Thursday, January 28, 2010


“And if, to be sure, sometimes you need to conceal a fact with words, do it in such a way that it does not become known, or, if it does become known, that you have a ready and quick defense”— Machiavelli, The Prince

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.

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 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


Andy Warhol once observed that everyone’s famous for fifteen minutes. Of course, Warhol died before the internet age further abridged the nation’s memory and attention span. Today, fame’s half-life doesn’t last a quarter of an hour.

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.