Yankees' demise greatly exaggerated

Originally Published: November 15, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Catching up on the important e-mail while wondering exactly what difference "treatment" for steroid use is going to make in the lives of anybody except those being paid good money to administer the "treatment" ...

    Hey Rob,

    People need to settle down about the Yankees. I keep reading "What went wrong?!" pieces, and "How to fix the Yankees" articles. Sure, they need to replace some players who they'll lose, but a major overhaul is not required for this franchise to get more rings. Despite what we're hearing, their World Series was far from a disaster.

    They out-hit the Marlins (54-47). They out-homered (6-2) and out-walked (22-14) the Marlins. They out-scored the Marlins (21-17.) And while they out-errored the Marlins (4-2), they only out-errored the Marlins (2-0) in the games the Yanks won. I really think it boils down to this: they just didn't out-win the Marlins (2-4).

    There's no huge flaw embedded in this team that needs fixing. There's no logic behind "They can't produce in the World Series" statements. It's just baseball. Sometimes you can have the pieces and just not win. It happens.

    -- Bill

Of course I agree with you, Bill. The Yankees do have to find some starting pitchers because they're losing at least one and quite possibly three, but they could begin next season with exactly the same starting lineup and be a pretty good bet to win 95-100 games. Anything that happens in New York gets magnified, almost beyond recognition, but this was a good lineup in September and it's a good lineup right now.

Which isn't to say the Yankees shouldn't try to get better. One of the reasons they haven't missed the postseason since 1994 is simple: they're always trying to get better, and that's not something you can say about every winning team. Some winning teams seem happy to tread water, but when you're treading water it's easy for a shark to take off one of your legs at the knee.

Speaking of sharks (he wrote, clumsily switching metaphors), a baseball team might be said to resemble a shark: if you're not moving forward, you're dying. And while it's not precisely true that the Yankees are always moving forward -- remember Hideki Irabu, anybody? -- it's true that they're almost always trying to move forward. If they don't run into a bunch of injuries, the Yankees will be better next year than they were this year.

Bill mentioned a number of World Series stats, but was kind enough to mention them with a straight face. A number of other readers, though, took the chance to throw those numbers in my face ... and if you were one of them, I can't say that I blame you.

    Rob, the following is taken from your October 20 column . . .

      Yes, (the Marlins) had a pretty good lineup. Yes, Pierre did steal 65 bases. And yes, he's one hell of a bunter. But among all the players who might hurt the Yankees, he ranks somewhere near the bottom. I said it last week but it's worth saying again: the team that wins the World Series will be the team that draws more walks and hits more home runs. Those wheels at the top of the Marlins' lineup? They're just background noise.

    What gets me is your conviction. You make it sound as if there is no way it could possibly turn out any other way.

    Yankees: 22 walks, 6 home runs
    Marlins: 14 walks, 2 home runs

    How could this be?

    -- Jody Zimmerle

Those numbers aren't so strange, Jody. What's strange (or what should be strange) was the arrogance with which I wrote that particular column. I started out with a valid argument, which is that who wins the World Series generally isn't determined by which team runs faster (unless that was the key to a team's regular-season success, which wasn't the case with the Marlins). And you know what? Speed most certainly was not the key to the Marlins' victory over the Yankees.

Let's look at the four games the Marlins won.

Game 1 (3-2): Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo combine for three hits, one walk, and one run scored in 10 plate appearances. Pierre was certainly the star of the game, scoring one Marlins run and driving in the other two. But was this due to his speed? He led off the game with a bunt single; score one for the wheels. Castillo followed with an infield hit, an odd little blooper. Pierre raced all the way to third, and scored a moment later on Ivan Rodriguez's sacrifice fly. That's a whole run, due solely (or almost solely) to the Marlins' superior team speed.

And that was the last time speed made the difference.

Game 4 (4-3): Pierre and Castillo combine for zero hits, one walk, and zero runs in 10 plate appearances. Marlins win because of Miguel Cabrera, Alex Gonzalez, and Joe Torre's unwillingness to use his best pitcher in a tie game.

Game 5 (6-4): Pierre and Castillo combined for one hit, one walk, and zero runs in eight plate appearances. Marlins win because David Wells lasts only one inning, the bottom of Florida's lineup rips Jose Contreras, and (again) Joe Torre refuses to use his best pitcher in a close game.

Game 6 (2-0): Pierre and Castillo combine for two singles and one walk in 10 plate appearances, didn't score a run. Marlins win because Josh Beckett pitches a shutout.

In the Marlins' four victories, Pierre and Castillo totaled six hits (all singles), two stolen bases, and one run. Their vaunted speed was, with the solitary exception of the very first inning of the very first game, a non-factor.

Fifty years from now, assuming we haven't all been devoured by cranky nano-bots or something, crusty old baseball fans will be saying that Juan Pierre "set the tone" in Game 1 with his leadoff bunt, but that sort of misses the salient fact that the Yankees won the next two games, doesn't it?

The Marlins won the World Series for a number of reasons, chief among them good pitching. Team speed goes on that list, too ... but very near the bottom, and well below Jeff Weaver and Joe Torre.

Getting back to the original point -- no, I didn't forget -- it was stupid of me to be so specific about home runs and walks. Over the course of a season, the team that wins the twin battles of home runs and walks will, much more often than not, be successful. But there are a lot of ways to win four games out of seven, and the Marlins found one that didn't include out-playing the Yankees in the most important phases of the game.

    Hi Rob,

    I enjoyed the column about Bill James' new book and the surprising park factors.

    Here's a question, though: Is it fair to downgrade Angel Berroa because he was not able to take advantage of hitter-friendly Kauffman Stadium? His home/road splits for OPS were nearly identical, while Matsui had a big advantage at home (Berroa's home/road splits were 795/783, Matsui's were 810/766).

    Therefore, while Berroa's teammates presumably benefited from playing in Kauffman Stadium, Berroa did not. I would have voted for Berroa because with virtually identical OPS' (as was the case with Matsui and Berroa), a shortstop is much more valuable than a right fielder.

    Sounds like a future column on hitters that don't take advantage of "extreme" hitter-friendly parks.

    -- Tim Anderson

Ah, another chance to correct a common misconception. Thanks, Tim.

A lot of people think that if a player in a good hitter's park doesn't have better home stats than road stats, then he's not "taking advantage" of his home ballpark. He's not "helped."

Uh, no. Let us imagine a hypothetical candidate for President of the United States of America. Let's give him a huge edge in financing, and let's also give him a father who was, just a few years ago, a beloved President himself.

Now, let's say our candidate loses the election by only three electoral votes.

He lost by the margin of Montana, or Alaska.

Now, do we look at our candidate and scoff, "Ha, look at him! He had all that money and a famous daddy, and it didn't help him at all!"

We might. We would probably be wrong, though. Rather, it's likely that the money helped and the old man helped ... but they just didn't help enough. It's likely that without those edges, our candidate would have lost by (let's say) 54 electoral votes rather than three. Would have lost by California rather than Montana.

And that's the way it is with ballparks. It's not that Kauffman Stadium didn't help Angel Berroa, it's that without Kauffman Stadium his home numbers would have been worse than they were. I suppose there are special circumstances in which a great hitter's park would actually be disadvantageous to a particular hitter. But the odds against Berroa being one of those particular hitters are very long indeed. He may very well have deserved his Rookie of the Year Award, but let's not make any excuses for him. He, just like every other Royal, benefited from his home field.

    Rob, I don't want to take anything away from Eric Gagne's fantastic season, but I just cannot see how someone that pitched 82.1 innings could win the Cy Young over a guy like Jason Schmidt, who pitched 207.2 innings (averaging over 7 innings per start) and had 5 complete games. In your discussion of the AL Rookies of the Year, you remove Jody Gerut because he played in only 127 games -- shouldn't you use the same consideration when looking at the respective merits of Gagne and Schmidt?

    When you also consider that Schmidt pitched for a playoff team and Gagne did not and that Schmidt's ERA was a phenomenal 2.34, I simply cannot understand how Gagne was more deserving of the Cy Young.

    -- Jesse

Well, since we were already talking about ballparks, it's worth mentioning that while Schmidt pitches half his games in a pitcher-friendly park, Dodger Stadium is probably the best pitcher's park in the National League, and that does have to count for something.

That said, there's a big problem with Jesse's analysis, which is this: Jody Gerut's and Angel Berroa's innings played are directly comparable, while Eric Gagne's and Jason Schmidt's innings pitched are not. Simply put, Gagne's individual innings count for more than Schmidt's, because Gagne's typical inning is more important than Schmidt's. That's a fact.

Here's another: if you don't think Eric Gagne was the best pitcher in his league, then you're simply never going to believe that any closer is the best pitcher in his league. Which is a defensible position, no question. It's just not one that I care to defend. Gagne was asked to protect 55 late-inning leads in 2003, and he protected all 55 of them. Aside from Gagne, I would guess the best closers in the majors were John Smoltz, Billy Wagner, and Keith Foulke. Smoltz blew four saves, Wagner blew three saves, and Foulke blew five saves.

Gagne blew none.

Jason Schmidt pitched wonderfully this season, and by the way I want to applaud the voters for placing a 17-game winner like Schmidt above a 21-game winner like Russ Ortiz. Jason Schmidt might even have been the best pitcher in the National League last season. But Gagne was a fine choice, and he'd have gotten my vote. Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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