A Rational Goodbye to the 2011 Season

This is a Yankees team that exceeded expectations. Both Brien and Jason have given you some of the details. But to remind you, none of the 45 baseball experts polled by ESPN saw the Yankees winning the American League East. The best computer projections and the prevailing betting line both indicated that the Yankees would struggle for a wild card. Instead, the Yankees performed better than any of us predicted.

The Yanks also played a solid series against the Tigers. The Yanks outscored Detroit by 28 to 17, and outhit Detroit by 45 to 36. The Yanks drew more walks, had more extra-base hits, and even struck out slightly less often (25.8% of their plate appearances, versus 26.9% for the Tigers).  Yes, Alex Rodriguez hit only .111 in the series, and Mark Teixeira hit just .167, but this was a short series and not every starter is going to mash in a short series. The three Tigers hitters I personally feared the most – Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Alex Avila – hit .200, .222 and .063, respectively.   The Yanks held the Tigers to about three runs scored a game.  The Yanks’ hitting “slash line” (batting average/on base percentage/slugging percentage) was .260/.350/.399, compared to the Tigers’ .228/.311/.380. Robinson Cano had an OPS of 1.057, Jorge Posada had an OPS of 1.150, and both Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner had OPSes of over .900.  More often than not, a team that leads in statistics like this is going to win a short series. More often than not … but not this time.

Yes, we can decry the Yankees’ inability to get key hits when they would have mattered most in the games they lost. Last night the Yanks were unable to get a single “clutch” run-scoring hit when they had runners in scoring position, including the two times the Yanks loaded the bases with less than two outs. But we’ve visited this topic before: it’s one of the foundational principles of sabermetrics that clutch hitting is not a skill. Hitting is a skill, a skill that the Yankees performed better than the Tigers. Getting hits when they matter most is largely a matter of luck.

If you read my work regularly (hard to do when I don’t write regularly), you know I talk a lot about luck in baseball. Luck is not something we discuss regularly here, because even rationally-minded bloggers have to spin a narrative, and narratives require a structure, and the most popular narrative structure is based on cause and effect. So team A beat team B because team A had character, or grit, or youthful exuberance, or veteran leadership.  But if Derek Jeter’s 8th inning fly ball travels another 5 feet, the Yankees proceed to the ALCS, and the narrative changes completely. (Ditto, of course, if either of the two line drives caught by Granderson Tuesday night veers slightly in the wrong direction.)

The Yankees got some luck this ALDS, just not enough to turn their statistical advantage over the Tigers into a series win. It happens. Them’s the breaks. It wasn’t our year. If you’re looking for an honest, rational narrative for our suddenly being thrust into the post-season, I’ve just given it to you.  No use crying over it: the Yanks have won 27 World Championships, meaning that the Yankees have had more than their fair share of luck over the years. The correct long-term view is that fortune has smiled upon us more often than not, and if we’re true, smart, rational fans of the greatest franchise in sports, we should realize this, smile a little bit, and play the role of the good loser. Congratulations, Tigers. Great series! Let’s do this again next year.

The question remains: what do we fans do now, now that our post-season is upon us? Surely we will not follow the lead of the mainstream media, who will recycle the meme that nothing less than perpetual consecutive World Series championships is good enough for the Yankees. But the temptation to ask “what if”, to engage in post-mortem examinations, to second-guess managerial decisions, will be too great for us to resist.  So I will put forward two rational rules to guide our post-season analyses:

The first rule is this: exercise some perspective. From all I read in the blogosphere and tweet-o-verse this year, I’d assume that the Yankees won 97 of their games in 2011, and that Joe Girardi lost 65 of them. I’d have to assume that the 2011 Yankees were the greatest team of all time, and that only Girardi held the team back from making the 1927 Yankees look like the 1962 Mets. Puh-leeze.  Let’s show some balance in our thinking, some nuance in our analysis. Criticize if you like Girardi’s failure to pinch hit Jesus Montero for Russell Martin in last night’s 8th inning … but give Girardi credit for starting Jorge Posada over Montero all series, or choosing A.J. Burnett over Bartolo Colon for the post-season roster. Keep that luck factor in mind: sometimes the manager will make the right call and it still won’t produce the desired results. Consider humbly, if only for a brief moment, that the full-time manager of the New York Yankees might have more information at hand and baseball knowledge in head than you do. Before criticizing the other guy, try to understand why the other guy did what he did. Every time I’ve examined one of Girardi’s moves, I’ve found good reasons to support them; even when I disagree with Girardi, I can appreciate that Girardi makes rational and defensible decisions.  These post-mortem analyses are rarely as clear-cut as we make them out to be.

Second rule: avoid scapegoating, no matter what word you might use to hide the fact that you are scapegoating (the latest politically correct phrase for scapegoating is “exercising accountability”). We’re not talking about the sinking of the Titanic here. What the Yankees need to do is the same thing as what the other 29 teams in baseball (including the eventual World Series winner) need to do: figure out ways to put the best possible ballclub on the field in 2012. Let’s try to avoid what’s going on in Boston, where the Red Sox faithful are neck deep in scapegoating, er, I mean in the exercise of accountability. So far, the efforts in Red Sox Nation have resulted in their loss of their manager (a guy I’d rank as one of the very best managers in the game) and their first base coach (who could not have been accountable for very much). Scapegoating does not produce results. Architecting the best possible team under all of the circumstances is the right path for any team, and every team.

So … we still have some baseball ahead of us. It shouldn’t be hard to find a team out there to adopt (for me, it’s anyone but the Phillies!). Enjoy the remainder of October – baseball without the Yankees is better than no baseball at all. See you around the hot stove.

31 thoughts on “A Rational Goodbye to the 2011 Season

  1. Thanks, Larry. For me, the least fun part of being a Yankees fan is listening to mainstream media chatter about how we must all be shocked, stunned, and angry when the season ends with anything but a Commissioner's Trophy. As you say, the 2011 New York Yankees will be remembered by true fans as a team that outperformed anything predicted by either Yankees fans or Yankees haters. I've never had less to criticize about the team's performance in an unsuccessful playoff series. This ALDS went the distance and both sides played beautifully. Someone still had to lose.

    As for A-Rod's unlucky role as goat in consecutive years, I couldn't care less. He CARRIED this team to a title in 2009, and who else on the Yankees can make that claim about any season in the past decade (answer: nobody).

    Only one thing truly darkens my heart today: the fact that we will probably never see Jorge Posada come to bat in pinstripes again. Jorge has been my favorite player since he first came up, and my feelings on this are something akin to grief. I started a "hip hip Jorge" chant at the bar I was at last night during what I knew would be his final at-bat, and people thought I was silly, but screw them. God I'm going to miss that guy.

    • Matt, thanks back. At least Jorge went out a hero, and hit as well as anyone in the series not named Delmon Young (Delmon Young!). Few players make it to 40 years old and (eventually) exit this gracefully. To stress it again, kudos to Joe Girardi for starting Posada in all five games — a decision that I would not have made and many of us would not have made.

    • Willy Mccovey has looked at the rerun over 10000 times of his last bat against the Yankees in the 1962 WS. If the ball is an inch further right the Giants score two runs and win. He hopes maybe onetime, the film will come out different. The Yankees only look at what might have happened if the ball is in their favor not if the opposition would have had the favorable break.

      • Good post, but I did mention that either of the great catches made by Granderson in game 4 could have veered an inch or two away from him, and the ALDS never makes it to a game 5. Also mentioned that the Yanks have had more than their fair share of good luck over the years.

      • Pshaw. That wasn't writing. That was therapy. Took longer than a 50 minute hour but it was a lot cheaper. Do you think I woke up this morning feeling rational? Oh, and thanks! ; ^ )

  2. Funny you bring up the therapist thing….i was joking around saying I think i can handle the loss of a loved one or money better than I can when the yanks lose….bulls in nba are my other team since 92….when either of them fall short of expectations it kills…..it didnt hurt to miss it in 08 cuz we were hurt didnt have all our big guns so ok we lost…..but this year? jesus mary and joseph….if the phillys lose 2nite….that starts the healing process….eagles lose sunday….I can start becoming a whole man again

      • Wonder if I'm the only one watchin mike francesa…its like when girls break up and listen to sad love songs…it feels like the right thing to do…but its really not helping….gotta just cut your self away from it……my head hurts….i gotta get to the gym some how and muster up the strength to go on……i think im actually supposed to meet jeter//arod at an event in 2 weeks too….im sure (that i wont)…..be healed by then

  3. As always after a season, win or not , i stick my head into the sand for a while and try not to pay attention to baseball until spring training. Thanks Larry, and Jason, and Brien, ansd Tamar, and everyone else for a great year following our favorite team…see you next year!

  4. Larry you always make us feel better about being a Yankee fan because of your writing. Here is hoping that for next season, you write more so you can get more praise. Plus rational me says that the yanks will try harder next year and we could be back here celebrating instead of being down!

    • Sabrina, thanks. I have a good feeling about the future. Montero flashed the kind of promise that I hoped he might have. I liked what we saw of Romine behind the plate. We have the killer "B"s, even if one of them may turn out to be a relief pitcher. Cano and Granderson are a dynamic duo. My hope is that a good dose of rest will restore the Phil Hughes we saw in the first half of 2010. Joba will come back. A-Rod will have another winter to get healthy, this time hopefully for a full season. I don't expect Cashman to be quiet this off-season.

      Who knows, maybe next spring I'll predict something more positive for the Yanks than I did in March!

  5. 'Getting hits when they matter most is largely a matter of luck."

    Yes, luck can play a big role but can you really say that A Rod, Swisher and Teixeira were merely unlucky in this series? It's not like those guys were hitting bullets at infielders and being robbed of extra-base hits by outfielders. A Rod and Swisher looked terrible at the plate – completely lost – and could not make adjustments (yes, I know A Rod is hurt and the injuries are a bit of bad luck but they're also part of the inevitable aging process all players go through).

    Swisher, who normally has great plate discipline, swung at many bad pitches and was frozen on other hittable pitches. Was that luck too?

    Teixeira looked the "best" of the three and just missed a HR last night (yes, that was bad luck) but he just as often swung too hard and was too pull happy from the left side and that isn't luck.

    Yeah, Cabrera and Martinez didn't put up flashy numbers but they each got some big hits by taking what they were given and not trying to do too much. Having a good approach is not luck it's professional discipline.

    I don't think it's irrational to point out when guys do a poor job. It is irrational to expect to win the World Series every year but for a contending team if that's not your goal why are you wasting your time?

    • Guest, terrific post!

      In a short series, the rational expectation is that some guys will have a good stretch of games, and some will not. I documented the guys who had a strong ALDS, and you mentioned three who did not.

      During the 2009 World Series Robbie Cano hit .136. No one cared, because we won, and Derek Jeter hit over .400, and Matsui hit over .600, and it all worked out.

      The Yanks 2011 ALDS offense was good enough to score 5.6 runs a game, a little higher than the team's average during the regular season. So overall, the Yanks' bats showed up for this series. The luck factor had more to do with hits (the 9 a game the Yanks averaged in the ALDS matched their per-game average during the regular season) not coming at the right times. How you choose to view the lack of timely hits is up to you, but if you're sabermetrically minded, you'll have to acknowledge the research that the ability to hit in the clutch may not be a repeatable skill.

      Of course it's not irrational to point out that the Yanks were hurt by poor performances from A-Rod, Swisher and Teix, just as it's not irrational to point out that the Yanks were helped by superb performances from Cano, Gardner and Posada. It may be irrational (though understandable) to expect that some guys will perform above average and no one will perform below average. It's just five games, a smaller than small sample size, and during such a small sample size some guys WILL look lost at the plate, and other guys will not display their normal plate discipline. We can hope for the team to click on all cylinders, but it's not a rational expectation.

      I went and looked: during the season the Yanks had 158 stretches of five games (games 1-5, 2-6, 3-7, etc.). The Yanks lost 3 or more games during 42 of these five game stretches. This was during a season when the team won 97 games. The ability to win 97 out of 162 is no guarantee of being able to win 3 games out of 5. That's baseball.

      • Smart post. I think you are correct, but it is hard not to look at A-Roid and not think he should have done better, or at least looked better.

        The fact that the Yankees lost 42 of 158 five game "series" duirng the 2011 regular season is very interesting. I think it roughly approximates (probably a little greater) the probabily of winning a five game post season series (as set forh in an earlier post).

        • Sorry. I meant to say "It is hard to look at A-Roid and not think he should have done better." He looked so bad and he was up in such crucial moments.

          It also is funny how top tier players are up at the iconically cruical times in post season and fail, e.g. Carlos Beltran and Ryan Howard.

          Great site, by they way. First time I have seen it.

          • Thanks for your nice words about our site. It's a pretty good team effort, especially given that we're badly underpaid (i.e., we're not paid at all). Glad you like what we're trying to do.

            A-Rod simply wasn't 100%. No excuses; every team is banged up this time of year. I thought A-Rod did a good job all things considered, playing a solid defense, drawing some key walks and making productive outs (though productive hits would have been better).

            I understand what you're saying about great players and epic post-season failures, but I think that's mostly the stuff that makes for good narratives. The statistics I've seen indicate that over the long run players perform in the post-season about as well as they do in the regular season (with perhaps some small downward adjustment to account for the higher quality of competition). For every Ryan Howard in 2011, there was an Albert Pujols, or a Prince Fielder, or a Robbie Cano. Also, take note that we focus on a player's epic fail when the player's team fails. We don't care much that Rickie Weeks hit .056 in the NLDS, or that Nelson Cruz hit .067, because their teams won. Yes, Ryan Howard's 2011 NLDS batting average of .105 is pretty grim stuff, but Howard has a lifetime post-season OPS of .845, and his slash line during the Phillies' 2008 World Series victory was a sizzling .286/.375/.762. It's our human nature that we remember his failures more vividly than his successes.

  6. Larry – You need to stop making so much sense. Seriously though. I know I'm a Red Sox fan, but I sincerely am sorry for your loss last night. It was pretty shocking to say the least.

  7. Larry – Great piece, again…. I will tuck this away for those many times when I need a rational reminder about the vagaries of Baseball and Life.

    As I am, I suspect, one of the few diehard Tiger fans whonfrequents your site, I want to say how much your writing and that of your fellow writers has provided me with a better understanding, appreciation, and respect for what it is to be a Yankees fan. Under the brightest glare in sports, with highest expectations heaped upon the players and their fans, you inevitably feel the greatest disappointments but also the most frequent triumphs. It seems that this is The Deal one signs when one becomes a Yankees fan. With 27 World Series Championships, it is not a bad tradeoff. You are in the hunt every year. "The credit goes to the one in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, who knows great enthusiasms, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of great achievement, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

    As for your offer to meet again next year, I accept in a heartbeat!

  8. To the author of this article; I found your blog entry via an ESPN story. Thank you so much for being a voice of reason. 2011 was a spectacular team and they provided incredible entertainment for me this season. We were able to see HOF moments, records be broken, and players old and new shine. It was a marvelous season and at the end of the day, the Yankees simply got beat by the better team.

    I congratulate the Detroit Tigers, especially at a time for a city that has been economically devastated and an owner in Mike llitch, who is a very passionate about the team and sport. I have no problems with this and at the end of the day, some one needs to lose and if you're going to lose, the Yankee's lost like a bunch of professionals. We need to mirror that and distance ourselves from the circus in Boston right now.

    I'll have to admit; I've noticed in the last year or two, that the media has softened on the Yankees a bit. I think with payrolls becoming competitive throughout the sport, it's hard for many to hate the Yankee's, say, as much as people did in 2003 or 2004. Other teams have now taken over that role.

    I for one hope that the ownership and Cashman extend their relationship over the coming days. 15 years of Cashman's work may really start paying dividends soon. He has built an incredible farm, has a staff of some of the best baseball minds in the business, budding with great prospects (Maxwell and Almonte) are two others to watch. And what does Cashman do best? Trades. The guy is a dealer. I'm really looking forward to this offseason to see what he can do with all his options.

    I look forward to the 2012 season! Wish I could watch another game today :(

    • MikeC, good comment. You're the kind of fan we need more of.

      Everything I've heard would indicate that Cashman is coming back. Agreed: I'm looking forward to seeing Cashman operate over the winter.

  9. Does it hurt? Yes it hurts, you are darned right it hurts. I truly enjoyed the season, the ups and downs, the drama, the stories, and the opportunity to watch some of the best Yankee players play one more year. I do get down because the Yankees are the team that we all grew up watching, believing in, and for a lot of us, we had the fantasy of someday being like the Mick, Jeter, or others. This is the team that exudes class, professionalism, spirit, tradition and lore. We fought hard this year, and we proved all the so called "experts" as ESPN and around the nation that there is a much better team down in the Bronx, a team that does not offer excuses, but offers a fight, every night. It will keep on hurting like a wound, but it will heal, and we will be looking to be on the hunt next year. And when we start the season we will once again be on top loving the smell of grass and the beautiful sight of one more Yankee victory.

  10. No one who lives outside the Bronx should root for the Yankees since their wealth gives them an unfair advantage in acquiring stars from other teams. Fortunately, while the Yankees are always expected to win enough of 162 games to make the playoffs and usually the favorite to win them, the playoffs depend on whose starting pitchers get hot, whose relievers get the clutch out and whose stars get the clutch hits. This is particularly true when it's a 5 game series, when anything can happen. So most years there is a day when the Yankees get eliminated and that is always a good day.

    • The logic of your first sentence seems to be that people who live in the Bronx are unusually wealthy. I haven't lived in NY for 25 years now; maybe things have changed since Ed Koch was mayor. I'll have to investigate. As for the rest of your comment, I admit that I kind of lost your drift after that first sentence, but I appreciate knowing that the Yanks can use their wealth to acquire stars from other teams. I look forward to seeing Tin Lincecum, Matt Kemp, Troy Tulowitski, Evan Longoria and Stephen Strasburg all playing in pinstripes in 2012. Beats the heck out of having to leave the Bronx and go to the All-Star game.

      Thanks for dropping by.