Monday, October 17, 2005

The Yankees Underdogs

If asked to pick one thing that best described the Yankees season, it would be an easy decision: underdogs and rookies. Okay, that’s two things, but they’re both part of the Improbable Heroes category. This idea of the improbable hero isn’t new to the Yankees, though you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the teams they fielded from 2002, 2003, and 2004. And aren’t those the years…that they didn’t win the World Series?

I’m sorry, I was getting ahead of myself there. And yes, they also didn’t win the World Series in ’01 and ’05, but I’ll get to that part. Just let me state my purpose before launching into the reasons for recent failure.

Since the latest Yankees dynasty started in 1996, they have always been a team defined by a solid if not superstar core of players surrounded by guys who could, at very worst, tread water. This ensured a degree of team unity within the core, and the supporting cast was interchanged in ways that would make Eli Whitney proud. The hypothesis: base your team around four or five hitters and a starter or two (pitchers are seemingly more interchangeable), and a surefire closer, and you will put yourself in the position to win a helluva lot of jewelry.

Back in 1996, it was a tougher task to separate the core from the hired help, since that whole winning the World Series thing was new to the team. Making the task tougher, there was no discernible superstar on the team, or at least a superstar in his prime (Wade Boggs was there, but he was 38, past his batting title days with the Red Sox).

But despite the lack of superstardom, the Yanks fielded a team that all hit well, the worst positional average – left field, shared by Tim Raines and Gerald Williams – at .276, though their DHs, Ruben Sierra, Darryl Strawberry and trade deadline acquisition Cecil Fielder, hit a lowly .261. Regardless, that leaves eight of the nine guys in the order hitting above .275, seven of which hit above .290.

There was still a vague core of players entering the 1996 season, at least something the Yanks could build off of. Paul O’Neill and Wade Boggs had been around since ’93. Bernie Williams had been patrolling center since Roberty Kelly went down in ’91 with an injury. Tino Martinez was vaguely recognized as a long haul player, though everyone was reluctant to dub him as such, being Don Mattingly’s replacement and all.

By the middle of the season, it was apparent that Derek Jeter would be part of this team for a very long time, though he falls under the rookie help category, batting .314/.370/.430 on his way to the AL Rookie of the Year award.

Then came the underdogs, guys that had been okay, possibly mediocre ballplayers prior to the 1996 season, when they provided an extra spark en route to the World Series Championship. And what better place to start than Mariano Duncan?

So maybe he had been more than just a mediocre player before ’96. He had a few seasons where he hit around .300, though he was always a free swinger, never drawing too many walks (38 in his rookie year of 1985 was a career high). Plus, he was 33 and hadn’t been a consistent starter since ’93, which made his .340/.352/.500 season even more monstrous. And let’s not forget the greatest phrase ever pressed onto a t-shirt: “We play today, we win today, das it.” I’m still looking for one of those suckers on e-Bay.

Another unlikely hero in ’96 became a household name in New York: Joe Girardi. Sure, it’s not like they picked this guy up off the street and handed him the starting catcher gig, but he was never a standout during his years with Chicago and Colorado. A lifetime .268 hitter entering ’96, Girardi broke out with a .294/.346/.374 season (which had to rank way up on the catcher’s list, though I have not been able to conjure up physical evidence of this).

Oh, and there was this guy by the name of Mariano Rivera in the mix as well. I understand it’s tough to think of Mo as an underdog, but he was, and he saved the Yankees season. What helps define him as an underdog was 1) his newness to late inning relief and 2) his poor 1995 season. He appeared in 19 games in ’95, 10 of which he started, for a total of 67 innings pitched, in which he surrendered 41 runs for a tidy ERA of 5.51. His WHIP wasn’t any friendlier, stemming from his 71 hits and 30 walks over those aforementioned 67 innings, placing him at the dreaded 1.50 mark.

In 1996, we all wtinessed a reborn Mariano Rivera. Or, at least, we witnessed him in the role he was born to play: late inning relief. And while he was still setting up the ninth for John Wetteland, we all know that Mo could have been the closer that year, and it probably wouldn’t have made a huge difference (as long as they had an extra bullpen arm to replace Wetteland that could effectively get the ball to Mo). He hurled a career high 107.2 innings that year, lowered his ERA by nearly 3.5 points to 2.09, struck out 130 (!!), and truncated his WHIP to 0.99. Core player? You betcha.

I could go on to mention Andy Pettitte and his 21-8 record to go along with a 3.87 ERA, but he wasn’t nearly the underdog these other guys were. Then again, he was only 24 and it was only his second year in the bigs, having posted a 12-8 record in ’95 over 26 starts (as opposed to 34 in ’96). So his underdog status is debatable, though ’96 was more of a breakout year than an underdog performance. Yes, I realize that the two can be connoted similarly, but I see a difference. It’s not like Pettitte was terrible, a la Mo, in ’95. But he wasn’t a superstar either. I’ll save my words here and let the reader decide Pettitte’s underdog status in 1996.

But regardless, he was part of the core that emerged after that first World Series Championship. He, along with Rivera, Jeter, Bernie, O’Neill, Tino, and to a lesser extent Boggs (age) and Girardi (age, and they knew they wanted to get Posada PT), would form the core of a dynastic line of championships.

Coming tomorrow: the underdogs of '97 - '04.