Thursday, October 28, 2010


Many people I knew... shared a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful. They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the [] numbers they had at their fingetips... I had myself for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events... [Yet] some events in life would remain beyond my ability to manage or to control."-- Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

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


No doubt, the moment will arrive. The question is when and how badly the manager will cost them.

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.