FIVE YEARS LATER…
…The Yankees are back in the American League Championship Series. This is an accomplishment, no doubt about it, but the sweep of the Twins shouldn’t be taken as any sign of the Yankees’ predestination as champions. Despite their exciting charge into the postseason (or the Tigers’ historic collapse), the Twins were not a very good team, but rather the last survivor of one of baseball’s weakest divisions. They were there because a team had to represent the AL Central, not because they had any claim on greatness. They were no better than the Tigers, Rangers, Rays, Mariners, Marlins, Braves, Cubs, or Giants, teams with similar records who now compete only on the nation’s golf courses. Moreover, the Twins were missing one of their big bats, Justin Morneau; the Yankees defeated a half-strength team that was down half its strength.
The point here is not to diminish the win any, because the Yankees played excellent baseball against an opponent that didn’t roll over. Game Three’s key defensive play by Derek Jeter is another great, heady move to add to his Hall of Fame case, one of two in the series. Actually, the very fact that he was able to make those plays points up the very inadequacy of the Twins as an opponent. Just as Jeremy Giambi made Jeter’s most famous play possible by failing to slide, the Twins made mistakes that an intelligent player like Jeter could exploit. During the broadcasts of the series, you heard a great deal about what a gritty, gutty, speedy, fundamentally sound, ballclub the Twins were — this despite their tripping around the field at every opportunity. The Twins are a myth, one created because calling things what they are isn’t something the media does. Yes, the Twins are small-market. Yes, they have had a miserable stadium deal. Yes, their late billionaire owner never seemed that interested in spending for another winner after the team’s 1987 and 1991 championships. None of that means they had to play Nick Punto or Joe Crede or Delmon Young or any of their other compromise ballplayers. Not counting midseason acquisitions Orlando Cabrera and Ron Mahay, Punto is the highest-paid Twin after Morneau, Joe Nathan, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer. That’s just not right.
It seems as if The Angels will represent more of a test, because they have things the Twins can only dream of. The Twins have emphasized the drafting and development of low-stuff college hurlers who pitch to contact (Johan Santana was a Rule 5 accident), though they did strike out more than their share of Yankees in the series just completed. Overall, the Angels did not have a great pitching staff for strikeouts, but of the pitchers the Yankees will see in the ALCS — John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir, Joe Saunders — only Saunders would fit in on the Twins. They also have a deeper offense. Not all of their .290-.300 hitters are created equal given their organizational reluctance (despite much lip-service being given to the positive influence of Bobby Abreu) to reach base via walk. As for their vaunted baserunning game, it wasn’t the most successful operation in the world — the Angels stole at a 70 percent success rate, which was one of the worst rates in the league. By contrast, the Yankees stole at an 80 percent rate, which is to say that in every 50 attempts, the Yankees went 40-10 and the Angels 35-15. Finally, the Angels haven’t much in the way of bullpen. They very much missed the injured Scot Shields. Darren Oliver was their most productive reliever, followed by closer Brian Fuentes. Notwithstanding their historic aversion to playing well against the Angels, something that the Yankees might have put behind them in taking two of three at Anaheim in late September, there is no reason the Yankees cannot take this series.
We’ll get into the head-to-head stuff tomorrow. We’ve got all bloody week to delve into this series.
PUT MARIANO RIVERA IN THE HALL OF FAME TOMORROW OR TODAY
Not that he needs another paean to his brilliance, but the series again demonstrated why Mariano Rivera is a unique talent. If you compare Joe Nathan to Rivera during the regular season since 2004, there isn’t a lot to suggest that Rivera has been dramatically better than Nathan in that time, if he has been better at all. Nathan has pitched in 412 games and converted 247 of 272 save opportunities with an ERA of 1.87. Rivera has pitched 405 games and saved 243 victories in 261 chances. Rivera allowed 26 percent of his inherited runners to score. Nathan allowed only 20 percent. Under most conditions, if you had traded one for the other the teams would have seen a minimal change in outcomes.
“Most conditions” do not include the postseason. Rivera is one of the greatest postseason performers in history. You could make a reasonable argument that he is in fact the greatest postseason performer in baseball history given his level of excellence over so many games, the expansion of the postseason to three rounds in recent years having provided him with more October opportunities than even some of the Dynasty greats like Yogi Berra. Nathan has had many fewer opportunities, but he’s one of the reasons that he’s pitched in fewer games, not having done very well.
Rivera only got one chance at a save in this year’s ALDS, pitching with a big lead in Game 1 and coming in to try to protect a tie in Game 2, something at which he failed, so it’s not as if this series is going to deserve a track on his greatest hits album, though aside from allowing those runners inherited from Phil Hughes to score he did quite well. What he did isn’t as important as what he has done, and what Nathan wasn’t able to do.
I was disgusted to see a list of “productive outs” pop up towards the end of TBS’s broadcast last night. It just cemented TBS’s status as a network that broadcasts baseball but doesn’t pay enough attention to the game in any of its aspects to be successful. How the heck do we kill this concept that making outs can be a good thing? Check out the stats: A team with a runner on first with no outs has the expectation of scoring .88 runs, but a team with a runner on second and one out will score just .69 runs. Even though the runner moved over, the chances of scoring went down. Similarly, a runner on second with no outs meant that teams scored 1.14 runs on average, whereas hit a grounder to the right side and “productively” move that sucker over, and the run expectation drops to .97. Now, it is preferable to have the runner at second with one out (.69) then it is at first with one out, that is, having received a “non-productive” out (.53), so the productive out would be worth .16 of a run. That’s nice, but it’s such a small thing that it doesn’t really mean anything, doesn’t add up into anything you can see in the final record.
If the Yankees can be credited with having a high total of such outs, it is because they had a high total of runners on base. Scoring is the result of reaching base and making extra-base hits, not making outs. All this stuff about productive outs is purely imaginary corn for suckers, and TBS embracing it is just one more embarrassment for an amateurish production.
I BELIEVE IT IS A CHAT OR AN ELEPHANT
I’m not certain, but I believe that I and some Baseball Prospectus colleagues will be hosting a live chat during this evenings Phillies-Rockies game. Drop by BP.com around game-time for more info.