For most organizations, finishing above .500 isn't a failure. But the Yankees are different. They have a $200MM payroll. They have the most demanding owners in sports. And they've made the playoffs every year since 1995. So when the season wraps up in a week and the Yankees turn into golfers a month earlier than usual, their fans won't be happy. Everyone from Brian Cashman to Joe Girardi to Alex Rodriguez will be blamed. But who really deserves the blame for the 2008 season?
Let's start with the fielding, which doesn't get enough attention, especially for a team that doesn't do it very well. The following chart lists every position player and the number of runs they saved compared to the average player at each position:
|Molina Jose NYA||0||9||9|
|Rodriguez Alex NYA||7||7|
|Cabrera Melky NYA||6||0||6|
|Rodriguez Ivan NYA||1||1|
|Gardner Brett NYA||-1||2||0|
|Duncan Shelley NYA||0||0||0|
|Moeller Chad NYA||0||0||1||0|
|Damon Johnny NYA||0||3||-3||0|
|Gonzalez Alberto R NYA||0||0||-1||-1|
|Stewart Chris D NYA||-1||-1|
|Betemit Wilson NYA||1||0||-2||0||-1|
|Matsui Hideki NYA||-2||1||-1|
|Ransom Cody NYA||-1||-1||1||0||-2|
|Christian Justin NYA||-2||0||0||-2|
|Ensberg Morgan NYA||0||-4||-4|
|Posada Jorge NYA||0||-4||-4|
|Jeter Derek NYA||-5||-5|
|Nady Xavier NYA||0||-5||0||-5|
|Sexson Richie NYA||-6||-6|
|Cano Robinson NYA||-10||-10|
|Giambi Jason NYA||-11||-11|
|Abreu Bobby NYA||-28||-28|
No, neither the -28 runs for Bobby Abreu in right field nor the -58 runs for the team as a whole are typos. Sure, zone ratings aren't perfect, but they don't miss by that much. Putting a good defense on the field obviously just isn't as much of a priority for the organization as it should be. The team has three DHs in Abreu, Matsui, and Giambi, and yet Xavier Nady often DH'd after his acquisition. Derek Jeter has actually improved as a fielder, but the team has been content to leave him at shortstop for going on ten years now. How costly were those -56 runs in the field this season? Well, they translate into about six wins, which is most of the lead the Red Sox hold over the Yankees for the Wild Card.
Who's to blame? Sure, all the poor fielders are responsible for their individual lack of talent, but the front office is responsible for turning a blind eye and accumulating so many of them. Most were acquired as free agents and something needed to be done about Jeter a long time ago.
Let's move to the offense, where the 2008 lineup scored only 4.8 runs per game as opposed to 6.0 runs per game in 2007. Here's a chart ordered by linear weights runs created above replacement level and also listing plate appearances, OPS, and clutchiness. I'm defining that last one as the difference between WPA and WPA/LI -- the difference in a player's production when taking game situation into account versus not -- converted from wins to runs:
On the positive side, ARod, Damon, Abreu, and Giambi hit like All-Stars while Jeter, Matsui, and Nady all hit competently in various amounts of playing time. Unfortunately, "competent" is not a word than can describe the offensive performances of Cano, Melky, Molina, IRod, or most of the bench players and AAA callups.
Who's to blame? On the individual level, Robinson Cano was a complete disappointment. His 2007 performance left no reason to believe the Yankees would need another second base option and his lack of work ethic and ability to take a walk seems to have caught up with him. At catcher, the injury to Jorge Posada could be considered a fluke, but to rely on Jose Molina for so long was short-sighted by the front-office. A team with such a huge payroll shouldn't only have more than its fair share of superstars, it should also have excessive depth, especially for 36 year-old catchers. To need to give up prospects at the trade deadline for an over-achieving corner outfielder, to need to take a flier on the obviously-done Richie Sexson, to need to run Melky out to center for four months, and to need to hand almost 300 plate appearances to Jose Molina shows a lack of planning by the front office. If the organization had league-average players ready to step in at first base, catcher, center field, and a corner spot, they would have been about five wins better this year, a mistake as costly as the fielding troubles.
For the sake of completeness, here's how the position players rate in total value above replacement level, not including clutch runs. Over a full season, league-average players are worth about 20 to 25 runs above replacement, meaning there were only two Yankees position players significantly better than average in 2008: Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon.
Ok, let's shift to the pitching staff, starting with the rotation. The chart below lists IP, FIP (because listing ERA would hold the starters accountable for the awful fielding), and FIPRAR, which is fielding-independent runs prevented above replacement level:
|Mussina Mike NYA||183||3.37||47|
|Pettitte Andy NYA||199||3.69||44|
|Chamberlain Joba L NYA *||95||2.70||31|
|Wang Chien-Ming NYA||95||3.71||21|
|Rasner Darrell W NYA||110||4.65||12|
|Giese Dan NYA||43||3.75||4|
|Hughes Phil NYA||22||5.00||2|
|Kennedy Ian NYA||40||5.39||1|
|Ponson Sidney NYA||73||5.78||-1|
Obviously, the story of the 2008 starting rotation is injuries. Only two pitchers who started the season in the rotation lasted 100 innings, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte. Fortunately, both were pretty good. Chien-Ming Wang suffered a freak foot injury, Phil Hughes broke a rib, and Joba Chamberlain's shoulder acted up after a nice transition into the rotation. Darrell Rasner worked out decently as a fill-in, but the other options, especially Sidney Ponson, were failures.
Who's to blame? Many Yankee fans are still furious at the front office for not trading for Johan Santana, pointing to the lack of production from Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Melky Cabrera. But that's short-sighted. Santan would have cost $20MM as part of a contract extension, and had the Yankees spent an extra $20MM on rotation depth this year, things would have been much prettier. (They also can sign CC Sabathia this off-season to a similar contract, without giving up on Hughes and Kennedy.) To count on five starters lasting all year is folly -- the team needed to have better options ready to step in. As is, the rotation was still significantly better than league-average. Handing a rotation spot to Mike Mussina, even after a poor ERA last year, was a smart decision, and the plan with Joba was the right move -- he was more productive in a partial starting role than he would have been all year as the setup man.
How about the rotation? This table lists IP, WPA, and pLI. Win Probability Added accounts for a pitcher's performance based on the importance of the game situation, and pLI is the average importance of the situations when a pitcher appeared (with 1.0 as average):
Starting a bullpen with Mariano Rivera is a recipe for success. Joba and Kyle Farnsworth were more than dependable setup men, and even though neither ended the season where they started, the Yankees' +8.6 bullpen WPA was among the best in the majors. The bullpen is actually one spot where depth is overrated -- it all comes down to one or two guys shutting the opposing team down when it matters most.
Who's to blame? Nobody. To pass blame for this bullpen would be nitpicking. While the rotation and bullpen gets the majority of blame for the 2008 season, they were more of a strength than the position players.
One last time, who's to blame for the Yankees' 2008 season? The front office failed the team in two big ways. One, the organization does not value fielding nearly enough, accumulating too many DHs and suffering through too many poor fielding performances year after year. Heeding the cliche that defense wins championships would serve the team well. Two, the organization does not adequately anticipate the need to fill holes. When injuries invariably happen, the team either overpays via trade or hands a starting position to roster filler. Anyone can spend $200MM on big names with big bats who are usually past their prime. But the refusal to spend any of that money on players who can both hit and field or on team depth will continue to unnecessarily hurt the Yankees' quest for their 27th World Series Championship.