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.
This was one for the ages, a nail-biter all the way through, a game with clutch failures and successes, controversial moments. As I write this, the game has been over for about an hour and I don’t feel like I’ve absorbed all of it; I feel like I should watch it again right away, like a great movie you need to go through one more time to make sure you caught all the important lines.
There were many reasons why the Yankees should not have won this game. The Twins reached base by hit, walk, or hit batsman 21 times, the Yankees only 10 times. The Twins stranded every runner in baseball history this side of Goose Goslin. If Kirby Puckett were still alive, they would have stranded him, too. Rickey Henderson in his prime could not have scored for the Twins on this particular night. Part of that is a reflection of the depth of the Yankees’ bullpen, which is undergoing a kind of trial by fire; some of it is bad luck for the Twins and good luck for the Yankees; a big bit of it might have been a blown call by an umpire.
Much of it, though, was purely magical, the culmination of stories long brewing in the Bronx. Alex Rodriguez had two big hits and looks so mellow that you expect to see him turning up at Bernie Williams’ next cool jazz concert sitting in on the pan flute. If Mark Teixeira’s excellent regular season hadn’t earned him his “True Yankee” badge, he won it tonight with his walk-off shot. Rodriguez and Teixeira hit their shots off one of the top two closers in the league and an up-and-comer who may soon aspire to that status, respectively. We also saw the arrival of David Robertson as a bullpen force to be reckoned with. No Edwar-dian flash in the pan, Robertson was on the verge of establishing himself as a late-inning alternative to Phil Hughes when elbow troubles halted his progress. After pitching out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam tonight, it seems likely he’s back on the path towards replacing Hughes in the eighth inning when the latter graduates (back) to the starting rotation next year. First, though, we may see more good things from this 24-year-old, a 17th-round pick of the Yankees in 2006.
So you had heroism, but you also had the Twins failing to execute. Last week, when I wrote up my hypothetical awards ballot, one reader took me to task in the comments for failing to include Ron Gardenhire. I’m not a Gardenhire fan, and we saw why tonight. Gardenhire has undoubtedly achieved something in posting a .547 record and five postseason appearances in eight years as Twins manager given just how little ownership supports that team. The Twins do not sign big free agents and they rarely make a big effort at the trading deadline (this year they did reach for Jon Rauch and Orlando Cabrera, though more was needed). The Twins try to mask their complacent approach by hyping themselves as paragons of fundamental baseball. Yet, when you see them in a big spot, they don’t carry through. Their defense shakes, they get caught up in one-run strategies, and they go home. The Twins should not have been expected to win this series against the Yankees, and they almost certainly will not. They should, however, be expected to win the games that they can win, and Friday night’s contest was one of those that was gift-wrapped for them. Instead, they ran into outs, threw away balls, and helped the Yankees stay alive.
A last note: in my pre-game entry, I challenged Joe Girardi to get Jose Molina out of the game as soon as possible so as to minimize the downside of using him. This he did at the first opportunity. Indeed, he used all three of his catchers, also pinch-running for Jorge Posada in the tenth. All credit to the Yankee skipper for making the obvious strategic calls. That sounds like a weak compliment, but most managers never get that far.
AND ONE MORE THING
Not meaning to jump on the now famously mal-informed TBS broadcast crew, but Ron Darling said that Nick Swisher was primarily a designated hitter and first baseman with the White Sox. In fact, he played 97 games in the outfield for the Sox, played first base 71 times, and did not DH once. Not ever. None. Indeed, Swisher has always been a fielder, DHing exactly 10 times in his career.
At this writing, the Angels are up on the Red Sox late. A Yankees-Angels ALCS sounds scary given the history between the two teams, but given seven games and home field advantage, the Yankees will take that series on pitching depth every time. Before I attempt to defend that statement, let’s see if we actually get there. Due to the glacial pace of these series, there’s a Marco Polo road-trip’s worth of off days before we’ll get any resolution.
I don’t know that head-to-head comparisons are truly predictive of anything, but they’re fun and I like doing them, so here we are again for the first time since 2007. As we go down this list, the thing my research has revealed is that though the Twins and Tigers supplied baseball’s one exciting, down to (and past) the wire race, they just weren’t very good teams.
Michael Cuddyer vs. Mark Teixeira
Cuddyer is coming off of the best year of his career, the second in which he justified being a first round pick back in 1997. He closed hot, hitting 15 home runs in the last two months of the season. Normally a right fielder, he’s playing first because Justin Morneau is out for the year. He won’t amaze with the glove-work, but he’s a better choice than any old Chris Richard type. Cuddyer is a career .245/.303/.396 hitter against the Yankees; Teixeira is a career .371/.415/.670 hitter versus the Twins.
This is an EDGE: YANKEES, but Cuddyer isn’t incapable. Note that he hit .307/.363//651 against left-handers, with 15 home runs in 166 at-bats.
Nick Punto vs. Robinson Cano
The best you can say here is that Punto is a nice glove and can play three infield positions with equal aplomb. He’s also willing to take the odd walk, with the result that the gap between his and Cano’s OBP (.337-.352) is much smaller than the gap between their batting averages (.228-.320). Despite that, the overall package isn’t even close to what Cano offers. Just don’t ask who hit better with runners in scoring position. EDGE: YANKEES.
Matt Tolbert vs. Alex Rodriguez
Long is the road from Joe Crede to Matt Tolbert, who sadly will never hit well enough to have any “Tolbert Report” T-Shirts made up. Like Punto, Tolbert is a utility infielder trying to pass as a regular because other Twins’ plans didn’t work out, not that Crede was much of a plan. The amalgam of Tolbert’s two Major League seasons, .251/.310/.338, seems a fair representation of what he’s capable of given his minor league numbers. A switch-hitter, Tolbert has been useless against righties (.221/.290/.286) and hard on lefties (.315/.354/.461) but the samples are small. Against him, the Yankees present A-Rod, who had one of the best seasons ever by a man playing on one leg, Mickey Mantle’s entire career aside.
Another BIG EDGE: YANKEES.
Orlando Cabrera vs. Derek Jeter
Twelve years later, you know what you’re going to get from Orlando Cabrera: a little offense, a little defense, but nothing award-worthy. The Twins infield was bad enough for that to be an upgrade. At .289/.313/.430 and a big home run in the final game, he gave the Twins a little more than they could have expected. Cabrera shared Derek Jeter’s one major negative this year: a propensity to hit into double plays. Jeter, one of the Majors’ most committed ground ball hitters (he ranked eighth in ground ball percentage among batters with 500 or more plate appearances), hit into a double play in 17 percent of his opportunities. Mr. Cabrera was just fractionally off that pace, killing two in 16.4 percent of his chances. The similarities end there — the Captain had one of the best seasons in a career full of them and is somehow better on defense at 35 than he was at 25. Jeter ranked third in the league in OBP, his best finish since his wonderful 1999. One other possible negative: we can only hope his case of postseason bunties doesn’t reappear. In the regular season, Jeter has pulled off a sacrifice once every 126 plate appearances. In the postseason, he’s done it once every 70 plate appearances, which works out to nine in a season of 600 PAs. He doesn’t turn into Jay Bell or anything extreme like that, but it’s still more outs than a hitter of his quality can usefully give away, and it isn’t all that helpful anyway. Regardless, BIG EDGE: YANKEES.
Joe Mauer vs. Jorge Posada
Here we have the probable MVP versus a catcher merely having a very, very good season, which means on any given day the gap between the two isn’t that large. Of course, the gap between Mauer and Jose Molina could span the stars. Not much held Mauer back this year — home, road, lefties, righties, or high-fructose corn syrup. He also hit two home runs in four games in Yankee Stadium II. If you want a down note, Mauer caught only 26 percent of attempted basestealers, which is the lowest figure of his brief career. In this he was about even with Posada.
EDGE: TWINS, but don’t panic about that — panic about the possibility that this fellow has it within him to go George Brett postseason ’78 (or ’76, or ’77, or ’80) on the Yankees.
Delmon Young vs. Johnny Damon
Young had a big finish to the season, winning the final Player of the Week award, but most of the time he’s a Player of the Weak, a player who simply kills his own team. He doesn’t hit for average, doesn’t hit for power, doesn’t walk, doesn’t run, and is an egregious fielder. He also kills his team on the double play, banging into a twin-killing in 21.5 percent of his opportunities, top 10 in baseball in the 400 PA and up division. Young is still young; he turned 24 about three weeks ago. His second half, spiked by that big finish, totals out at .300/.322/.500. You can live with that, in kind of a B- version of Garrett Anderson way, and Anderson at his peak was just okay. Perhaps he has finally gotten in touch with the talent that made him the first overall pick in 2003 and a Major Leaguer at 20, but I remain skeptical that he’ll peak at anything more than Jose Guillen.
Damon had one of the best years of his career at 35, but there were caveats; just about all his power derived from the new ballpark (17 home runs at home, seven on the road), and he disappeared in September. In the same way Young’s finish and his age may interact to say something about his future, so might Damon’s age and his finish. Whatever happens with his bat in the coming years, his best defensive days are definitely behind him, but compared to Young he’s Tris Speaker. EDGE: YANKEES.
Denard Span vs. Melky Cabrera
Minnesota’s first-round pick in 2002 initially looked like a bust, but he’s proved himself to be a strong on-base threat with some pop in his bat and good range afield. Note that he did almost all of his basestealing at home, as if he needed ‘Turf to give him an extra push. Left-handed hitters don’t bother him much. As for Melky, he is what he is, does what he does. He hit .264/.324/.393 in the second half, which is about right. EDGE: TWINS.
Nick Swisher vs. Jason Kubel
Writing the line above the first time, I typed Joe Kuhel, which isn’t a total miss — they both played for the same franchise, sort of. Kubel broke through in his age-27 season, with a season at-bat far beyond his previous achievements. Note that he was seriously diminished both on the road and against lefties (.243/.299/.345). Conversely, Swisher might be the only player on the Yankees who feels bad about having home field advantage. That said, he did finally figure out how to hit at YS II in September, batting .314/.417/.686 with five home runs in 51 at-bats. That’s something you might expect to continue in the playoffs, given that there was no reason for it to happen in the first place.
Swisher looks erratic on defense but makes most of the plays, while Kubel is a DH pushed into wearing a glove due to Morneau’s injury. Their seasons had different shapes, but the difference in value between the two was
minimal. I’m calling it NO EDGE, but you can make a case for Swisher based on his being the better all-around player.
Jose Morales vs. Hideki Matsui
Morneau’s injury set off a chain reaction which pushed right fielder Cuddyer to first base and DH Kubel to right field. Without an obvious DH candidate (their Triple-A version of Juan Rivera, Garrett Jones, had gone off to do wonderful things for the Pirates), they turned to 26-year-old catcher Jose Morales, an almost pure singles hitter. He gave them a good on-base percentage and zero power, which is something. Matsui had a fantastic year, especially considering that he’s now more machine than man from the knees down. Of special note was his performance against left-handers. Matsui is the rare lefty who isn’t troubled by a left-handed pitcher (you wish he could teach that), and this year he was especially cruel to them, slugging 13 home runs in 131 at-bats. Big EDGE: YANKEES.
CC Sabathia goes in Game One against the average-at-best Brian Duensing. Lefties slugged only .268 against Duensing, hitting no home runs in 82 at-bats, but small-sample caveats apply. Duensing was actually more of a fly ball pitcher, so that shouldn’t last, especially in the friendly confines of YS II. I haven’t seen how Ron Gardenhire intends to set up the rest of his rotation yet, but Nick Blackburn has been savagely raked by the Yankees in the past, and Carl Pavano is, well, Carl Pavano. Scott Baker is the only starter with swing-and-miss stuff on the staff, and the Yankees won’t get him more than once. You know who the Yankees’ other starters are and what they’re capable of. EDGE: YANKEES.
Both teams have nigh-unbeatable closers. Otherwise, I see two small advantages for the Twins: first, rookie southpaw Jose Mijares killed left-handers, holding them to .155/.228/.252. The Yankees’ spot relievers, Phil Coke and Damaso Marte, aren’t nearly that effective. Otherwise, the Twins aren’t nearly as deep, but with pitchers like Ron Mahay, Matt Guerrier, and Jon Rauch, they’re more of a veteran group. As good as Phil Hughes, David Robertson, Alfredo Aceves and pals were, they haven’t been here before. I’m calling it EDGE: YANKEES, but with reservations.
If Joe Girardi doesn’t over-manage the way Gardenhire does, wasting time on bunty one-run strategies, this is a big advantage for the Yankees. Note that Gardenhire doesn’t quite know when to get Joe Nathan into games — Girardi has done a much better job of placing his fireman in the same place as the actual fire. EDGE: YANKEES.
PB PREDICTION: YANKEES IN THREE.
JOHNNY DAMON ARMY VS. THE WINKIE GUARD
It’s very difficult to tell when an event you’re witnessing is a matter of luck or true talent. The Yankees are now 6-2 in one-run games, baseball’s best record in such games. This record, propelled by a series of last-minute, walk-off wins, has propelled a five-game winning streak. In the process, the Yankees have been transformed from a rather flat-looking 15-17 team into an electric 20-17 club that seems a good threat to surge to the top of the division. However, it is not certain if what we’ve seen was truly a transformative moment or just a transient moment.
As Bryan Hoch reported at MLB.com, the last time the Yankees made walk-off hits in three consecutive games was late August, 1972, and the last time they had three consecutive walk-off wins against the same club was way back in 1931. You won’t find those years listed on the Bathroom Wall of Champions in right field at Yankee Stadium II–the 1972 club was a mediocre outfit that went 79-76, brought down by weak pitching. The 1931 club boasted a spectacular offense (Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey–you know, those guys) and won 94 games but finished 13 games behind an Athletics club that had, relative to its league, one of the best pitching staffs of all time. In the long run, the big walk-offs did not prove to be steps on the way to a championship, but merely trivia for us to discover at moments such as this one. From our vantage point in the midst of the battle, we can’t know, won’t know until the end of the season, which we’re looking at now, harbinger or happenstance.
Some will be tempted to grab hold of these moments as evidence of superior character, fortitude, dedication, conviction on the part of the Yankees or the specific players attached to them. The presence of Alex Rodriguez on the last will probably suppress the urge on the part of some, but they’ll bend the rules this once while also handing out Medals of Courage to Melky Cabrera, Johnny Damon and the Cowardly Lion. “What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk?” Damon asks hopefully.
Those that want to take the cosmic dice roll as a prism through which to view character are welcome to do so, and maybe once in awhile they’ll even see something that’s worth talking about. However, they would be wise not to place any bets on outcomes. The very rarity of these events–the vast majority of the time, the team that goes to the bottom of the ninth losing takes a loss–argues strongly that the last three days are not evidence that the Yankees have turned a corner. While it would be unfair to deprive Damon, Cabrera, and A-Rod credit for their timely hitting, especially Damon, who has been a monster in the clutch (and has also taken to YS II like he thought it was the House that Damon Built), but given similar chances if the next ten series the Yankees play, it’s unlikely that they’ll repeat the feat even once.
We see luck at work on a broader scale when looking at team records over the course of a full season. In a given season, a team’s record in one-run games does not carry over to the next year. Balls drop in on a one-time basis. The wind blows out when you need it only now and again. Now, it does seem to be true that sometimes the wind favors a particular team (fortune favoring the foolish, as Shakespeare wrote) for an unlikely span of time, even the length of a season. Maybe the Yankees have that kind of luck going for them this year, but judging by their lack of ability to deliver key hits before this recent surge, that seems to be asking a lot.
What really jumps out about the last five games after all the drama is pushed aside is the performance of the pitching staff. Its performance was only superficially good. In the 48 innings spanning those give games, the Yankees have allowed just 14 runs, less than three a game. That’s seemingly spectacular, given both the league environment and the performance of the staff to that point in the season. However, there is, here’s that word again, a lot of luck in all of that run prevention. The Yankees walked 32 batters in those 48 innings, six per nine innings, the rate rising to 6.6 over the weekend against the Twins. This is nothing new–the Yankees lead the league in walks allowed and in walks per nine innings (4.3). Given that they are also allowing an average number of hits per nine innings and the second-highest rate of home runs allowed per nine innings, all of these baserunners are more often than not going to translate into big numbers for the opposition. If that didn’t happen against the Twins on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, well, the Twins are not much more than an average offensive team. After Justin Morneau, Jose Mauer, and Jason Kubel, there’s a lot of dross in the their lineup.
Similarly, over the last five games the offense has scored five runs a game. Yes, the hits have been well timed and have included a ton of extra bases, among them four triples and eight home runs, but this is exactly a league-average mark. Give the Yankees an extra bump for facing one of the league’s two best pitching staffs in Toronto in two of those games and you still don’t have cause to rate the lineup as any better than it is.
This entry is not meant to rain on anyone’s parade, especially since for Yankees fans the last three games were no doubt orgasmically exciting. Nothing can take away from that. Nor should the enthusiasm and optimism generated by the current five-game winning streak be taken for granted. It should merely be noted that that the Yankees have miles to go before we can view these events as evidence that the team is ready to pass the Red Sox and Blue Jays. While some will want to call it proof of talent and others character, it’s possible, as Cole Porter wrote, that it was one of those bells that now and then rings–just one of those things.