Hey Will: Mike Lupica called, and he wants his overwhelming negativity back

Here we are, a month away from the start of the playoffs, and already the “the Yankees aren’t going anywhere in the postseason” articles are coming in. The latest entrant in a long line of Yankee-related schadenfreude comes from New York Magazine‘s Will Leitch, who has channeled his inner Mike Lupica in his most recent piece, “Why the Yankees Won’t Win the World Series.” (h/t Pinstripe Alley).

Mr. Leitch, as you probably know, is the founding editor of Deadspin, and who New York apparently feels is an appropriate choice to cover the New York sports beat despite being a St. Louis Cardinals fan. Honestly, shouldn’t a magazine that prides itself on being the singular voice of the hip, educated and moneyed denizens of our city at least have someone on staff who likes the Yankees? But I digress.

Now, Mr. Leitch’s piece is obviously incredibly low-hanging fruit. What better way to rile up a bunch of stuck-up, arrogant Yankee fans than tell them their team won’t win the World Series? It’s a brilliant ploy; designed to rack up page views and enrage people enough to want to write about the piece and link back to it (and hey, I’ve clearly taken the bait).

The idea that the Yankees might not win the 2010 World Series is not news to anyone who’s followed the team even in passing. Yes, the rotation’s been something of a mess since Andy Pettitte went down. Yes, A.J. Burnett‘s been terrible. Yes, Javier Vazquez has been arguably even worse, if that’s even possible. Yes, Phil Hughes has hit a wall due to pitching more innings than he ever has before in his career.

Is the prospect of going into October with only one reliable starting pitcher in CC Sabathia nerve-wracking? Of course, but there are a couple of key factors Mr. Leitch conveniently leaves out: (a) There’s still a month left of the season for the Yankees to sort things out. If all goes well, Pettitte will return to the team within the next two weeks. Joe Girardi will also likely try to get Hughes some extra rest in some fashion or another, and given that the Yankees have all but secured a playoff spot at this point they can continue throwing Burnett and Vazquez out there in hopes that they regain some level of effectiveness; and (b) Every other team the Yankees will potentially face has their share of problems and question marks as well. Few teams head into the postseason as the prohibitive favorites to run the table unless you’re the 1998 Yankees.

With regards to the first point, I’ve been as frustrated with A.J. Burnett as the next Yankee fan, but I also feel he has too long a track record of pitching effectively to continue being as terrible as he’s been. We all know A.J. is a ticking time bomb, capable of brilliance one start and disaster the next, but he’s also not 77 ERA+-over-157.1-innings-pitched bad. Burnett has delivered significantly below-average innings to the Yankees, and yet the team has still managed to go 12-15 in his 27 starts, which is a lot better than it could be. Additionally, as bad as Burnett has been, I might still consider starting him in a Game 2 if the Yankees had home-field advantage, as he’s pitched much better at home than on the road — 4.61 ERA at home compared to 5.59 on the road. While neither of those numbers is all that confidence-inspiring, it would not surprise me to see Burnett shock everyone and run off a couple of brilliant starts at home in the playoffs. Obviously, he’s just as likely to tank it, but Girardi will make sure Burnett starts at home as often as possible. Remember, last year Burnett made five postseason starts and the Yankees ended up winning all three he started at home — in which he pitched 19 1/3 innings and gave up only four runs — while his two awful performances both came on the road.

As far as Home Run Javy goes, I have far less confidence that he’ll be able to perform at any kind of respectable level, and shouldn’t be an option to start a postseason game unless something catastrophic happens.

So if the Yankees have home field advantage in the first two rounds, I’d expect a rotation of CC Sabathia-A.J. Burnett-Andy Pettitte-Phil Hughes. If they start the postseason on the road, I agree with Mike Axisa that Girardi should consider bumping Hughes to the two slot given his home run troubles at Yankee Stadium. I think most Yankee fans would happily go to war with those four in the rotation. It’s easy to forget that the Yankees made it through the entire postseason and won the World Series with a three-man rotation last year.

And to the second point, per TYU, both the Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins have some injury problems of their own that could seriously derail their respective October hopes. Josh Hamilton will be missing an unspecified period of time due to a new injury yesterday. The Rangers have also managed to beat up on an exceptionally weak AL West this season. Don’t get me wrong, the prospect of facing Cliff Lee twice in a five-game set is incredibly unappealing (and I coul
d revise my opinion of playing the Rangers after this coming week’s three-game set in Texas), but the Rangers just don’t scream serious threat to me this year. Maybe that’s just the Yankee Kool-Aid talking, but as of this writing, five teams in the American League have better records than Texas, who wouldn’t even be in the postseason picture if it played in the East or Central.

And the Twins may be heading to a second straight postseason without Justin Morneau. Francisco Liriano (6.0 fWAR, tied for first in the AL) and Carl Pavano (3.5 fWAR, 15th-best in the AL) have been spectacular for Minnesota, but neither is quite on the level of Yankee Kryptonite™ Felix Hernandez and Brett Cecil. Frankly, I think the Yankees match up better against Liriano, as Pavano’s mix of off-speed slop is the type of junk the 2010 Yankees have had absolutely no answer for. Here’s where we might also cite the Yankees’ regular and postseason dominance of the Twins for much of the past decade, but that would be foolish, as we all know that past performance on a teamwide level is not necessarily indicative of future results. Unless of course you’re the Yankees and you’re facing off-speed junkballers. It’s like when a broadcaster cites a pitcher’s career stats against a given team. Great, but depending on how old the pitcher is those stats may include the numbers against the opposing team from five or even 10 years ago, and none of those players are likely even on the team anymore. As Mike has previously discussed, this kind of thing happens with Roy Halladay all the time.

Assuming the Yankees were able to make it past the Twins or Rangers in the first round, they would likely have to face the Tampa Bay Rays, and at this point all bets are off. As Leitch points out, “[The Rays] can match up with Sabathia in Game 1 (with David Price), has better secondary starters (Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, James Shields), plays equally good defense, and has an offense that’s just a tick or so behind the Yankees’—not to mention a virtually identical record to the Yanks’.” This is mostly accurate, but with a few caveats — Tampa’s starting corps is superior to the Yankees’, but not by as much as you might think. Tampa’s starters have posted a 3.87 ERA and 4.25 FIP, while New York’s starters have recorded a 4.14 ERA and 4.47 FIP.

It’s on the offensive side of the ledger where things begin to dramatically favor the Yankees. Tampa has some quality bats, no question, but this is also a team that was no-hit twice this season and is clearly capable of being shut down lineup-wide by excellent starting pitching. I know Tampa’s given the Yankees problems this year, but the Rays’ offense is just not the same caliber of the scary Red Sox teams of recent vintage, or even last year’s playoff opponents for that matter.

The Yankees’ lead all of baseball with a .351 wOBA as of this writing, while the Rays are actually eighth in the American League, at .331, behind such non-postseason teams as the Red Sox, White Sox, Blue Jays and Tigers. Last year’s ALDS opponent, the 2009 Twins, were a .338 wOBA team, while the Angels were at .346. The Phillies, a team that generally has a pitcher wasting three at-bats a game by virtue of being in the National League, had a .340 wOBA last year. All of this doesn’t necessarily mean anything for the 2010 postseason, just that the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays maybe aren’t quite as scary as everyone seems to think they might be. That being said, it wouldn’t shock me for a hypothetical Yankees-Rays ALCS to go seven games and see either team prevail. But hey, that’s baseball.

Anyway, all this is to say sure, it’s easy to say the Yankees won’t win the World Series on September 5. So many things have to go right for any postseason entrant to win the World Series, let alone the Yankees. If the Yankees tank in the first round, Mr. Leitch gets to look back at this and crow that he was right all along. If he’s wrong, no one will ever remember or care. It’s a pretty easy position to be in, especially when your team is fading fast and has a 7% chance of making the playoffs.

Photo c/o The New York Daily News

2 thoughts on “Hey Will: Mike Lupica called, and he wants his overwhelming negativity back

  1. Excellent post Larry, and I admire your leadership, posting on a holiday!

    I agree with you from start to finish, but there are two huge points that I'd like to add to strengthen your argument. 1. Cliff Lee, aside from being average with the Rangers, is hurt and will miss his next start. He has lower back problems, which I know can be chronic, because I have lower back problems. 2. The Yankees run differential anihiliates the Rays. At a certain point, that is indicative of a team's strength, so it is no surprise that the Yankees are in first. That is where they belong.

    As you mention, come playoff time, especially a 7 game series against a hungry Rays team, all bets are off, but it is just stupid to write off the best team in baseball, especially just as the team appears to be heating up.

  2. "Now, Mr. Leitch's piece is obviously incredibly low-hanging fruit. What better way to rile up a bunch of stuck-up, arrogant Yankee fans than tell them their team won't win the World Series? It's a brilliant ploy; designed to rack up page views and enrage people enough to want to write about the piece and link back to it (and hey, I've clearly taken the bait)."

    This.

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