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April 24, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

A lot of people don't like to account for luck when analyzing baseball, or any sport. Everything that happens must happen for a reason, and it's usually attributed to something intangible, like guts or clutchness (Bill James scoffed at this attitude in his New Historical Baseball Abstract: "We are supposed to believe that athletes are athletes not merely because they are fast, strong quick and well conditioned, but because there is something special inside them, this "character" that comes to the fore in the crucible of athletic competition. The are athletes, in other words, because they are better people than the rest of us.").

As it turns out, recent studies have shown that clutchness is real, and tangible, and significant. But that doesn't mean that all clutch plays come from clutch players, are happen because of the clutchness of the players involved. Sometimes things happen when they happen because that's when they happen.

The Yankees are hitting horribly. They're hitting like last year's Tigers when they were slumping (or last year's Dodgers when they were hot). They're not hitting horribly because of poor lineup construction (though they've had that), or because Enrique Wilson is playing every day, and Ruben Sierra is playing, period. They're not hitting poorly because Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield can't handle the pressure of New York, or because Jason Giambi slimmed down, or because Derek Jeter is trying to lower his regular season rate statistics to make his postseason stats look more clutch.

They're hitting poorly because almost everyone on the team is in a slump. Slumps happen. They almost always start because of random variation--a player doesn't get the right pitches to hit, he doesn't get balls to fall in, he misses his pitches by a fraction of a second--but they can be self-sustaining after a while. In trying to get out of the slump, a player could change his entire approach, and end up making things worse. Some of the Yankees are in the first stage of that, some of them (like A-Rod, though he might slowly be breaking out of it), are in the second stage. Eventually, they'll hit. Eventually, for a few games at least, they'll all hit at once, and ruin some pitcher's ERA. But for now, they're in a slump.

There's not much that can be done about it. It's frustrating. It's angrifying. It's chall-inducing. But you can't blame Joe Torre for it (though he's doing plenty lately to garner criticism), and you can't blame Don Mattingly for it, either. Though if it goes on long enough, and it's clear that Mattingly is the problem, then you can't be afraid to fire him--that 23 is on the wall because of what he did as a player, not a coach (I think Donnie's been okay so far, though he was my favorite ballplayer as a kid, so I'm biased).

But man, it's tough to wait through. And when they're not hitting, they need to pitch well. And last night... well, they didn't pitch well.

I have a criticism about what Torre did last night over this. Bill James wrote earlier in the NHBA about relief pitching, and recommended a different usage of ace relievers. What James discovered is that of all the ways to use your best reliever, saving him for a ninth-inning lead was the least valuable. The most valuable way to use a relief pitcher was to bring him in when the game was tied in the late innings, or really any situation where the game was likely to be decided. Lesser relievers are capable of getting 3 outs without giving up a run, let alone 3 runs.

When the Red Sox hired Bill James last year, and let Ugueth Urbina leave as a free agent, a lot of statheads (including myself) thought that the Red Sox were going to apply this theory. In fact, they couldn't apply this theory, since they didn't have a real "ace reliever", though they had some talent out there. What they were doing was declining to pay a good but not great reliever far more than he was worth because he had saved a lot of games. When they signed Keith Foulke this past offseason, it wasn't an admission that they needed a closer, but rather an acknowledgement that Keith Foulke was a great reliever. They're not using him optimally (though they're using him in just about every other way, he's already thrown 200 innings), but I've digressed.

The whole point is that you should use your best relievers at the most important points of the game, whenever that may be.

So, when the Yankees pulled Jose Contreras in the top of the 4th with two runners on and Boston leading 3-0, who did they bring in? Donovan Osborne--who if not for the presence of Alex Graman and Scott Proctor, would be the last man in the bullpen. Osborne promptly gave up a three-run home run to Bill Mueller, and while it wasn't exactly game over, it was pretty close.

I'm not advocating bring out Mo Rivera then. But in that situation, it might have been the smart move to bring in Tom Gordon or Paul Quantrill--or even Gabe White--and try to get out of the inning without giving up any more runs, and keep the Yankees in the game. Osborne didn't pitch that poorly, but in that situation, a base hit would be a heavy blow, and an extra base hit would be a knockdown. If the Yankees wanted to win, they had to stop the Red Sox right then, and when Osborne came out of the bullpen, I felt like Joe Torre had given up on the game. After the homer, so did I. They weren't scoring 6 runs off of Lowe this time.

I'm not advocating keeping Gordon or Quantrill out there in a losing effort for three innings, mind you. If Torre had brought Osborne in for the 5th, I would accept that, but with two on and one out in the fourth, the Yankees needed to get out of the inning without any more runs. Osborne was far from the best option to do that.