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September 28, 2009

Prospectus Today

Clinching

by Joe Sheehan

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Despite my being a lifelong Yankee fan and that team's extensive success over the past 15 seasons, I had never seen the team clinch anything. That's mostly the result of me living in Southern California for two decades. So when Derek Jacques offered me a ticket to Sunday's potential AL East clincher, the decision to accept, even in the face of a daunting weather report, was an easy one. Maybe the Yankees winning the AL East was inevitable, and maybe the game didn't mean all that much in the big picture, but I wanted to be there for the moment.

The Yankees obliged, getting another good start from Andy Pettitte and a sixth-inning rally off of Paul Byrd and Takashi Saito on their way to a 4-2 win. When Mariano Rivera retired Jacoby Ellsbury to close out the win, the crowd exploded and the team streamed out of the dugout, having opened New Yankee Stadium in a way they'd been unable to close out the old one: with a division title. All three iterations of the ballpark, in fact, have hosted successful Yankee teams in their first seasons: the 1923 and 1976 Yankees both won AL pennants, and the '23 team won the franchise's first World Championship.

It remains to be seen whether the '09 version will match that level of success, but it's within their reach now. This Yankees team has been considerable more successful than I expected, on its way to 103, 104 wins in a season where I picked them to win 95. Some of the team's improvement from last year's 89-73 mark were anticipated: CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett improving the rotation, Mark Teixeira providing more offense and much more defense at first base, Jorge Posada coming back from a lost season to make the catcher spot an asset rather than a problem.

On top of all that, though, the Yankees got unexpectedly good seasons from Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, veterans who had been declining in their thirties. Robinson Cano bounced back from his worst season to match his best ones. Derek Jeter is having one of the best seasons of his career, arguably his second-best when you consider that he's getting to more balls at shortstop than he did during his best offensive campaigns. Throw in some good fortune-the Yankees are 21-15 in one-run games and have outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by eight games-and you have a team that has been better and had better luck than in any year in some time.

I think it's amusing that the Yankees clinched the AL East by sweeping the Red Sox. It was just seven weeks ago that I did a bunch of radio in advance of the teams' four-game series at Yankee Stadium, taking an endless stream of variations on the following question: do the Red Sox have some kind of mental edge on the Yankees? The Sox had swept the first three series of the year between the teams, one each in April, May, and June, and there were many people who read into those results that the Yankees lacked some quality-the implication being that it was a mental or emotional one-that would make them unable to beat the Sox. It was a ridiculous notion, and the Yankees demonstrated that by going 9-1 against the Sox in the last three series between the teams. The teams split their season series, which is exactly what you would have expected at the start of the year.

The lesson is to not get caught up in the order of events, or in a small sample of games between teams. The Red Sox didn't have some kind of edge on the Yankees, other than that the Yanks played the first series of the year without Alex Rodriguez. Moreover, the Yankees don't have something on the Sox based on the last three series. It's just baseball, which refuses to allow itself to be defined in anything less than a season, and sometimes not even then.

These lessons are important, because the Yankees are going to enter next week as the favorite in their ALDS series against the Tigers or Twins, and considered by many to be the favorite to win the World Series. Both of these positions are defensible, but the degree of that status is going to be greatly exaggerated by the mainstream media. It's entirely possible for one good team to sweep the other in three short series, and for the team that lost those to sweep two of the next three series they play. When it happens in the regular season, there's overreaction; when it happens in October, there's simply silliness.

Take the Yankees and, for the sake of argument, the Tigers. The Yankees have won 64 percent of their games, while the Tigers have won 54 percent of theirs. That's a significant difference over a full season, and you would never make the argument that the Tigers are better than the Yankees. Bring it down, though, and it means that the Yankees win a little more than three of every five games, and the Tigers win a bit less. Over five games, the difference between these two teams is less than one game. Whatever kind of favorite the Yankees will be listed as next week is going to be an overstatement of their real chance to win the series. The clear and total advantage that comes out over 162 games is minimized in five, and though we didn't need another reminder, the way in which games between the Yankees and Red Sox played out this season serves as one: individual series between two teams can go just about any way without providing any meaningful information about the relationship between the teams. In baseball, a three-game losing streak is nothing; unfortunately, the next one means everything.

---

A couple of notes from a damp afternoon at the ballpark:

  • I really want to like Robinson Cano. I do. He's a legitimate .315 hitter with good power who gives away some runs, maybe more than he should, with the glove. That's a winning player.

    Then he goes and does something ridiculous, as he did in the ninth inning last night, and you wonder if he was given his introduction to baseball while walking over the Macombs Dam Bridge at 12:15. With J.D. Drew on first base, one out, and the Yankees holding a 4-2 lead, Victor Martinez hit a soft one-hopper into the 3-4 hole. Rather than take his time, play the ball calmly while running into right field, and make a strong throw to get the very slow Martinez, Cano got it in his head to try and get the lead runner. Not only was this going to be almost impossible-Drew runs well, the ball wasn't hit hard, and Cano would have been making a weak throw while going in the opposite direction-but there was no earthly reason to try and make the play. The run was meaningless; Martinez's run was the important one, and getting an out was the important play.

    Cano set himself to make a leaping throw back to second base, and instead of getting one out, got none. He started his spin too soon and missed the baseball entirely, allowing Martinez to reach with the tying run. It wasn't the physical execution, but the decision itself. To try and make the difficult play in that situation was senseless, and it's hard to believe that a player 700 games into his big-league career would make that choice.

    Defense is mostly about physical skill, but it's also decision making, and Cano doesn't make good decisions. When you think about ways in which the Yankees could have a much shorter postseason than they're expected to, Robinson Cano making a bad decision in a key spot is one of the paths to that outcome.

  • I can't watch Mariano Rivera enough. I just can't. Put into a dangerous spot by Cano's miscue, he just went back out, threw some cutters, and got two more outs to end the game. Sixteen years into the greatest career of any short reliever ever, Rivera remains unaffected by anything that goes on around him. If I could take one trait from any professional athlete, it would be Rivera's unflappability when in the face of adversity, his calm.

    When the Yankees re-signed Rivera two offseasons ago, it seemed like a bit of an overpay, a contract that reflected Rivera's importance to the capital-F franchise as much as what he would mean to the baseball team over the next three years. We're two-thirds of the way through that deal, and the question has to be asked: Is another one coming? Rivera has struck out 148 men and walked just 17 unintentionally in 135 innings. He made the All-Star team in both years, and will probably finish in the top five of the Cy Young voting in both years. Whatever decline seemed in progress two years ago has been arrested. Is there an argument for working out an extension now, given that you're in a better baseball spot with him than you were after 2007, rather than letting him reach the market a year from now, and all of the complications that will entail?

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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