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September 30, 2003

The Games That Count
by Larry Mahnken

The Oakland A's won the American League West for the second straight season, and the third time in four years, locking up their fourth straight playoff appearance. But three years in a row, they've been knocked out in the first round, in five games. For some reason, people thinks this negates their dominance of baseball's best division, and somehow reflects poorly on A's General Manager Billy Beane.

The Braves have been in the last 12 postseasons, and were in position to win the NL Wildcard in the strike-shortened 1994 season. They've won five pennants, and even won a World Series, in 1995. But that hasn't been enough to erase the stigma placed on them as failures, because they only went all the way one time, against a team that has had just as much postseason futility as themselves--the Indians.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have the Yankees, who won five pennants in six seasons, and four World's Championships. To many, including Commissioner Bud Selig, this run of success was evidence of a severe imbalance in the level of competition in Major League Baseball, and the owners played it up in the media to enlist fan support in trying to force heavy concessions from the MLBPA. But while the Yankees had an impressive postseason run from 1996-2000, it's generally ignored that they, while always very good, have not dominated the regular season, and would have missed the postseason entirely in 1996 and 2000 under the old playoff format. That the Yankees have had a remarkable run is undeniable, but it's no more impressive than what the Braves have accomplished--perhaps less so, and there's no reason to believe that it will ruin, or even significantly damage baseball, so long as the powers that be don't continue to harp on it as a problem.

The fact is, the playoffs are, more or less, a crapshoot. Particularly in baseball, where the outcome of a game often is decided on a lucky break, a short series will be won by the inferior team quite often--and it's not unusual for that team to be significantly inferior. The team that wins the World Series is not necessarily the best team in baseball, it's the hottest team in baseball.

Truly, it's a fool's errand to go about making predictions about something as unpredicatable as the baseball playoffs, but since I'm a fool anyway (and it's pretty much expected of baseball writers), here we go.

Outside of the Yankees' series, of course, the series that interests me most is the Braves and Cubs. The Braves may have had a frustrating decade, but the Cubs have had a frustrating century, not having won a World Series--not having won any postseason series--in 95 years, their last title coming in 1908, after they won the pennant from the Giants on the last day of the season, in a makeup of the Merkle Boner game.

Before the season, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone to pick this series, and a lot of people wouldn't have picked either team to make the playoffs. The Cubs were coming off a 95-loss season, and while the Braves had won 101 games, they had replaced star pitchers Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood with Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd. Maybe they'd win the division again, but it seemed unlikely that they'd dominate the NL East anymore, not with the moves the Phillies had made.

But the Braves did dominate the division, but it was because of their offense, not their pitching, like it had always been. The Braves got a subpar season from Chipper Jones, and Andruw Jones didn't turn into a superstar, but they got MVP hitting from Gary Sheffield, Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal turned into excellent offensive players, they got acceptable performances out of their corner infielders, and most shocking of all, catcher Javy Lopez, who had turned into one of the worst hitting catchers in baseball, suddenly became the best hitting one. Only the Red Sox had a superior offense, and their newfound slugging ways carried them to another 101 wins, despite mediocre pitching, from both the rotation and the bullpen.

As for the Cubs, their 95-loss season got rid of Don Baylor for them, and in the offseason they brought in Dusty Baker of the defending NL Champion Giants to captain the team. Baker will get a lot of credit for turning the team around, but much of it has to do with the Cubs' starting pitching, particularly Mark Prior, who may be the best pitcher in the game. Baker made many idiotic strategic and tactical moves during the season, notably burying Hee Seop Choi behind Eric Karros, Mark Bellhorn and Bobby Hill behind Lenny Harris and Mark Grudzielanek, and failing to take the health of his young arms into account when pushing them deep into ballgames. The Cubs may win it all, but their chances are small, and would be better in a couple of years if they allowed their young players to develop and kept their great young pitchers healthy. Baker does have an uncanny ability for getting veteran players to outperform their track records, but he relies too heavily on those veterans to try and win, and doesn't give younger, more talented players a chance, because they're not "proven" yet. On balance, Dusty Baker is a good manager--a very good one, but he's probably the wrong one for the Cubs. The fact that Baylor was even more wrong might make Baker look right, but it doesn't make him that.

But in this series, I think the Cubs have a legitimate chance. As the Diamondbacks proved in 2001, dominant starting pitching can carry you to a World's Championship, but as the Diamondbacks also proved in 2002, you can't count on it. The Cubbies will live and die with their starters, because as good as he is, Sammy Sosa isn't going to be able to carry this team on his back offensively. If the Cubs get dominant starts, particularly out of Wood and Prior, they'll win. If they don't, they'll lose. Badly.

I'd feel more confident if things had worked out so they could start Mark Prior in two games instead of one, but I stil have a feeling that the this series will go to the Cubs in Five.

The other National League Series matches the defending NL Champion Giants against the Florida Marlins, who Major League Baseball also considered contracting instead of the Twins before last season. But here they are, finally living up to the promise that many had seen in them over the past couple of seasons. They'd be a much better team, and much more of a threat, if Jeff Torborg had a brain in his head, and hadn't ridden ace A.J. Burnett into the ground, until he finally had to have elbow surgery and missed the entire season.

But they still have a good team, even without Burnett. Their rotation is deeper than the Giants', and their lineup is pretty similar, too--except for one position. The Giants probably aren't as good a team as they were a year ago, but that one man, and a deeper bullpen than Florida's, is why I think the Giants have the best chance of any NL team to win the pennant, and I predict them to handle the Marlins--Giants in Four.

Over in the good league, the Red Sox and A's are as intriguing a matchup as the Braves and Cubbies. The Red Sox have the best offense in baseball--regardless of what Javy Lopez thinks--and are capable of beating the living crap out of any team they face. They are certainly the scariest team in the playoffs. The A's, on the other hand, have the worst offense of any playoff team, but one of the best pitching staffs. They were hurt by the loss of Mark Mulder, that's for certain, but they still had the same record as the Red Sox after that game, depite having a more difficult schedule.

Oakland's offense isn't good, but it's mainly because of the wretched performances by their outfielders, particularly Chris Singleton and Terrance Long. They also have two players in Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez who are capable of becoming very very hot. If the drags on the offense play adequately for the duration of the series, and one or both of their stars explodes, they won't be able to run with the Red Sox, but they could put a good number of runs on the board.

Really, what the A's need is good pitching. The Red Sox have a way of deciding games very quickly, and the A's need to keep the ball in the park. They have two factors going for them: the first is their top two starters, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito. Zito is the defending Cy Young Award winner, and Hudson is a legitimate top-five candidate this season. The other advantage is in having Home Field Advantage. The A's have dominated their opponents at home more than any other team, and that advantage is compounded by the fact that the Red Sox hitters have performed better--vastly better--at Fenway Park than anywhere else. At Fenway, they're Chipper Jones; on the road, they're Hideki Matsui. That's a lineup that can be beaten.

Of course, the A's home field advantage might be negated by having to face Pedro Martinez in Games One and Five. Mark Prior may be the best pitcher in baseball, but Pedro probably is. If he's on, you have no chance of scoring against him. If he's off, you might get a couple of runs. To knock him around, something has to be wrong with him physically, and if that's not the case, you can't expect to beat him.

The Yankees have made an art of working their way around that, by making Martinez throw pitches, getting him out of the game, and beating the bullpen. The A's have some hitters who can work the count, and a starter in Hudson who can match zeroes, or at least hold the Red Sox to one or two, and keep the A's in the game. The Red Sox bullpen has more talent than results this season, and while they may suddenly start performing well, it's got to be the most worrisome aspect of the team for Grady Little. The A's bullpen, on the other hand, isn't very deep, either, but has two dominant relievers in Chad Bradford and Keith Foulke.

The Red Sox are, in my opinion, the best team in baseball right now, and this is their best chance to win the World Series in the last 85 years. But they are a team with a fatal flaw, and the two teams they are likely to face on the road to the Series, the A's and Yankees, are well equipped to exploit that flaw--the bullpen. The A's need to win one of Pedro's starts to win this series--and I think they will, and I think they'll win the series. In a seven game series, I'd probably pick Boston, but in the Division Series, I think it'll go to the A's in Five.

The final series is, of course, the Yankees and Twins. I'd say the Yankees have the best chance of any playoff team to win the World Series, because they have the least difficult route to the League Championship Series. That doesn't mean that they'll win the World Series, and that doesn't even mean that they'll advance, but the Twins are probably the weakest team in the playoffs, and while they can beat the Yankees, they shoudn't beat them.

A lot of Yankee haters complained about the format of this series, which allows the Yankees to go with only three starters, starting Mussina in Game Four on full rest, and Pettitte in Game Five on short rest, skipping the questionable David Wells entirely. However, this format helps the Twins a lot more than it does the Yankees, because their rotation is much more shallow than the Yankees'. If Minnesota was forced to start Kenny Rogers against Wells in Game Four, they'd probably be in very bad shape, but Santana and Radke against Mussina and Pettitte matches up much better for them. The Yankees still have an advantage in every game, but there it's small, and not insurmountable. If the Twins took the risk of starting Eric Milton over Kyle Loshe in Game Three, the advantage might be almost non-existant.

Where the Yankees really have the edge is on the offensive side of the ball. Minnesota has several hitters with OPS's in the mid-.800's and a couple in the high .700's, but also has two anchors right in the middle of the infield, Luis Rivas and ex-Yankee farmhand Cristian Guzman. But they don't have anybody explosive in the lineup, just a bunch of good hitters. The Yankees, however, have several hitters who could carry the team through the series almost single handedly: Jason Giambi, Nick Johnson, Jorge Posada and Alfonso Soriano, while the supporting cast is as good as the best players in Minnesota's lineup.

If the Twins are going to win this series, they have to shut down the Yankees' offense--which has been done--and score off of the Yankees' starting pitching, whch has also been done. But you can't expect it to happen, you can't expect the Twins to get most of the breaks, like they almost have to. The Twins can win this series, and it shouldn't shock anybody if they do, but they probably won't. I think it will be the Yankees in Four, and they'll be able to set their rotation for the ALCS, which will be a huge advantage if the Sox/A's go five.

Next week, the League Championship Series: Braves vs. Marlins, Red Sox vs. Twins.

September 29, 2003 Best Sports Blogs
by Larry Mahnken

This is a fantastic honor, although I don't consider myself to be the best baseball blog, let alone the fifth best sports blog. For all of those who have been directed here by this, I highly recommend that you check out these great baseball blogs:

Aaron's Baseball Blog
Baseball Primer's Clutch Hits
Doug Pappas's Business of Baseball Weblog
Bronx Banter
Futility Infielder
David Pinto's Baseball Musings
Mike's Baseball Rants
Universal Baseball Blog, Inc.
Bambino's Curse
Portland Sox Fan
The Cub Reporter

Every single one of these sites is just as good, and most are better than mine, at least in my opinion. Everyone should find something enjoyable somewhere there.

And while you're at it, check out my buddy Kosko's "once a month" weblog Violetdrink, if only to make him wonder how the hell his traffic went from "1" to "200" and back to "1". ;-)

September 28, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

I can't help but notice the numbers under Aaron Boone's name are going up pretty much daily, and starting to approach respectability. It'll take a couple of homers for those numbers to get there, and I highly doubt that's going to happen.

But, still, what the heck happened? When did Aaron Boone, Lord of the Outs, become...good? Did he become good?

Well, I'll go so far as to say that he's stopped being bad, and he's no longer a liability (Now, that IS a backhanded compliment). Sure, he's had a great 3 weeks (1.171 OPS since September 10th), but let's not forget Voros' Law--and let's not forget that the competition the Yankees have played in those three weeks has been about the weakest in the American League. Boone started hitting as soon as the Detroit Tigers came into town, and that's probably not a coincidence. The only good team the Yankees have played since the series against Boston is the White Sox, and Boone managed only two singles in that series.

Boone has still failed to produce as a Yankee against a quality opponent. He's obviously not a .500 OPS hitter--or a .600 or .650 hitter, but whether or not he can break .800 outside of Cincinnati is still an unanswered question. However, I have a feeling that Boone is going to have a Tino Martinez moment this postseason. Hey, I'll take it, but let's hope that a mediocre postseason and a big hit don't make everyone think he's a long term solution at the hot corner.

So, onto my final roster ratings, the bench:

Probably the most frustrating thing about the Boone trade is how it inspired the Yankees to send Robin Ventura off to Los Angeles for peanuts, instead of cutting Todd Zeile. Retaining Ventura would not only haven given the Yankees more depth, but more flexibility. Aaron Boone can play second base and shortstop, Ventura can play first, and the Yankees could have used this to give Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano, Nick Johnson and Jason Giambi full days off without losing too much offensively. Instead, they had Todd Zeile, a corner infielder who couldn't play third base well, and didn't hit enough to play first, and Enrique Wilson, whose greatest asset is his ability to play three infield positions adequately.

But these are concerns for a month ago, with you postseason bench, it's not important to have that kind of flexibility (you're not going to give your stars days off!), it's more important to have players who compliment your starters at positions where you are weak--in the Yankees' case, right field. Karim Garcia is the usual starter, playing against righties, while Juan Rivera gets most of the PAs against lefties. Playing in this way plays to their strengths, and makes the Yankees better, on the whole. They also have David Dellucci, who has more speed, and Ruben Sierra, who has a better track record as a hitter.

Dellucci is valuable in that he can play center field as well as right and left, but Sierra can barely play those two positions. Considering that Sierra is not a better option offensively than anyone in the Yankees' starting lineup now that the Yankees are platooning in right, there really isn't much reason to include him on the postseason roster until the World Series, to pinch-hit for pitchers.

The backup catcher is John Flaherty, who has done a good job in that role this season, but will be almost useless in the postseason. You need to have a backup catcher, of course, but you hope to never have to use him, and when you have one who has hit as poorly as Flaherty in the past, his value as a pinch hitter is almost none. If you see John Flaherty in the game this October, it's either really good--they're in the World Series, or really bad--Posada is hurt.

Enrique Wilson also won't be playing much in October, though Joe Torre has a ridiculous penchant to pinch-run for Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada late in close ballgames, so Wilson and Dellucci might find their main roles there. Unless Torre adds Erick Almont-E to the roster as well, Wilson will be the only backup infielder the Yankees have, so he might get saved for emergencies.

The Yankees this year are a top-heavy team, and having a great bench isn't only not necessary, it probably wouldn't be helpful. They've got the players they need at the spots they need them, and barring injuries, it's a fine bench. I'd grade Sierra a C, Wilson a C, Flaherty a C, Dellucci a C+, and if Almont-E makes the roster, he'd be a D. It'll do.

September 27, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Here's something that I doubt any of you know about me (and why should you?). I don't have a car. That's right, 26-year old Larry doesn't own a vehicle, so he has to rely on public transportation, a bicycle, or his feets. Sometimes life doesn't work out the way you expected it to (and sometimes that's good, and sometimes it's bad), and for me, the big thing is that I don't have a car. Oh well.

Well the brake pads on my bike are totally worn out, so when I'm coming down the hill on the way home from work, I'm rolling along at about 25 miles an hour with no way to stop. Now, that might sound fun, but it's really kinda scary. "Boy, I really hope no cars are coming through this intersection. Boy I really hope no cars are coming through THIS intersection..."

Now, I'm not stupid, I only did that once, and down one hill, and walked the rest of the way home. So, until I get a chance to buy replacement brake pads (but not replacement level brake pads!), I've got to walk a mile and a half to and from work. Which is tiring, especially when you're fat and lazy like I am.

The plan was to come home from work Thursday and write up my bullpen review for Friday morning. Well, after a long walk to work, a long day at work, and a long walk home, I was exhausted, and the plan was revised to "go to sleep, wake up in the morning and write my bullpen review." Except I woke up about five minutes before I had to go to work, so that didn't work out so well. So, no post on Friday, and I'm sorry for it.

But, as I was going to write on Friday, here's my review of the Yankees' bullpen:

Like every modern bullpen, the Yankees' relief corps is centered around their closer, Mariano Rivera. He's the ace at the end f the game, the guy you want to get the ball to, and once he's in, you feel pretty confident that it's game over. The rest of the staff is built around getting the game to the ninth inning, or at least into the eighth, where Rivera can, if he has to, convert six outs.

In 1996, John Wetteland played the Mariano Rivera role (though not quite as well), and Rivera played the setup role. If the Yankees had the lead after six innings, Rivera would come in and retire the next six batters, and Wetteland would come in, put the tying run on third base, and finish it off. That script won them a World's Championship with a team that was pretty good, but not great, and the decision to use Rivera in that role is the best Joe Torre has ever made--and that's not a backhanded compliment.

Rivera pitched so well in '96--he may have been the best pitcher in baseball that year--that the Yankees let John Wetteland go in the offseason and put Rivera in the closer's role. Jeff Nelson was moved up into the setup role along with free agent acquisition Mike Stanton, and the Yankees were on their way to establishing one of the great postseason bullpens of all time. Nelson, Stanton, and later, Ramiro Mendoza were almost untouchable in the postseason from 1998-2000, and the Yankees won three straight championships.

Jeff Nelson left town after the 2000 season, and the struggles of his replacements in 2001 were well publicized. The Yankees probably would have lost the World Series to Arizona that season if they still had Jeff Nelson--it was offense that they were lacking that series--but another righty setup man was high on the Yankees' priorities that offseason, and they filled that "need" by overpaying Steve Karsay. Much like the Derek Jeter contract, the Yankees were probably better off overpaying him than not having him (they can afford it, anyway), and he pitched well for them, though not nearly as well as he had the season before.

Unfortunately, after the starting pitching and defense failed the Yankees in the Division Series, Karsay and the rest of the bullpen failed them, too. The Yankees were pounded by the Angels for 31 runs in 4 games, and failed to advance to the League Championship Series for the first time since 1997.

The blame for the loss fell squarely on the starting rotation and bullpen, and the defense was more or less let off of the hook. The offseason priority was to improve the pitching, and overhaul the bullpen.

The first act was to let the axe fall on the last two pieces of the late 90's setup tandem, Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza. Mendoza was on the wrong side of 30 and about to become expensive for a middle reliever--though one would be a fool to have expected what happened this season. As for Stanton, they had to move on sooner or later, but the way they did it was classless and more than a little foolish. They offered Stanton, Chris Hammond and Mark Guthrie the same contract--a lowball offer for Stanton and too much for Hammond or Guthrie--and said that whoever called back first would get the deal. Hammond's agent probably accepted before Cashman hung up the phone, and with that, Stanton's days in pinstripes were over.

The rest of the bullpen, it seemed, would work itself out. With seven nominal starters on the roster, it was assumed that the two leftovers--Sterling Hitchcock and someone else--would throw long relief, and if it was Jeff Weaver or Orlando Hernandez, it was hoped that they could fill the Ramiro Mendoza role. And then the Yankees decided to go overboard, signing Cuban free agent Jose Contreras for no apparent reason other than to keep him away from the Red Sox--and then proceeded to float rumors that they were thinking about trading for Expos starter Bartolo Colon, again, just to keep him away from the Red Sox, or at least drive the price up for him. Eventually, the Yankees did get involved in the Colon trade, sending Orlando Hernandez to Montreal while Colon went to the White Sox and right-handed reliever Antonio Osuna came to the Bronx. It seemed a good deal for all involved, the Expos got rid of salary while getting a solid starter in return (though Hernandez would end up missing the season with injuries), the White Sox got a solid #2 starter (though generally talked about as an ace), and the Yankees got a righty relief pitcher far more suited to the role than Hernandez or Weaver would be. Juan Acevedo was brought over from the Detroit Tigers to see if he could be of any use in setup, and rookie Jason Anderson made the squad out of spring training. Steve Karsay was out until mid-May while recovering from offseason surgery, and Mariano Rivera would miss the first month with a pulled groin. The bullpen looked shaky going into April, but it appeared that by the time the opponents got tough, the bullpen would be okay.

The bullpen did stink in April, but it didn't really matter much. Strong offensive play by Alfonso Soriano and Raul "I Suck" Mondesi, combined with a weak schedule carried the Yankees to a spectacular start, even with star shortstop Derek Jeter out for a month and a half, as well.

But then things started to turn sour. The offense and the starting pitching cooled off, and the bullpen started having a greater impact on games. Led by Juan Acevedo, they became very good at being very bad. With the news that Steve Karsay was going to be out for the season, panic started to set in. For a brief while Sterling Hitchcock seemed to be the best relief pitcher before Rivera--not a good thing. The Yankees needed someone to step up, and the person who did was Juan Acevedo. With one pitch in Wrigley Field, he turned Roger Clemens's 300th win into a loss, and sealed his fate as a Yankee. He was released shortly thereafter (only to be picked up by the Blue Jays, where he came back to hurt the Yankees again--blowing a ninth inning lead in Fenway Park).

The best options Joe Torre had before Rivera at the time were probably Jason Anderson and Antonio Osuna. Anderson was young and unproven, and Torre has a penchant to avoid using a young player until well after he's established his worth, but his failure to use Osuna in tight spots was curious. Osuna started the season pitching well, but his value was limited by the situations he was put in. He ultimately was injured and when he returned, was not all that effective.

When the Yankees signed Chris Hammond, I for one was furious. He had pitched well the season before, but not as well as his ERA indicated, and the reason he had such great numbers was 1) he gave up only one home run to the 311 batters he faced, which was unlikely to happen again, 2) he was hit lucky, which you shouldn't expect to happen again, and 3) he had gotten good defense behind him, which you'd be a fool to think he'd get with the Yankees. But the biggest red flag on Hammond was that he had simply never done it before, and at 37, it seemed more likely that 2002 was a fluke than anything else.

But Hammond, it seems, actually has become a pretty good pitcher. His peripherals aren't nearly as good as they were last season, but they're still good. Not $2.2 million good, but good. His changeup is deadly to righties, who have only a .645 OPS against him. The problem is that he doesn't do very well against lefties, who hit him for a .806 clip, and that may be part of the reason why Joe Torre hasn't used him much lately. The Yankees could have found a dozen pitchers like Hammond for a lot less, but they're not hurting by having him on the roster. From strictly a personnel standpoint, it was a positive addition.

But the Yankees needed to make an addition to the bullpen, and they did it right after the All-Star Game, trading Jason Anderson and some minor league nobodies for Mets closer Armando Benitez. The New York media mocked the move (Benitez was a big-game "choker", but then, so was Barry Bonds...), and the rest of the media seemed to lament the Yankees' buying of another All-Star. On the whole, it was (at the time) a good move for both teams. The Mets got a good young relief pitcher, and the Yankees got a potentially dominant reliever who could (and likely would) bring them two first-round draft picks at season's end. They then traded for Ancient LOOGY Jesse Orosco, hoping to get one last useful stretch out of him.

But Orosco was ineffective and Benitez had a couple of poor outings, killing Torre's already shaky confidence in him. Soon enough, Benitez was shipped out of town for the equally shaky, less potentially dominant (and less draft pick compensating), but familiar Jeff Nelson. Nelson, it turns out, is a shadow of what he once was. He still has the funky motion, he still has the frisbee slider, but he can't hit the strike zone with it consistently, and instead of flailing away at the pitch out of the zone, right handed batters are simply taking their walks. It's a minor difference, and you can't pick it up just by watching the game, but it's happened, and it's made Nelson a mediocre pitcher.

But they made two other transactions that would have a significant, positive impact on the talent in the 'pen. The first was the Aaron Boone trade, and if there was anything I would be willing to call positive to come out of that deal (I'll talk more about Boone in the next couple of days), it would be the acquisition of lefty Gabe White. Having a shockingly great season in Coors Field in 2000, White was perhaps the most valuable reliever in baseball that season. He followed it up with a more predictable bad season at altitude, and returned to the Reds, where was good again--though misused by manager/idiot Bob Boone. When Boone was axed in mid-season, and his son was traded to the Yankees, Gabe White was sent along in a "separate" deal so the Yankees would be allowed to send more cash to Cincinnati. It took a while for Torre to figure out how to use him--usually using him as a matchup lefty or a filler to get to Jeff Nelson at first--but he figured out soon enough that White might be the Yankees' new Mike Stanton. White has become the Yankees' prime setup option, as Torre has realized that he's effective against both lefties and righties.

The other acquisition that helped greatly was the claiming of Felix Heredia off of waivers from the Reds. Another pitcher who had been misused as a situational lefty in his career, Heredia has good stuff and can get out batters on both sides of the plate. He's never going to be a dominant relief pitcher, but he's a pretty decent one, being much more likely to get you safely to the next arm than to turn a two-run lead into a deficit. Heredia is a good example of why Theo Epstein was right. Why pay $2 million for a pitcher who probably won't be great, and might flop, when you can take the same performance risk for $600 k with the Felix Heredias of the world? Heredia's not going to carry the Yankees to the championship, but he'll be an important link on the chain that pulls them there.

And finally, there's Mo. Rivera may be the greatest relief pitcher of all time, but it's no sure thing. Hardcore Yankees fans will argue until the end of time that he's undoubtedly the one, while Yankee haters will argue vociferously for half a dozen other guys, most of whom are his contemporaries. The truth, of course, lies in the middle, and while he might not be the best there has ever been, he's got to be in the discussion. He is truly a great relief pitcher, a fact that is emphasized by the sudden concern that he'd "lost it" when he had a couple of weeks where was good, but not dominant. It's tough to live up to high expectations, and Rivera has struggled to all year. Still, he's on of the top closers in the game, and when the first notes of Enter Sandman blare over the Yankee Stadium P.A., you can fell pretty confident that the game is in hand. Sure, he'll blow a few, and he might do it this October, but you should expect that he won't.

That's the bullpen. I didn't put Weaver on there because while he might make the postseason roster, it would certainly only be as a mopup man, to save the rest of the bullpen for games that the Yankees would have a chance to win. If Torre brings Weaver into a close game, and he succeeds, maybe all will be forgiven, but if he fails...well, Joe can just clean out his desk, then.

For their value going forward, I'll rate Weaver a D-, Osuna a C, Nelson a C+, Hammond a B, Heredia a B, White a B+, and Rivera an A.

Tomorrow (I hope), the bench. That's right folks, I've saved the most irrelevant for last. Kinda like the Oscars finishing up with awarding "Best Supporting Role in a Foreign Documentary Short".

September 25, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

The only goal left in the regular season aside from Jeter's batting title run and Posada's MVP run (and shot for 30 HRs and 100 RBI), which really aren't important at all, is Home Field Advantage. As I said earlier, that's not really that important, either (one game that they might not play in a series they might not get to against a team they might not play there), and accordingly, Joe Torre doesn't seem to be putting any focus on it. He's setting his playoff rotation now, and will give some of his starters days off this weekend.

The playoff rotation appears to be Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and David Wells, in that order.

Pitching isn't the most important part of baseball, but the pitcher is the most important player on the field (unless Barry Bonds is on the field). The school of thought that you win behind pitching and defense is flawed, because you need to hit some, too, but you can't win without at least decent pitching, and if you've got a dominant pitcher on the mound, you're already halfway there.

There are some "analysts" (*cough* Joe Morgan *cough*) who think that "Wins" are the best way to analyze a pitcher. The thinking is, of course, that the point of the game is to win, so if you have the most wins, or the best winning percentage, then you're the best pitcher. There are too many flaws in this line of thinking to go into, but the core of the problem is that just because the pitching statistic "Win" has the same name as the positive outcome of a ballgame, doesn't mean that they have the same meaning or value.

A much better way to evaluate a pitcher is by looking at his ERA, which tells you how many runs he allowed per nine innings pitched. Of course, to evaluate the overall value of the pitcher, you have to incorporate innings pitched into the analyis, but when we're looking at skill, rate is more important than quantity (though it's still important).

There are, of course, problems with ERA. Ballparks have an extreme effect on run scoring, as sabermetricians figured out before they were called sabermetricians, and even the most casual fan realized once they started playing baseball in Denver. A pitcher in Denver and a pitcher with the Dodgers could pitch equally well, but the Rockies' pitcher will have stats that look massively inferior to the Dodgers' pitcher. So, complex Park Factors were created, ERAs (and other numbers, as well) were adjusted, and pitchers were evaluated on a more even scale. With adjustments for the league in which they pitched, comparisons could be better made between ERAs. Suddenly, Don Drysdale doesn't look like such a worthy Hall of Famer (don't bother arguing with me about it. Go read "The Politics of Glory" first).

But you're still dealing with a flawed metric. Bill James wrote that much of what is considered pitching is actually defense. This is especially true for the Yankees, who have one of, if not THE worst defense in all of Major League Baseball. It's so bad that even the normally rah-rah Michael Kay acknowledges it, to a degree.

It's really difficult to seperate pitching from defense--probably impossible. But, you can get closer, and probably the most succesful effort to date is Voros McCracken's DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching Statistic). McCracken theorized that pitchers have no impact on whether a ball in play turns into a hit; that it's entirely dependent on defense, park and--a concept anemic to traditonal baseball thinkers--luck. It turns out that Voros wasn't quite right--pitchers have some control of what happens to a ball in play--but his basic premise was right. If you take what happens on balls in play and throw it out the window, you'll have a much better picture of the true abilty of a pitcher.

Voros's formula for DIPS is a bit complex, I've uploaded a worksheet to calculate it on my Yahoo! Group if anyone wants to calculate it for themselves. It uses batters faced, home runs, walks, strikeouts, intentional walks and hit batsmen, and adjusts for Home Run Park Factor and whether the pitcher is a lefthander or a knuckleballer. It can be daunting, so to make the statistic more palatable to the less than hardcore stathead, he concocted a "Quick and Dirty" formula that just uses innings pitched, hits, home runs, walks and strikeouts (that's on the worksheet, too), and isn't quite as accurate, but is close enough. Rather than go through every pitcher on every staff and calculate their DIPS, then add up their DIPS IP and DIPS ER to calculate DIPS ERAs, I used the Quick DIPS to come to this conclusion:

The Yankees have, far and away, the best pitching staff in the American League, and the second-best in baseball--very possibly the best.

Now I know what some of you are thinking: "That's crazy talk, Larry! You're crazy! Get off the road!" The Yankees' team ERA of 4.09 is 11th in baseball, more than half a run behind Oakland and about a third of a run behind Seattle for third in the American League. Sure, they're good, but the best? Come on.

But Seattle plays in an extreme pitchers' park, and while the Yankees have one of the worst defenses in baseball, Seattle and Oakland have the best. Seattle's pitching staff is actually painfully average. Using Quick DIPS, we see that the Yankees' expected 3.76 ERA is a third of a run better than Oakland's, and nearly 2/3 of a run better than Seattle's. The only team ranked ahead of the Yankees is the Dodgers, with a 3.64 ERA, and they play in the National League, where pitchers bat.

So, the Yankees have a great staff, maybe the best. But how does it break down?

Well, the first starter in the postseason rotation is Mike Mussina. Moose finishes the season with a 17-8 record, a 3.40 ERA, and is a legitimate top-five candidate for the Cy Young Award. His Quick DIPS is even better, his 3.27 ERA is second among qualified starters for AL playoff teams to...oh, take a guess. The Yankees signed him shortly after winning the 2000 World Series because they knew that they had sneaked by, and had to get better to stay on top. They could have opted to sign Manny Ramirez instead (or A-Rod, but that wasn't going to happen), and when they were shut down by the Diamondbacks' pitchers in the World Series, it looked like they might have made the wrong choice. The signing of Jason Giambi put that talk aside, since the Yankees now had a hitter of Ramirez's quality, and there had been no pitcher of Mussina's quality on the market in the 2001 offseason (unless you're a true believer in Jason Schmidt).

Every pitcher has bad days, Moose had one today, and he had one in Game 1 of the 2001 World Series, and Game 3 of last year's ALDS. But he's also the pitcher who shut down the A's in 2001 when the Yankees couldn't lose, and a pitcher who has come through with clutch pitching performances time after time this season. He's the Yankees' ace, and they'd be hard pressed to do better. Anyone they sign this offseason is a #2. He's not an A+, that would be the Pedro and Prior. But matched up against Santana, Pedro or Hudson, I feel good about the Yankees' chances. He's an A.

The Game Two starter is Andy Pettitte, who won 20 games for the second time in his career this season. Of course, he won't, and shouldn't, get serious consideration for the Cy Young Award, but just like about everyone else on the Yankees, his ERA is inflated by the poor fielding in front of him. Quick DIPS rates Andy as the fifth best starter in the AL playoffs, and the best #2 on any playoff team.

He takes a lot of heat from me for being so inconsistent, but in the second half of this season, Pettitte seems to have gotten it together, and he's only thrown one clunker in the second half, against Boston earlier this month. Andy got a mistaken reputation as a big game pitcher early, then a mistaken reputation as a big game choker. He is, in fact, neither. You've got Good Andy and you've got Bad Andy, and while you never know who you're going to get, the situation doesn't matter. It all depends on whether his mechanics are right, and lately, they have been. He'll be matched up in the first game of the ALDS against Brad Radke, who has been untouchable in September. But I think whether the Yankees win or lose that game is entirely dependant on which Andy shows up. If it's good Andy, they win, Bad Andy they lose. He's not an ace, but he's a damn good pitcher, and I've made up my mind: I want him back in 2004, even though he'll probably be overpaid. There aren't many better options on the market. I rate him a B+

In Game 3 it's Roger Clemens, and if things don't go well, it might be his final game. I could use this space to talk about how great Clemens has been over his career, and how he's the best pitcher who ever lived. I could criticize the Red Sox for letting him go, I could discuss whether he deserves to choose the logo to wear on his HOF plaque. Instead, I'm going to actually evaluate Roger Clemens right now.

Roger Clemens isn't the pitcher he once was. He's not going to strike out 15 men, and probably not even 10. But he doesn't walk many men, and when he needs it, he can still reach back and blow someone away. The problem is he can't rely on that anymore, and on the days he doesn't have it, he can't just throw heat and get away with it. Usually, the Yankees can expect him to give them a chance to win the game, and if he had gotten better bullpen support early in the season, he probably would have had a shot at 20 wins.

He's a good choice to pitch third, if he's pitching well, the Yankees will probably beat whoever he's facing in that spot, while it might be wasted against Santana or Pedro. On the other hand, if he's got nothing, he's going to lose, and it doesn't matter who's out there. That's the risk you take with a 40 year old pitcher, and for the Yankees, it's worked out so far. He's been good a lot more than he's been bad, and I'll rate him a B.

I'm not sure why, but Torre has picked David Wells to be his fourth starter. I'm sure it's because of experience, and maybe the trust issues that Torre has always struggled with. Boomer has a Perfect Game, and was dominant in the 1998 postseason, and with Joe that counts for something, he knows that he can handle the pressure. But it's not the pressure I'm worried about with Wells, it's his back. For the first half of the season, Wells was quite good. He had only 4 walks through June--that's FOUR--and his ERA was 3.41. He had a good shot at 20 wins, was a worthy All-Star candidate, and maybe even a Cy Young candidate. Then his sciatica started bothering him.

And when it was bothering him, he simply couldn't pitch well. His control was off, and he fell behind batters--and then he started having to come over with his stuff, and he got hurt. For nearly two months, through seven starts, Wells didn't win a single game. Mel Stottlemyre questioned his work ethic, and the general assumption was that he had worn out his welcome in New York.

But on Sunday, September 7th, in probably the most important game of the year for the Yankees, he beat the Red Sox, giving up only 1 unearned run into the 8th. He's pitched "okay" since then, giving up 10 runs in 22 innings, but that one start against Boston was apparently enough. Possibly because he felt he had no other option, Torre named Wells his fourth postseason starter.

Wells isn't bad, of course. The Red Sox would very much like to have him on their roster for the playoffs, where he could be their 2nd starter. But if his back is sore--and you know he won't tell anyone beforehand--he's toast, and if he's pitching in the first round, that means that the Yankees are either on the brink of elimination or trying to avoid a 5th game--and you really don't want a potential implosion on the mound. I'm not saying he's going to fail, but he might, and if he does, it will probably be miserably. Healthy, he's a B-; hurting, he's an F. I'll rate him a C, and hope we see the B-.

Torre probably stuck Wells in the rotation because he didn't feel he had a better option. But I think he did: Jose Contreras. Believe it or not, Quick DIPS rates Contreras as the best starter the Yankees have. He's not of course, but he's almost certainly better than Wells, even a healthy Wells. His style (strike out a lot, walk a lot) is well suited to the Yankees' defense--and he doesn't give up many home runs, either. The problem is, he's made nine starts, and excluding the start against Detroit where he got hurt, he only had one bad start--against Boston. But then, Wells had an even worse start against Boston on the Fourth of July, Clemens had three of them, and Pettitte had one, too. But then, Contreras hasn't pitched well against them yet, either, doesn't have any rings, doesn't have a perfect game. He's a risk, that's for sure, but I don't see him as any more of a risk than Wells. I'd rate him an optimistic B, hope that the Yankees get to the ALCS and he replaces Boomer, and for next year, feel a little better about the rotation.

After looking at how I've rated the Yankees so far, you start to realize what a great team they have. It's not as good as it has been, but it's still just about the best team around.

Tomorrow, the area on the team that started as a total disaster and now is starting to look okay: the bullpen.

September 24, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Hooray for the Wild Card! The Yankees finally finished off the Red Sox last night behind Jose Contreras' eight shutout innings. Of course, 162 games isn't enough to determine who the best team in the division is, you need a seven game series for that. Really, how unfair was the old system, where teams got left out of the playoffs while the team that finished ahead of them in the standings got to go? There is still work to be done, of course, and someday we will have realized the ultimate in fairness, where every team gets into the playoffs, regardless of record. And they play a one-game playoff instead of a seven game playoff, to maximize the randomness. And they play on a neutral site. And they play football instead of baseball.

Anyway, to continue my rundown of the Yankees' likely playoff roster, today I move onto the outfielders.

With the offensive prowess the Yankees feature in their infield, where bats are often hard to find, you'd figure the Yankees would be the highest scoring team in baseball, or at least second highest, since the Red Sox were basically starting with the same infield advantage. You would, of course, be wrong, as the Yankees are fifth in the major leagues in scoring, behind the Red Sox, Blue Jays and two National League teams (you know, the league where pitchers hit), the Braves and Cardinals.

The Yankees have failed to dominate because they've failed to assemble a collection of good hitting outfielders, instead running out a series of average or below average hitters for their positions. Before we start attacking Cashman and the rest of the Yankees' managment for this, let's be sure to remember that the Yankees' outfield was expected to be better than this. Bernie Williams was the best hitting centerfielder in baseball last season, Hideki Matsui was looked upon as the Japanese Brian Giles, and Raul Mondesi...well, Hideki Matsui was looked upon as the Japanese Brian Giles. Sure, the Yankees could have signed Barry Bonds instead of Rondell White in the 2001 offseason. He was sitting around waiting for someone to make him an offer, and while he would have cost them at least $15 million more, they ended up spending it on useless pieces anyway, and if they'd signed him, they'd be flying a brand new World Champions pennant off of the flagpole in Monument Park.

They could have signed Manny Ramirez, they could have traded for Gary Sheffield or Jim Edmonds a couple of years ago. That's not the point of what I'm writing. I'm evaluating the team as it is, and what it is in the outfield is...average. With the Yankees' financial resources, you would have figured they could do better.

The most disappointing performance this season has been by Bernie Williams, who as I said was the best hitting centerfielder in the majors last season. He looked great in April, with a 1.054 OPS for the month, which was especially pleasing because he had never hit much in the early season before. But he ran into the outfield wall in a game against Seattle, tearing cartilige in his knee. His May OPS was only .567 before he finally decided to have surgery, knocking him out of action until mid-July.

Bernie's not going to be fully healthy this year, and he might not even be back at full strength next season. His batting eye is fine and he's still getting on base at an acceptable rate, but he's not hitting for very much power. There's not really anything the Yankees can do about it except move him down in the batting order, which Torre seems to have done, batting him sixth, behind Posada and ahead of Matsui.

Matsui hasn't been bad this season, but he has been a terrible disappointment. Nobody really thought he'd hit 50 HRs in the majors, but we figured he could hit at least 25, and get on base at a .380 clip. What we got is a guy with a .350 OBP, a bunch of doubles, and less than 20 HRs. On it's own, those are acceptable numbers for a left fielder--below average, but acceptable--but when you look at his splits, you notice that a lot of that value came in June, when he had a 1.157 OPS. I don't think that June was entirely an optical illusion, but I don't think we'll see it again this season. Going into 2004, I have hope that he can be something like the hitter we thought we were getting, but going into the postseason, his numbers are, at best, uninspiring. Like Boone, he shouldn't hurt the Yankees, but he shouldn't be expected to help them much, either.

The outfield position the Yankees have gotten the most production out of is the one they expected to get the least out of--right field. Raul Mondesi was red hot in April, but ice cold in May, June and July, and finally got his overpaid ass shipped out of town before the trade deadline. Since then, Torre has used Karim Garcia, Ruben Sierra, Juan Rivera, and David Dellucci, until he was hurt running out a ground ball. It seems to have come down mostly to a platoon with Rivera and Garcia, and it's worked out surprisingly well. Garcia hits far better against righties than lefties, and vice versa for Rivera. Together, they should be able to put up an OPS around .800, which, once again, isn't helping a lot, but it isn't hurting.

Defensively, the Yankees struggle in the outfield just like they've struggled everywhere. Bernie Williams was always overrated defensively--he always took bad routes to fly balls, but his speed made up for it, and on balance he was a pretty good fielder, despite his weak arm. Age, and now his knee injury, has slowed him down, and the poor instincts and bad throws have made him a defensive liability in center. Curiously, they still run him out there, even though they have a better option standing right next to him. Hideki Matsui isn't fast, he doesn't have a great arm, but he's got good instincts, and a decent arm. His effective range is about the same as Bernie's, and his superior arm makes him a better center field option. He won't win any Gold Gloves out there, but when he was filling in for Bernie in the spring and early summer, he did a fine job. And yet, the day Bernie came back, he was right back in center field, like there wasn't anything wrong with his knee at all. Loyalty and respect is one thing, but Torre could have at least tried to sell the switch to Bernie, at least as a part time move. Yeah, maybe he did, but I don't think Bernie is so proud that he would have shot down that option.

Karim Garcia and Juan Rivera aren't great with the glove--Rivera's got pretty good range and an average arm, Garcia's got a strong arm that's a bit wild, and his range is average. Just like their batting, their defense won't hurt the Yankees, but it won't help, either. A flip-flop of Bernie and Matsui would make their outfield defense about average, maybe a little better--I have a feeling that Bernie can be a plus defender in left field.

Overall, the outfield isn't hurting them. I'd rate all three positions a C, but they really could have done better. There are 39 qualified outfielders in MLB with an .800 OPS or higher. None of them are on the Yankees. Sure, that's not enough to go around, especially after considering that a few teams are going to have two guys, and the Braves and Rockies (and, technically, the Diamondbacks and Royals) have three, but you'd expect the Yankees, the 180 million pound gorilla, to be one of the hoarders, not one of the guys shut out.

Well, that's baseball for you. Before the season, I would have sworn the Yankees would get a .900+ OPS out of Bernie and Matsui. Maybe next year. And maybe someone out there will surprise us, and turn it on in October, they do have the talent. You never know.

Tomorrow: the starting rotation.

September 23, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

The Red Sox won, the Yankees lost, and Oakland didn't play, so all the celebrations get put off another day. Jeff Weaver's probably killed himself by now, but this loss didn't mean a damn thing, clinching the division is just a formality.

Looking back at the Jeff Weaver trade, the similarities to the Boone trade are interesting. The Yankees gave up top prospects for a parallel move at a position that didn't need improvement anyway, the player they received was insignificantly younger than the one they let go, and used the wrong hand. And, of course, they ended up playing like crap. Maybe the Yankees would have destroyed Ted Lilly's arm by now, who knows? But having Jason Arnold and John-Ford Griffin in their system would have been a tremendous help to the Yankees this season when they went looking for a right fielder. Maybe they could have gotten a long-term solution.

But there's nothing the Yankees can do about it now. Weaver is, of course, a mental wreck now, and there are questions as to whether he can ever turn it around. But should the Yankees really just cut him? Or dump him off on some other team for nothing? It might satisfy our frustrations about how he's pitched by doing that, but it wouldn't do the Yankees any good. Especially since they threw away Claussen, the Yankees are going to be desperate for pitching help next season. Even if they sign Colon, they'll need another pitcher, and if they sign Colon and Millwood, they'll be out of the race for a top right-fielder, and unless they make a push for Kaz Matsui and move Jeter or Soriano to the outfield--which I see as being unlikely, though a good idea--they'll be left with a hole out there for at least another year, though not necessarily a gaping one (Karim Garcia should be okay). No, the Yankees are going to have to hang on to Jeff Weaver, stick him in the back of the rotation, and hope that he can turn it around. They've made their bed, and now they have to lie in it. Getting rid of him won't fix anything.

Another interesting event is the offensive explosion of Alfonso Soriano, who defeated me in my Runs Created wager yesterday by crossing the 113.99 threshold, and with two more home runs (seven in his last eight games), he's making the Home Run wager a close thing. It's nice that he decided to heat up just when the games stopped having any vital importance, maybe he'll keep it up for another month--but it would be unlike him. Maybe he'll keep crushing the ball through the Division Series, but his pattern indicates that he's likely to be miserable in the Championship Series and World Series, too. Well, I wouldn't mind if he was miserable in the World Series anyway, 'cause that would mean the Yankees were playing in it, but you get my point.

This week I'm giving my own evaluations of the Yankees' roster going into the postseason. It's in part to fill space, and in part to put in print how I really feel about these players, rather than just criticize them. Today, we've come to a player who I don't believe I've criticized yet, Jorge Posada.

In the 2001-2002 offseason, the Yankees signed Posada to a 5-year, $51 million extension, one that was met with immediate derision by the sabermetric community. He was 30 years old, an age where most players start to decline, and catchers in particular are likely to decline dramatically. Posada wasn't out there for his defense, and if his OPS dropped below the .838 it had been at two straight seasons, that $10 million investment would look very foolish.

But then, there is reason to believe that Posada can sustain his value longer than a typical catcher. He started life as a middle infielder, which saved him the wear and tear that other catchers have dealt with as they were still learning to hit. This may have not only helped him become a better hitter, but also extended his life as a catcher in the majors. So far, it seems that it has.

At the All-Star break, when Posada was voted the starting catcher for the American League, Red Sox fans howled that Jason Varitek should have been the starter, that he was clearly superior to Posada. It was a hard case to make then, as his higher OPS was due to a higher SLG, much lower OBP and a better hitters' park, and Posada had the far better track record. Events have shown that the coronation of Varitek as the AL's best catcher was premature, as Posada has not only sustained his performance throughout the season, but improved on it. He is clearly the best catcher in the American League.

Is Posada the MVP? No, Alex Rodriguez is, and all the discussions about who should be MVP are just BBWAA member making excuses to not vote for A-Rod, and it's not really about the Rangers' record, it's about his paycheck, which writers and fans resent. The wrangling around with the meaning of value (which, if they would actually read their ballots, the writers would see was already CLEARLY defined as "strength of offense and defense") has led us to a definition that would mean, in an extreme scenario, if A-Rod hit .400 with 90 HRs and 230 RBI for the Tigers (which might get them to, say, 70 wins), he wouldn't be the MVP. What's even dumber than that is that there are people who will try to argue that it would be THE RIGHT DECISION to not give him the MVP in that scenario. And there will probably be at least one person who will try to argue that point in my comments section below. While using poor grammar.

But I've digressed again. This is about Posada, not A-Rod, and if the writers aren't going to give the MVP to Rodriguez, giving it to Posada wouldn't be the worst alternative (that would be giving it to Ichiro!). In AL Runs Above Position, only A-Rod and Manny Ramirez ranks ahead of Posada. As I said, he wouldn't be the best choice, but he wouldn't be a horrible choice either.

It's just an award, anyway. What's more important is that, for the first time since 2000 (coincidentally, the last time the Yankees won the World Series), Posada has put up an OPS above .900 in the second half, and for the first time in his career, it's higher than his first half OPS. A large part of that has to be due to the presence of John Flaherty, who Joe Torre trusted enough to play about once a week, and surprisingly hit enough to minimize the loss of Posada's bat. That extra time off means Posada is going into to Postseason healthy and relatively rested--he'll probably get most of next weekend off--and maybe he'll have his first good postseason this year.

Posada really is a great hitter, not just for a catcher. But the other side of the ball, on defense, he's not very good. He's not awful, he allows more than his fair share of passed balls (though an overzealous scorekeeper in Boston helped a little with that), and he allows stolen bases at more than the break-even rate, but he's not killing them with the glove. His defense doesn't detract from his value anywhere near the way it does for Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano or, lately, Bernie Williams. While there are vastly superior defensive catchers out there, the offense of Posada crushes that disadvantage. In every position where there is a choice between defense and offense, the Yankees have chosen offense. At catcher, at least, it's a no-brainer. You'd have to be a historically lousy catcher to negate Jorge Posada's bat, and Jorge isn't one.

You always hear going into the postseason what an unfair advantage the Yankees have in acquiring players, and that no team can hope to compete when the Yankees can go out and sign Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina, and stock up on stars elsewhere, too. But the biggest "unfair" advantage that the Yankees have is that they get incredible offensive production out of their catcher, shortstop and second baseman--all of whom are homegrown--giving them a headstart when they go to fill the rest of the lineup card. If the Yankees had truly maximized their financial advantage when filling out the team, they would have clinched the division in late August.

I think the Yankees are actually stronger at starting catcher, relative to position, than they are at first base with Giambi and Johnson. Especially with how Jorge's hitting, going into the postseason, I rate him an A+.

Tomorrow, it starts to get ugly: the starting outfielders--Bernie, Bustzilla, and...Karim Garcia, I guess.

September 22, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Yesterday, I wrote about the Yankees' starters at the corners: Aaron Boone, Jason Giambi and Nick Johnson. In those three players the Yankees have two elite hitters and one painfully average one. However, on the Yankees, having an average player at third base is more than acceptable, because they've been able to count on offensive support elsewhere.

Namely, the middle infield. The Yankees have a second baseman and shortstop that hit like left fielders, which has allowed them to succeed in the past two seasons despite having some outfielders that hit like middle infielders.

I give Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano a lot of criticism on this site, because they have serious flaws in their games, but particularly because those flaws are not emphasized by those who cover the Yankees on a daily basis. But the fact is, that on whole, these are two very good players, and together are one of the keys to the Yankees' success. I've said before, Derek Jeter is vastly overpaid, and Alfonso Soriano is about to be--but the Yankees are much better off overpaying them than having someone else overpay them.

Derek Jeter was one of the keys to the Yankees' great run in the 90's. From their last World Series appearance in 1981 until Jeter's arrival as a full-time player in '96, the Yankees had played Bucky Dent, Roy Smalley, Andre Robertson, Larry Milbourne, Rodney Scott, Barry Evans, Bobby Meacham, Tim Foli, Keith Smith, Dale Berra, Rex Hudler, Wayne Tolleson, Mike Fischlin, Paul Zuvella, Ivan DeJesus, Mike Pagliarulo, Randy Velarde, Jeff Moronko, Jerry Royster, Rafael Santana, Luis Aguayo, Alvaro Espinoza, Tom Brookens, Jamie Quirk, Jim Walewander, Carlos Rodriguez, Andy Stankiewicz, Mike Gallego, Dave Silvestri, Spike Owen, Kevin Elster, Robert Eenhoorn and Tony Fernandez at shortstop. Jeter not only gave the Yankees an everyday shortstop, he gave them an All-Star caliber shortstop. Alex Rodriguez exploded into the spotlight that year, and Nomar Garciaparra arrived the next, so except for a fluky 1999, Jeter has been the third best shortstop in baseball since then. He's not really in the class of A-Rod and Nomar, but that tends to undersell his place all-time, where he is certainly one of the top 15 shortstops ever, probably better.

What separates Garciaparra and Rodriguez from Jeter is their power. It took Jeter nearly three seasons to hit as many home runs as Nomar and A-Rod did in their first full seasons, but that’s not his game. It’s really pointless to compare the three, because if you try to say that Jeter is as good as those two, you’ll look myopic and biased, and if you show how he’s inferior (which he is), he looks inadequate (which he isn’t). So forget about the Big Two, and let’s judge Jeter based on his own merits.

What makes Derek Jeter a great offensive player is that he gets on base. He doesn’t walk a lot, but he walks enough, and he hits the ball hard to the opposite field, which gives him a high Batting Average. This season his OBP is hovering around .400, and is around .390 for his career, which is good for an outfielder, great for a shortstop. At the top of the Yankees’ lineup, in front of Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada, he’s tremendously valuable. But OBP is not all he can do. He has some pop, but he’ll never be a big HR hitter. What he’s best at is baserunning. He’s fast, has good instincts, and is almost always aware of what’s going on with the defense. His baserunning has suffered this season, though, largely due to the shoulder injury he sustained on Opening Day.

His Achilles’ Heel is, of course, his defense. Jeter got a reputation as a good defensive player largely by a failure on the part of baseball insiders to understand what makes a good defensive player, but possibly as part of an effort to make him look as good as the Big Two. Sure, Nomar and A-Rod can hit better than Jeter, the thinking went, but Jeter is a better defensive player. It of course wasn’t true--Nomar wasn’t a great defensive player, but A-Rod might be the best defensive shortstop in baseball, and Jeter…well, he might be the worst one.

To some degree, the media is starting to accept that Jeter’s not a good defensive shortstop, but it seems the furthest they’re willing to go with that is by saying he’s “average”, or slightly below average. He’s not. He’s just bad. He has poor range, and anything hit a few feet to his left or right will likely go into the outfield for a single. When he does get to the ball, he makes more than his fair share of errors, and he has difficulty turning the double play. He does have a strong arm, but that really strengthens the case of those that say he should be an outfielder, where he wouldn’t be an All-Star, but he’d probably be in the top five in right or center, or third base, where he’d be one of the top five in the league.

But even with his defense factored in, it doesn’t hurt him so much that it makes him an average shortstop (as some would try to claim). It perhaps drops him behind Miguel Tejada, but he’s still top five at his position. While shortstop is possibly the highest impact defensive position, defense is still not nearly as important as offense, and over the course of the season, Jeter’s bat far outweighs his glove. But in a short series, where things don’t even out, his glove might seriously hurt the Yankees--which is why so many people think that the Yankees should look to move him. But you don’t know how the dice are going to fall, his glove could kill you, his bat could carry you. If he was running the bases like he has in years past, I’d rate him an A-, but right now, I’ll give him a B+.

Now, while Jeter is flawed, Alfonso Soriano’s flaws make Jeter look like the Virgin Mary. He rarely walks, he strikes out often, he plays poor defense, he’s streaky, and at times he plays less than conscientiously. But it can’t be denied that he’s as talented as anyone on the field, and that talent has made him, despite his flaws, one of the elite second basemen in the game.

Soriano’s value is almost entirely tied up in his getting base hits and home runs. He rarely walks, and his batting average is not high enough to give him a respectable On-Base Percentage. Joe Torre’s insistence on batting him leadoff is a product of decades of traditional lineup construction, where you put your speedsters at the top of the lineup. But it makes little sense to me. When your best hitters are power hitters, what base the runner is standing on is of little importance: they have a good chance to score on a double, and a 100% chance of scoring on a home run. The chances of getting thrown out trying to steal are not worth the benefit of getting to second base, because these days, your best hitters aren’t singles hitters. Because they hit the ball so hard, it’s far more important to have a runner of ANY kind on base, and while you’d ideally like a guy with some footspeed to stay out of a double play, it shouldn’t be a first priority, or even a mandatory requirement. Earl Weaver summed it up pretty well when he said:
Team Speed? For Christ’s sake, you get fucking goddamn little fleas on the fucking bases getting fucking picked off trying to steal, getting thrown out, taking runs away from you. Get them big cocksuckers who can hit the fucking ball out of the ballpark you can’t make any goddamn mistakes.
For Alfonso Soriano, batting leadoff is even more bizarre, because not only does he not get on base, he hits for tremendous power. He is, it seems to me, the ideal #6 hitter, who can clear away the big hitters left on base in front of him with a home run, and give the singles hitters behind him more RBI opportunities by stealing his way into scoring position, when their singles would likely not have scored him otherwise. Making the situation even worse is his streakiness. Like most hackers, Soriano goes through streaks where he’s hitting everything, and others where he can’t hit anything, as shown by this graph of hit OPS over every 11-game stretch (the current game, and the five before and after) during the season:

At the top of the lineup, his hot streaks are being wasted, and his cold streaks are doing the maximum damage. You can make a dozen arguments why Soriano shouldn’t be at the top of the lineup, but the only one I can think of for why he should be isn’t a very good one: he’s fast.

He is, of course, very fast, and he’s becoming nearly as good a base stealer as Jeter has been in past seasons. His high success rate on the basepaths increases his value to the team, but at the top of the lineup, where it often doesn’t matter what base you’re standing on, the value of that is minimized.

With the glove, Soriano is not quite as bad as Jeter, but he’s not good, either. He’s okay at going to his left, but when the ball is hit up the middle, he has difficulty backhanding it and making a play. Combined with Jeter’s inability to range very far to either side, it’s no surprise that the most oft heard phrase by Yankees’ announcers is “through to center field for a base hit!”

But just like Jeter, Soriano’s glove is outweighed by his bat. Only Bret Boone and Marcus Giles have hit better as second basemen than Soriano, and both are excellent defensively. How you rate Soriano is really dependant on what week it is--if it’s the week in which he’s hitting 1.100, then he’s an A+, but if it’s the week he’s hitting .450, then it’s an F. He’s red hot right now, which has me worried about which hitter we’re going to see in the playoffs, but right now, I’d have to rate him a B.

Are Jeter and Soriano overrated? Vastly. Are they deeply flawed? Absolutely. Could Soriano, if he worked harder, be one of the elite hitters in baseball, not just at second base? Probably. But they are very, very good players, and the overall production the Yankees get out of their middle infielders is as good as any other team in baseball. It is, without a doubt, a strength.

September 21, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Okay, the magic number to get into the playoffs is one--they've clinched a tie with Seattle. The magic number for the division is three--but assuming that Seattle is going to lose at least one more game this season, it's really two, because the Yankees have the division tiebreaker. Magic number for Home Field Advantage is four.

Is it safe to start talking about the playoffs yet?

No? Well, tough. The Yankees are going to the playoffs once again, they're going to win the division once again, and they're going to be facing the Minnesota Twins, who they haven't lost to in nearly 2½ years. These things are about as certain as the sun rising tomorrow morning, and if it doesn't, what some guy wrote on a baseball website will be about the least of our worries.

Even if the Yankees lose out the rest of their games, Seattle would need to undefeated and Boston would need to go 6-2 just to force a playoff. It's over. It's time to forget about wins and losses and focus on the postseason roster, which I'm sure Joe Torre is doing right now. Over the next week, I'm going to break down the players likely to be on the October roster for the Yanks. Today: the starting corner infielders.

First up is Aaron Booooooooooooooone. When the Yankees traded Brandon Claussen for him on July 31st, mainstream baseball analysts were either raving about what a great player the Yankees got or complaining about how the Yankees could get such a great player for "just" a minor league pitcher--and one coming off of Tommy John Surgery, at that. Many of us outside the mainstream immediately saw all of the downside of this trade: they were giving up their only good prospect, someone who could help them significantly in 2004, and the player they acquired for him just wasn't that good. Okay, he's not really the suckiest suck that ever sucked, but he's not the second coming of Graig Nettles, either. More like the second coming of Mike Pagliarulo. He's a fairly good defensive third baseman, but not the Gold Glover that many analysts made him out to be. But the real problem with Boone is that he's just not that good a hitter--and certainly no better than they one he replaced.

His numbers in Cincinnatii were fairly impressive from the traditional analyst's viewpoint--.273, 18 HRs, 65 RBI--but were considerably less so from the sabermetric viewpoint--.339 OBP, .469 SLG. If he could put up those numbers in New York, he'd be, if nothing else, an improvement over what they had with Robin Ventura's .736 OPS. But he had two strikes against him: he was leavingCincinnatii--a decent hitters' park--and coming to Yankee Stadium--a good pitchers' park, and as a right-handed batter whose value depended largely on his power, he had much to lose by playing in The Stadium, with it's deep left-center field.

Being so overhyped, Boone was set up to fail, and that he did. After his first ten games, his OPS was a ridiculous .243. He didn't get his Batting Average above .200 until the end of August, and his SLG was a bad OBP until mid-September. He was, of course, having a really bad start, but what was obvious to statheads before the trade was obvious to everyone now: Aaron Boone was, at best, an average third baseman. Some tried to make a positive spin on the trade, pointing out that he was young, but at 30, he's only young in the sense that he's not old. He's passed his peak, and is likely about to enter his decline period.

But if you want to look at the bright side, he's been better lately. Not great, but not awful, and he's shown power at times (though far too much of it has been at homer-friendly Camden Yards). He is what he is, an average player, and as long as he stays what he is, he won't hurt the Yankees in the postseason, and could help if he hits a homer in a key spot. The grade on the trade is an F--as his his play so far since the trade--but the grade on Boone as a player going forward is a C. He's not good, but he's not really that bad.

On the other side of the diamond is all that's good about the Yankees' offense. It says something impressive about Jason Giambi that he's having his worst season in five years, and yet he's still one of the ten most productive hitters in the American League. Giambi's plate discipline has led to him drawing 125 walks so far this season, which has kept his On-Base Percentage comfortably above .400.

At 32, Giambi is at the age where you have to start wondering if he's in decline, and players like him (who rely on homers and walks) tend to decline very quickly. There is a legitimate concern here, as his numbers have dropped in both of his seasons since coming over from Oakland, by over .100 points each year. And if that trend continues, next year he'll be less productive than Alfonso Soriano, which is good for a second baseman, but for a first baseman...

But there's good reason to view this season's drop in production as something other than a decline. His numbers were dragged down significantly by horrid slumps in April and early May, and another in late August and early September. The common denominator in those slumps was injuries to body parts crucial to hitting--an eye infection and a badly bruised hand. Sure, your chances of injury increase as you get older, but it's his knee that represents that truism, not the eye and hand. He's been suffering from a knee injury all season, and will need offseason surgery to recover from it, but that knee was bothering him when he was hitting like Barry Bonds in June. It'll slow him on the basepaths and in the field, but it won't stop him from being a productive batter.

Another interesting thing about Giambi is that he's always hit better when playing the field than when DHing. I don't know why, but the difference is there, and it's significant. Nick Johnson has the same split, although not as dramatic. The question, I suppose, is if it's worth the loss of Johnson's significantly better glove for the improvement of production in Giambi when you play him in the field. I would guess yes. While this is a down year for Giambi, I'd still rate his value for October as an A.

Nick Johnson is the anti-Soriano. His traditional numbers--.291, 13 HRs, 46 RBI in half a season--look okay, but his sabermetric numbers establish him as one of the best hitters in baseball. The reason for the difference in appearances is, just like Alfonso Soriano, walks. Johnson has drawn 66 walks in half a season, and his .430 OBP would lead the American League if he qualified. However, he's slumped lately--and slumped very badly. I have no idea why he's going through this slump, sometimes it just happens, but unless there's some unknown injury slowing him down (which wouldn't be a first for Johnson), there's no reason to worry about the playoffs. He's got a week to get out of the slide, and I would assume that it's more than enough time.

Defensively, Johnson is good--better than Giambi at the very least. Defensive statistics are rough at best, especially for first basemen, but Win Shares rates Johnson as being one of the best fielding first basemen in the league. But it also shows that his glove has little impact on his team's fortunes, as even the best fielding first baseman can only add, at most, one win a year (I'm recalling local columnist Bob Matthews's question before last season if Jason Giambi's added offense would be negated by the lost defense of Tino Martinez. Uh...yeah). He throws significantly better than Giambi, and he just appears to be more comfortable with the glove. The Yankees' defensive woes aren't on the corners of the infield, they're up the middle.

Joe Torre finally seems to have figured out how valuable Johnson is, batting him second consistently after the last series in Boston. When healthy he has been one of the most valuable players on the Yankees this season, and one worry I have about a potential World Series is that the Yankees will have to sit him in the middle three games in the National League. I don't know if the Yanks can survive the hit to their offense.

But for the first two rounds, he'll be playing every day. Assuming that this slump is a passing thing, Johnson gets an A.

Tomorrow: the starting middle infielders, Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter.

September 19, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

I got an email from my Dad yesterday:
You probably already know this but I thought I'd remind you. Tomorrow (9/19) is OBP Jesus' birthday.
Actually, Dad, Rickey Henderson was born on December 25th (which is pretty damn cool, anyway), but I see what you mean. Happy Birthday, Nick Johnson (OBP Jesus, Jr.).

Now, I suppose I should have learned by now to never underestimate the greed of MLB ownership. Time and time again they've taken the action that has the potential to earn them the most money the fastest, rather than do what's right, or even what's smart and will make them more money down the road. Their collective "bargaining" strategy in 1994 was, literally, to not bargain at all--to BREAK THE LAW--in hopes of reaching an impasse so they could unilaterally implement everything they wanted, in hopes that the NLRB would go along with them--and they almost did. They attempted to do the same thing last year, and, at least partly because of the current administration, the players caved rather than risk losing it all. And there's also their attempts to hold communities hostage for free ballparks, collusion, and the rape of the Expos. And we can go on and on. MLB owners are really very greedy people.

But yesterday really disgusts me more than all of that. School was closed, businesses were closed--the GOVERNMENT left town. The Governor of Maryland himself urged people to stay indoors. But, of course, it was fine to have a ballgame. Why? Because nearly 30,000 people bought tickets, and if five innings were played, the Orioles would not have to refund that money.

And so, the few thousand fans that showed up got to see part of a game, the Yankees' travel plans were delayed and today's game in Tampa Bay was endangered, and they wasted a start by Mike Mussina. And now the Yankees have to play a doubleheader in the last series of the season, which doesn't help them any going into the postseason. I suppose that if it's a meaningless game, Torre will play scrubs, but the greed of MLB and Peter Angelos, putting fans, employees and players in danger so they could make a few hundred thousand dollars is, to me, infuriating. Yeah, it's a business, but most businessmen are smart enough to know that there's some things more important than pure profit, and getting the hell out of the way of a hurricane is right on top of the list.

September 17, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

At this point in the season, it becomes a little less interesting. You know the Yankees are going to make the postseason, and that they're probably going to win the division. The only thing that could go wrong is for them to collapse down the stretch and get passed by the Red Sox and Mariners, and considering the competition, that's not going to happen. But it's not October yet, and so it's almost like the games don't count right now. You'll turn on the game, but the wins aren't as satisfying as they were a couple of weeks ago, and the losses are a pain, but you forget about them almost immediately. It's not like they make that big a difference either way. It feels almost like Spring Training.

The only thing left, really, is Home Field Advantage, and that's not really that important. If the Yankees win the AL East, which seems certain, they'll play the AL Central winner or the Mariners, and they'll host that series, whether they have the best record in the AL or not, and who they face will be determined on who wins the Wild Card, not anything the Yankees do. If they win the ALDS and the A's lose their series, they'll host the ALCS whether they have the best record in the AL or not. If they win the pennant, they'll have Home Field Advantage in the World Series, whether they have the best record or not. All the having the best record will do is decide the location of one game in a series that they might not get to, and only if they play one team that they may not play. It's not exactly crucial.

Joe Torre has figured that out this year. He's already said that he's not going to play for Home Field down the stretch, he feels that trying for it last year wore the team out going into the ALDS. Maybe that's the case, but I think that takes a lot of credit away from the World Champions, who really did play great last October. Still, I agree with his approach--if it happens, great, if it doesn't, it's not the end of the world.

Of course, there's the entire issue of whether hosting postseason games is really that much of an advantage for the Yankees, anyway. They're 47-31 at home and 47-27 on the road. They have a .782 OPS at home, and an .832 OPS on the road. This doesn't mean that the Yankees are actually a better team on the road, the numbers may just be a result of timing--the Yankees were on the road when they got hot, and at home when they slumped--but what it does say is that playing at home isn't a huge advantage for the Yankees by any means, and that it doesn't matter if they win Home Field Advantage.

Now, what's really silly is that, if the Mariners overtake the Red Sox for the Wild Card, the Yankees have to play them, rather than the Twins or White Sox, even if they have a better record than Oakland, even though the Mariners will almost certainly have a better record than the Central winner. That's because the rules say that the Wild Card can't play a team from its own division in the first round. I suppose this is supposed to be fair to the team that won the division, or maybe to create a little diversity in the playoffs, but it seems silly to me. It punishes the Yankees by making them play a team with a better record in the first round than Oakland has to, even though they had a better record, and rewards the AL Central team and the A's by letting them play lesser teams than they would have to.

Not that it's likely to matter. The road to the World Series isn't going to be easy for the Yankees, even if they play the Twins in the first round, who they haven't lost to since May 2001. If they win the ALDS, they'll have a tougher opponent in the ALCS, and likely an even tougher one in Atlanta or San Francisco for the World Series. Sooner or later, they'll have to be challenged, and if they lose in the ALDS because they have to play Seattle, you're not going to hear me complaining about the unfairness of the system.

And that's pretty much all there is to talk about for the Yankees. As much as we'd like to see it, Jorge Posada probably isn't going to get much serious MVP support. Alfonso Soriano isn't challenging 40/40 (but he is likely going to see his run production drop less than 10%). Derek Jeter's battling for a batting title, but it's not something that is particularly compelling, especially to those of us who see batting average as a statistic of secondary importance to the value of a player. Really all that's left is to count down magic numbers, and hope nobody gets hurt.

It's largely for this reason that I haven't been writing much lately--which is probably dramatically noticable because I've written pretty much every day since May. There's also a lot of stuff going on in my personal and work life that's distracted me from my writing, and overall, I'm physically and mentally exahausted. I apologize to my loyal readers for the dropoff in production, and promise to work to return to my previously established levels. Just please don't option me down to Columbus.

September 16, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Way back in April, when I started this blog, I wrote about Alfonso Soriano. Okay, I've been doing a lot of that since I started writing this blog, as well as writing about Derek Jeter's defense, the Bullpen of Horrors, Joe Torre, Aaron Boone, Raul Mondesi, Juan Acevedo and violence against inanimate objects.

But at the time, I wrote about Soriano's defiance of all that statheads had predicted would happen to him. Now, at the time, Soriano was hitting .371, on a pace to hit 54 HRs, had an OPS of 1.088, while having only drawn 5 unintentional walks in 138 PAs. Players who walk so few times and strike out so often simply don't put up those numbers. It's not just rare--it's never happened.

Of course, it still hasn't happened, and it won't happen this year. Soriano hit two homers today to enter the 30/30 club for the second straight year, but his production has dropped off considerably, and is, in fact, very close to what statistics projected at the start of the season. Baseball Prospectus' new projection system, PECOTA, expected these numbers before the season:

2003 Pace6861973743437130379.287.334.501.835

He's walked a bit more, hit fewer doubles, and been far more effective at stealing bases than PECOTA thought, but those numbers are really close. Does that mean that the statheads were right? Well, no--an .835 OPS is still pretty good for a second baseman. It's more a validation of PECOTA than anything else--and surely something you'll see as a prime example of it's quality in next year's Baseball Prospectus.

What Alfonso Soriano represents to me is the crux of the differences between traditional analysis and sabermetric analysis. Traditional analysists look at Alfonso Soriano and see that he is a player with tremendous power combined with great speed--a rare combo, too be sure. They see that he is more talented in more ways than almost any other player, and for that they number him amongst the elite.

Sabermetric analysists look at Soriano and see his value. They don't care how he did it, but what he did. For all his talent, Alfonso Soriano is still an .835 OPS hitter, which is good, but not great. But traditional analysts, when they look at the stats, don't care for OPS or even OBP. They see a man hitting .287, 31 HRs and 78 RBI with 33 SBs, and they see an elite player.

30/30 is an impressive feat, to be sure, but it is similar to hitting for the cycle. While all the parts are crucial to the acheivement, they are not equally important to winning ballgames, which is, obviously, the point of playing. That Alfonso Soriano could hit so many home runs and steal so many bases is notable, but it doesn't make him better than any other player with an .835 OPS. The problem is that Alfonso Soriano's acheivement isn't viewed objectively, it's viewed as proof of his greatness. People are afraid to change his approach at the plate because of the HRs he hits, afraid that by tinkering they'll break him. What he is now is good, but he could be great. But the price of complacency isn't just the loss of potential greatness, but the risk that if his approach remains the same, he'll collapse completely, and become worthless. The Yankees should be proactive with Soriano, dropping him down in the lineup, insisting that he work the count and look for his pitch, slapping him around a little in the dugout after he swings at three pitches in the dirt. By remaining complacent, they've developed a hitter who is incredibly streaky, and makes more outs than any other player in baseball (making him, of course, the ideal leadoff hitter).

Alfonso Soriano is still only 25 years old, he's not an established veteran, he's a young player not yet in his prime, and he has much to learn. All he needs is someone to teach him.

September 13, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

What a difference a week makes. A week ago today, the Yankees were coming off of a second straight humiliating defeat at the hands of the surging Red Sox, their lead was down to a measly 1½ games, and it seemed that everything was going wrong. David Wells wasn't merely struggling, he was pitching miserably, Jason Giambi wasn't just slumping, he was an out machine. Bernie Williams had struggled to find his power since returning from knee surgery in May, the bullpen was pouring gas on whatever fire they came near. Aaron Boone was failing to merely suck, he was exploring whole new levels of suckiness, perhaps trying to test the theory that baseball value is circular, and that if you suck enough, you will eventually pass the lowest levels of suck and enter the elite levels of greatness. It's an interesting theory, but one best tested on a team that can afford the risks inherent in the "Suck a Lot" strategy.

It was, a week ago, possible to see the end coming. One could imagine the Red Sox pounding the Yankees once again, and Toronto coming in and beating the Bombers in a makeup game while the Sox beat Baltimore to take over first place. Maybe the Yankees were too old, too flawed, maybe even too complacent. Sometimes great teams fall suddenly and precipitously, and sometimes they fall down the stretch while in a pennant race. A week ago, you could imagine that happening to the Yankees, and even though you knew it probably wouldn't happen, you still thought about it.

But only a week later, that kind of thinking seems silly. It seemed almost silly after the Yankees stopped the Red Sox dead in their tracks Sunday afternoon, and as the Yankees built up an eight game winning streak against inferior competition, they virtually assured themselves of a playoff spot, are perhaps a week away from clinching the division, and have an excellent chance at Home Field Advantage--thanks to Hank Blalock--throughout the postseason. The questions now asked about the Yankees are the same ones that every fan is asking about their team: are they good enough to win the World Series?

While this eight-game streak does not inspire awe for the quality of play it has produced, there are positive signs. Jason Giambi started having better plate appearances at the beginning of the week, and launched Home Runs in the last two days. Bernie Williams hit the decisive homer on Sunday, struck again versus Detroit, and celebrated his birthday in style, clubbing two more in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader, giving him an impressive 4 home runs for the week. Even Aaron Boone was good (perhaps the strategy worked), as he posted a 1.042 OPS with 2 HRs. They got strong performances out of Roger Clemens and David Wells, and the bullpen started to come together, particularly once Joe Torre realized that he could trust Gabe White just as much, if not more than Jeff Nelson.

An aside for a moment about Gabe White: There are many guys in baseball with a "Porn Star" mustache, and a few of them on the Yankees (as their facial hair policy pretty much limits you to that look or, as sjohnny said, the Hitler). But Gabe White takes it so much further--he's got the whole package working. The tan, the build, the bald half expect to see him in a postgame interview with his shirt off, all oiled up. I dunno, maybe he's moonlighting (and nice work if you can get it!), but I can't look at him without thinking Porn Star. Maybe I'm just a pervert.

But back on topic, the Yankees haven't been playing great, and the way they played against Detroit probably would have resulted in a series loss or a sweep to any decent team. But there have been several individual performances worth noting, not merely for their value, but for what they mean to the team going forward.

Bernie's two home runs today, for instance, were mighty pokes, not a result of the short porch at The Stadium. It means that Bernie can still drive the ball, and that he might continue doing it this season, and in October. They weren't fluke home runs, they were the real deal. And if Bernie--who despite his lack of power hitting was still getting on base at a good rate--can start driving the ball for doubles and homers, the Yankees have vastly improved their chances in the postseason.

Similarly, Giambi's recent at bats remind even the most reactionary of fans that this is a player who is capable of Bondsian performances when he is swinging the bat well, and if he plays like that in October, the Yanks will be halfway to the title already.

I'm still skeptical about Boone; his great performance lately haven't yet brought his overall numbers up to replacement level. His defense is quite good, his baserunning is above average. But I don't have faith that he'll be of any use in the postseason.

I'm also skeptical of Wells, but for one reason only: his back. He's obviously been feeling better, perhaps completely comfortable in his last two starts, but a bad back doesn't just go away for good, and when it's bad, he's awful. I still think the Yankees should start Contreras in October, despite his struggles in Fenway and against Detroit on Tuesday. I still think he's the safer bet.

I said earlier this week that no team needed a three game series against Detroit more than the Yankees did. They played poorly, and they got away with a sweep. Playing three games against such an awful team helped build some confidence for struggling players, who were finally able to get back to muscle memory and focusing on pitch-to-pitch strategy, instead of thinking about their mechanics, and trying to do something to get things working right. Slumps are usually statistical anamolies, a series of unsuccesful at bats in a row that is bound to happen from time to time. But the people who play the game are prone to wonder whether it's something that they're doing wrong that's causing the slump (sometimes it is, but usually it isn't), and they start to tinker, and lose sight of the bigger picture, decrease their ability to succeed, and end up making things worse.

The Yankees are winning again, so in that sense, the slump is over. They haven't played as well as their record would indicate, but they've played better than they had, so I think the slump is, at least, ending. The slumps of Giambi and Williams--and maybe even Boone--are almost certainly over. As the season draws to a close and the Yankees become more assured of their postseason position, that is probably the most important thing of all.