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September 11, 2003

Inbox and Outbox
by Larry Mahnken

The Yankees finished a sweep of the Tigers tonight, extending their winning streak to five games and their lead to an even four games. I'm prepared to say that the Yankees have the American League East just about wrapped up, and their spot in the playoffs is assured. They aren't going to blow a 6 game lead to Seattle in 17 games--not with the schedule the two teams have remaining.

Of course, the Yankees' 5-game winning streak has been about as unimpressive a winning streak as can be had. David Wells was brilliant to start the streak on Sunday, but the Yankees were not playing their best baseball against Detroit, and against most other teams, they would have lost two of three, if not been swept. Three wins against Detroit is like losing your virginity to a prostitute--you're not going to go around bragging about it, but it still counts.

A reader of mine, Bob sent me an email this evening:
you were 100% correct when you said yanks don't need 3 left handed hitting 1st basemen RE: david ortiz, but right now i wish we had johnson and ortiz down the stretch, seeing that your a know it all, tell me what giambi has done good for the yanks in the last month, one or two key hits (not homers) and the yanks magic number would be about nine, you know the yanks and you know them well and thats to your credit, but when it comes to the "game" you seem to be very imature and show a lack of knowledge of baseball "the game", did you ever play ball if so up to what level, don't tell me little league now that every one makes a team and must play, when i played you had to MAKE THE TEAM, that was true in babe ruth league, jr circuit league jr high and high school also american legion ball as well as college i played, started and made all star teams at all of the mentioned levels
Ahh yes, the old, "You never played the game, so you can't know anything about it" argument. Actually, it's its cousin, "I played better than you, therefore I know more than you," which is probably sillier.

First of all, no, I never played organized baseball past Little League, which I only played one year of (although our team lost only two games all season!). Why? Well, for one, I wasn't particularly talented. Or maybe I was, I'll never know. I didn't have very many friends as a kid--okay, I didn't have any friends as a kid--and baseball was something I could only play in the back yard with my big sister, and the moment I was able to play as well as her, well, she didn't really feel like playing anymore. I was shy, I was an outcast, and nobody ever played with me (and when I rule the world, they will pay for this! I will crush them all!!! MUAHAHAHAHAHA!!!....ahem...). But I have loved baseball for as far back as I can remember. As Bill James said, there is not a waking moment when I am not thinking about baseball, and most of the sleeping moments are spent thinking about it, too.

I played Little League for that one season, got only one infield hit--and the umpire screwed it up, signaling safe and yelling "out", and I was tagged out as I ran back towards the bench. I also struck out to end the only game we lost during the regular season, which took me a very long time to get over. And I think I got hit by a lot of pitches--like I said, I wasn't very popular.

I simply had no skills, and no talent to make up for it. I considered trying out in high school to establish some type of social interaction with other kids, but I was too afraid of failure and humilation, and never did it. It's one of a thousand things I wish I had done differently as a kid, but that's in the past, and it must be let go.

There is a bias in professional baseball against outsiders, against people who haven’t played the game. That bias is what kept sabermetrics out of the game for so many years, because the people who had put it forward had not played baseball, so they couldn’t know about baseball. Baseball needed someone like Billy Beane--an intellectual who had played the game--to finally bring objective analysis into the front office. To the establishment, if it was put forward by an outsider, it could not be right, but if the same information was put forward by an insider, then maybe it was.

I’m not a know it all, Bob, I’m a writer. It’s my job to say things with confidence, if I waver in my resolve, then I lose credibility in the eyes of my readers. To put forward this confidence, I try to only write about things I have absolute confidence in, and I try to back it with data. If I hold a belief, and the data I check contradicts that belief, I won’t write about it. I may be right, but I don’t want to put my credibility on the line for a “maybe”.

But to answer your main point, no, the Yankees would not be better off had they signed David Ortiz. Yes, Jason Giambi is in a terrible, terrible slide. He is not only not hitting with power, he’s not hitting at all. And unlike April, he’s not even getting on base, so yes, his presence in the middle of the lineup is hurting the Yankees.

But you can’t judge a player’s skill, or even his overall value for the season, by one month. This is Jason Giambi we’re talking about here, who won the 2000 MVP, was robbed for the 2001 MVP, and was a legitimate MVP candidate last season. David Ortiz is having a great season, but his previous seasons were nowhere near as good, his highest OPS was .839, which isn’t that great for a first baseman, and his career EqA is .278 entering this season.

And he’s not even better than Giambi this season. His OPS of .961 is higher than Giambi’s, but not by very much, and it’s inflated by Fenway, where his OPS is 1.022 (and .897 elsewhere). EqA, which adjusts for park, says that Ortiz is .316 while Giambi is .324.

And you’re also ignoring the reality of the situation. If the Yankees had Ortiz, he would be DHing, and playing instead of Nick Johnson. Nick Johnson, with a .964 OPS, .445 OBP and a .335 EqA, second in the American League. Had the Yankees signed David Ortiz, and played him, and he had played as well as he had, the Yankees would be further ahead of the Red Sox in the division (because the Sox wouldn’t have him), but they would be a worse team.

But maybe Ortiz has really established a new level of performance--this is his age 27 season--and maybe Giambi has begun a precipitous decline--he is 32, and both of those possibilities fit sabermetric theory very well. Or maybe David Ortiz is having a great season in a good hitters park while Jason Giambi is struggling with a knee that needs surgery and, for a while there, a badly bruised hand--and still having a better season than Ortiz.

Speaking of Nick Johnson, those of you who have Baseball Prospectus Premium may have read Joe Sheehan’s “Lineupectomy” article on Tuesday. On Friday, Joe had chatted with BP readers, and his final answer was that his optimal Yankee lineup would be:
which in turn generated an email:
I saw in your recent chat that your ideal lineup includes Nick Johnson as the seventh hitter, ahead of only Aaron Boone and Karim Garcia. But your own numbers show Johnson as one of the elite hitters in the major leagues. I don't get it. Is there some underlying logic behind this lineup con(s)truction?

- L.M.
Guess who “L.M.” was?

Well, anyway, his response was basically that a)the Yankees have 7 good hitters and you have to bat someone 7th, and b)Johnson would be his choice to bat 7th to not put a slow runner ahead of a ground ball hitter (okay), split up lefty and righty hitters to avoid effective LOOGY usage (okay), and to not rock the boat by moving some guys down the order.

Well, I’m not okay with that. He didn’t say that this was the best lineup that he felt Joe Torre could put out there, but his “optimal” lineup. He used the “rocking the boat” reasoning to help justify batting Bernie second and Soriano 4th, though there were other reasons for his decisions to do that. But I think that Soriano shouldn’t be treated with kid gloves, he needs to learn that his approach at the plate is not even close to being acceptable: he seems to go to the plate only wanting to hit, not bat. If you have to offend him by batting him 6th or 7th, then so be it.

Anyway, having read Joe’s justification and thought about it (and you should sign up for BP Premium, too--the PECOTA cards alone make it worth the money), here’s my optimal Yankees lineup, integrating Joe’s points (don’t bat slow runners ahead of Jeter and Matsui, break up lefties and righties):
I'd like to say one final thing. Today was the second anniversary of 9/11. It was a horrible, horrible day that none of us can ever forget. But I'm reminded of something Abraham Lincoln said in 1862:
In great conflicts, each side claims to be acting in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, but one must be, wrong.
We know that Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden are wrong, there is no disputing that. But that doesn't make us right. I'm not saying that we aren't right, but that our national attitude in the past two years has seemed to me to be "we got attacked on 9/11, so we're justified in doing whatever we decide to do." We are not. 9/11 does not justify war in Iraq, or rolling back our civil liberties, or a tax cut. Those things must find their own justifications.