Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the other season of the year: Baseball Season.
The New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays officially began the 2004 regular major league baseball season at something like 5:00 AM Eastern time on Tuesday, and three hours later, the Yankees were officially the Worst Team in Baseball, with an 0-1 record, after losing to the Devil Rays, 8-3. This, as you might have guessed, was exactly what all the muck-raking baseball writers who hate the Yankees had been waiting for, all these long, wintry months. Never mind that it was only one game (out of 162!) Never mind that they turned around and beat the Devil out of the Rays, 12-1 this morning. Never mind Hideki Matsui's 2-run homer, or Jorge Posada's dingers from both sides of the plate in the next game. Never mind that they have nearly a week to regroup before playing another meaningful game. All that matters, apparently, is that the Yankees lost an actual game, a situation which is simply not acceptable.
Perhaps chief among those proficient at raking muck is ESPN's Buster Olney. Olney seems to write fairly often about the Yankees, if for no other reason than that the Yankees tend to do more that merits writing. I don't think that he hates them or anything, but perhaps he hated the way they operated in the '70s and '80s, with Steinbrenner throwing too much money at virtually any problem, and generally screwing things up. Come to think of it, I guess that's approximately how they operate now, except for the screwing up part. But Olney, as a baseball writer, knows that there are few things that garner more hits on a baseball column than the Misery of the Previously Successful. So Buster tries, in his most recent offering, to get the masses stirred up, and to paint a bleak picture of the Bronx Bombers.
Bleak, indeed. Olney penned (raked, really) a column yesterday that epitomizes timely but ill-informed hand wringing. Consider some of thse excerpts from said column:
The Devil Rays thumped the Yankees, 8-3, in the Major League Baseball season-opener that almost nobody in the U.S. saw, a single-game result that is virtually meaningless, considering that 161 games remain. But for the Team That Isn't Supposed To Ever Lose, of course, any defeat will weigh just a little bit more.
Despite the fact that the 2003 Tigers tried to make a convincing argument otherwise, nobody likes to lose. Least of all the Yankees, pre-or post-Steinbrenner. But even King George knows that the first game of the season means next to nothing. For all the wailing and lamentation that the New York papers recorded on Tuesday and Wednesday about this loss, the one thing you didn't see was a lot of quote from Steinbrenner about breaking up the team or suspending video game priveliges or whatever. He didn't say much, and you can ecpect that he won't. In fact, the last time the Yankees started a season with a Team That Isn't Supposed To Ever Lose, 1998, they began with an 0-3 record, and the worst thing George said was something to the effect of "I think my boys may have been reading some of their own press..." Not so outlandish or terrible, was it? And those Yankees certainly rewarded George's patience, by going out and winning 125 of their next 172 games, including all three playoff series.
The Yankees' Opening Day record since Joe Torre took the helm was 4-4, prior to Tuesday morning, and they'd won four World Series in that span, lost two others, and made the playoffs the other two seasons, getting eliminated in the ALDS:
Year Result Final Playoffs
1996 W, 7-1 @CLE 92-70 won WS
1997 L, 2-4 @SEA 96-66 lost ALDS
1998 L, 1-4 @ ANA 114-48 won WS
1999 L, 3-5 @ OAK 98-64 won WS
2000 W, 3-2 @ ANA 87-74 won WS
2001 W, 7-3 KC 95-65 lost WS
2002 L, 3-10 @ BAL 103-58 lost ALDS
2003 W, 10-1 @ TOR 101-61 lost WS
2004 L, 3-8 @ TAM/TOK ??? ???
Doesn't strike me as though the result of the first game has anything to do with whether or not they win in the playoffs.
How about this little tidbit:
Steinbrenner has loaded his team with staggering talent, adding the game's best player, Alex Rodriguez, and perhaps the best right-handed hitter, in Gary Sheffield...
Those titles, I think, belong to Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols, respectively. As good as A-Rod is, he's still not on a level with Bonds, and 2003 NL MVP runner-up Albert Pujols' .359/.439/.667 line is clearly just a smidge better than Sheffield's .330/.419/.604. OK, two smidges.
Success was a new concept for the Yankees' players in Joe Torre's first year as manager in 1996, but since they beat Atlanta in the World Series that fall, a presumption of success has hovered over them.
How's that? Hadn't the Yankees just won the AL Wild Card in 1995, the year before Torre got there? Hadn't they had the best record in the AL when The Strike hit in August 1994? If the three-division format had been in place in 1993, wouldn't the Yankees have won that Wild Card as well? That 1993 team spent most of the season neck-and-neck with the eventual World Champion Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East. Hadn't the Yankees' front office spent the better part of the previous three years re-building the Yankees that had finished dead last in 1990, like Steve Austin with cleats? Success was not something new to them, nor was winning a new concept, and Steinbrenner has always been one to punish anything less than the standards of success that he sets for himself and his team.
But there are cracks in this $182.3 million dreadnought. Giambi will be expected to play many games at first base, where he is a liability.
Actually, according to Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average, Giambi's about 2-3 runs better than an average firstbaseman over the course of a season (actually, it would be more, since he hasn't played 1B full time as a Yankee), so if nothing else, it does not appear that he's a liability there, conventional wisdom be damned.
Olney then proceeds to explain how the outfield defense will suffer, since Sheffield and Kenny Lofton have let balls drop in front of them during exhibition games that formerly Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams would have caught. He does mention that his observations occurred during exhibition games, for which Torre stresses NOT getting injured, if possible (you listenin' Griffey?), but then blows this off and says that "this is likely to be a recurring problem". He doesn't say what he bases this argument on, just that he's afraid the problem will become frequent.
In reality, neither Kenny Lofton nor Gary Sheffield is as bad as most of the baseball print media would have you believe, and Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill were never as good as Tim McCarver or John Sterling would have you believe. The last time either of them was even a "good" fielder at their own position was 1996(!). That was the last season in which O'Neill had a Baseball prospectus Fielding RAA (runs above average) in double digits, AND the last season in which Bernie Williams even had a fielding RAA greater than negative one. I'm not sure where Bernie's "Gold Glove" reputation comes from, or for that matter, but it appears to be pure myth. Besides this, Sheffield and Lofton are essentially average or slightly above average defensive players at their respective positions, so in the long run, there's no reason to fret here either.
The Yankees' starting rotation is aged; they're going to throw out their share of clunkers, as Mike Mussina did in the season-opener, allowing five runs in five-plus innings, including four straight extra-base hits in the sixth.
An aged rotation, eh? Let's see:
2003 Rotation 2004 Rotation
2004 Age 2003 ERA+ 2004 Age 2003 ERA+
Mussina 35 129 Mussina 35 129
Clemens 41 112 Brown 39 169
Pettitte 32 109 Vazquez 27 153
Wells 41 106 Contreras 32 133
Weaver 27 73 Leiber 34 104*
They've gotten younger at three of the five rotation slots. The exceptions are Mike Mussina, who's still in New York, and who seems to have no more ability to pull a Dorian Gray than any of the rest of us, and Jeff Weaver, who, as you may recall, had no more ability to pitch than any of the rest of us, at least last year. Since Jon Leiber didn't pitch in 2003, I used his career adjusted ERA (ERA+) instead of his 2003 number, like everyone else. The rest of the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation will be taken up by Jorge DePaula, who's much younger than any of these guys, and Darren Oliver or Orando Hernandez, who aren't. I agree with Buster that they'll have their share of "clunkers" but not because they're old, simply because baseball is not a completely consistent and predictable game, especially not on a one-game basis.
And the Yankees will have to play young and hungry and aggressive teams from Tampa Bay and Toronto that will occasionally make them look very slow.
Perhaps, but "young hungry and aggressive" rarely wins three out of five games against "experienced, talented and patient". I'll take the latter, even if they don't steal bases all that often, thankyouverymuch.