Another year, more division previews than anybody cares to read, and the Yankees are completely unpredictable. Or, more uniquely, easy to predict as being somewhere between middling to laughable. Remember those days when you could drop the Bombers in the top spot in the East and be done with it? Well those days seem long gone, much to the excitement of basically anybody who isn’t from NY or jumping on the bandwagon. (We’ve seen those maps. Montana loves them some Boogie Down). But are we being too harsh on this edition of the Yankees? Are they really heading for the disaster faster than me carrying a 40 lbs. suitcase?
After going through the latest East Preview by Grantland, wherein the Yankees are predicted to finish dead last, I decided to see how often the franchise has actually finished last. Not that this matters, but c’mon, can we really take a bet that’s that far against the odds? Surely, this must be a good bit of wishful thinking by inherently Yankee-hating writers servicing the underlying Yankees hate by its readership, right? Well, yes… resoundingly so. The answer is four times. Two times while they were actually called the New York Yankees -1966 and 1990 – and twice while they were the New York Highlanders – 1908 and 1912. Think about that for one second. In the 111 years that the New York Baseball Yankees have been competing in professional sports, they have finished last only 3.6% of the time. They’ve won 25 more championships than they have last place finishes. In the past five seasons, the Marlins, Twins, and Mariners have all finished last more times than the Yankees have in the past 102 seasons.
The better question might be: How many times have the Yankees finish 3rd or worse, seeing as we know they’ve at least done that twice in the past 22 seasons. Your answer? In the past 112 seasons, the Yankees have finished 3rd or worse 44 times. Seems reasonably high, I suppose. How about if I put it this way… they’ve finished 2nd or better an astonishing 67 times. That includes when divisions were larger than five teams, sometimes as many as ten. Based on history, there’s basically a 60% chance that the Yankees will not only not finish last but that they will finish in at least 2nd place in any given season. So why does a reputable publication like Grantland insist on predicting they finish dead last in a shaky division from top to bottom?
The first thing I’d like to do is remove all of that history I just presented, because obviously it’s utterly meaningless. Clearly the Yankees are a historically well-run organization, but nothing that happened prior to this season is steeped in any real logic when in relation to what they will do this coming season. The obvious reason Grantland and others see the Yankees finishing last is because there’s a ton of confirmation for that bias. They were a team playing far above their heads last season, at least when you put their expected win total against their actual win total. Their entire starting rotation has seen time on the DL in the past year, the offense isn’t much better, and they employ a starting second baseman who put up historically poor numbers. So much so that Jon Singleton of the Astros was given a pass on his historically bad season, seeing as Stephen Drew was even poorer.
Oh, and the Yankees’ ace has a tear in his elbow. Their number two starter just got lit up by minor leaguers in a scrimmage. Their number three is lights out when he pitches, which is not often (not to mention, he’s a knucklehead who twice in one month got caught for using pine tar). The number four is an unproven flamethrower who can’t really strike people out. And their number five is The Invisible Man. Basically, it’s real real ugly… until you get to the bullpen. There, at least, we have two failed starters who have a handful of really good relief innings. Enough to make you completely comfortable, no?
So, how have they done this spring? Well, that flamethrower who can’t strike anybody out? I forgot to tell you, he’s 25 and worked 199.2 innings last season. So far in March, he’s given up one run through 13.2 innings and he’s struck out 14. The ace with the tear has struck out 12 over 10.1. And the knucklehead? He’s spun 17 Ks over 13.2 innings. He’s given up two runs in that time. As far as we know, he’s either gotten much better at hiding the pine tar, or he’s figured out how to hurl without it.
On offense, Alex Rodriguez has been no fun for Yankee-blasters, because he’s clubbed three homers in 37 ABs and he’s batting .327. He runs like a gimp but he looks as healthy as a 37-year-old with no hip can look. Importantly, he’s seeing the ball and driving it. It’s really not much different from Miguel Cabrera, but we don’t seem too worried about that guy. Chase Headley is still hitting like the player the Yankees got after the All Star break, youngster Rob Refsnyder continues to flash his contact skills with five extra-base hits and a .343 average, and Stephen Drew has managed two homers, or five less than all of last season. I’m not saying, a solid spring makes a championship. But the Yankees are doing Yankee things, which is staying good enough to not be the worst. This isn’t a team that looks destined for a cellar. Especially when you throw the maestro that is Joe Girardi in the mix.
Baseball writers like to avoid quantifying managerial influence because there’s no math for that sort of thing. Except that some managers seem to squeeze a lot from a little (see: Bruce Bochy) and some barely get by on their overabundance of talent (see: Don Mattingly). You can assume that Girardi isn’t going to make the difference next year, and it is absolutely your right to be wrong.
On paper, this season looks like one of those aberration years, where the Yankees might actually finish in last place. After all, they have done it two other times in the last hundred years, so it’s not like there’s no precedent for such a feat. But I think we all know better than to trust they will finish down there. In fact, I’d be shocked if the Yankees aren’t a few savvy/sneaky trades and a full Pineda pine tar-less season away from actually competing. Think of it like this, you can have 20% of old A-Rod for a full season or 100% any Juan Uribe. Who do you take? I guarantee you can’t say Uribe without at least thinking about it for a bit. And Juan Uribe is pretty good. And he starts for the projected best team in baseball. The point is, when you want to confirm a bias, you think of every reason why things will break exactly as your bias expects. Of course A-Rod may be hurt by mid-April and that Uribe comp looks awful. But what if he’s not and he goes .280/20/80?
So, yes, the Yankees might finish in last. But that’s a hideous bet. I’ll take you up on it if you’d like.
Featured Image: Via ESPN