Blech!

The dust is starting to settle on the Yankees’ early exit from the 2006 postseason.  Billions of words have been/are being/will be written on this topic, and for once it seems justified.  The Yankees failure in the ALDS is a topic absolutely ripe for dissection and analysis.  Herein I will add my own comments to the discussion.

The Yankees performance in the 2006 playoffs was a top-to-bottom, organization-wide failure.  True, they Yanks won 97 games and handily took first place in the AL East; better, they dominated and buried the Red Sox with a 5-game sweep back in August.  Jeter had an MVP year, Wang pitched like an ace, Melky made a nice contribution, and Cano’s star ascended.  But all those things, while entertaining and better than the alternative, are pretty hollow when the team is dominated in the first round of the playoffs.  The main problem throughout the season, which manifested itself in the playoffs, was starting pitching.  A team with a $200 million payroll could not put together a pitching rotation that could win consistently in the regular season, a problem only exacerbated in the postseason as better hitting teams become the opponents.  You need only look across the diamond at Detroit, whose young fireballers (Verlander, Bonderman, Zumaya) showed their club’s ability to draft & develop young pitching to see the contrast.  The Yankees have tried to buy pitching, at an exorbitant premium (Wright, Pavano) over the last several years, and it hasn’t worked.  They have paid for the downside of pitchers’ careers, rather than the upside and prime.  So you wind up with a bunch of creaky older guys who you can’t count on to start, let alone finish games, and that in turn puts more pressure on the bullpen.  Which forces you to go buy middle relief at exorbitant prices (Farnsworth?), and when you find a reliable arm out there (Mendoza, Sturtze, Proctor) you use it until it falls off.  Over the past several years, the front-office (not Brian Cashman individually, but the full braintrust), has failed the team and the fans by chasing quick-fix solutions that didn’t really exist, with a cascading effect.

They have done a better job assembling a lineup, though the clock is ticking there too.  Sheffield, for example, has delivered over the past few years despite being past his prime age-wise.  But now he is a 38-year-old man without a position recovering from a broken wrist, when his wrists are his livelihood.  Jason Giambi had a productive season, but is also breaking down before our eyes, and his contract will remain on the books going forward as well.  Hideki Matsui is a good player but also past his prime, and watching him play the outfield reminds one less of Joe DiMaggio and more of a dog playing fetch.  Johnny Damon had a nice season, but if you look closely at his numbers you see that without his career-high in homers he was really pretty average out there, and he too is banged up and on the downside of his career.  Posada and Jeter, once part of the Yankees strength up the middle (including Bernie as well) are a year older, and the shelf life of a catcher leads you to believe that Jorge could fall apart any year now.  Cano is a good, young player who is coming into his prime – this is the type of player the Yankees should be investing in long-term, but they don’t have many of these in the pipeline.  You could argue that Melky Cabrera is another, though he won’t crack the starting lineup next year without major changes and probably he’s more of a fourth outfielder in the long run.

Then there’s A-Rod.  I believe I’ve defended him in this space before, and I know I’ve defended him in conversation.  To me the question always comes down to, how would you replace him?  He’s a .950-1.000 OPS guy at 3rd base – not many of those to go around.  But this IS the Yankees, and at this point Alex is more of a distraction than he’s worth.  For everyone’s mental well-being, it’s time for him to go, even if you have to suffer an enormous hole in the lineup.  He absolutely disappeared in the series, seeming mentally beaten before the games even began.

Which brings us to Mr. Joe Torre, for whom I have the utmost respect but who had a miserable playoff series as a manager.  From moving ARod down in the lineup for game 1, which instead of taking pressure off ARod actually had the reverse effect, to lifting him to 4th for game 2 and dropping him to 8th in game 3; to starting Sheffield at first base; to starting Bernie in game 3; to his complete mismanagement of the pitching staff (pulling Wang too early and Mussina too late; pitching Johnson in game 3, not using Wang in game 4); for these sins Torre is to blame.

Are these enough to cost him his job, as is being reported lately?  Well…this isn’t the first postseason where Torre has made some questionable to horrible moves in the playoffs (remember Jeff Weaver pitching in Game 6 a few years back?), and it’s now been 6 straight years the Yankees have made the playoffs and failed to win the World Series.  There comes a point where there is more to be gained from making a break (see Rodriguez, Alex) than enduring the ongoing psychodrama going forward.  This actually might be the time to bring in the opposite personality, the Billy Martin to Torre’s Bob Lemon – for example, Mr. Lou Piniella.  This Yankee team does seem to have lost its fire and its disdain for losing, and an injection of Piniella or another more fiery personality could be the ticket to coax this aging group of veterans to the promised land one more time.

But the reality is, this team IS an aging group of veterans.  Expensive ones at that.  Brian Cashman and company have a LONG winter ahead, and probably a long couple of years, working to rebuild the franchise and bring it back to where it was.  Because right now, it looks like a poorly constructed conglomeration of past-its-prime talent, from the players to the manager.  What the Yankees need to do going forward is change the mission statement; winning the World Series cannot be the focus next year.  Rather the focus should be rebuilding the talent pipeline, starting with Philip Hughes, the only top pitcher in their organization.  His development into a major league starter at the right point in time should be the priority, not "winning now".  Because the "win now" mentality has given us 6 years of postseason failure, none more egregious than that experienced this year.

Postseason Day 3

So the first 2 games of all 4 division series have been played, and 3 of the series are at 2-0.  Boy, my pre-series predictions are looking pretty bad right now.  BOTH Oakland and St. Louis won the first two games, ON THE ROAD no less, and I had both not advancing to the LCS.  Both teams still need to win that third game, but both should be heavily favored at this point.  I did pick the Mets to beat LA, though perhaps not so handily.  Maybe the Dodgers can scrap back and win the 2 in LA to get the series back to NY, but I don’t think that will happen.

And then there’s the Yankees-Tigers series.  This is the one that people figured was ripe for a sweep, and as I actually attended game 2 at the stadium yesterday, I can say that the Yankees let one get away.   Worse, it’s now a best of 3 series and Detroit has homefield advantage.  If the other series finish as they started and Detroit prevails here, I’ll be 1-for-4 on my picks.  Not good.

Some observations on the Tigers game 2 win:

  • Yankee Stadium was dead.  The crowd, which due to the rainout was now sitting in the hot sun and was composed of a lot of corporate types who lucked into tickets, was quiet and not into the game.  The game just didn’t have a playoff atmosphere, probably because Yankee playoff games – owing to TV – are always at night.
  • It did not help matters that Derek Jeter made a careless error in the top of the first, which let the air out of the "MVP" and "De-rek Je-ter" chants early on.  Nor did it help that the likely league MVP, a .340-plus hitter this year coming off a 5-for-5 game 1, bunted in the bottom of the first.  And THAT error (hey, he should be hacking up there – Verlander is throwing 100 MPH and it’s the first inning for pete’s sake) was compounded by popping up the bunt for an out.  That series of events definitely let the air out of the crowd.
  • There’s clearly something wrong with A-Rod.  And I don’t mean a physical problem.  In the first inning, the Yanks had 2 runners on with Giambi at the plate.  With the count at 2-1, I told the guy sitting next to me that Giambi would walk to bring up A-Rod with the bases loaded, and he’d either strike out or pop-up.  When Giambi did walk and A-Rod did come up, I turned again and said that this was a potential defining moment for A-Rod – if he gets a big hit here, it takes a lot of the pressure off going forward.  Well, he struck out.  Now, Verlander threw 2 100 MPH fastballs, then a nasty 86 MPH breaking ball to freeze A-Rod on strike 3.  Give Verlander his props, it was a great sequence and well-executed.  But still, A-Rod should be able to get the ball in play against most anyone.  As the game progressed and A-Rod continued to do nothing, the sense of hopelessness in his at-bats was palpable in the stadium.  Which is a shame, because you could also feel that the fans are DYING to love this guy.  If he ever does get a couple of big hits, he’ll be loved like anyone else.  But for now, he keeps striking out with runners on base, leading to wasted opportunities.
  • And those wasted opportunities proved to be crucial, as Mike Mussina, who has been a very good pitcher for a very long time, proved that he simply cannot put hitters away anymore.  I don’t have the numbers, but it seemed that every time he got a 2-strike count on someone, the batter was able to stay alive, fouling off pitches and laying off junk, until finally Mussina brought a hittable fastball.  It was obvious to me that, despite a relatively low pitch count, Mussina couldn’t be counted on to pitch more than 6.  THIS was the game where Torre should have pulled his starter in the 6th and brought in a fresh, live arm.  Once again, Torre did a less-than-great job managing the pitching, and this time it cost them.
  • The Yankees don’t have anything – in fact, in my lifetime have NEVER had anything – like Verlander and Zumaya.  Both pitchers brought it at 100 MPH, with Zumaya hitting 102 (102!) on the gun a few times.  With heat like that, and the ability to control it, and with the ability to change speeds as well (Verlander had an 86 MPH changeup – that’s faster than Pedro’s fastball) that is some serious talent.  Of course, you can go ahead and pre-schedule Zumaya’s Tommy John surgery for June 2007.  But for now, it was just devastating – the Yankees "Murderer’s Row and Cano" lineup couldn’t do anything with Zumaya and really only had 1 big hit (Damon’s homer) off Verlander.  Hats off to those guys, they pitched great.

Postseason Day 2

A few brief comments on day 2…

  • My pre-series picks are looking great right now, huh?  I picked Minnesota over San Diego in the World Series and neither team has won a game yet.  Minnesota is in particularly dire straits, having lost the first 2 games at home including game 1 with Santana on the mound.  Not impossible they’ll come back, but their momentum has certainly been thwarted. 
  • Glad to see the Dodgers run themselves into a double play at the plate last night – finally a dumber play than (I believe) Bobby Meacham and Dale Berra getting tagged out at the plate by Carlton Fisk back in (I believe, again) 1985.  At least that was a regular-season game.
  • Tough break on the weather in NY last night.  In retrospect they should have just moved the game to today in the first place – even before the fans arrived for the game, but certainly after the initial delay.  Too bad there’s a national blackout in place – you won’t be able to see the game on MLB.com today.  However, there’s still Gameday – I think that application will be doing overtime today, driving the Systems folks who sit all around me batty.  Should be an interesting afternoon.

Maybe more comments during/after today’s games…

Postseason Day 1 – quick comments

Some quick disjointed thoughts after day 1 of the 2006 Division Series (plural):

  • You have to check out the new "Enhanced Mode" in MLB.com Gameday.  It’s only available for the games in San Diego right now because it requires special cameras and equipment in the stadium to capture the information that is displayed – but it’s worth the view.  It shows the speed and trajectory of every pitch graphically – very cool stuff.  Click the little diamond icon in the scoreboard to launch the Gameday window, and select Enahanced View to see it (you can toggle back to the "Classic" view for runners on base, boxscore, etc).  Also feel free to provide feedback to the development team here at MLB.com by posting comments on the Gameday blog at gameday.mlblogs.com.
  • I expected Peavy and the Padres to beat the Cardinals, but Carpenter had great stuff and then there’s Albert Pujols, who is just a one-man wrecking crew.  He’s on the short list (with Manny Ramirez and Frank Thomas – see below) of the best right-handed hitters of the past 20 years and the slightly longer list of all-timers.  I still think the Padres can win, because St. Louis has little pitching left, but being up 1-0 beats the alternative any day.
  • I don’t think anyone expected Santana to lose game 1 at the Metrodome.  Kudos to Frank Thomas, who is having a resurgent year and has continued to kill the ball in the postseason (2 homers).  I picked Minnesota, but right now Oakland should be heavily favored to make the ALCS.
  • And now we know why Derek Jeter is Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez is not.  Yes, A-Rod hit some balls hard last night, and his overall stats for the season were decent.  But the Yanks took control of the series behind the pitching of Chien-Ming Wang and the dominant, 5-for-5 with a sweet double play for good measure performance by the Captain.  This is clearly Jeter’s time of year, and while you can’t expect additional games like this one, your 2006 AL MVP should help propel the Yanks to the ALCS.
  • One more thing on the Yankee game, which I stayed up to watch until past 11:30pm ET.  Joe Torre completely over-managed the pitching in this one.  He outsmarted himself by pulling Wang after 6.2 and only 93 pitches to get a lefty/lefty matchup.  This is not a second guess, as I thought it was a bad move before Myers gave up the homer.  The Yankees bullpen is not good, and needs to be used sparingly particularly when you have a starter in control of the game with a lead.  At that point it was 7-3, and the worst thing that could have happened was for Wang to give up a homer.  So now the lead is cut to 3 – big deal.  Instead, Torre used Myers and then had to burn Proctor as well.  A chain reaction ensued, with Farnsworth pitching the 8th and Mariano Rivera unnecessarily pitching the 9th.  The move at the point of decision was to leave in Wang, see if he could get you through 8, aiming to use Rivera in the 9th only if the game is close.  In this case, Torre could have potentially had Wang go 8 then used Farnsworth in the 9th (with the then 4-run lead) and saved Proctor & Rivera for a closer game.  This was a big mistake on Torre’s part that could come back to hurt later in the series.

Preseason to the Postseason

Today the Division Series (plural) begin.  We now know who the playoff teams are and what the matchups are.  The Yankees will have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, owing to their AL-best record and the AL’s annual win in the All-Star game.  They get Detroit, who managed to fall out of the AL Central lead on the last day of the season but landed in the fluffy pillow known as the wild card.  Minnesota, winner of the Central on the last day of the season, gets Oakland at home.

In the NL, St. Louis managed to avoid an historic collapse, finishing 1 1/2 games in front of Houston, who almost ran the table to win the Central.  The Cardinals will play San Diego, winners of the NL West by tiebreaker vs. LA, while the wildcard Dodgers travel to New York to play the Mets, who stomped all over the league en route to the NL East crown.

One brief glance in the rearview mirror:  in my post of 8/15, I put down the following handicapping of the AL playoff contenders:

    1. Detroit (almost guaranteed to make it due to their sizable lead)
    2. Yanks (looking like the favorite to win the East)
    3. Chicago (coming on strong lately, closing the gap on Detroit)
    4. Boston (looking shaky, especially in pitching, and Varitek is down)
    5. Minnesota (see above)

So there were indeed some surprises in the last 6 weeks of the season.  The Red Sox completely fell apart, actually falling behind Toronto and into third place in the AL East.  The White Sox won 90 games, but that was not nearly enough in the stacked Central.  And Minnesota went on what, without the wildcard, would be considered an historic run to take the Central crown from Detroit, who looked like prohibitive favorites all season. 

On 9/13, in deconstructing my preseason picks, I put down that the Dodgers looked like prohibitive favorites to win the NL West, and that didn’t exactly happen, though they (and San Diego, as predicted by the BP playoff odds report) did make the postseaston.  St. Louis came through and the Mets ran away with it, as expected since July.

So now looking forward, some brief predictions on the playoff outcomes, based on what we know now (e.g., teams in/matchups, Pedro/Unit status, etc.):

ALDS – Yankees over Tigers, Twins over A’s
The Yankee lineup is not only powerful but patient – when they get all the starters back into the lineup, the Detroit pitching will become frustrated and make mistakes.  And the Yankee pitching is enough to stifle Detroit’s impatient bats.  The Twins are the hottest team in the league right now and have the best pitcher in the game (Santana) going in 2 games of a 5-game set.

NLDS – Mets over Dodgers, Padres over Cardinals
The Cardinals aren’t a very strong team, and would be under .500 without Mr. Pujols, who will be neutralized via the walk in the playoffs.  San Diego’s pitching and cavernous ballpark should carry the day, while the Cardinals will be exhausted just from avoiding collapse.  The Mets are not as dominant as their record indicates, but without the Pedro distraction the other pitchers will step up, and behind their potent lineup they should prevail.

Championship Series – Twins over Yankees, Padres over Mets
I think the Yankees pitching is enough to get them through one series but not 3, and perhaps not two.  Minnesota behind Morneau and Mauer, not to mention Santana, are hot and will stay that way.  And to me, the Mets are very similar to the Yankees at this point – superb, multifaceted offense with depleted pitching, where San Diego carries the day, thus providing the MLB nightmare World Series matchup:

World Series – Twins over Padres
Despite historically low ratings, the Twins will prevail for their 3rd championship in the past 20 years and first in 15. 

Next post will be on postseason awards, but here’s a sneak preview:

  • AL Cy:  Santana
  • AL MVP:  Jeter
  • AL ROY:  Verlander
  • NL Cy:  Webb
  • NL MVP:  Pujols
  • NL ROY:  Don’t know yet 🙂

Night at the Races

So now the American League is settled, aside from home field advantage and matchups.  Both Minnesota (who clinched last night, congratulations) and Detroit will represent the AL Central, joining the A’s and Yankees.  The last bit of business is who will win the division, which is not insignificant as the wildcard team must face the Yankees.  According to reports, Minnesota would like to face the Yankees in the ALDS to take advantage of the short series.  The thinking goes that they can pitch Santana twice and then steal one of the other games to advance; winning a 7-game series would be more difficult.

My best guess is that the Yankees will handle Santana.  Over the last 10 years these Yankee teams seem to rise to the occasion against the best pitchers, then have trouble with rookies, unknowns and journeymen.  I personally think any team is better off not facing the Yankees until they have to – that lineup (see 2 posts ago) is awesome, and when focused in the playoffs will be devastating.  Minnesota might want to be more focused on home field advantage, which they could steal by winning out the rest of the season.  Their building (the atrocious Metrodome) is a big advantage from a crowd noise/support standpoint.  On top of that, they are one of the last teams to play their home games on turf, and the more games they play there, I believe, the greater their advantage.  Certainly a team like the Yankees, with their older/veteran players will have a harder time on the hard surface and it should give the Twins a bit of an advantage.

And in the National League, the races look like they’ll come down to the last day, though you wouldn’t believe it from the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds report.  Suddenly the Cardinals look vulnerable in the Central, as Houston is making a late charge for the division.  Still, according to BP the Astros have about a 3% shot of winning the division even after last night’s heroics, so while there is likely to be some panic in St. Louis, they almost certainly will wind up the division winner.

In the West, though, it’s a dogfight between LA and San Diego, and the loser isn’t guaranteed the wildcard as Philadelphia and the Dodgers are now tied for the wildcard league.  The Phillies are one of the great stories of 2006; in fact, they are about a half dozen of the best stories of 2006 – Rollins’ streak, Utley’s streak, the Abreu/Lidle trade, Ryan Howard, the wildcard, and there are probably others.  And Philly is the last team the Mets want to see win the wildcard, as they have the lefty pitching to stifle the Mets’ lineup, not to mention a distinct travel advantage over the west coast clubs.  As a baseball fan, I’m rooting for the Phillies to win the wildcard and challenge the Mets’ charge to the World Series, and it would be an amazing finish to see the Astros make yet another late season comeback and topple St. Louis.

In an upcoming post I’ll take on the MVP/CY Young award races (well, at least the NL Cy Young, as Santana has locked up the AL version).  As a preview, let’s just say I’m not as sold on Morneau or Jeter as everyone else seems to be…

One more thing (Kaat)…

I have neglected to mention my abject sorrow at the retirement of Jim Kaat from baseball broadcasting.  Kaat has been the top Yankees analyst on MSG and YES (as well as WPIX and WOR) for the past 10 years or so, coinciding with the latest Yankee dynasty.  Mr. Kaat is, without a doubt, the best baseball broadcaster I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.  His delivery is smooth, never forced or scripted, and most importantly INFORMATIVE.  I don’t mean informative in the sense of delivering raw information, like statistics.  Rather, "Kitty" (as he is known throughout baseball) helped you to understand how players and managers think, how they saw different situations and would likely react.  He had the uncanny ability to get into the player’s head – particularly if that player was a pitcher, like Kaat – and tell you both what the player was thinking and what he (Kaat) would do in the situation.  It was always a first-guess with Kaat, never a second-guess or "I told you so".

I have been a baseball fan for about 30 years, and maybe the strongest testament I can make to Jim Kaat’s broadcasting abilities is that I learned something new EVERY SINGLE TIME he did a game.  Really, that’s one of the beauties of baseball – there is always something new to see, another way to look at something, something else to learn.  For the past 10+ years it’s been Kitty doing the teaching, and I will miss him more than I care to think about.

Nevertheless, congratulations Mr. Kaat on a terrific career as a player and broadcaster, and enjoy your well-deserved retirement.  And by the way – hope to see you in the broadcaster’s wing in Cooperstown someday soon.