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June 14, 2005

Tramp the Dirt Down
by Larry Mahnken

Well I hope I don't die too soon
I pray the Lord my soul to save
Yes I'll be a good boy
I'm trying so hard to behave
Because there's one thing I know
I'd like to live long enough to savor

That's when they finally
put you in the ground
I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.

- Elvis Costello

If there was a point in this season where it would be reasonable to lose hope in the Yankees making something of this season, it would have been Sunday afternoon, as Scott Seabol's home run flew over the left-field wall in Busch Stadium. With a losing record in mid-June, the end of the great Yankees run seems more in danger of ending than it ever has, and the "haters" are already releasing a torrent of schadenfraude only to be surpassed by what's to come on the day the Yankees are eliminated from contention.

Now, the Cards have the second-best record in baseball, they had the best in all of baseball last season and won the National League pennant. It's not shameful to lose a series to a team like that, it's the context that matters, and it's the context that makes things look bleak in New York.

The Yankees have played 21 series so far this season, winning 8 and losing 13. But of those 8 series wins, 6 have come against teams currently with losing records, leaving them 2-8 in series against team with winning records (10-17 overall). The two wins were the opening series against Boston, where they nearly blew the second win after Rivera gave up a homer to Jason Varitek in the ninth, and the series against the Mets, who are 1 game over .500 and in last place in the NL East.

Again, not a disaster in and of itself, you don't expect to beat up on the good teams, you try to play them even and beat up on the bad teams. Unfortunatley, against teams below .500, the Yankees are only 5-4 in series, and 17-13 overall. That's not "beating up" on anyone.

The Yankees are in trouble. Big trouble. Big, big, big trouble. Not only are they not winning against good teams, they're not winning against bad teams, and they're sometimes getting humiliated by really bad teams. They're just 6½ games back (for both the division and Wild Card), so they're not even remotely close to being out of it right now, but there are not positive signs.

Alex Rodriguez is playing like the MVP, Gary Sheffield is having a good year (though he's currently in a bad slump), Mike Mussina appears to have returned to effectiveness and rookies Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang have been reasonably impressive, but the good news ends there. Randy Johnson has been good, not great, and hardly dominant. Carl Pavano has been excellent on the road and miserable at home. Kevin Brown seemed to be back on track in May, but has been mediocre in his past couple of starts, and hurt his shoulder. The bullpen, once again, is down to three effective relievers, but at least this season they're not getting overworked, since there's generally few opportunities for the bullpen to finish off a win.

Jason Giambi has 3 extra-base hits in his last 102 ABs, and only 22 hits. Hideki Matsui's lineup spot has him on a pace for 100+ RBI again, but he's having his worst season as a pro, and it's not even a "Groundzilla" effect, he's just not hitting. Tino Martinez was the team MVP for a couple of weeks, but he's had a .302 OPS in June. Jorge Posada's having a decent year, but has done nothing with runners on any base other than first. Bernie Williams has lost every ounce of value, yet still finds himself in center on an all-too regular basis. Tony Womack is unhappy to find himself in left field, and it seems that the only people who don't realize that he's not helping out there are the Yankees, and perhaps some of their most myopic fans.

Things could turn around. There are guys who should hit better, guys who should pitch better, and guys who simply can do better. But it's not just the who, it's the when. The team seems to be in too much of a "homer or walk" mode -- they're 5th in the Majors in homers and 3rd in walks, while only 20th in doubles and 13th in total hits.

Am I saying walks and homers are bad? No, but walks and homers shouldn't be the entirety of an offense. The Yanks are 3rd in MLB in OBP, but without getting singles and doubles to drive those runners home, the Yankees are only 12th in SLG, and constantly waiting for the big inning. The problem is, while a big inning is always nice, and it always helps you win, sometimes you don't need a big inning. Sometimes you need one run, or two. By waiting for the big inning, the Yankees have averaged 7.56 runs in their 30 wins, and just 2.78 runs in their 32 losses.

Of course the solution to this is not to bunt and try make productive outs. The solution is to try and get hits, rather than hit homers or draw walks. The Yankees let too many good pitches go by trying to get a walk, and swing too hard at too many pitches trying to get a homer. Instead, they should take bad pitches and try to hit good pitches for singles or doubles, and the homers and walks will come when they get enough bad pitches and make good contact on good pitches.

That's how you hit. That's what sabermetrics preaches. That's not what the Yankees are doing, and if you watch them, you'll see that.

Of course, even if the Yankees were evening out their run production, they'd still be a .500 team, they need to score runs and prevent them more effectively than they have, and it's questionable whether they'll be able to do that.

They'd better start soon.