Epitaph: Game over, series over, season overThe Yankees need to build with youth
I don't know who the fans, my colleagues in the media, or even the Yankees organization (George Steinbrenner on down) will blame for this series loss. Maybe the villain will be Alex Rodriguez again. As he bats now with Robinson Canó on first (the Yankees finally have a hit), it occurs to me that even if Rodriguez were to hit a home run here, the fans and writers will say he finally hit one when the game was out of reach. Scratch that headline... he just grounded into a force out.
In the end, the only lesson is this: the Yankees need to draft better. They need to run their minor league system with more efficiency. They need to use their advantaged financial position to sign those expensive players who fall in the draft because they're too costly for the Reds or Royals to sign. They need to offer incentives to top prep prospects to forego college and sign early. They need to stop giving away top draft picks on free agent compensation (this last may be rendered moot by the ongoing collective bargaining agreements, where it is rumored that the free agent compensation system is on the table and may be scrapped).
The Yankees need to develop dynamic young pitching. They are not ever, EVER, going to buy enough of it on the free-agent market to make up a championship caliber staff. That's not news. If you were around to watch the Yankees from say, 1982 through their 1989 collapse, you've lived through this scenario before the desperate chasing after veteran pitchers in an effort to acquire what the farm system could not produce. Some of those moves were good, some were tragically bad, but none of them were enough. In no particular order: Phil Neikro, Eddie Lee Whitson, Bill Gullickson, Steve Trout, John Montefusco, Shane Rawley, Marty Bystrom, Rick Reuschel, Doyle Alexander, Tim Leary, and on and on. It doesn't work. You have to be very lucky to succeed with someone else's 30 year old. Worse, every time you're wrong you've added another immovable Carl Pavano or Jaret Wright contract to your roster. Even when you're right, you're always just a few years from having to replace that player.
A lot has changed since then. In the intervening years the Yankees have gotten smarter about running a baseball team. They have a real general manager and manager, instead of conflict partners for the owner. At the same time, their financial position has gotten even better. During those years, you could walk up and get a good ticket for most Yankees game. Manhattan was not seen as a safe place to visit, let alone the South Bronx. Now the Yankees sell out on a nightly basis, bringing in ticket, food, and souvenir money. The new ballpark, with the improved luxury box capacity that ownership has been lusting after for decades, will only help the team's bottom line. The YES Network came into being and has been a tremendous success. The collusive behavior that prevented the Yankees from leveraging that advantage has gone. Bud Selig shrunk the divisions and added the wild card. Even with revenue sharing taking a bite out of the bottom line, the Yankees have not wanted for resources, nor should they in the future.
Those changes mean that with only competent management the Yankees should always be competitive. Since the start of the Joe Torre era they have consistently had an advantage on the rest of baseball in their strength up the middle. As Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, and Jorge Posada age it won't be easy to maintain that advantage, even with money. That could derail them. Meanwhile, three of the other four teams in the division are willfully stupid. As long as the AL East remains a two-team division, the Yankees will always have a good chance of being in the postseason.
There was evidence this season that the division will be more competitive in the future. More on that in the Pinstriped Bible this week.
Once you're in the October lottery, anything can happen. Yet, if the Yankees are going to have a chance that's more than random, they are going to have to develop the kind of pitching that graces the staffs of the Tigers and A's. There's nothing wrong with having a bludgeoning offense. Certainly it's better to have one than not. In the regular season this works well because a good deal of the time you're playing teams with weak pitching. Your staff allows four, five, six, or more runs, but that's OK because you're bombing home runs into the stands and winning 7-4 or 8-5. That formula is less likely to pay off in October because your opposition is made up of teams with good pitching. Your top-flight offense is unlikely to score a touchdown and a field goal. You might have to win with just a few runs.
That's where the pitching staff comes in. Their job has gotten harder too, because not only have your postseason opponents been selected for good pitching, they've been selected for hitting too.
(The Yankees have scored. It's now 8-1.)
As I said above, a lot has changed since the bad old 1980s, but the Yankees are back there again now, and for the same reasons. They have been helpless since the end of 2003, when Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and David Wells left all at once. As I've written many times before, that's not something they can be faulted for. Any team losing three great pitchers out of their starting rotation at once (regardless of what happened to any of them after) is going to be at a loss. The Yankees, though, had no options, which led to Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, led to trading Nick Johnson for Javy Vazquez, led to Randy Johnson, led to Sidney Ponson, led to Cory Lidle. Who's next in that sequence? The answer, "Jeopardy"-style, is, "Who's the modern equivalent of Dave LaPoint?" The only difference between then and now is that the Yankees are finishing second to the Tigers in the playoffs instead of finishing second to them in the division.
(Going to the top of the ninth now. The Tigers clubhouse is being wrapped in plastic like an old comic book. Abreu leads off with a single. Miracle comeback in the offing? Craig Monroe makes a great catch on a sinking Gary Sheffield liner. Apparently not.)
So what do the Yankees need to do? The same thing they figured out how to do when Gene Michael was the general manager. Be PATIENT. Don't sign whatever veteran cheese is out there this winter. You want to pick up Mike Mussina's option? Cool. He seems to have some life left in him. Want to make a run at Barry Zito? Sure. He'll be 29 next year and could be safe for the next four years. Failing that, after that, stay out of the damned market. Give Jeff Karstens and Darrell Rasner a chance at the back end of the rotation. Assuming good results at Triple-A, give Phil Hughes and Tyler Clippard a shot no later than midseason. If they have good spring camps, try them out sooner.
The American League East is weak enough and the rest of the Yankees team is strong enough, that they can gamble on young pitching without sacrificing competitiveness. The whole point is that they should be more competitive, certainly in the long run if not in 2007. In the short term, they should win anyway. If the worst-case scenario is another first-round loss, there's no reason not to try.
Take the pledge: no more veteran mediocrities.
Fulfilling that pledge will mean not only keeping the wallet securely holstered, but getting out of Wright's contract (apparently a possibility), coming to some accommodation with Pavano that lets him take his sore buttocks and late night joyriding to some other city, letting Lidle leave as a free agent, and encouraging Johnson to hang 'em up. Not all of these things will happen, but any two will be a step in the right direction.
A team with a $200 million payroll really shouldn't be in the position of starting Ponson at any point in the season. This is going to sound a bit like the old joke about how the food at that restaurant is bad and the portions are too small, but not only do the Yankees have weak pitching, they don't have enough of it.
(Posada hits a home run. I'm so glad Rodriguez didn't hit it.)
The game just ended. Congratulations to the Detroit Tigers. It's been a long time in the wilderness for them. They earned this.
A word about the offense, which failed against the major league leader in ERA, disappearing in Games 3 and 4. As we have seen in the past several postseasons, the Yankees get out of their offensive game plan when they get down early in the postseason (a not altogether self-indulgent plug: Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus wrote a great chapter, obviously still current, about this in our book "Mind Game"). Detroit's pitching was tremendous, and there's no guarantee the Yankees would have overcome it in any scenario, but it is not unreasonable, not wishful thinking to believe that had Yankees pitching been more competitive the quality of the at bats would have been different. And forget what the Yankees are saying about Bonderman throwing strikes and not giving them a chance to work the count. That's spin. They were swinging at first and second pitches throughout the game.
In addition to swearing off empty calorie Pavano/Wright free agents and giving the pitchers the Yankees do have chances ahead of them, the team will need to refocus its minor league structure, personnel, and priorities. The team has made some changes in this direction, even since this year's draft. They've been very quiet about them, and whether they are significant or constitute a change of philosophy I couldn't say. All I know is, to paraphrase Sam Cooke, a change has to come. Until recently, the minor league staff has not been good at identifying prospects of any kind, let alone pitchers. Now they have a few. Not a lot. A few. And because recent drafts have been overly focused on high school talent in the early rounds rather than major league ready college players, they have forgone the quick reinforcements that college players provide. Worse, so far the minor league instruction in the Yankees system hasn't proved that it can do anything more with high school players than turn them into former high school players.
There will be some other issues to discuss in coming days. Joe Torre had a poor series. He mismanaged the roster and the bullpen again. He put too much faith in Gary Sheffield, benching Jason Giambi in the final game (Giambi had a cortisone shot, but Torre insisted that wasn't the deciding factor). Torre's apparent approval of the A-Rod Sports Illustrated article showed extremely poor judgment. And I don't care what Rodriguez hit in this series. Torre's lineup shenanigans only put more pressure on Rodriguez, not less. I'm not making excuses for the guy, I'm not saying he would have had one more hit in the series if it had been otherwise. I'm only saying that the Yankees didn't help.
If we make A-Rod the story of this postseason, we'll be missing the point. In the end, though, what this game, what this series, what this season comes down to, is a pitching strategy that doesn't work and can't be sustained. Again, the Yankees might win anyway, just by getting into the postseason and getting hot at the right moment. If they want a better chance than that, they'll have to change their ways.
A WORD ABOUT THE WINTER, YESNETWORK.COM, AND THE PINSTRIPED BIBLE/BLOG
We'll be here all winter, every day. The Yankees and baseball as a whole will be making news all winter and we'll be covering it and talking about it here. As far as this column goes, we'll have much to talk about, undoubtedly much to debate, much to laugh about. In addition to baseball, we'll no doubt be getting into all the random pop culture weirdness that winter always seems to bring out here in Blogville.
Now that the Yankees are headed home, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for spending so much of this season with me, for spending some of your valuable time on reading my words, and often taking the time to respond in writing or coming out to what were all too few personal appearances (I aim to change that next year). Casey Stengel used to say, "I couldn't have done it without my players." I couldn't have done it without you. I look forward to greeting you in this space again on Monday.
FRIDAY, October 6, 2006: Posted at 11:58 p.m.
That feeling of pessimism I talked about yesterday is in full bloom now, like a red tide of toxic algae. The Yankees made a mistake in this series, a very basic mistake, which was believing, against all evidence, that a half-healthy Randy Johnson was going to be as good as a healthy Randy Johnson '06, a pitcher who wasn't very good. They pretended that a wounded lefty would be able to get by against an entirely righthanded lineup of power hitters.
Raise your hand if you can say, without benefit of hindsight, that you would have rather taken your chances in Game 3 with:
(A) Jaret Wright.
(B) Cory Lidle.
(C) Jeff Karstens.
(D) Darrell Rasner.
(E) Phil Hughes, provided he was called up back on September 1.
(F) Any of the above.
My choices are F, E, C, followed by any combination of the other three.
In 1940, the Yankees were trying to win their fifth straight pennant. They lost to the Detroit Tigers, of all teams, by two games. In this, the Yankees were badly hurt by Frank Crosetti, their shortstop, who batted .194/.299/.273. He had always been a poor hitter, so his collapse wasn't a total surprise. The Yankees had a better shortstop ready to come up from the minors, a little guy named Phil Rizzuto. Rather than make the change, manager Joe McCarthy committed to Crosetti, batting him leadoff all year. The Yankees had other problems that season, but that was the most obvious one, the most apparent problem with the most apparent solution. One player having a bad year can easily cost you two games in the standings. McCarthy realized this after. He spent the rest of his life regretting the decision to keep Rizzuto down on the farm.
Chances are, we'll be saying the same thing about Hughes next year.
Second mistake, second day in a row: using a righthander to pitch to Curtis Granderson. Why are there any lefty relievers on the Yankees roster? If Mike Myers or Ron Villone weren't going to be used each and every time Curtis Granderson came to bat in the sixth inning or later, the Yankees might as well have carried two other players. The Granderson hit in Game 2 was decisive. In Game 3 his home run was merely added insult in a miserable game. Either way, the Yankees have reconfirmed two things that have been clear for years: (1) they don't know how to manage a postseason roster and (2) Joe Torre is a great, great manager who you do not want on your side in a postseason game.
Yeah, I'm writing out of fannish disappointment and anger. In some ways these are really minor cavils because the Yankees didn't score. Had Johnson allowed just one run the game would still have been a loss (though of course you can't know how the hitters would have reacted had the score been closer). All credit to Kenny Rogers, a pitcher who choked in every possible way as a Yankee, concealing injuries, losing the confidence of his manager and teammates, and in general looking on every pitch like he was wondering what the hell his agent had done to him by sending him to New York. He has been a miserable postseason pitcher, one of the worst ever. He put all of that behind him tonight.
Possibly sour gapes: Rogers' voyage to self actualization was assisted by the home plate umpire, who gave him wide latitude down and away. The strike zone wasn't Eric Gregg-level egregious, but Rogers did get a few breaks.
On Saturday the Yankees will start Jaret Wright. Wright remains one of the most wrongheaded acquisitions in team history, a frequently injured one-year wonder that the Yankees decided to make super-rich. He can somewhat mitigate that misjudgment by winning this one very high leverage start. I believe he might do well, in his way. Righties didn't do much with him this year, and the Tigers are all about the righties. As I've written here, said on radio in six states and two countries, and muttered to strangers in public parks (scrupulously avoiding Congressional pages all the while), even if Wright should pitch well, when he leaves at the end of six innings the clown car rolls in and Kyle Farnsworth and the gang come spilling out of it. Thus the Yankees might lose late rather than early. Either way a loss sends them home.
I'll be back tomorrow with thoughts on Game 4. I hope those will involve handicapping Game 5 rather than beginning our annual Hot Stove League season. I'll give you a head start, just in case: why don't the Yankees have a Joel Zumaya instead of a Kyle Farnsworth? Why did a 43-year-old start tonight's game? Why doesn't the richest team in baseball have a well-rounded roster?
I imagine you know the answers. They're old questions, after all. They're still current, though. They'll stay that way until the Yankees start running their player development system with the same intensity and financial largesse that they devote to their major league team. As Aimee Mann sang, it's not going to stop... 'til you wise up.
Sleep well, Jaret Wright. Destiny is calling.
THURDSAY, October 5, 2006: Posted at 8:11 p.m.
RELAX, HONEY. IT'S JUST SOME ANIMAL, MAYBE A WEREWOLF
What's that creaking sound? What is that moaning on the wind? What is that tortured howling that cries in the night like something abandoned, forlorn, and unloved, something that knows that it is out of grace with both God and man? What is that noise that causes small children to pull their blankets up over their chins?
All at once you know. It's Randy Johnson's spine.
I WANT TO MAKE SOME JOKES ABOUT THE MARK FOLEY THING BUT PEOPLE GET UPSET
WHEN I DO POLITICS SO I'M NOT GOING TO DO ANY JOKES, BUT JUST BURY THE WHOLE
THING IN THIS SUBJECT HEADING ABOUT THE DODGERS-METS GAME BECAUSE THIS IS THE
YES NETWORK WEB SITE AND CHANCES ARE THAT MOST OF THE READERS DON'T CARE ABOUT
THE METS ANYWAY
What a game for Tom Glavine. A couple of entries ago I reminisced about Frank Thomas's career. Thomas has been around forever, but he was still in college when Glavine made his major league debut in 1987. In Glavine's first two seasons he went 9-21 with 104 strikeouts and 96 walks in 245 2/3 innings. His ERA was 4.76, which today sounds like something a 22-year-old lefty might build on. That's because this year the major league average ERA was about 4.50. Back then it was a run lower. Glavine looked like he wouldn't make it.
Given the sorry state of the Braves organization at the time there was no reason to think that any pitcher produced there was going to catch on. Under Joe Torre, the Braves won the NL West in 1982 and came close to repeating in 1983. If Torre had been the manager then that he is now, they might have done it, but in 1983 he still thought that making Rafael Ramirez (career on-base percentage .295) your leadoff man was a good idea. A move like that is enough to cost you three games in a close race. It cost Torre his job. After an indifferent 1984, he was forced out. Coincidentally or not, the organization went into rapid freefall, climaxing with 106 losses in 1988.
That Braves team was a fascinating mix of a few players who would prove to have a future, like Glavine, Ron Gant, Jeff Blauser, Mark Lemke, and John Smoltz and a long parade of veterans who had nowhere to go. Not "nowhere to go but down." They were already down Ken Griffey the Elder, Ted Simmons, Gary Roenicke, Jim Morrison, Damaso Garcia, Jody Davis, Dale Murphy (suddenly done at 32) and Bruce Sutter among them. There were also a few young players who had little to offer Andres Thomas, Tommy Gregg, Pete Smith, Kevin Coffman, and Kevin Blakenship.
It is amazing that Glavine emerged from that mess and from the sorry start to his career and put together a Hall of Fame record. Many Hall of Fame careers are created not just by talent but by circumstance. You come up with the wrong organization, where you can't get any defensive support (the key to the Braves worst-to-first turnaround from 1990-1991 was a complete reconfiguration of their defense. They went from last in the baseball to turning balls in play into outs to third in the majors, first in the National League), or the manager inexplicably hates you, or they haven't heard of pitch counts in the minor league system (think Paul Wilson) and your entry in the Baseball Encyclopedia runs just a few lines instead of a half a page.
This postseason has offered a good chance for some last hurrahs on the part of the great players of the 1990s first Frank Thomas and now Tom Glavine. Whatever the outcome of these series, it's been fun to watch.
After today's game and over the weekend!
THURSDAY, October 5, 2006: Posted at 8:11 p.m.
THE BULLPEN AGAIN
Joe Torre made his first significant error of the series today. Curtis Granderson is the Tigers' only lefty hitter of note. During the season he proved to be a much weaker hitter against his fellow lefties. In Game 1, Torre sought to exploit that weakness by bringing in Mike Myers to face him in the seventh inning. Myers gave up a home run, but the whole move was mistimed Wang was pitching well and there was nothing at stake in Granderson's at-bat.
That Granderson foiled the lefty-on-lefty strategy once doesn't invalidate it. In the seventh inning of Game 2, the game, and possibly the series, was on the line. Mike Mussina had given up single runs in the fifth and sixth to tie the game at 3-3, so he wasn't exactly fooling the Tigers. Marcus Thames (who was in the middle of everything today more on him in a moment) was on third base with one out. A Granderson sacrifice fly would give the Tigers the lead and put the position of trying to tie the game against Joel Zumaya, a pitcher who threatens to break the sound barrier on every pitch and may prove to be this series' great equalizer.
Granderson had struck out in a third of his at-bats against lefties. The Yankees needed that strikeout. If Myers didn't inspire confidence and he shouldn't then Ron Villone is on the roster for a reason. Presumably. One suspects that it is, as Torre implied in a recent interview, that Torre felt he owed Villone the berth for services rendered over the course of the season. If so, it's great foolishness to waste limited roster space on a purely ceremonial position. Torre sat on his hands and wasted his lefty deterrent. Granderson tripled, the Tigers led 4-3, and the game was basically over.
The psychological effect the postseason has on managers is amazing. From Jim Leyland popping out of the dugout every other pitch to counsel his pitchers to Torre repeatedly putting the wrong pitchers in the wrong places, something he doesn't do (often) in the regular season, there is ample evidence that the pressure drives otherwise reasonable coaches into a state of temporary insanity.
Some of the really diehard, see-no-evil Yankees fans among the readership get pretty exercised when I'm overly pessimistic, but I can't help it I'm there. After Thursday's loss I have a bleak feeling about the outcome of the Series.
On Tuesday, as I did preview spots on radio stations around the country, I was asked to handicap the series. My answer was the same every time. "The Yankees should win," I said, "but if it goes beyond three games, the pitching matchups become unfavorable." No great insight there, but when you're doing morning drive radio in Birmingham you stick to the basics. Friday's game is a toss-up, with the spineless Kenny Rogers (hell on cameramen, soft on batters) up against the all-too spiny Randy Johnson. The Big Unit's problem is that, unlike Rogers, he's definitely a vertebrate. We know that because his vertebrae keep quitting on him.
Johnson has been erratic all season, and you wonder if he ever was completely healthy perhaps this herniated disc problem went undetected all season long, disguising itself as mere stiffness. Whatever the case, he might pitch like the Unit of old, the Unit of this year, or the Unit of please retire already. On the other side, Rogers has specialized in committing ritual suicide in the playoffs. But the Cardinals got five shutout innings from Jeff Weaver today, so anything is possible.
Game 4 will match Jaret Wright against Jeremy Bonderman. Whatever Bonderman's faults, he's a heck of a fourth starter, with 202 strikeouts this year. He was somewhat vulnerable to lefties, and somewhat worse at home than on the road. I feel a little more positive about Wright than I have in the past based on the way the Tigers hit. Righties hit just three home runs in 294 at-bats against Wright this year, and if that represents something real about Wright then he will have muted the Tigers' main strength. He was also a full run better away from Yankee Stadium (3.99 road ERA vs. 4.99 home).
The main problem with Wright is that his five- or six-inning stuff has the potential to expose all that is evil about the Yankees' bullpen. Even if Wright pitches well, those six or eight outs that take the game from Wright to Rivera loom large in the outcome of the Series.
So, yup, feeling a bit pessimistic.
FERRY CROSS THE THAMES
Marcus Thames was not a great prospect. He was a 30th-round draft pick by the New York Yankees in 1996. At that stage of the draft, teams are picking names out of hats so they have players to fill up their rosters. They have no expectations for those players. Thames did hit a bit, though, and got up to Double-A by 1999. He seemed to hit a wall there, but in 2001, at age 24, he exploded on the Eastern League, batting .321/.410/.598 with 31 home runs.
This wasn't a big deal. He was repeating Double-A. Players who do that sometimes put up seasons that make you shout, "Look! Late bloomer!" but what you should really be saying is, "We're looking at his peak." That seemed to be the case with Thames, who failed to hit at Columbus the next year. When Juan Rivera was eaten by a maintenance cart that June, Thames was called up.
On June 10, 2002, Thames started in right field against the Diamondbacks and Randy Johnson. Shane Spencer led off the home third with a double, bringing up Thames. On the first pitch of his first major league at-bat, Thames crushed a Johnson pitch for a two-run homer.
That was it for his Yankees career. He started just one more game, going 0-for-3. Though he remained on the roster until June 27, he was a seldom-used reserve. When the Yankees signed Karim Garcia, Thames was optioned back to Columbus, never to return.
Thames opened 2003 at Columbus and didn't hit. On June 6, the Yankees felt they needed to get Ruben Sierra from the Texas Rangers. Thames was the price they paid for 274 games of Sierra batting .251/.302/.423.
As it turned out, Thames probably wouldn't have done much worse. He was a late bloomer, though he had to wash out of Texas to prove it. Moving to Toledo, Detroit's Triple-A franchise, in 2004, Thames finally put it all together, batting .329/.410/.735 with 24 home runs in 234 at-bats. Not even the Tigers could resist that. Called up to the majors, Thames slugged .509 in 165 at-bats. He struggled in 2005, once again putting his career in jeopardy, but his strong 2006 should finally keep him in the majors for a while.
No big moral here, unless it's that trading for Ruben Sierra only brings negative returns. It's not so much that trading Thames was a bad idea, as there was no reason to believe in him at the time. Trading him for Sierra, well
With all respect to a certain Yankees broadcaster, saying that Sean Casey is a comparable hitter to Bobby Abreu is ludicrous. Joe Morgan outdid this one later, saying that Casey "did a heck of a job for [the Tigers]. He became one of their RBI men a real clutch hitter." When a graphic popped up showing that Casey had hit .245/.286/.364, Morgan tried to cover up, saying Casey "had a lot of bad luck." Preparation 1, Morgan 0. Morgan may also have set a record for clichés in one player comment when he said of Placido Polanco, "[He's] a winning-type player. He does all the little things. He knows how to play the game."
WEDNESDAY, October 4, 2006: Posted at 2:34 p.m.
When Frank Thomas hit his home runs yesterday, my first thought was, "Take THAT, Ozzie Guillen!" When I wrote about Alex Rodriguez the other day, I said, "I wouldn't say I'm a fan...other players have a greater hold on my imagination." Thomas would be one of those. For years he was about as close to a perfect hitter as there was in the game (defense was another matter altogether). I didn't pay much attention when he was drafted, but I noticed when he walked 44 times in 60 games as a professional rookie. The next year he went to Birmingham and batted .323/.487/.581 walking 112 times in 109 games. I distinctly remember thinking, "My God! Ted Williams is back!" And he was, too. His home park never did him any favors, either. If he had come up with the Red Sox or Cubs he might have rewritten the record books. Five hundred home runs, a .400-plus career on-base percentage, and two MVP awards will have to do.
It's hard not to think the Mets are doomed. John Maine probably should have been in their postseason starting rotation ahead of Steve Trachsel anyway, but asking him to win two games might be a bit much. Asking Oliver Pérez to win anything, a game or a kewpie doll at the county fair, might be a bit much. I suppose he could surprise everyone, because whatever is wrong with him the strikeout ability is still there, but it seems highly unlikely.
The Twins had to win yesterday. With what's in their rotation after Johan Santana, I don't see them taking this to a fifth game.
Buck Showalter is a vastly overrated manager. I still haven't forgiven him for the 1995 ALDS. When George Steinbrenner canned him it was the most justified of all his managerial firings. He's also the kind of personality that wears out its welcome after just a few years. He'll be managing the Phillies within 10 months.
Good call by the Indians picking up the options on Jake Westbrook and Casey Blake, especially if they use Blake as a versatile everyday utility man, with time at all four corners. An even better move was bidding adieu to Aaron Boone.
Somebody should hand Vernon Wells a cup of strong coffee. Bob and Ray used to do a sketch called the "Slow Talkers of America," and they were more animated than Wells is on ESPN's Baseball Tonight.
The Brewers batting coach job, which claimed Rod Carew, has now taken Butch Wynegar as well. Ron Jackson, universally praised as Boston's hitting coach two years ago, bit the dust as well.
I've been reading Nathaniel Philbrick's "Mayflower" when taking breaks from the ballgames. It's pretty good the story of the Pilgrims is one of those foundational myths that needs debunking. They came here seeking religious freedom freedom to be more oppressive than the Church of England. Actually, they had the religious freedom in Holland, where they had settled after leaving England. They did well there but worried about assimilating, so actually they came here seeking freedom not to be Dutch. It's a good book, but for the author's over reliance on constructions involving the word "undoubtedly" Philbrick doesn't know for sure what the Pilgrims did at certain moments, so he has to speculate, as in, "At this moment, the Pilgrims, undoubtedly led by Miles Standish, decided to have a pizza delivered."
I was greatly amused by a description of a battle between the Native Americans, who had perfected rapid fire archery, and the Pilgrims, who were armed with matchlocks. You've heard the phrase, "Stop or I'll shoot?" This was, "Stop so I can shoot...Please hold still so I can shoot you. Just a second...I'm looking for a match...Just hold on...Okay. Got it. Now, if you could just hold that position while the wick burns down...Oh, the powder might be a bit damp so I may have to do this two or three times...You don't mind, do you? I promise I'll be able to shoot you momentarily...No, try not to move so much. I'm aiming...Darn it, the wick went out."
Throughout the day as events transpire.
WEDNESDAY, October 4, 2006: Posted at 3:34 a.m.
I WANT MY MVP
I hope all those beat guys who thought Justin Morneau was the MVP watched Tuesday night's ballgame. The ballots are already in, so the game won't do anything to change the outcome of the vote, but I do hope all those cavemen who were seduced by Morneau's home runs and RBIs felt a little regret as they watched Jeter carry the Yankees on his back. There are a lot of ways to win at baseball. It happens that Jeter is good at almost all of them, but if you're not too smart you miss it for focusing on the relatively few big flies he hits.
A note on RBIs: as I've written many times, they're as much a function of opportunity as anything else. Jeter drove in 18.7 percent of the baserunners he saw this year. Because he batted behind Johnny Damon, who didn't have a great OBP year, he came to bat with just 444 runners on base. Had he seen as many baserunners as major league leader Alex Rodriguez, he would have driven in 114 runs, all other things being equal. For more on RBI opportunities, see Baseball Prospectus's stats.
Parenthetically, when I say that Damon didn't have a great OBP year, I mean that he had the same OBP year he typically has (.359 in 2006 vs. .353 for this career). He's a good player, but he's not a great leadoff hitter. Had he not added power this year, his season would have been something of a disappointment. Theo Epstein and the Red Sox weren't wrong about failing to ante up for Pedro Martinez two years ago and Damon last winter. In the end, the Mets may get no more than 1 1/2 decent years out of Martinez. The Yankees have three more years of Damon.
Opposing managers do a great job of overestimating the Yankees in postseason games. They think that they can win with tricks, when really banging out a few hits in sequence will do. The turning point of the game came in the top of the second inning. Magglio Ordóñez opened the frame with a double. Carlos Guillén then walked on 3-2, bringing Ivan Rodriguez to the plate.
At that point, the Tigers had a good chance at a big inning. Forget the stats (in 2006, teams that put runners on first and second with no outs typically scored 1.6 runs in the inning a way of saying "more than one"). The pressure was on Chien-Ming Wang. Wang has ice water in his veins as long as nothing adverse happens. In his few rough starts this year, he had a tendency to let things snowball. As he did at times early in the game, he starts to press, overthrow, and his sinker gets up in the zone.
Leyland's first instinct was to call for a bunt. Say it had worked: with runners on second and third and one out, the chances of scoring two runs actually diminish. Second, one run in the second inning wouldn't have that much impact on the outcome of the game. The Tigers needed to hit the Yankees hard, then rely on their tough bullpen to get them through. Instead, Leyland called for a hit and run. Rodriguez swung through the pitch, Magglio Ordóñez was a dead duck at third, and the entire complexion of the inning changed. Wang pitched out of it, and though the Tigers pressed them at times, they weren't in serious trouble from then on.
I was also surprised by Leyland using Jamie Walker for a second inning. It wasn't something he did often this year about 12 times out of 56 appearances. Letting Walker face Jeter when the Captain kills lefties was also a roll of the dice that didn't pay off. Walker threw 39 pitches and is probably too toasted to pitch on Wednesday.
AND A COUPLE OF OTHER THINGS
Joe Torre made the right move bringing in a lefty to face Curtis Granderson, even if it didn't work out. Mike Myers just isn't that good a pitcher. Ron Villone was actually much tougher on lefties this year, but given the way he pitched down the stretch it's not a surprise that Torre stayed away from him.
A-Rod crisped two balls that went for outs. His luck should be better tonight.
Torre was classy in the postgame press conference, talking about how much he respected Nate Robertson.
Bobby Abreu is the gift that keeps on giving, and for once I don't mean that sarcastically.
Throughout the day. Stay tuned.
MONDAY, October 3, 2006: Posted at 10:18 a.m.
RUMINATIONS (A NIGHTLY SPECTACULAR ON THE SEVEN SEAS LAGOON)
Some things I didn't get to in yesterday's Pinstriped Bible head-to-head edition, either, because I didn't have room (I hate to ask y'all to read more than 2,000 words), I've thought further about it, or it hadn't happened yet:
There has already been a plethora of stupid, underline stupid stories about Joe Torre sending Alex Rodriguez a "message" by batting him sixth in game one. First, this is a non-story. In 1996, Torre benched Tino Martinez in the playoffs. He takes some flights of fancy at this time of year. Don't read into it. If he really wanted to send a message, he would have batted A-Rod ninth. Then again, he's too busy sending Robbie Canó, a .341 hitter, a message by batting him ninth. I wonder what that message is. "Hit .350 next time, you big baby?" "Learn to take a few walks and maybe I'll bat you eighth?" "I really didn't appreciate the bath soaps you guys got me as an end-of-season gift and I heard it was your idea?"
I tend to believe that Torre has bigger things on his mind this year than Alex Rodriguez's psyche, but even if there was a message intended, it wouldn't necessarily be negative, punitive, or even motivational. It might simply be intended to say, "You played tight in this spot last year. You've played tight all year this year. We have a deeper lineup now. Here's a nice, soft sixth spot for you. Relax. Be mellow." Even then, it would be a spectacularly hollow, pointless gesture. There is no place in the batting order that you can protect Rodriguez from hitting with runners on not that you should. He wasn't that bad.
More importantly, as is typical of the punditocracy, sports or otherwise, in this great land of ours, they bloviated rather than analyzed and missed the key to the story, which was that THE MOVE MAKES NO FREAKING SENSE. Not in THIS game, with THIS opponent. Nate Robertson was very tough on lefties this year. They hit .181/.221/.269 off of him with just two home runs in 193 at-bats. As a Yankee, Bobby Abreu, Tuesday's No. 3 hitter, hit .281/.379/.368 against lefties with zero home runs. Now, that was in just a few plate appearances, and Abreu is better than that against lefties, but not a great deal better. His career averages are .277/.376/.399. You wouldn't platoon him, but you wouldn't make him the focus of your offense against lefties either. Jason Giambi batted .213 against lefties this year, albeit with good power and patience. A-Rod hit .294/.434/.574 against lefties.
You want to send A-Rod a message, you give him a prominent role in a situation where he is likely to succeed. You might actually win the game, too.
With the exception of Jamie Walker, Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers, every pitcher on the Tigers staff is younger than 30. I don't put much stock in the whole experience thing, but you do wonder how a 23-year-old like Justin Verlander or a 21-year-old like Joel Zumaya will react to over 50,000 rabid Yankees fans screaming their heads off and threatening to do vile things to his mom.
Mr. Torre said yesterday that Mariano Rivera won't be making his customary two-inning postseason appearances. That's a problem, though not if Scott Proctor and Brian Bruney can get some setup outs. I think Kyle Farnsworth is probably a home run away from Torre's "Do Not Trust" zone. Maybe I'm projecting. The Tigers' roster does help in that their only two lefty batters of note are Sean Casey and Curtis Granderson. The Yankees might have considered leaving Ron Villone or Mike Myers off the roster in round one and kept Jeff Karstens or Darrell Rasner, giving them one more righty long man out of the pen. They're just not going to be playing with platoon match-ups that often.
It won't matter if the manager of the Cubs is Dusty Baker, Joe Girardi, or Frank Bleeding Chance until they figure out how to get on base. Since 1975, the Cubs have had team on-base percentages above the league average exactly twice in 1978 (.331 vs. .330) and 1984 (.331 vs. .328). This year their .319 team OBP trailed the National League by a considerable margin.
I want Elvis Costello to record a new version of Nick Lowe's, "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Habeas Corpus."
The possibility of a Game 4 start for Jaret Wright is scary, but check out how Wright kept righties in the park this year. All the Tigers have is righty power.
I think it's pretty cool that Morten Andersen, who was an original signatory to the Mayflower Compact, kicked five field goals this week. He should be doing Viagra commercials. Speaking of football, all credit to Peyton Manning for the way he finished the Jets on Sunday, but as much credit should go to a Jets defense that just couldn't make a stop anywhere on the field. Your grandmother wouldn't fold that fast if she had hinges. And good call by the NFL for suspending Albert Haynesworth and his happy feet for five games. One other football thought: my pal Gary Gillette of ESPN was nice enough to send me a copy of the new ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia he put together. While I could spend hours reminiscing about Browning Nagle and Danny Kannell, my favorite part of the book has to be the tables showing the height and weight curve of NFL players over time. In 1950, the average tackle weight 222.6 pounds. Today's tackles have put on almost 100 pounds more.
I DON'T GET A VOTE, BUT...
My picks for the major awards:
American League MVP: Derek Jeter. It's not a career achievement award. The Yankees didn't survive and overcome the loss of two starting outfielders and a twitchy Alex Rodriguez because of Melky Cabrera. Joe Mauer would be a very reasonable choice as well. Batting titles aren't that big a deal, but when a catcher wins one we should take notice, especially when that catcher is the rock around which a division title is built. I like Justin Morneau a lot, but he wasn't one of the 10 best players in the league. David Ortiz's team disappeared too early. I think that matters.
American League Cy Young: Johan Santana. No one else is close.
American League Rookie of the Year: A tough call. There were so many good rookie pitchers in the junior circuit this year. Francisco Liriano would have gotten the nod if he had stayed healthy. Jon Papelbon also deserves consideration,, though he too missed time. Justin Verlander was very good, though he faded a bit in the second half. I have to go with Jered Weaver, the most impressive rookie who still has his arm attached. If all these pitchers split the vote, you could see a position player like Kenji Johjima or Nick Markakis take home the hardware.
American League Manager of the Year: Based on past observation I don't think he's a very good manager, but it's possible that he grew on the job this year. When the Twins wised up and got Juan Castro and Tony Batista out of the infield and tried the novel approach of scoring runs their team took off and won its division on the last day of the season. Waking up and smelling the coffee, there are people who never do that once in their whole lives. Of course, we don't know who instigated that moment, Gardenhire or GM Terry Ryan. I suspect it was Ryan... Joe Torre finishes second, doing his usual good job of juggling many ill-fitting parts not to mention surviving some major injuries without panicking. Jim Leyland used Neifi Pérez.
National League MVP: I think it's Albert Pujols, without whom the Cardinals would have finished in the National League South. If you want to pick Ryan Howard I won't fuss too much, but for all of Howard's fireworks, Pujols still had the better year, and he contributed the hits that keyed the few Cards wins down the stretch. Lance Berkman deserves some support as well. A quiet September cost Carlos Beltran a shot at the award, but he and David Wright (who cooled during the second half) deserve to get some support.
National League Cy Young: Darned if I know. I think it has to be Roy Oswalt (the Lucky Rabbit). He pitched well in meaningful games down the stretch. He had bad luck on balls in play and overcame it, too.
National League Rookie of the Year: Hanley Ramirez. Not a hard decision.
National League Manager of the Year: Willie Randolph. The Mets had many opportunities to fall apart. The rotation was unsettled all year. The outfield was a mess for the umpteenth year in a row. He got them through it ... with Endy Chavez?