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November 19, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

For the most part, a team's sucesses and failures have to be pinned on its players. It's the performance of the players that determines the outcome of a game, and there's little that managers and coaches can do that has a major impact on those performances. There are definite positive and negative effects to the decisions coaches make, but they are, in my opinion, much less significant that we would generally believe, and I would further go to say that they're less important than the random fluctuation of performances. For this reason, I believe that it's far more important for a manager to be a leader of men than a great strategist, and the best strategy a manager can often employ is to stay out of the way of what's happening on the field.

The Yankees lost the pennant in the manner they did because they failed to perform in the final four games of the ALCS. The tactical decisions that were made by Joe Torre have been criticized by me, and I am strongly inclined to believe that, had those decisions not been made, the Yankees would have won the pennant, and probably the World Series. But that is little more than a belief, and they may well still have lost. More importantly, they had several opportunities to win in spite of Torre's decisions, and their failure to do so was not the fault of Torre, Stottlemyre, Mattingly or anyone else except the players who failed to perform when it counted.

However, it is absolutely stunning to me that after the most humiliating defeat in the team's history, and the greatest postseason collapse in the history of the game, the only coach to be shown the door was bullpen coach Rich Monteleone. Perhaps Torre's penalty is the shattering of the near-blind faith that's been placed in him for winning four titles and six pennant, and he'll be given almost no leeway in 2005, but it still seems like someone's getting let off easily.

The first good news to come this offseason was the apparent retirement of Mel Stottlemyre, but soon enough that story turned around as he came back for one more season. I and many others around here have placed a large amount of blame on Stottlemyre for the ultimate failure of the Yankees this season, some of it fairly and some of it unfairly.

While, again, I believe that ultimate responsibility must rest with a player for his failures, much blame can be placed at the feet of specific coaches for specific reasons, and while laissez faire attitudes are often the best ones for coaches, they are not always the best ones. Sometimes, you have to do something, and usually doing the wrong thing is going to hurt more than doing the right thing will help.

And this is my problem with Stottlemyre. During his tenure the Yankees have sent some of the best pitching staffs in baseball to the mound. Steven Goldman wrote this week:
The good performances of the pitchers on his watch are evidence of his abilities of a pitching coach. If Stottlemyre is going to be penalized for every pitcher that fails to live up to expectations, realistic or not, he should be credited for every pitcher that succeeds in performing as advertised or better. Clearly Yankees staffs have, on the whole, lived up to expectations.
I cannot agree with this assessment. You cannot judge a coach simply on how his team performs compared to expectations, because how they do in that comparison is not entirely the result of a coach's actions. This is the case with Dusty Baker, who was given entirely too much credit, in my opinion, for the success of the Giants and Cubs. The arrival of Baker in San Francisco coincided exactly with the arrival of Barry Bonds that season, 1993. That the Giants improved markedly is more likely the result of Bonds' arrival than Baker's, and the improvement of the Cubs last season is more likely the result of the team's improved health and the maturing of their starting rotation than Baker's hiring.

And so it is with Stottlemyre. He's been blessed with David Cone, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Orlando Hernandez, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina, as well as Rivera, Wettleland and other great relievers. The talent of the pitching staff is the most likely reason for the success of the pitching staff, not Mel. The failure of the pitching staff this year is largely the result of injuries and aging, but that wasn't the only reason.

Jon Lieber was a tremendous asset for the Yankees in the second half and in October, but he struggled early on in the season. The turnaround came when he, on his own, found a flaw in the mechanics of his throwing motion, and corrected it himself. If there was ever a job for a pitching coach, this was it, but instead it was the player himself who found and corrected the problem. This could be excusable, but Lieber was not the only pitchers struggling mechanically.

Jose Contreras, blessed with spectacular stuff, was unable to find any consistency with the Yankees, partially due to mental barriers, but also due to inconsistent mechanics. A trade to Chicago had early positive results, but ultimately ended without much success for the White Sox. Perhaps El Titan de Bombs is unfixable, but if he isn't, the failure to fix him is a failure of Stottlemyre's.

More importantly was the failure of Javier Vazquez. In the first half Vazquez was as good a starter as the Yankees had, and while his strikeout rates were down and home run rates were up, he was going okay. Then the bad mechanics that have plagued him in Montreal came to haunt him in New York. He became frightfully inconsistent and became unable to put batters away, and by the ALCS he was the Jeff Weaver of 2004. Vazquez's mechanics are not a new problem, but it became noticeably worse as the season progressed, and Stottlemyre was unable to do anything.

Perhaps there was nothing he, or anyone else could have done -- in the end it comes down to Vazquez being able to fix the problem with the aid of the pitching coach. But it is clear that, at least in the case of Lieber, he was not providing sufficient aid to help his pitcher, and there were no apparent reprecussions for it. There's no reason to believe that if he had failed Lieber he wasn't failing other pitchers, and there's no reason to believe that he won't continue to fail them.

How much impact could a new pitching coach have on the Yankees? I don't know, but Stottlemyre does not seem to be having much of a positive one anymore, if he ever did. Loyalty is a nice thing, but eventually, in this game, you have to let your friends and allies go when they become liabilities. The Yankees made a mistake in bringing Mel back for one more year.

The Yankees' pitching did not cost them the ALCS, but losing in that manner was a convenient excuse to remove Stottlemyre and bring in someone new. It's another lost opportunity, one they may suffer for missing. I certainly hope that they don't, but it's not the most encouraging start to the offseason.