorer thinks it should have. It is, uniquely, a record of opinions" -- Bill James
If you’ve ever instinctively recoiled at a statistic that could reckon Derek Jeter the worst shortstop in baseball or doubted a respected front-office's decision to replace Mike Lowell with Adrian Beltre and Jason Bay with Mike Cameron, a recent article in New York magazine will vindicate your skepticism.
In “Database Loaded,” (New York, April 18, 2010) author Will Leitch sheds light on the arcane world of defensive metrics. And in explaining how they operate, the author unearths many of the subjective judgments, speculative assumptions, and dubious conclusions that characterize them.
Space and audience constrain Leitch from an exhaustive accounting of their infirmities or a thorough consideration of their more far-reaching implications. But in following him one step further, the flaws he identifies beg the question whether (1) the obstacles to quantifying players' defense aren't inherent and insuperable and whether (2) metrics that further presume to calibrate it in runs notwithstanding possess any real utility at all.
Now, this isn’t to join the obscurants who summarily dismiss sabermetrics and/or disparage those who formulate them. As the foundation of the old baseball Establishment’s power and privileges crumble and fade and the grizzled, tobacco-chewing lifers abdicate power to the overeducated Excel specialists, the last redoubt of the old-time religion is defended by the Yahoos.
Item: Among the phalanx of pitch-fork populists who dominate WFAN’s airwaves, one recently derided sabermetricians as “40-year-old virgins, who work at Burger King and live in their mother’s basement.” (About which one might object, "Joe, you've overestimated by at least twenty-five years. By the law of averages, at least a few sabermetricians had to have gone to high school with your daughter.")
THE SABERMETRIC REVOLUTION & THE NEW FRONTIER
Yet in their nostalgia for the pecking order of high school, what the Yahoos overlook is that the athletically-challenged "nerds" and "geeks" they once scorned have acceded to the GM's throne in organization after organization for a reason. The quantitative analysis at which they excelled held elementary insights into the game and profound wisdom about its players the cigar-chompers had ignored. One day, long ago, visionaries like Bill James had cleared a path through the trees and opened for them a new world.
James had detected the biases and inadequacies inherent in old statistical staples like RBIs, batting averages, and fielding errors-- fallacies that were perhaps self-evident but that no one had pondered thoroughly enough to recognize. For example, the conventional wisdom regarded a .300 batting average and 100 RBIs as the hallmarks of great hitter. No one had stopped to see the obvious: that a hitter cannot earn a “run batted in” unless the players preceding him in the lineup have reached base before him. 100 RBIs could as easily attach to a player of Lou Gehrig’s caliber as Wally Pipp’s. Indeed, during the 1920s, it did. Pipp amassed 109 RBIs in 1923, however, chiefly because the player hitting third, one ahead of him, reached base in an extraordinary 54.5% (.545) of his plate appearances that year. (Guess who he was?)
By contrast, newer metrics like RISP and OBA—a hitter’s batting average with “runners-in-scoring-position” (RISP) and on-base percentage (OBA)— judged hitters far more on their individual merits and thus served as more effective and reliable analytic tools. Leitch observes how commonly recognized RBI's falsities have become. But I, for one, am still old enough to recall a time when through the 70s and 80s, Phil Rizzuto, Frank Messer, and Bill White could broadcast an entire season of Yankee games without ever once discussing a player’s on-base percentage or commenting on his plate discipline or mentioning his proficiency at accumulating walks.
Probably not until Michael Lewis’ Moneyball illustrated how the Oakland Athletics capitalized on OBA to acquire players the marketplace undervalued did the newer metrics enter the broadcast vernacular. But by then, the Wall Street whiz kids running things had discarded OBA and were seeking out newer tools to identify players whose price didn’t reflect their value. After all, once an innovation develops into a staple, it no longer confers a competitive advantage.
Enter the New Frontier, defensive metrics—statistics that can tell the forward-thinking GM which players’ deft fieldwork, sweeping range, and supple glove can prevent runs but whose salary doesn't yet reflect the win values his skills confer.
The two defensive metrics which have acquired the greatest currency, Leitch explains, are Runs Saved (RS) and UZR (Ultimate Zone rating). The former, RS, John Dewan’s company, Baseball Info Solutions, devised, with help, no doubt, from Bill James. (Baseball Info Solution’s website lists the Master as a consultant.) The latter, UZR, sabermetrician Michael Lichtman, developed; the findings, for which, his FanGraphs website publishes. While Leitch happens to focus on Dewan’s RS metric, it also notes that in logic, method, scale, and above all, in the totals they assign most players, the two metrics differ very little.
Leitch's article carries significance for a number of reasons. Although baseball journalists and commentator cite or mention these defensive metrics all the time, few actually have taken the time to explain how they operate: Leitch does. Secondly, Leitch identifies much of the technological void that besets their method and the fundamental guesswork that necessarily burden their data. Above all, Leitch conveys, without necessarily stating it explictly, how misleading defensive metrics' pretense is to tabulate a mathematically certain result.
The "Runs Saved" statistic may suggest a mirror image of the "Runs Created" figure James conceived for hitting [(Hits + Walks) * TB/ (At Bats +Walks)] (since refined). They both, after all, reckon their totals in baseball's precious currency-- runs. But the result of tallying up a players' Runs Created and Runs Saved to derive a total picture of his run value wouldn't differ too much from adding the price of a Rogers Centre's ticket and one from Yankee Stadium to project the total cost of a Blue Jays-Yankees home-and-home series. Sure, both franchises denominate their tickets in dollars. Only the Blue Jays' ticket prices reflect Canadian currency.
No, the analogy isn't exact because prices are set not derived. Still, enough fanciful conjecture, subjective judgment, speculative assumption, and fundamental bias riddle the "Runs Saved" model that the defects raise the question whether the final numbers tally anything useful at all.
RUNS SAVED: THE NEW DOMINO THEORY?
According to Leitch, Dewan's "Runs Saved" statistic propelled much of the Boston Red Sox's off-season and in particular, inspired the organization's decision to replace Lowell with Beltre and Bay with Cameron. I find it difficult to believe that a GM of Epstein's competence and with the critical intelligence a legal education should instill could examine the RS metric's methodology and take them at face value. Though it wouldn’t be the first time the hubris of the New Frontier's Best and Brightest courted a tragic fall.
Whatever the case may be, let’s use Boston’s hot-corner to illustrate a few of the RS metric's many frailties.
Baseball Info Solution judges the two third-baseman as follows: “Adrian Beltre made 26 more plays than the average third-baseman, saving 21 runs [while] Mike Lowell made 23 fewer plays than the average, costing his team 18 runs.”
• Beltre +26 made plays vs average 3d baseman-- which translates into a Runs Saved = 21
· Lowell -23 made plays vs. the average 3d baseman-- translating into a RS = (-18)
The above numbers encourage, but do not justify, the following deduction. Had Beltre played third-base instead of Lowell in 2009, the Red Sox would have allowed 39 less runs (21 – (-18)) and in turn, won about five more games.
Actual Red Sox Runs Allowed in 2009 (Lowell) = 736
Projected Runs Allowed in 2009 (Beltre) = 687.
(RS^2/RA^2 + RS^2) = expected winning percentage = Δ(.031) = 5 wins
The problem, however, is the human bias upon which the numbers rest.
Recall what James once said about the error statistic: "It is, uniquely, a record of opinions." Elide the "uniquely" and one could as easily have characterized Runs Saved's methodology. Subjectivity and conjecture abound.
According to Leitch’s article, Dewan employs 15 to 20 video scouts and charges them with watching every single game played during a season and logging every ball’s destination on a grid divided into 3,000 zones and superimposed over the playing field.
“'Each of our video scouts has a computer screen with a replica of the field... We mark the exact location and velocity of everything,'" Dewan told Leitch, "At the end of the season, Dewan has a complete log of every  hit to each of roughly 3,000 zones." Exact? No, not really. 3,000 zones spread over the 90,000 sq. ft. of the average MLB ballpark's fair territory still leaves a considerable margin for error. In baseball, remember, mere inches determine seasons. Even less exactitude characterizes hits' velocity and their type. See below.
A hypothetical record looks as follows:
• Location = Zone 187° /290’
· Velocity = Medium (or Fast or Slow)
· Type = Fly Ball (or Grounder, or Line Drive, or Fliner.)
What the hell is a “fliner,” you ask? Or what speed qualifies as “medium”? Or upon reviewing the hit recorded above, would all 20 video scouts, for example, have agreed independently on its taxonomy? And by the way, where does the above log account for the angle of trajectory, spin, and precise vector. How does the model adjust for variations in ballparks’ s square footage? What about where the relevant fielder was positioned when the ball landed in Zone 187° /290’?
APPLYING THE DATA
Once they compile the raw data, they apply it as follows. From what I can gather, the computer model, more or less, simulates the computer matrix AVM Systems devised for the Oakland Athletics and the operation of which Lewis describes in Moneyball.
The market for security derivatives, evidently, inspired the model and informs its logic. Derivatives-- at least, as I understand them--value and trade in an individual securities' component parts. Likewise, each subdivision among Dewan's 3,000 zones receives a run value. The value stems from the average run contribution balls hit to that zone have produced over the last ten years, given x outs and y runners on base.
To see how this works, first imagine a hypothetical 2009 game. (Keep in mind: I've arbitrarily invented the actual run values for purposes of the illustration.) In the first inning, Derek Jeter hits the ball and winds up on second base with no out. Jeter, accordingly, has created 0.7 runs for the Yankees because over the last ten years, every MLB team has scored, on average, 0.7 runs when a lead-off runner has reached 2nd base with no outs.
Of course, Johnny Damon, next at-bat, will alter the game situation and in turn, the Yankees' likelihood of scoring runs. Damon either will reach base or generate an out. The first increases the Yankees chance to score; the latter diminishes it. So let's say, Damon hits a seeing-eye single (grounder) that that travels (fast) to Zone#187/290 through the hole between third and short. Whether Jeter or not scores, Damon will receive a Runs Created number equal to the average number of runs teams have scored in identical situations over the last ten years. Because over the last ten years, every hit recorded at Zone#200 with a runner on second-base and no one out has resulted in the hitting team scoring on average 1.1 runs, Damon will receive a Runs Created value of + 0.4. Conversely, on the fielding team, the out Mike Lowell failed to record will earn him a negative Runs Saved value. Rather than simply assigning Lowell the inverse (-0.4), the model will assign his Run Saved debit based upon the average performance of 3d baseman in fielding fast grounders hit to Zone #187/290 with a runner on second base and no one out and the average run credit/debit it realized for his team.
Sounds eminently valid, no? The problem, of course, is you can't simply equate Damon's batted ball to Zone 187/290 with every other one that travelled there over the last ten years. Each one has its own precise speed, angle of trajectory, vector, spin, and type. And because our current technology does not (or cannot) permit us to measure the latter variables with precision, Dewan's log doesn't record them and human error necessarily enters instead.
Neither, of course, does the model, account for the Red Sox’s positioning of Lowell? It assumes the difference between where Lowell and every other third baseman throughout the league has positioned himself the last ten years doesn't differ significantly in distance. Further imprecisions stem from definition. Dewan's metric, evidently, doesn't register recorded outs. (It can't right? Who records the out, 3d baseman or 1st baseman). RS's metric unit is "plays made." But what precisely qualifies as "a play made"? Does merely fielding the ball qualify as a "play made"? What if Lowell caught the ball but didn't throw it because he wanted to hold Jeter at 3b?
Does the system account for the play that saves the run but doesn't record the out? Or what if Lowell fielded the ball but then Damon's speed forced an errant throw at 1B? Is that a "play made"? What if Youklis' agile stretch at 1b compensated for Lowell's throw? Is that a "play made"? What if Lowell holds the ball, baits Jeter, and tags him running to 3rd? Is that a "play made"?
As you can see, the “Plus/Minus” figure still may carry some heuristic value. But with all of its flaws, converting the number into Runs Saved further compounds the conjecture and the unreliability of the result. Think about it. How many shortstops' defense actually improves with age? Jeter's Runs Saved total was -23 as recently as 2007 (and as low as -28 in 2005) but tallied a +2 in 2009. Hey, the Captain's accomplishments never ceases to amaze me. But could Jeter actually have defied everything we know about the shortstops' historical performance, skill regression, and the aging process and not only dramatically elevated his defensive play at the age of 35 but improved it by 25 runs besides. And if not, what value is there in a metric that insists upon calculating its value in a "runs saved" that doesn't share an identity with the runs scored on the field?
HITING V. FIELDING: INCOMMENSURABLES?
Advances in technology may augment these metrics' accuracy but they may never match the validity and utility of hitting statistics. In fact, by calibrating players’ defense in runs, defensive metrics obscure the fundamental difference between fielding and hitting and encourages the misconception that a perfect identity exists in their scales.
“A hitter’s job is easy to quantify: He succeeds in getting on base (or hitting the ball out of the park) or he doesn’t. But countless variables can affect whether a fielder even has a chance to make an error: where’s he’s positioned, how quickly he reacts to the ball of the bat, what route he takes toward it, how quickly he gets the ball out of his glove, how hard he throws the ball to another fielder… But how do you decide whether the left-fielder should have been in a better position to catch a shallow, looping fly ball…It’s an extremely structured method of collating subjective judgments."
Leitch is right, of course, but not precisely correct. Batting statistics do indeed owe their simplicity and their validity to quantifying (1) an empirical fact—a batter either hits the ball or doesn’t— and (2) a uniform and binary outcome— he either reaches base or he induces an out.
Yet strictly speaking, fielding statistics also measure a verifiable either/or result as well: (1) a fielder either "made the play" (so defined) or he didn't. As argued above, the ambiguity, in part, springs from the definition. What qualifies, that is, as a "made play" deserving of '+'? Simply fielding the ball or actually recording the out? If Lowell dives, gloves the ball, and bounds to his feet, does he have to throw Damon out at 1st or does holding Jeter at 3d qualify? Does "plays made" quantify the smart but prosaic play, the time when Lowell held the ball and yielded the infield hit to prevent the runner from scoring, and how does it weigh it against the consistently spectatacular but foolish play that sacrifices a run to an out? (Think Robinson Cano in the latter instance)?
But the inchoate definition points to a more endemic ambiguity. I imagine the metric tabulates "plays made" rather than "recorded out" because a recorded out frequently implicates multiple players the ultimate credit for which, it's impossible to assign. If Lowell happens to record the out only because Youklis' deftness saves the errant throw, does the 1b deserve the credit or does the 3b for giving Youklis the chance to begin with?
Hitters enter the batter’s box alone. Hit, walk, strikeout, or homerun— on his team, he alone, controls the outcome. Opposite him, only the pitcher compares in agency; and eight teammates still support him. Isolating, let alone, quantifying a single fielder’s influence on his team’s fate, on the other hand, introduces a range of variables and a labyrinth of complexity belonging to another order of magnitude entirely.
Compare the relative simplicity in isolating the dependent variables that influence hitting stats. In the above hypothetical, Johnny Damon's Rund Created credit of 0.4, for example, depends upon the pitcher, the ballpark, or the opposition's fielding proficiency, among other factors. (And the unbalanced schedule means that Damon's runs creation incorporates a disproportionately greater number of AL East pitchers, ballparks, and opponents' fielders over the last ten years than average.) But then again, the batted ball of every other hitter in the American League is disproportionately weighted in an identical respect and it's an average of them that determines the run value of Damon's batted ball.
More importantly, the most influential variable of all-- the pitcher whom Damon faces-- changes once, at least, every game. As a consequence, we can't attribute Damon's total Runs Created to his aberrant success against any one particular pitcher. Conversely, a pitcher's Fielding Independent Pitching Statistics--strikeouts, walks, homeruns-- enjoy a parallel independence because of the myriad number and variety of hitters he faces.
Not so with fielders however. Mike Lowell played 107 games at third-base in 2009. He played almost all of them with Nick Green or Julio Lugo at SS, Youklis at 1B, and Jason Bay in the outfield. How much of Lowell's -23 "plays made" and -18 Runs Saved is owed to the inadequacies of his adjacent fielders? If Adrian Beltre had had to play alongisde of Nick Green and Jason Bay in 2009, how many fewer "plays made" would he have recorded in Zones around 3d baseman, for example, or in foul left-field because he had to shade to his left to compensate for his shortstop's and left-fielder's shortcomings? The Red Sox replaced all three this off-season. Perhaps, they apprehended the inherent difficulty of assigning responsibility for the inordinate number of balls that fell on that side of that side of the field to any one of them.
PITCHER OR FIELDER: WHOSE BALL IS IT ANYWAY?
But it isn't merely a matter of separating one fielder's responsibility from another. Beneath rhe runs saved concept lies our ignorance of the respective contribution of fielders' and pitchers' on the ball in play.
Recall the insight Voros McCracken discovered about pitching that Moneyball's chapter on Chad Bradford discusses. The reason why Earned Run Average doesn't gauge pitcher's performance accurately is because as it turns out, hits-- and by extension, the runs generated from them-- depends too greatly on both the fortuity of the ball’s bounce and his fielders' proficiency. McCracken found that the ERA's of pitchers like Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson fluctuated too widely from year to reflect their efficacy. Only outcomes they alone controlled-- strike outs, walks, and home runs-- showed the uniformity indicative of their consistent dominance on the mound.
This doesn't mean the pitcher exerts zero influence on whether a hitter sets a ball in play. It only means we haven't yet been able to quantify it. Quoth James, Baseball Abstract, p. 885 "A pitcher does have some input into the hits/inning ration behind him, other than that which is reflected in the home run and strike out column."
The converse of which is necessarily true as well. Upon balls set in play, we can't quantify the relative influence of the fielder either. How much of Mike Lowell's and Adrian Beltre's '+/-' and "Runs Saved" totals, therefore, reflect the idiosyncratic abilities and deficiencies of the Red Sox's and Mariners' pitching staffs? Seattle yielded the fewest runs (689) of any team in the AL in 2009. So too, their pitching staff's park-adjusted ERA+ of 113 led the league. To whom, do we credit the feat: the guy on the mound or the eight men surrounding him?
Why is this signficant? Why do we need to quantify the relative contribution of pitcher and fielder? Because what does it matter that Beltre saved 21 runs above the average 3rd baseman if you can’t calculate how this 21 Run Saved figures in the 689 runs his team allowed? One cannot simply deduce that with the average 3d baseman the Mariners would have allowed 21 more (689 +21 = 710) because we don't know how many runs the Mariners' pitchers would have prevented regardless. Consequently, we can't translate Beltre's Runs Saved figure into the most important knowledge of all: how many wins did the Mariners' accrue because of him?
E PLURUBUS UNUM: A ROMANTIC'S DISSENT
Baseball assumed the title of "The American Pastime" for a myriad reasons owing to the institution's history and pedigree. But one reason often overlooked is symbolic one--the identity its character shares in common with the nation itself.
For alone among the country's three professional team sports, baseball embodies America in microcosm. It captures the tension roiling within a pluralistic society committed, at once, to forging a cohesive nation out of a motley immigrant people and at the same time, to honoring the principle of individual freedom. In team athletics, the confrontation between pitcher and batter, resembling as it does individual sport like a tennis match, is inimitable. From this individual contest suspended within the matrix of a group competition evolves baseball's unique fetish of numbers. What's more, upon it rests our county's peculiar fixation with individual merit and our celebration of the pastime as a Platonic arena which rewards it.
It perhaps also drives the compulsion to break the game down into its component parts and to place a value on each. More ominously, it may also enourage the hubris that we can. The scientific method, you see, is a seductive temptress. No sooner did Newton, for example, demonstrate we could apprehend much of our world through mathematical formula than did many come to believe we could explain all of it as such. That with scientific advances and technological progress, we could unlock the key to human history, to war and peace, to surfeit and famine, to eternal economic plenty, political freedom, and human happiness and to reduce it to universally applicable formula. Then, one day a mustachioed tyrrant (or two) actually tried to implement it. And in trying to order the fate of millions, his sacrifice of million gave wicked illustration to the limits of empirical formula in comprehending social behavior and in measuring human motive and desire. The Age of Reason had made fools of us all.
This isn't to imply anything sinister about sabermetrics of course or to make common cause with the Yahoos who deny its revelations. I merely wish to sound a cautionary note. To warn how little space lies between James' insight that statistics contains hidden truths about the game the naked eye cannot see to the leap that statistics contain all of them. To dispute that with the latest technology and the right formula we can quantify and ultimately explain everything from the precise interrelation of hitting and fielding on runs to how adjacent fielders' proficiency affect their performance to how and why hitters inexplicably enter slumps and just as precipitately emerge from them.
For at some point we will reach the tipping point. Imponderables like herd behavior and attribution bias and bystander effect will manifest to thwart logic and reason. And the mysteries that enshroud the game will announce they forever elude us.
And when the day arrives, may we have the wisdom to recognize it. More importantly, may we have the gratitude to welcome it. For that's the day the science of baseball will yield to the art of baseball and it will inspire the silent awe worthy of the sublime.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
As so often in the repetitive and trite debates that dominate the media’s sports coverage, the dispute about how Joba Chamberlain best serves his team has obscured a series of far more important questions the young pitcher’s career raises about his franchise and its future. Now that management has consigned to the bullpen the most promising young phenom New York has witnessed since Dwight Gooden, fans, again, need to ask whether the Yankees front-office is capable of identifying, nurturing, and developing starting pitching.
Following the 2005 season, after all, Cashman’s ascendance and the Boss’ retreat was to have marked a seismic change in this regard. Perhaps, for the first time in the Steinbrenner era, the organization acknowledged the importance of cultivating its own starters. Cashman revamped his amateur and pro scouting departments, and within a few short years, the Yankees started to tout the wealth of young pitching prospects their farm system boasted. Hughes, Chamberlain, and Kennedy and just a few steps behind them, Russ Ohlendorf, Humberto Sanchez, Alan Horne, Jeff Marquez, Daniel McCutchen, Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances-- altogether, they supposedly, heralded a new era. No longer would the Yankees have to depend on the inefficient free-agent market and improvident trades to build a rotation.
With a rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Vasquez set to open the 2010 season, it appears very little has changed in the Bronx however. Hughes’ expected start on April 15 may comfort some, but it’s been 3 years since his first start in the major leagues and he has yet to complete more than 72 innings in that capacity. While Andy Pettitte, pitching perhaps in his final season, perfectly symbolizes the ongoing problem.
For not since Pettitte himself burst into the 1995 rotation has the Yankees’ farm system produced one of those hardy, mettlesome, 26-and-under rotation staples that organizations depend upon each season for 200 or more quality innings as their front-office milks him through four to six years of non-negotiable offers, niggling arbitrations, and below-market contracts. No Halladay. No Lester or Beckett. No Bedard. No James Shields. No Verlander. No Buehrle. No Sabathia. No Santana. No Lackey. No King Felix. No Zito, Mulder, or Hudson. The Yankees amateur draft hasn’t selected Him. Their international scouts haven’t signed Him. And the GM’s office hasn’t traded for Him. Through the Bronx a procession of stunted prospects, fragile arms, tantalizing impostors, and discarded talent has come and gone instead: Milton, Westbrook, Lily, Irabu, Weaver, Kennedy, and Wang. And neither Chamberlain nor Hughes has shown, to date, he won’t follow right behind them.
During the era’s first decade, one needn’t look beyond the owner’s box to find an explanation for the futility. The Boss had sacked, demoted, or marginalized his most discerning evaluators and had elevated toadying underlings. Until 2005, Brian Cashman occupied the GM’s office but possessed it in name alone. He was hardly a figurehead however. To the contrary, the nominal GM orchestrated the trade of the only two young prospects among the lot who burgeoned into, if not aces, then certainly fixtures of their teams’ rotation, Westbrook in Cleveland and Lily in Oakland and Toronto. True, Cashman’s gamble on recruiting Sabathia and Burnett with money, generous compliments, and solicitous reassurance— an underappreciated skill in a GM however large the wallet he wields – instead of trading Hughes for Santana rewarded him with a World Series.
Nonetheless, the Yankees fifteen-year-long failure to accomplish what every other AL franchise, save perhaps the Texas Ranger, has achieved in the interim-- to acquire or to develop that young stalwart who can anchor their rotation at negligible cost for years to come-- blights this franchise and imperils its future. As Joel Sherman recently observed, in 2013, four Yankees, 33 and older, will consume $90 million in payroll—Sabathia, Burnett, A-Rod, Teixeira and that still excludes the approximately $20 million Jeter, in addition, will earn. Relying on the free-agent market to fill a rotation ultimately exacts a toll. The question is only when it accrues. And for the cost and its consequence, Cashman should not escape responsibility.
Unfortunately, the yellow journalism that colors practically all sports coverage these days from print to radio to television conceives the world in two dimensions and projects it in black-and-white. Winners are geniuses. Losers are fools. The 2008 Cashman whose season ended in September became the petulant, blinkered little drone who’d assigned two rookies to his rotation and then whined when the press blamed him for the consequences. The 2010 Cashman whose team won the World Series became the astute, shrewd visionary because he obtained a starter with a lifetime 4.45 ERA in the American League. Of course, Cashman is neither prodigy nor fool. At some duties he excels. Notably, at bargaining and at recruiting. Rival GMs can’t fleece the Yankees anymore. (Where the Boss mortgaged the future for the likes of Phelps, Rhoden, Barfield, and Henderson; Cashman forbears.) Likewise, he deals well with agents, his recent contretemps with Boras over Damon notwithstanding. In signing Sabathia and snaring Teixeira, he shone. In player development, however, his office ranks somewhere between mediocre and wanting. The ongoing failure to harvest major league starters offsets its success in cultivating middle-relievers and in procuring supplemental bench players and some promising hitting and catching prospects.
The failure reaches far beyond the identifying, drafting, and signing of amateur talent. The problem may not even implicate the selection process at all. No, Joba’s fate and Chien-Ming Wang before him raises questions about the Yankees’ nurturing and development process. It hardly seems coincidental that abrupt and mysterious velocity deficits, suddenly, befell both Wang and Chamberlain as starters. And in each instance, Cashman continued to start them notwithstanding. In Wang’s case, they promoted a pitcher with one rotator cuff surgery already in his pedigree after a mere three minor league starts. Three starts, as it happens, in none of which Wang’s velocity had recovered its earlier heights. Cashman still assigned Wang to the bullpen and then moved him into the rotation. Two months and six starts later, still languishing at 91-92 mph instead of his usual 95-96, the Taiwanese Wunderkind tore the rotator cuff yet again. And the career of the Yankees’ most prodigious home-grown starter in a decade came to an unceremonious end after a mere two seasons in which he’d completed 200 innings. (Compare, by contrast, the Red Sox’s handling of Matsuzaka under similar circumstances; see “Free Wang, Curb Cashman,” Yankees Republic, May 27, 2009)
A similar fate, more recently, has afflicted Joba Chamberlain. The oft-repeated cliché ascribes his diminished fastball to deficiencies of character and/or stamina. Joba feeds on adrenaline he can’t sustain over six or seven innings. Hence, he belongs in the bullpen. Premise and conclusion conveniently ignore Chamberlain’s twelve starts in 2008 in the major leagues and his starts in the minor leagues in 2007. To illustrate just how spectacular Chamberlain was in 2008, compare his 12 starts in 2008 to Hughes’ 13 starts in 2007.
- Joba - 2008 - 12GS, 65.33 IPs, 2.76 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 10.2 K/9
- Hughes - 2007- 13 GS, 72.66 IPs, 4.46 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 7.2 K/9
Then, injury befell Chamberlain in Texas in August, and by September, his absence all but eliminated the Yankees from playoff competition. Yet as with Wang, Cashman re-assigned his pitcher to the bullpen. And even though Joba’s velocity hadn’t returned, Cashman let Girardi pitch him the entire month as a reliever. To this day, the pitcher and his fastball haven’t recuperated. FanGraphs shows Chamberlain's average fastball velocity fell from 95.0 in 2008 to 92.5 in 2009.
The oddity is how the seeming indifference to their young virtuouso's diminished velocity comports with the organization's meticulous, near neurotic, enforcement of his innings limits and his pitch counts. Stranger still, if no physical ailment currently hampers Joba Chamberlain and if temperament and/or mechanics account for the velocity deficit, why have the Yankees relegated him to the bullpen for the foreseeable future now- now at the very moment when the two-year training program designed to prepare him to throw 200 major league innings finally has concluded. Could the Yankees, actually, have rendered such a momentous decision for their future (and Joba's) on 3 or 4 Spring Training starts?
The example of Justin Verlander would counsel against deciding matters of such consequence on so little evidence. Recall that after flourishing in 2006 and 2007, Verlander suffered a dramatic setback in 2008. His ERA rose from 3.64 to 4.84. His fastball's average velocity fell from a high of 95.1 in 2006 to 93.6 in 2008.
The Yankees have derived their formulas for innings limits and pitch counts from statistical evidence that shows how increasing the workload of 26-and-younger pitchers by more than 30 innings from season to season exposes them to injury. Tom Verducci and Will Carroll's anecdotal evidence certainly persuaded me. What I wonder is whether the Yankees have studied the long-term consequences shuttling a Chamberlain or Hughes back from the rotation to the bullpen to the rotation will have on their health and development. The disruption and irregularity alone seems to belie logic that animates innings caps and pitch counts-- slow, gradual conditioning and regimentation in a violent, unnatural motion.
All of which leave too many unanswered questions for anyone to extol the Yankees' front-office. At the end of 2010, Andy Pettitte, by all accounts, will retire; Javier Vasquez's contract will expire; and the Yankees will have to find, at least, two more starters to replace them. Worse, with Joba installed in the bullpen, no internal options currently commend themselves. Can this franchise continue to pay a premium for starting pitching to compensate for inadequacy below?
Cliff Lee and his agent, no doubt, already have begun to ask the same question.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
An oft repeated cliche about professional sports is that the field holds no place for moral victory. To the winners belong the laurels. While the losers suffer everything from an ignominious oblivion to condescending pity and malicious ridicule. From its campaign hustings to its ball fields, for the defeated, America is unkind and lonely world. Ask anyone from Michael Dukakis to the bereaved of Donnie Moore.
It is important, for this reason to honor, the 2010 men's Olympic hockey team.
No, it will not offer the weary players any solace. Nor will it comfort the broken-hearted millions who plunged from elation to despair in that fleeting period on Sunday night separating silver and gold. Alas, miracles on ice may come but once a lifetime.
Yet we forget the likes of Zach Parise and Ryan Miller and Brian Burke at our peril. For in their defeat, they impart an invaluable wisdom found perhaps nowhere in America outside wars' graveyards and the novels of William Faulkner. It's the lesson the Greeks teach us in their tragedies, if not in their Olympics, about the splendor born of lost causes. It's the lesson that we often achieve our greatest glory not in the magnificence of our victories but in the mettle and tenacity with which we contest the odds and in the nobility and grandeur we attain, as a consequence, even in succumbing to defeat.
And for this lesson alone the 2010 team deserves an honored seat right alongside the 1980 team in the annals of this still fledgling, adolescent country's Olympic history.
After all, miracles of success breed instinctive awe and will earn lasting immortality all on their own. No act of conscious or conscience is needed to secure them their legacy. But America's Horatio Alger myth notwithstanding, the lot of most of us is a fate both more desperate and obscure.
And for us that know no glory, may USA 2010 live forever. We cherish you in quiet inspiration.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Is there a reason, financial or strategic, that the Yankees suddenly have decided that 2010’s payroll must be lower than 2009’s? If so, I’d like to hear it. Was it the hardship of collecting only $2,000 for all those $2,500 Legends Suite tickets during 2009 regular? Was it the sacrifice born of selling out only eight games en route to winning a World Series instead of the maximum eleven? Was it the miscalculation in estimating the “Inaugural Season’s” concession and souvenir sales which resulted in a realized total that only exceeding the projected amount by 200%? Or maybe it was the forbearance they exercised by forswearing the price increases $5,000-a-seat to $50,000-a-seat ticket licenses authorized? Or is the explanation simpler still? Does Prince Hal regard caprice the hallmark of power and the laurels of victory permanent extenuation?
If the rationale isn’t evident, the consequence certainly is. To save a few extra million dollars in payroll, the Yankees risk forgoing the windfall each additional post-season game they play would yield them. See The Business of Baseball In the aggregate, they may have saved themselves nothing at all.
Meanwhile, for about $8-10 million dollars in one year contracts, the Yankees could have added three additional players that would have dramatically improved their chances of returning to the World Series. A $7-8 million dollar allotment for Damon would have dramatically improved their lineup. While for $2 to 4 million (four if a tendered contract, less if merely a guaranteed one), the Yankees could have re-signed Chien Ming Wang and bolstered the depth of their rotation. (This is to say nothing of the $1 million dollars by which the Yankees could have lengthened their bench by offering Eric Hinske the amount he accepted from the Braves.)
Indeed, for all the near unanimous approbation that has greeted Brian Cashman’s personnel decision this off-season, few have examined their financial wisdom given the new payroll constraints. Has the GM made the most efficient use of the off-season budget allocated him? Because from this perspective, the Yankees front-office’s decisions suggests a far more equivocal judgment than the received wisdom would imply.
Let us not begin however by stinting praise where it's so clearly deserved.
Cashman's acquisition of Curtis Granderson belongs alongside his trades for Abreu, A-Rod, and Justice as among the Yankee GM's most adroit and inspired. In one fell swoop, he upgraded his team at center-field, procured another premiere offensive player under 30 (adding to last season’s Teixeira signing) to achieve his goal of a younger lineup, saved money to allocate elsewhere by replacing one of two $13 million salary slots (Matsui and Damon) with Granderson’s $8 million-dollar-a-year contract, and filled a cornerstone position with a player combining the rare gifts of power and speed and possessing, as such, the potential to develop into a deserving heir of Bernie Willliams’ mantle.
Of course, the full cost of what the Yankees relinquished, in the bargain, won’t materialize for some time. Furthermore, the Tigers GM Dombrowski, arguably, has reaped the greater dividends in every trade he and Cashman have struck since 1998: (i) the Mike Lowell trade (1998); (ii) the 3-way Jeff Weaver transaction which netted the Tigers Jeremy Bonderman (2002); and (iii) the disposing of Sheffield.
Qualifications, aside, as of January 2010, Granderson more than merits his cost. The Yankees yielded (i) Phil Coke-- an endearing if erratic left-handed relief pitcher who posted league average statistics in his first full major league season; (ii) Ian Kennedy—a prospect victimized by the early success he, never again, could match and limited opportunities to rebound-- and (iii) Austin Jackson—the position player with the highest ranking in the Yankees farm system but still probably years away from fully ripening.
Perhaps, the only reason why Cashman could obtain Granderson without greater sacrifice is because the center-fielder’s anomalous 2009 tarnished his value. By most indicia, Granderson’s 2009 was a subpar season. Despite hitting 30 homeruns in 2009, the ex-Tigers’ batting average and on-base percentage fell about 30 points from 2008; his strikeouts per plate appearance rose by 2.0%; and his OPS+ dropped to 100, the very figure of league average production. However, the inauspicious picture these paint can be deceiving. Both Granderson’s base-on-balls and pitches per plate appearance deviated little from his career numbers. More significantly, Granderson’s actual BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) (.275) differs markedly enough from the BABIP his Line Drive percentage (21%) would predict (.330). Together, they suggest that the unlucky bounce of the ball accounted for much of the decline in Granderson’s batting average (and concomitantly, his base percentage) than a genuine regression in his performance. The same phenomenon likely explains Swisher’s swoon in 2008 and his return to his career averages in 2009.
At present, a prominent Achilles Heel nonetheless excludes the Yankees’ new center fielder from the game’s elite-- his lethal vulnerability to left-handed pitching. Granderson’s career OPS+ against lefties is a woeful 28, compared to 128 against right-handers. On Granderson’s ability to correct this defect, or to mitigate it, will hinge his legacy in Pinstripes.
PRODIGAL SONS, LOYAL SONS & SONS FORSAKEN
Still, whatever additional production the Yankees gained with Granderson in center-field, they promptly squandered in left. Nick Johnson may be able to fill the void left by Matsui's departure, but Gardner, however able an outfielder, cannot replace Damon or compensate for his loss.
Let's take each in turn.
No steadfast Yankee fan these last six years can fail to appreciate the contribution Hideki Matsui made to his team from his first game in Pinstripes on Opening Day in 2003 to his last in Game 6 of the 2009 World Series. The man his countryman call Godzilla entered and exited with a theatrical flourish few successors will equal, let alone surpass. If only for twice sealing the post-season fate of the Yankees' arch enemy Pedro Martinez-- once in 2003 ALCS and again in 2009's World Series-- he has inscribed for himself a permanent place in the Yankees lore.
(A reputation for clutch performance his “late and close” statistics at Baseball Reference only further illustrate. In the 503 plate appearances Matsui batted in the 7th inning or later-- and with the game tied, the Yankees ahead by no more than a single run, or behind no more than the potential run of the on-deck hitter-- he hit .325 with 25 HRs and 85 RBIs, good for a 125 OPS+. Throughout A-Rod’s career, by contrast, he has posted a 92 OPS+ in “late and close” situations.)
Beneath the dramatic flair however lay the tragic flaw-- the Achilles' Heel or perhaps, more accurately, the Atlas' Knee. Compelled early in his career to uphold a record for consecutive game played, Matsui inflicted lasting damage to his body. As such, he hasn’t appeared in more than 143 games since 2005. In 2006, a fractured wrist limited him to 50 games; in 2008, his chronically arthritic knees sidelined him for July and most of August. Chronically arthritic knees, which, as late as 2009, moreover, prevented his manager from starting him for more than four consecutive games as even the DH? How many teams need to rest their DH 20-30 games a year to keep him healthy?
But because Cashman signed Nick Johnson, a DH who can play the field but only first-base-- a position at which the Yankees already have a younger, more durable and proficient player-- Matsui's liability survives him in different form.
With Johnson's own history of injuries I don't quibble. I grant the Yankees their logic that none are chronic or recurring. Neither do I demur because of the ostensible loss in power posed by replacing Matsui's bat with Johnson's. To the contrary, while Johnson's injuries have sapped his power in recent years, his OPS+ numbers since 2005, actually, have exceeded Matsui's three of those five years: (i) 2005 (137 v. 130); (ii) 2006 (149 vs. 128) and (iii) 2008 (124 v. 108); and in one of the two seasons Matsui's were higher, 2007, Johnson didn't register an at-bat because a freak collision in '06 sidelined Johnson the entire year to follow. (If you place any stock in statistics that combine offensive and defensive value-- and I place little-- Johnson's Wins Over Replacement Player, since 2005, have surpassed Matsui's all four season Johnson played.)
No, my objection follows. In the 40 or so games, the Yankees decide to use Jeter, A-Rod, or Posada at DH, Nick Johnson can neither spell them in the field nor compensate for their replacements' inferior bat by improving the bat at the position where Johnson does play. With Damon as the primary DH, on the other hand, he'd have spelled Gardner in left-field and would have neutralized the loss that Posada, Jeter's and A-Rod's defensive replacements, Cervelli and/or Ramiro Pena, now pose.
For this flexibility alone, Damon, on a one-year contract, was worth his price.
In fact, the ostensible defensive liability that Damon posed in the outfield has been greatly exaggerated as well. Now, I've always regarded metrics that depend upon subjective or relative judgment rather than incontrovertibly objective and verifiable facts with skepticism. That is, Player X did or did not register a hit or a walk in Game Y. We can argue with the official scorer but not with the result: Player X stood on first. From this, we can deduce his likelihood of scoring. Whether Player X should have caught or even reached the ball that sailed over his head in the 9th inning is another matter entirely. Matters get murkier still when assigning a run value to the miscue. Did Player Y hit the cut off man? Did Player Z field the ball cleanly? And on the next pitch, how will the pitcher throw with a runner on base, the eight other fielders set themselves, react, field? Metrics go from murky to practically opaque when you combine this figure with offensive statistics to obtain an aggregate run value.
Still, in this instance, as a heuristic, they illustrate the foolish improvidence of spurning Damon at the cost of an additional 5 or 6 million dollars. After all, the Yankees' front-office, purportedly, uses them to assign players a economic value. Well, according to FanGraph's WPA statistic, even allowing for the defensive upgrade the Granderson-Gardner tandem provide in the Yankees' outfield, they still represent a total regression from Damon-Melky or Damon-Granderson. Together, Granderson and Gardner average a WPA of (0.78 + 0.57 = 1.35) Together, Granderson and Damon combined average WPA since 2004 is (0.78 + 1.77 = 2.55)
THE ARBITRARY PAYROLL LIMIT
The optimist might conclude that a team that scored a league-leading 915 runs in 2009 and won the World Series needn't worry themselves over one left-fielder. But the 2009 Yankees are only a year removed from the old, infirm, lumbering relic that struggled to score runs and by generating only 789 in total, finished 7th in the AL. Should injury befall their 38 year-old catcher for any period of time, disable their oft-injured Designated Hitter, or again, fell their indispensable 34 year old third-baseman and the Yankees will discover themselves mired in similar straits all over again-- an average to above-average lineup and pitching rotation second, and certainly no better, to their arch rival in the division.
Indeed, the starting rotation the Yankees have constructed for 2010 deserves a post of its own. (The cavalier recklessness, the unapologetic error, and the imperial effrontery that has characterized the team's treatment of Chien Ming Wang deserves one in itself.) For now, it's worth asking why Cashman squandered $11.5 million dollars on a starter with league average statistics in the teeth of budgetary constraints. In the four years, Javier Vasquez has pitched in the American League, his ERA+ has exceeeded 100, the league average benchmark, once, in 2007. Likewise, in 3 of 4 seasons, he yielded 29 or more home runs.
- 2004 - YANKS- ERA+ = 92
- 2006 - CHISX- ERA+ = 98
- 2007 - CHISX - ERA+ = 126
- 2008- CHISX - ERA+ = 98
If the Yankees wanted to guarantee themselves 200 innings for their fourth rotation spot-- an imperative with which I agree-- they probably could have obtained more with less. For Vasquez's salary, they could have signed two from the gallery of Duscherer, Bedard, Washburn, and Garland on one year contracts and still retained enough money afterward to offer Wang the guaranteed major league contract his agent required. Instead of depending upon one league average pitcher to give them 200 innings, they Yankees could have spread the risk over 2 or 3. Of greater benefit still, they would have conserved Melky and the prospects they traded for Vasquez to upgrade left-field this off-season or if necessary, in July, at the trade deadline.
In fact, the Yankees' unceremonious disposal of Wang may surpass in folly their spurining of Damon. The team's erstwhile ace may or may not recover the velocity upon which both his sinker, specifically, and his performance, generally, hinge. Still, why the Yankees didn't see the merit in risking $4 million dollars for a pitcher whose ERA+ of 124 and 122 ranked among the league's best when healthy, defies prudence and logic. Remember: three year ago, the Yankees paid Octavio Dotel $2 million while he underwent rehabilitation in Tampa. More confounding still, after the Yankees declined to tender Wang a contract, they balked at offering a major league contract regardless of the price.
All of which the Yankee attribute to and justify by the new regime of fiscal prudence they've proclaimed.
Now, when the Yankees invoke payroll limits during contract negotiations to enhance their bargaining leverage, so be it. If it's necessary to field a championship caliber team, so much the better.
But when, after fielding a team totalling $200 million dollars or more the last year five seasons, H&H Steinbrenner & Sons suddenly find religion and declare a payroll limit a year after moving into a palatial state-of-the-art ballpark where the median ticket price is $90 (see Baseball Analyst, 05/02/09) and concessions and souvenier sales, in the "inaugural season" reportedly doubled their projected totals-- then the Yankees insult their fans and demean their season ticket-holders.
More troublesome still, when the Steinbrenners arbitrarily decide 2010's payroll must be less than 2009's, if only by a dollar; when they cling to the peremptory figure they've set irrespective of the circumstance or the consequence in personnel; when they forgo a player not because his price exceeds his value (a figure FanGraphs estimates for Damon in 2010 is $9.7 million) but because their own pointless edict compels them; when the Yankees are willing markedly to weaken their team, in sum, over a difference of $4-6 million dollars, then Alice has returned to Wonderland and we truly have entered Prince Hal's reign, a terra incognita that is austere, obdurate, brutish and ominous.
Friday, January 8, 2010
Take the NFL Giants’ Tom Coughlin. Remember this September when the Daily News’ human weather vane anointed him New York’s paradigmatic coach? (See “Giants Coach Is The Man All Other New York Coaches Want to Be,” Lupica, 09/06/09.) It was around the time the press was searching for the moment’s facile theory to explain why the Yankees manager they’d portrayed as an autocratic and abrasive control freak in 2008 miraculously had become the authoritative, congenial father figure in 2009. All at once the echo chamber bleated in symphony, “Credit Coughlin.”
No doubt originally conceived in the bowels of Howard Rubstein’s p.r office and then spoon-fed the press, the Girardi story ran as follows. Following his equivocal debut as the Yankees manager, Joe Girardi retreated to home and hearth in Florida to search his soul. And on the road to St. Petersburg he had a revelation. Perhaps, his Olympian peremptory manner had alienated a few players and his penchant for secrecy, a few reporters after all. Then and there, Joe resolved to mend his ornery ways and to appeal to higher counsel. Within days, the manager digested Coach C’s Super Bowl Instructional Manual: yes, you too, in one easy step can remake your image. Later, New York’s favorite championship coach received a phone call. (Yankee sources assure me Joe Torre, in Hawaii, wasn’t accepting calls.) Perhaps, Tom told Joe to take the kids to play pool, and if they were good, to buy them ice cream.
If honest, the Giants Coach would have imparted some old newspeak wisdom. Want to change how the press portrays you? Easy, win, baby; just win. For those who lose can do nothing right and those who win do nothing wrong.
Remember the furor Girardi’s heterodox and erratic decisions throughout the post-season ignited? Well, if you do, you’re alone. “Oh, you think I recklessly squandered my relievers, overtaxed my starters, and pushed my closer to the brink of physical injury?” “Well, buddy, you can kiss my ring.” To the victor belongs the history and the press was rewriting it before the champagne dried. With Coughlin’s help, they wrote, Girardi had transformed himself into a winner.
Until six weeks later, that is, when the scribblers reversed creditor and debtor on the bill of gratitude. It seems now the mentor has been saved by his disciple. How quickly they learn! Indeed, just this week, NBC’s Josh Alper mused that were it not for Girardi’s World Series, the Giants might have dismissed his once celebrated mentor. “Coughlin isn't getting fired, though you have to wonder if that outcome might be different if the Yankees hadn't won the World Series.”
Don’t ask for whom the pendulum swings... it swings at thee.