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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.