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August 25, 2004

Lock The State
by Larry Mahnken

The only sure thing about luck is that it will change.

- Bret Harte

Clearly, the Yankees have yet to completely break out of their slump, but quite fortunately, they're playing a weaker team that's sliding much worse than they have. For the second night in a row, the Yankees won a hard-fought contest against the Indians, scoring the winning run in the top of the ninth inning.

Frustrating though it is, slumps happen. They're a fact of life, a product of random variation. Players and teams will go into slumps at completely unpredictable times, even in a simulation. And they'll come out of those slumps at completely random times.

Sometimes a slump is real, the result of an injury, or a mechanical flaw, or maybe a player getting exploited when opponents find a weakness in their game. But usually they're just a random fluctuation -- just like hot streaks. A slump can be self-sustaining, as a player starts to exacerbate the problem by adjusting their play to try and get out of their slide, but it isn't always.

There's an interesting thing happening this year to the defending MVP, Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod isn't having a bad year by normal standards, but it's one of the worst seasons of his career by his established standards. Some of his statistical decline can be explained by a change from a great hitters' park to a more pitcher-friendly one, but his road numbers are among his career worst, too (although better than the home ones).

Most bizzare is his sudden inability to hit in the clutch. With nobody on this year, A-Rod's put up this line:


Which is not substantially different from his career line of (pre-2004):


Especially considering his move to Yankee Stadium after playing in Arlington and the Kingdome for most of his career. But when runners get on...

Career: .316/.391/.598/.989
2004: .274/.362/.493/.855

That's a dropoff that can't be explained merely by a change of parks, but wait -- it gets worse:

Close and Late -
2004: .279/.366/.459/.825

Runners in Scoring Position -
2004: .205/.314/.375/.689

RISP/2 Outs -
2004: .132/.258/.321/.579

Oddly enough, when there's a runner only on first, A-Rod's line is .346/.417/.617/1.034 -- better than his regular numbers. I guess when A-Rod's up, runners on first should stay put, huh?

There could be real reasons for A-Rod's struggles in situations where hits are most valuable, though he has come through in a few crucial situations. It's clearly not because he's not "clutch" -- he's been plenty clutch in the past, and four months do not erase ten years. But he's clearly not coming through this year. Last night he had three hits, but in his most crucial at-bat of the game, with a runner on third and one out, he tapped out to shortstop, failing to score the run.

We can expect A-Rod to do better than this next year, and we should expect him to do better this year, but Rodriguez might allow these problems to be self-sustaining, and continue to struggle.

Where A-Rod failed, Godzilla came trough, ripping the game-winner into center. Rivera came in to get his 42nd save, just 8 short of his career high (as well as the answer), and Tom Gordon got another win, in another game where he didn't pitch that great. Javier Vazquez had one bad inning in the third, but finished strong and kept the Indians at four runs through seven innings, giving the Yankees the opportunity to come back, and ultimately win.

The Yanks go for the sweep today, starting El Duque. They've won every game he's started this season, so that's a good omen. What they're really hoping for is that the lineup can break out and put up some runs -- though Jake Westbrook has pitched pretty darn good this year, so it won't be easy. A sweep would feel good after the lackluster week they just finished, but breaking out of their slump for real would be much more comforting.

Boston won yesterday, because the Blue Jays couldn't score a run with the bases loaded and nobody out. The Yanks still lead by 6½ games... WHICH IS A BIG LEAD, PEOPLE!!!

Seriously, there's concern, and then there's just plain stupidity. CBS Sportsline's latest Power Rankings rates the Yankees ninth in MLB, down from second a week ago. The Yankees currently have the second-best record in baseball, the third best team is five games behind them.

But what's more foolish is that the Boston Red Sox, 5½ games back at the start of the week, are rated sixth. Yes, they're closer than they were a week ago, but they still have a long way to go to catch the Yankees, let alone make a claim to being clearly better than them!

Friends, one week does not a season make. One week does not negate four months. A slump does not reveal the true face of a team, any more than a hot streak does. It's something that happens, it's something that goes away, it's something that will happen again.

Are the Yankees the best team in baseball? Maybe, though they haven't played like it for anything more than short spurts. Are there teams better than them? There probably are, though maybe not many. But are there eight teams better than the Yankees? I find that highly unlikely.

Clearly, the creator of this power ranking is being heavily influenced by the last week -- SG suggests it's just a report on how they've played lately. Well, I can't buy that latter explanation -- how could the Yankees be rated ninth and the Indians rated 14th then? Surely more than eight teams have played better than the Yankees in the past week. Wouldn't they kind of had to? And besides, couldn't you just look at the last ten games record on the sports page and see the same thing?

No, the author has to believe that the last week offers some underlying truth about these teams that was hidden for all this time. One week makes the Yankees worse than the Red Sox, Cardinals, Braves, A's, Angels, Dodgers, Rangers and Twins. How silly for us to think the standings mattered.