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.