06 November 2003

With Apologies to Rob Schneider...


The Don-Man!

Donnie Baseball!



The Donnenator!

Don-Don, the Piper's Son!

The Last Don!


OK, that's getting annoying.

As you may have heard, Don Mattingly has been named the new hitting coach for the New York Yankees.

Donnie replaces Rick Down, who was such a failure that he only managed to help the 2003 Yankees to the third most runs scored in the AL, fourth in the major leagues (a slight decline after his pupils led all of MLB in 2002). He was so lousy that the Yankees outscored their opponent, 21-17 in the World Series, 30-29 in the ALCS and 16-6 in the ALDS (that’s 67-52 in 17 playoff games, if you’re scoring at home.)

The problem with Down was that the Yankees hitters picked the wrong time to let the Law of Averages catch up with them. Throughout the first two rounds of the postseason, the Yankees had gotten a run almost anytime they needed it. They managed to come back and prevent Pedro Martinez from beating them not once, but twice in four games against The Hated Boston Red Sox, and seemed to have little trouble with the Twins at all. They managed to beat the Twins and BoSawx despite hitting only .228 with runners in scoring position in the playoffs overall, because their opponents only hit .188 in that situation.

Throughout the year, the Yankees had used the Bill James/Billy Beane model, getting enough guys on base that it wouldn’t matter in the long run, if they “hit well in the clutch.” Brian Cashman and others in the organization apparently knew enough during the regular season to realize that “clutch hitters” don’t really exist, at least not in the sense of players who can predictably hit in the clutch. But Down was canned for this offense anyway, which is like firing the head of security on a cruise ship because the ship disappears in the Bermuda Triangle.

There’s a lot of research that says essentially that we don’t have any idea who’s going to hit well in a given situation in any particular year. For example, Larry Walker won the NL MVP award in 1997, leading the NL in On-base %, slugging % and home runs, and driving in 130 RBI while hitting .366. He then followed up that campaign with another stellar .363 season (the first of his three batting titles), but managed only 64 RBI. What happened? Did he suddenly start to “choke”? Did the pressure of following up an MVP season prevent him from remembering how to hit when it mattered most? Or did he just have a fluke season in which most of his hits didn't occur when there were guys on base? You can guess my answer. (Hint, the very next year, 1999, he hit .379 and had 115 RBI in fewer plate appearances than he'd had in 1998.)

So if there's no such thing as a clutch hitter, then the Yankees hitters can't really be blamed for choking, and more importantly, the Yankees hitting coach can't really be blamed for somehow not teaching them how to hit in the clutch. The problem with that is that it's much easier for me to say that, sitting here at a computer desk in Pennsylvania, than it would be if I were Rick Down...

KING GEORGE: Rick, you let us down. Boys didn't hit in the clutch! What do you have to say for yourself?!

RICK DOWN: (timidly) Well, Mr. Steinbrenner, you see...there's not really any such thing as a clutch hitter in the first place...

KG: NONSENSE! Tim McCarver and Joe Morgan talk about them on television all the time! Why don't we have more of them!?

RD: (really timidly)See, Mr. Steinbrenner, I was thinking that if we got guys on base often enough, it wouldn't matter how they hit in the clutch, in the long run...

KG: We don't have a long run! We only had seven games and you failed to get them to hit when they needed to!!

RD:(cowering under the desk) Actually, we outscored our opponents in every round of the playoffs, Mr. Steinbrenner. We should have won the games...


In the end, managers and coaches are hired to be fired, because the Players' Union won't allow you to just jettison a player making $15 million, even if he does suck. Down should find no shortage of suitors for his talents.

In the meantime, much-beloved former firstbaseman, much-missed Yankee Icon and Boy Of Summer's childhood hero Don Mattingly will take over what should be an easy task but won't. He's been given plenty of talent with which to work, and may get more in the free-agent signing season, but is also being asked to improve on a team that scored more runs than any other team but Boston during Down's 2-year watch. Forget about Sigfried and Roy "Live at the ER", that's a tough act to follow. Donnie will be on the hot-seat from Day One, and if the Yankees get into mid-May and they're not "hitting in the clutch" the Boss will not be happy.

And Donnie may decide that he likes raising horses and kids better than batting averages after all.

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