Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Underdogs (or Lack Thereof), 2000-'04 (and some other stuff)

I was going to elaborate on the Yankees rookie and underdog situation from 2000-2004 today, but I realized that I’ll just go into some longwinded tirade about what happened during those years that pissed me off. I did this a few weeks ago, and it seems I’m slipping into the same rhetoric again. I think it is important to underline the rookies and underdogs that helped the Yanks win four World Series Titles, and I think I’ve illustrated that.

Suffice it to say that the Yankees weren’t teeming with underdogs come the 2000 season, when most of the guys on the team were part of the “core.” Outside of said core, there was David Justice, who made Jake Westbrook worth trading, as he hit a stellar .305/.391/.585, 20 HR in the second half with the Yanks. Another unsung hero from 2000 was Glenallen Hill, who in 132 at bats hit .333/.378/.736 with 16 dingers. Extrapolate those 16 homers over a 500 at bat season, and you’ve got 60 long fly balls.

You may notice that in the years the Yanks won the title, they had underdogs aplenty, or at least a heavy duty core of players in tact. 2001 left the Yanks with mainly their core guys, infiltrated only by Soriano after Knoblauch did his Giambi impression at second and was moved to left field. And it’s not like Soriano was anything special that year, either. So with an aging core, the Yankees couldn’t pull the final string, and ended up losing the Series in 7.

Gone are Brosius, O’Neill, Knoblauch, and Tino in ’02, and gone are the Yankees from the World Series. Let’s do the math here: take away three core players, add Giambi (though Soriano can be considered an addition by his improvement, .300/.332/.547, 39 HR, 41 SB, though he showed his true colors while chasing that 40th homer), and can you really expect to win?

It was more the swapping of Rondell White for Hideki Matsui in left that was cause for the Yankees to return to the World Series in 2003 than the rookies and underdogs. Though, Nick Johnson – not truly a rookie but his first full year in the bigs – hit .284/.422/.472, which was just good enough to entice the Montreal Expos in the Javy Vazquez deal. And Karim Garcia did his part, hitting .305/.342/.457 over 151 AB. If nothing else, he earned his moniker, Fat Giambi (come on, you can see the resemblance), during the process.

And finally 2004, where Miguel Cairo was definitely an underdog. The guy came into Spring Training as the backup to Enrique Wilson. But Miguel came through, hitting .292/.346/.417 in 360 AB in the two and nine spots, making his departure after the season mind boggling (though I’m not complaining, because it inadvertently led to the discovery of Cano).

There you have it, folks. The Yankees rookies and underdogs from 1996 through 2004. Notice the trend? The years we won, there were quite a few more of those guys than in the latter years, where George would check the All-Star team from two years prior and try to nab those guys. Before I finish this thought, I’ll make my implication a little more explicit.

The 2005 Yanks had the underdogs and rookies. Cano, Want, Chacon, Small, and if you want to just look at September, Bubba Crosby. Accordingly, I expected more from this team because of it. But in order for the underdogs and rookies to work effectively, they have to be supplements to the core players. As I said in the opening paragraph on Monday, I define the 2005 Yanks with these guys, which may have been the problem.

And, as expected, all of these factors will play into my off-season column, which will come after the conclusion of the World Series.

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There are a few news items I’d like to comment on. The first is concerning A-Rod, which is always a hoot. New York Daily News writer Lloyd Grove is reporting that A-Rod was seen dancing and partying with friends, some of whom were female, at a club in Chelsea.

Grove implies that this is inappropriate, given the recent development that A-Rod’s “dog” performance in the ALDS may have been due to grief over his recently deceased uncle. This is because Grove believes the standard mourning period following a relative’s death is 18 weeks, and A-Rod should know that.

Seriously, though, the guy has been through a sh-tstorm lately, with the passing of his uncle compounded with his dogged performance that led to the Yankees exiting the playoffs a tad early. And since both events took place over a week ago, it only seems natural that A-Rod would come out of mourning and use alcohol to help kill the remains of the pain.

Sure, I would have rather seen him out with Jeter, Cano, Chacon, and Sheffield (MAN, I’d want to party with those guys!), but A-Rod is A-Rod, and part of that territory means not getting along with your teammates. My implicit concern with this article is not that A-Rod is using a depressant to chase the blues away, but that he still might not “get it.” Humble yourself, A-Rod; it will go a long away in attaining that ring you supposedly want so badly.

The other news bit is an obvious one, the Yanks run at Leo Mazzone, which proved futile yesterday. I’ve been going nuts over the situation ever since it became a news item back in June or July, reading everything imaginable about Mazzone and concluding that he’s the guy for the job. Alas, he’s Baltimore bound, and the Yanks are still without a pitching coach.

It seems, though, that he main things that Mazzone does differently than most pitching coaches is that he 1) tells guys when they’re throwing like crap, but emphasizes the good pitches over that crappy span and 2) has guys throw two side sessions between starts rather than one. He regulates these sessions by physically standing there and monitoring the pitcher, making sure he doesn’t overthrow.

Logical question: why can’t everyone do this, as it seems to be a method that, you know, works. People’s insistence that their way is the right way baffles me when some one else has proven more successful. Though, anyone who has read Moneyball knows that it’s not a simple task to change the minds of baseball people.

So the Yanks need a pitching coach. How about Billy Connors? He’s supposedly the team’s pitching “guru,” whatever the hell that means. But if he works such wonders with guys like Jaret Wright, why doesn’t he just come up to New York for the summer and help the team directly? It doesn’t make sense, to me, to have your best pitching guy down in Tampa, not directly working with the team’s pitching staff.

On a closing note: bring Cashman back. That is all.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Magic of 1998 (and '99)

No Yankees fan over the age of 15 is unfamiliar with the ’98 season. There aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to adequately describe that season. It was the year they finally got it right, assembled a team ready and able to win the World Series. And they were rewarded with 114 regular season wins and a relatively resistance-free postseason.

This is where the formula proved it’s weight in rings. They got some premium performances by their core: Jeter (.324/.384/.481), Bernie (.339/.422/.575), O’Neill (.317/.372/.510), Tino (.281/.355/.505), and Jorge (in his first full season, .268/.350/.475). Chuck Knoblauch, who came with high expectations, did an adequate job in his lead-off position, hitting .265/.361/.405 and only striking out 70 times, compared to 76 walks, the only Yankee to walk more than he struck out.

I already mentioned Jorge in the rookie category (even though he played enough in ’97 to not qualify in ’98, he still was a rookie that year to me). As for the underdogs, well, there was Shane Spencer, who came up in September to knock 10 out of the park in 67 AB. And although he went 3 for 6 in the ALDS, he was pretty much a non-factor for the rest of the run. Underdog yes, but not within the scope of what I’m talking about.

It may be way too late at this point to consider Tim Raines an underdog, considering I’ve mentioned him as a large contributor in both the ’96 and ’97 seasons. But seriously, folks, Tim Raines was 38 years old in 1998, and many couldn’t fathom why he was still on the team, now that Chad Curtis was in town. But when you juxtapose Curtis’s numbers (.243/.355/.360) with Raines’s, (.290/.395/.383), it seems apparent that Rock still had a bit if juice left, despite being 135 ABs behind Curtis.

But THE hero of the 1998 season, in undoubted fashion, was Scott Brosius. In fact, I probably didn’t even need to type his name, because everyone remembers. Everyone remembers (finally!) sending Kenny Rogers to Oakland, and receiving one of those mysterious “players to be named later.” Those always scare me – case and point, the Leiter situation this year. When I saw the news about the Yankees acquiring Al Leiter from the Marlins, it said for a player to be named later. And of course, this turned out to be no one, or at least no one I particularly cared for. And since the Marlins ended up with Paul Quantrill at the end of the season, I’ll just pretend that we traded Quantrill for Leiter.

When the player to be named later was announced as Scott Brosius, I was admittedly a bit excited, mainly because I recognized his name from baseball cards. See, I would have been the perfect executive for the Washington Redskins in ’98 (I was a junior in high school), in that I had a fascination with players whose names I could recognize. Why was Dan Snyder paying Vinny Cerrato lumps of dough to evaluate talent when he could have paid me a quarter of his salary to do the same thing, possibly more effectively?

Stats weren’t as readily accessible then as they are now, or at least I didn’t know anywhere to get them other than baseball cards. I had the Internet, but knew nothing about sites like Baseball-Reference and RetroSheet, which may or may not have existed in 1998. I checked my Brosius baseball cards, but they did nothing but make me more excited. No, not because of the greatness of the stats on them, but for the mere single line of stats – i.e. I had a Scott Brosius rookie card. Yippee, I thought.

Alas, this left me without the knowledge of Brosius’s struggled past, which included his .248 lifetime batting average and a ’97 season that went a lil something like this: 203/.259/.317. Had I seen those numbers, the .203 would have had me fuming. I only had a pedestrian concept of OBP at the time, and actually didn’t have a clue as to what Slugging Percentage meant, except that it was apparently a weighty stat. Oh, and Dave Winfield led the league in it a few times (which I also learned from a baseball card).

So when Brosius proceeded to tear it up in ’98, it wasn’t surprising to me at all. I did, however, wonder why it took so long for the newspaper (the Newark Star Ledger specifically, since that’s the only paper I had access to at the time) to warm up to Brosius. At the time, I guessed it was because he was replacing Wade Boggs, but that was stupid in retrospect. I don’t think the Yankees fans had a problem with Boggs leaving, considering he played for the hated Red Sox for so long. And the fact that he was over 40 at the time of his departure.

Turns out that everyone at the newspapers wasn’t warming up to Brosius because they had access to the information that I was ignorant to. When he started off hot, they just figured it was a fluke, a natural response to the adrenaline rush that comes with New York. Well, I guess Brosius had some damn magic adrenaline, as it lasted through the season and all the way to the end of October, when he hit a three-run homer off Trevor Hoffman in the top of the eighth of Game Three to put the Yanks up 5-3. Or his insurance RBI in the top of the eighth in the decisive Game Four.

I don’t know what was the real cause of Brosius going from 203/.259/.317 in ’97 to .300/.371/.472 in ’98. Maybe it was one of those right guy, right place, right time situations. Or maybe he was just that he was stuck on Oakland, who hadn’t had a winning season since ’92, Brosius’s second year, and he was ready for a winner. I like that theory, and it’s actually going to play a part in my assessment for this coming off-season. But I’m getting ahead of myself; we’re supposed to be talking about ’98.

The hitting was in place, with a core of more than solid players surrounded by role players and underdogs. The pitching staff was still solid as ever, with Pettitte, Cone, and Wells manning the upper part of the rotation, and Mo still phenomenally closing games. There were two names, though, that helped the Yanks overcome the shortcomings in the pitching staff: namely Hideki Irabu and Mike Stanton (having a waaaaay off year).

Orlando Hernandez and Ramiro Mendoza. If it weren’t for those two guys, well, I guess the Yanks probably still would have won the division. And considering how they romped through the playoffs, they more than likely still would have won the World Series. But I can’t prove that, and since Hernandez and Mendoza played their parts so well, I’m going to go ahead and say that they were underdog difference makers in 1998.

El Duque, the Cuban defector, started 21 games after coming over from his homeland, posting a 12-4 record and a 3.13 ERA. Mendoza was a swing-man for the Yanks, making 14 starts and appearing in relief 27 times, combining for a 10-2 record to go along with a tidy 3.25 ERA and a tidier 1.05 WHIP. Also gaining honorable mention in this category (mainly because he wasn’t an underdog, just an improved player) is David Wells. After going 16-10 with a 4.21 ERA in ’97, added two wins, subtracted six losses, and shaved 0.72 points off his ERA.

Yes, the 1998 Yankees got it right. And what furthers that notion is that they didn’t make any serious roster moves for the 1999 season, save for the exchange of David Wells for Roger Clemens. Chili Davis slid into the full time DH role, Ricky Ledee took some PT from Curtis in left, and Posada took more time from Girardi. That’s about the entire difference between ’98 and ’99 in a nutshell. Coincidence that both teams won it all?

Before I end for today, I just wanted to dub “Clock Strikes Ten” by Cheap Trick as the official song for the 1998 Yankees. Why? Because when the clock struck ten every night, it was more than likely that the Yankees had secured a victory.

Back tomorrow with a summation of ‘00-’04, if I get that far.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

1997, The Year That Wasn't

Nineteen hundred and ninety-seven was not a year in which the Yankees would win the World Series. In fact, that year would serve as the only buffer between the Yankees and five straight titles, which would have matched the Dynasty run from ’49 through ’53.

But ifs are ifs and buts are buts. The more I think back to 1997, the more I think that the Indians were just the dominant AL team. In 2005, the Yanks lost because they played like crap in the playoffs. In ’97, they were just a lesser team to those Cleveland Indians, which made sense, since the aforementioned core of players wasn’t exactly set in stone yet.

The formula for the Indian’s success was comparable to the 1996 Yanks (which looks to be variably universal ). Instead of having eight guys over .280 with four or five hovering right around .300, the Indians took more of a bell curve approach. They had three guys hovering around .330 (Manny, Justice, and Sandy Alomar), and were represented on the other end of the bell by three guys between .260 and .270 (Brian Giles, Marquis Grissom, Matt Williams), and three guys right in the middle (Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Tony Fernandez).

Even without revealing their stats for the season, just looking at those nine names makes their dominance apparent. Not only did they start these nine marquee names, but every one was in the prime of their career, save for Fernandez. It would be a surprise they didn’t win the World Series if they actually had some pitching.

Charles Nagy, Orel Hershiser, Chad Ogea, Bartolo Colon, Jaret Wright. Not too shabby for people with selective memory. But during the 1997 season, none of these guys was particularly impressive, the lowest ERA among them belonging to Nagy with 4.28. Ouch.

But they came together in the playoffs, their pitching dominating the Yanks in the ALDS. What was more surprising was that they handed the ball to Wright and Hershiser twice, Nagy once, and that was enough to pummel the Yanks.

The pitching wouldn’t fall apart enough to blow the ALCS against Baltimore, but after a season like they had, it was bound to happen. And not to criticize in hindsight, but wouldn’t it make sense to start Colon once the pitching staff began to break down? Yes, Jaret Wright pitched very well in the Series, but he couldn’t get out of the first inning in his lone ALCS start. You’re telling me Bartolo was too much of a liability to start after that?

But pitching was the defining aspect of that World Series, as the Florida Marlins took the series after a season in which exactly zero of their starters hit .300 (though Gary Sheffield did walk 121 times, placing his OBP at .424).

Like the Indians were defined by their high-powered offense, the Marlins calling card was their pitching, namely veteran ace Kevin Brown and rookie sensation Livan Hernandez. Throw in the solid, forgotten Alex Fernandez and Al Leiter in his prime, and you had a pitching staff that could take a team all the way, kinda like how the 2005 White Sox rotation has panned out.

I would say that I’ve digressed, since neither the Indians or the Marlins were the subject matter for today, but it all seems oddly appropriate. These were two teams that were crafted for Series victory. And, as we’ve seen in the past but refuse to universally concede (mainly because there’s nothing universal in baseball), pitching won this battle.

(Side Note: the two teams both had adequate bullpens, the Marlins anchored by Rob Nen and the Indians by Jose Mesa – or as my buddy Andy calls him, Joe Table. Anyway, they were both knockout closers surrounded by able bodies…except the Indians had Eric Plunk in their bullpen. And to anyone who remembers this flunky, you know what I’m going to say before I even say it.)

The Yankees were merely a footnote in this ’97 season, failing even to capture the AL East title, which went to Baltimore. But this was the Wild Card era, and if your team is blessed with this recently granted opportunity, well, you’d better damn well take care of your sh-t.

We saw good signs in ’97, mainly in the form of returning players. There were little to no changes at catcher (Girardi was still the main guy, but Posada was getting some PT), first base, shortstop, third base (the platoon between Boggs and Hayes was exactly even at 353 ABs, but that’s because Boggs was 39), center field, and right field. And all the while, left field was routinely patrolled by ’96 hero Tim Raines, and the DH role was sometimes filled (literally) by Cecil Fielder.

The pitching staff hadn’t morphed much, either. Pettite, Cone, Rogers, and Gooden remained, while Jimmy Key was swapped one for one with David Wells, a heralded Yankees killer. Maybe it wasn’t apparent right away in ’97, but it would become clear in the anteceding years that Wells’s success against the Yankees was merely his sales pitch to join the team.

Out in the bullpen, things seemed as good if not better than ’96. Mo took Wetteland’s place and did a better job than Johnny Boy ever did for the Yanks (and yes, I realize he was the ’96 World Series MVP, but Mo was just as integral to that team as Wetteland). Mike Stanton, fresh off a solid year split between Boston and Texas, took on the set-up role and performed it beautifully. It was arguably his best year, though Braves fans will immediately point to his role in the ’91 team that lost to the Twins in what was probably the best World Series that I have a vivid memory of (won my first gambling endeavor on that one, a fresh dollar from my buddy Ken).

When I think about the ’97 Yanks, I think about writers and musicians. Great writers read, and read constantly (or at least did at some point in their lives). They sort through all the material that enters their brains via the eyes, and pick out what works and what doesn’t, ultimately adopting a little bit from everything they think works. Musicians are the same way, only using their aural senses rather than optic.

A successful baseball team works in the same manner. They acquire players and dish players, trying to figure out what works. So after the 90s era Yanks won the ’96 World Series, it seems logical that they wouldn’t know exactly what to do with ’97. The obvious answer is to bring everyone back, since that’s the single best thing any championship team can do. But, things tend to even out in baseball, and that must be compensated for.

The difference between writers and baseball general managers is that writers can accept material and discard it perpetually. Never is there a time when a writer is forced to read a certain book, but a baseball GM is forced to stick with a player due to contractual issues. So if a player isn’t working, there aren’t many opportunities to swap him out for someone who might work better in the system.

So because the Yankees didn’t know what was going to work in ’97 and what wasn’t, they didn’t make many changes, and found that some of the ’96 parts just weren’t going to work. So they added Chad Curtis mid-season, and he proved that he “works” in the system. Luis Sojo took over the bulk of the time at second, which sent underdog Mariano Duncan back to the bench.

There really were few unsung heroes for the Yankees in ’97. Maybe that was one of the big reasons they didn’t win it all. Maybe it was a hangover following the ’96 season. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t a good enough one for Steinbrenner, who sent his minions out after the season to locate guys who would bring the Yanks back to glory in ’98.

But that story is for tomorrow. I’ll leave on this note: after two uber-disappointing years in New York, Kenny Rogers would finally prove his worth in ’98.

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.