Monday, June 13, 2005

What's Wrong, Part I: Reacting to Adversity

Following a 12-game road trip that was well below the line of mediocrity, everyone is asking the same question in one way or another: what the hell is wrong with this team? Sure, there are positives to look at as well, but when you’re two games under .500 with 100 games to play, the negatives are going to be scrutinized more heavily than the positives are lauded. But instead of complaining on talk radio shows about A-Rod or the pitching staff, I’m going to dedicate this week to figuring out these Bombers.

We’ll start today with a theme that isn’t brought up much in popular media, but something I’ve touched on in the past: the lack of reaction. When a problem strikes this team, they don’t seem to let it phase them, which is a problem. Sure, you don’t want to let a tough loss linger for too long, but to let it pass with a stone face isn’t the answer either.

The key to success in the big leagues is to win series. If you consistently take two of three from teams not only will you be setting yourself up for a .667 winning percentage, you’re avoiding losing streaks. And as this incarnation of the Yankees know, a few losing streaks can pile up and put you in quite a hole in the pennant race. Thankfully, Baltimore and Boston have had trouble of late stringing together wins as well, so the Yanks, at 30-32, certainly aren’t out of the immediate picture. But they can’t continue to rely on the failures of their division foes. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to hit a 13 of 15 stretch or two in order to solidify themselves as contenders.

One facet of team reaction is how they play following a blowout (here defined as their opponent scoring 10 or more runs while losing by at least five). In 1996 the team was 9-4 in such games. In ’98, 5-1. 4-1 in ’99. The numbers skew in ’00, as they posted a 5-7 record in such games, but that was partly due to the seven game slide in which they lost blowout games to the Tigers, Devil Rays and Orioles.

This year, they’re 2-2. Not terrible, but the fact that they’ve already been in four such situations is cause for alarm. And it’s worth noting that in games following their reaction game, they’re 1-3.

Losing games does more than drop your team in the standings; it frustrates players and dampens the mood in the clubhouse, and it becomes cyclical from there. This is the exact reason why a strong pitching performance is key following a loss. Normally, you have the same eight guys going out in the field every day, and when they all go cold at once, there’s not much you can do to turn them all around. That is, except go out there and pitch on helluva game.

Let’s take a look at that magical 1996 team for a comparison. For starters, their longest losing streak was five games, which happened only once, and the next longest was three, which happened five times, two of which were in April. Already this year, the Yanks have had a six game losing streak, two four-gamers, and two threes. That’s 20 losses off streaks thus far, while the ’96 version had 20 through 162 (a streak being three games or more).

What’s more, the ’96 5-game losing streak came in late August, when a hot team tends to tire out at least a little bit. And that streak was broken by a 6-2 win over the Angels – on the west coast. The season-high six game losing streak this year was broken by squeezing out a game in – as Michael Kay says – bonus cantos. Oh, and we followed that with another three-game losing streak. The ’96 team ended their longest slide by not allowing another three game streak for the rest of the season.

The solution to this problem isn’t simple, and it surely can’t be solved by myself or any of the loons that call into sports radio shows. This is a problem from within the players, something that only they can work out. The only way a personnel change will affect this facet of the team’s shortcomings this year is if somebody or somebodies (cough cough, Giambi and Womack) is/are chronically afflicted.

So to dig into my bag of sports cliches, the Yanks have to take a look deep inside themselves and see if they can still personify winning like they did from ’96 to 2000. I’m sure it’s there, it’s just a matter of them finding and sustaining it.

So the schedule for this week is going to look like this: tomorrow I’ll investigate the lack of role players and what exactly it means to this team. Wednesday will be dedicated to the pitching woes, aptly followed by hitting woes on Thursday. Friday is going to be a surprise, more of an “I want to write this” kind of piece about what I think are the crucial elements to this year’s team.