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October 24, 2003

Pathetic: Florida 6, New York 4
by Larry Mahnken

If you're going to focus on one reason the Yankees are one game away from losing the World Series to a vastly inferior team, look at the offense. They've failed to come through with clutch hits time and again this series, failed to score nearly as many runs as they reasonably should have expected to. There's been bad defense, and some poor managerial decisions, but if the Yankees were hitting anywhere near as well as they should be, it wouldn't matter. This isn't the case of dominant Florida starting pitching completely shutting down the Yankees' hitters, as you could say was the case in 2001 against the Diamondbacks. No, the Yankees have actually hit well in this series, but they haven't gotten the big hit in the many, many scoring opportunities they had. If the Yankees were playing well, they would have swept this series. If they were playing just okay...they probably still would have swept this series. Instead, they're playing terribly, and so are now one game away from losing to the Marlins.

No player has exemplified the impotence of the Yankees' effort more pathetically than Alfonso Soriano. Soriano has run almost exclusively hot and cold all season, and this postseason he has been exclusively cold. He's batting .158 in this series, and barely over .200 for the postseason, and along the way, he's set a postseason record for strikeouts.

The problem has been exacerbated by Joe Torre's insistence on batting him leadoff throughout the postseason. Last night, finally willing to accept that Soriano has been killing the Yankees at the top of the lineup all postseason, Joe Torre... benched him. His stated reason was that Soriano seemed to have broken out of slumps after having a day off earlier in the season*, so he figured he'd give him a day off . Yeah Joe, that's it, he's tired. Maybe Soriano is tired, but it's more likely that Soriano's problem is his total lack of even a modicum of discipline.

I've explained this before, I'll do it again: Plate discipline does NOT mean taking walks. The essence of plate discipline can be summed up by one piece of advice Rogers Hornsby gave to a 20-year old Ted Williams while serving as hit hitting coach in the minor leagues: "Get a good ball to hit". If you only swing at balls you can hit well, you're more likely to hit those balls hard--raising your batting average and your slugging percentage. And because no pitch outside of the zone is one that you're likely to hit well, you'll draw more walks, too--raising your on-base percentage. On the other hand, if you take the approach that Soriano seems to take: swing at any pitch you think you might be able to hit, you might get some hittable pitches, but you'll get mostly pitches that you can't hit hard, you won't get hits, you won't get on base, and you won't hit the ball hard.

This isn't a new problem for Soriano. He's been hitting like this since he was in the minor leagues, and it's this style that led many statheads to believe that he would never amount to very much as a major leaguer. The belief that D'Angelo Jimenez would be a better player than Soriano had less to do with a belief in Jimenez's upside than a view towards Soriano's downside. It hasn't happened, and it's not likely to happen, but before the past two seasons, you could see Soriano collapsing as a hitter. Billy Beane doesn't think that plate discipline can be learned, that you either have it or you don't, but I firmly believe that it can, at the very least, be improved, simply by drilling into a ballplayer's head this simple adage: "Get a good ball to hit."

But you know what? The World Series isn't the right time to change a batter's approach, and I lay the blame at the feet of Joe Torre and Rick Down for failing to recognize Soriano's fatal flaw in the past three seasons, and be proactive about it. Most bullheaded of all has been Torre's insistence in batting Soriano leadoff, even though his on-base percentage is pathetic, and it leads to him hitting many leadoff home runs, home runs that might otherwise have come with men on base. The appropriate reaction last night to Soriano's slump--well, the appropriate reaction before the World Series began--would have been to drop him down in the lineup, where his PAs would be minimized, and a superior hitter's would be maximized.

But Torre dropped Soriano from the lineup, and replaced him with Enrique Wilson. There is one legitimate justification for playing Wilson ahead of Soriano, and that's the fact that Wilson usually hits better than Soriano is right now, so if Wilson were to hit at his normal level, you might actually gain something with the bat. But where Wilson batted--second--defies explanation. This is Enrique Wilson, he has a .654 career OPS, and a .296 career OBP. If you're going to play him, for God's sake, bat him eighth!

At first glance, it appears that the move worked out for Torre. Wilson was 2 for 4 with a walk, his bunt single in the first led to the Yankees' first run (actually, the error on the play led to the Yankees' first run), his walk in the seventh brought the tying run to the plate, and his double in the ninth did the same. He drove in two runs, and for the most part helped the Yankees' lineup--although his GIDP in the top of the third, after Florida scored three runs to take the lead, killed the Yankees' chances for a rally that inning.

But, of course, baseball is not just offense, and Wilson may have cost the Yankees the game with his glove. In the second, Brad Penny smacked a ball to the right side of second base, and Wilson took a Jeteresque step and a dive, and the ball was by him. Now, while Bret Boone probably would have made the play on that ball, Wilson shouldn't have, and Soriano probably wouldn't have...but, on the other hand, Soriano is two inches taller than Wilson, and has much longer arms...he might have. But that wasn't the play that killed the Yankees, even though it scored two runs, when an out would have ended the inning.

No, the play that killed the Yankees came in the bottom of the fifth, with Ivan Rodriguez on second, and one out. Jeff Conine hit the ball hard past third base, but Aaron Boone made a spectacular play to field it. Rodriguez was caught off of second base, and Boone smartly chased him back to second, and threw the ball to Wilson, who briefly chased Rodriguez to third, then threw the ball to nobody, allowing Rodriguez to reach third safely and Conine to reach second. The next batter, Lowell, singled to center, both runs scored, and--hey, wouldn't you know it, that was the winning margin. And you kind of knew it would be at the time, too.

On television, it was speculated, probably correctly, that Wilson threw to third so quickly because he wanted to avoid a long rundown, which would get Conine to second base. However, if the Yankees--and this includes Boone--had properly executed the rundown, Rodriguez would have been out, Conine stuck on first base, and it is likely no runs would have scored.

The proper way to execute a rundown in this situation is simple: Boone fields the ball, sees Rodriguez stuck between second and third. He immediately starts running towards Rodriguez, to get him to run to second base to avoid the tag. At this time, Wilson should be running towards Rodriguez from second, and as soon as Pudge is committed towards second, Boone should flip it to Wilson, who catches the ball, and tags Rodriguez--whose momentum doesn't allow him to change directions quickly enough to get away from Wilson. One throw, one out, Conine stuck at first. There should never be more than one throw in a properly executed rundown, the key is to get the baserunner to commit to running towards one base, which makes him unable to avoid the tag from the defensive player standing there. You, of course, never see it done properly, the defensive player usually pump fakes the ball to try and get the runner to slow down or come towards them, leading to exactly the opposite result of the one intended--the runner doesn't commit to one direction, and rather than running into the tag, he gets chased long enough for the runner to move up.

Of course, what was probably the biggest factor in the loss was the injury to David Wells, who had to leave after a perfect first inning. Wells was very good in the first game, and his strong start--and a 1-0 lead, gave hope that he might send the Yankees back to New York with a 3-2 lead, instead of a 3-2 deficit. But Wells started suffering from back spasms, and fortunately told Torre and Stottlemyre about it, rather than going back to the mound and getting hammered. But the bullpen wasn't able to shut Florida down, the defense didn't help out much, and the Yankees are now facing elimination.

Florida likely goes to Josh Beckett and Carl Pavano on short rest now, looking for one win against Andy Pettitte or Mike Mussina. Hey, the Yankees can do it, they're a better team than Florida, and Pettitte and Mussina on full rest are probably better than Beckett and Pavano on short rest. They're at home, and the last two World Champions won Games 6 and 7 at home. But it's looking somewhat bleak.

Move over, '88 Dodgers, you may have competition soon.

*(in 24 PAs after a day off this year, Soriano was .364/.417/.409/.826)