It’s fitting that after all of the consternation about starting pitching, the offense was ultimately the Yankees’ undoing in Game 5 of the ALDS against Detroit (“You can’t predict baseball, Suzyn! You just can’t!”). The Yanks, the team that posted the best run differential in baseball since 2007, bowed out in the first round for the fourth time in their last six playoff appearances. A-Rod struck out to end another season, setting off the first unwelcomed October celebration at the new stadium.
I’ve often contended that, despite its relative simplicity, no sport is misunderstood by the masses more than baseball. It has the largest sample size, requires the most patience and usually isn’t a good fit for the 24-hour world of instantaneous analysis that we inhabit. Some stuff is generally hard to explain: late-season collapses, quality pitches that become bloopers, Enrique Wilson’s success against Pedro Martinez, random dominance by subpar pitchers, etc. Therefore, I’ve always been wary of drawing definitive conclusions when boiling 162 games down to five in October. However, that’s part of the blessing/curse of being a Yankee fan: portions of the regular season can feel like exhibition games when the playoffs have become akin to manifest destiny.
Confession: at no point during this season did I feel confident that the Yankees were going to win the World Series. Even as they claimed the AL East crown over the greatest professional team ever assembled, clinched homefield advantage and made preparations for the playoffs, it never seemed like the starting pitching was where it needed to be. While the 2006 Cardinals forever changed the way that I view October baseball, and the lineup and bullpen were definitely ring-worthy, it was mostly uncertainty beyond CC. Amazingly, even more questions surrounded the Yanks’ rotation than last postseason.
Statistically-speaking, the rotation was better than it was in 2009. Sure, Colon and Garcia tailed off to varying degrees down the stretch, but four pitchers with an ERA+ over 110 in the AL East isn’t something that can be dismissed. You could also make a case that the lineup and bullpen were better than their previous championship squad, but like many of the post-2003 Bombers, the composition of the pitching staff seemed better suited for 162 games than a short postseason series.
As a whole, there are much better metrics for measuring pitchers than quality starts. After all, the minimum (six innings, three earned runs) is equivalent to what is usually a league-average ERA. However, it’s telling when it comes to the Yankees’ recent postseasons:
1995: 0 quality starts in 5 games
1996: 5 quality starts in 15 games (Cone - 2, Pettitte - 2, Key - 1)
1997: 1 quality start in 5 games (Wells)
1998: 9 quality starts in 13 games (Wells - 3, Pettitte - 2, Cone - 2, Hernandez - 2)
1999: 10 quality starts in 12 games (Hernandez - 4, Pettitte - 2, Clemens - 2, Cone - 2)
2000: 8 quality starts in 16 games (Pettitte - 4, Hernandez - 2, Clemens - 2)
2001: 9 quality starts in 17 games (Pettitte - 3, Mussina - 3, Clemens - 2, Hernandez - 1)
2002: 0 quality starts in 4 games
2003: 13 quality starts in 17 games (Pettitte - 4, Mussina - 3, Clemens - 3, Wells - 3)
2004: 5 quality starts in 11 games (Mussina - 2, Lieber - 2, Brown - 1)
2005: 2 quality starts in 5 games (Wang - 1, Chacon - 1)
2006: 1 quality start in 4 games (Wang)
2007: 1 quality start in 4 games (Pettitte)
2009: 11 quality starts in 15 games (Sabathia - 5, Burnett - 3, Pettitte - 3)
2010: 5 quality starts in 9 games (Sabathia - 2, Pettitte - 2, Hughes - 1)
2011: 1 quality start in 5 games (Sabathia/Nova)*
(*It’s technically zero, but CC and Nova combined for a quality start in Game 1)
‘Team fares better when it has good pitching’ isn’t exactly a revolutionary notion, but it illustrates the point: aside from 2009, the Yanks have mostly failed to replicate the starts that they received from ‘96-‘03 (as an aside, I know I’m in the minority, but that’s how I define the most recent ‘dynasty’). During that eight-postseason stretch, quality starts translated to a 46-9 record for Torre’s teams (and five of those nine losses occurred in ‘03). The retirement of Pettitte, one of the most reliable clutch pitchers in team history who accounted for five quality starts over the last two Octobers, only heightened the uncertainty. In fact, the following Yankees have tabulated the most quality starts in the playoffs since 2004:
Sabathia - 7.5
Pettitte - 6
Burnett - 3
Mussina - 2
Wang - 2
Brown - 1
Chacon - 1
Hughes - 1
Nova - .5
Not exactly a list that inspired confidence (aside from the top two). In terms of changes for 2012, Posada’s $13.1 million will come off of the books. Assuming this really is the end of the line for him, then he went out in a blaze of glory based upon the WPA for this series:
I think Posada is the most underappreciated Yankee of my lifetime. While A-Rod is obviously deserving of criticism for another disappointing postseason performance, it is (predictably) not being applied proportionally. Though, banged up or not, WPA indicates that this was the second-worst postseason of his Yankee career:
2009: 1.664 (ALDS: .809, ALCS: .525, WS: .330)
2004: 1.268 (ALDS: 1.199, ALCS: .069)
2010: -.120 (ALDS: -.093, ALCS: -.027)
More than half of his postseason plate appearances as a Yankee have occurred in 2004 and 2009, so there is a bit of dramatization to the discussion of A-Rod’s October futility, but no one can deny that it was another underwhelming output. As for Swisher, he has now had an even 100 playoff PAs in pinstripes:
Yikes. Despite that, I would be surprised if the team doesn’t pick his option up (and if Cashman isn’t the one who is making those decisions). Expect for Sabathia to opt out, but re-up and remain in the Bronx. Will Sterling and Waldman return? That is the most pressing question on all of our minds.
For the most part, the lineup should look the same. It is obvious that the organization doesn’t trust Montero behind the plate, so look for Martin to be brought back. Unless he’s dealt for a pitcher (which I really hope doesn’t happen aside from a few exceptions), Jesus will probably share time at DH with A-Rod, Jeter and other veterans who need half-days off.
But what about the rotation? It would be nice to find a true two (or 1A) this offseason. With all of the pitching depth in the system, imagine if Nova was being relied upon as a three in 2012. Also, despite a lost season, I maintain hope that Hughes’ right arm will come back to life someday. Plus, Joba can be plugged into the rotation once he recovers from Tommy John surgery (please tip your waiters).
Assuming that CC returns, Girardi currently has Sabathia, Burnett, Hughes, Nova and Noesi under contract in 2012. It’s doubtful that Banuelos, Betances or Brackman will get a serious look after Spring Training, and while Cashman might be able to find more reclamation success stories like Colon and Garcia on the scrap heap, is there anyone who will be able to separate and elevate in September and October?
Girardi’s over-managing can be frustrating, but he seems to handle New York and players’ personalities well. Plus, he is adept at not burning his bullpen out over the course of a regular season. Though he received some criticism for pulling Nova after two innings in Game 5 (especially before the injury was known), seven frames of mixing and matching only resulted in one run. I had a problem with some of his decisions in Game 2, particularly pinch-hitting for Gardner with Chavez and letting Ayala pitch the ninth. Every playoff game should be treated as a must-win. It’s easy to judge choices of this nature in hindsight, but neither move made much sense to me at the time.
When you look at the big picture, the Yanks are in much better position as an organization than they were following many of their recent early exits (I’d contend that the worst time was when A-Rod opted out of his deal on the night when the Red Sox won the World Series in ‘07). While there are undoubtedly some bad contracts on the payroll, the Yankees are able to absorb signings that would cripple other franchises. Who knows what to expect from Burnett or Soriano moving forward. While Jeter was able to rebound and have an impressive 2011 campaign (.297/.355/.388), he struggled to make much of an impact against righties (.277/.329/.338). I’d still like to see him at or near the top of the lineup against lefties (.349/.423/.523), but it’s hard to make a case for him to continue on as the automatic leadoff hitter (which was the case in 96 of his 131 starts). The idea that A-Rod’s contract is an albatross shouldn’t be anything new, but more time at DH will keep him fresh and prevent undue breaking down.
Regardless, it will be an interesting offseason. It always is when Yankeeland falls short.