By In Stuff

Theeeeee Yankees Win

Sure, I will admit it: Since the start of the baseball season — really going back a year or two — I thought that the New York Yankees were in a lot of trouble. I thought that the bill had finally come due. It seemed to me that the Yankees were counting on a fading and decrepit lineup without a single meaningful player younger than 29. I saw an erratic pitching rotation that desperately needed good work from Andy Pettitte — heck, why not Ron Guidry? Why not Whitey Ford?

I thought — and this will be the last part of what I thought, because, once more, I was spectacularly wrong — that the Yankees’ big-money deals had finally caught up with them. In baseball these days, the big-money teams put success on layaway. Look at the Phillies:

• Six years, $144 million for Cole Hamels
• Five years, $120 million for Cliff Lee
• Three years, $60 million for Roy Halladay
• Five years, $125 million for Ryan Howard
• Seven years, $85 million for Chase Utley
• Four years, $50 million for Jonathan Papelbon
• Three years, $33 million for Jimmy Rollins

When you sign players to these kinds of deals, you hope — “hope” being the key word — that they will still be good players when the contracts near expiration in the same way that you hope that the car you buy will still be running strong at 120,000 miles. But while that’s the hope, it’s only a hope. The purpose of these deals is simply: Win now. The Angels weren’t thinking too much about 2019 when they signed Albert Pujols. Win today, win tomorrow and you’ll worry about next Tuesday when it comes around.

No team has better exemplified this than the Yankees of recent years. The Yankees have two homegrown players in their every-day lineup.* One, Robbie Cano, was signed for a fairly sizable bonus out of the Dominican Republic in 2001. The other, Derek Jeter, was drafted out of high school when the first George Bush was president. Everybody else who plays regularly was signed to a big-money deal or acquired in a salary-dump trade. There’s no question that in the short term, this flashing of cash can be spectacularly effective — money may not buy you love, but it can buy you a pretty good baseball team. The Yankees won the World Series in 2009, and reached the postseason with ease the next two years. But, I thought, sooner or later, the waiter puts the check on the table.

*A third, Brett Gardner, was hurt for most of the year.

So, yes, I thought that check would come due for the Yankees this year. When they went up 10 games in the AL East in mid-July, I thought: Well, I guess that was wrong. I guess they still have too much. But then they started fading. From July 19 through Sept. 11 — 75 games — the Yankees were just one game over .500. Their pitching anchor, CC Sabathia, was hurt. A-Rod was hurt. Mark Teixeira was hurt. This happens to older guys. Even when those guys got healthy, even when the Yankees started to win again, the Orioles had become so convinced of their destiny that they kept winning at the same pace. It was a real race.

Last Sunday, there was a moment when the Orioles were pounding the Red Sox and the Yankees were losing 5-1 to Toronto, and if that held, the Yankees would be a game behind the Orioles with three games to play. The Yankees had been 10 games up and they were on the brink of having the division out of their control. And I tweeted this: “The Yankees nightmare grows darker and darker and darker …”

Yes, that was retweeted a few times after the Yankees clinched the division on Wednesday night.

I was wrong, impossibly wrong, about the Yankees, and I think there are a couple of reasons: one, a fairly obvious point about talent, the other a guess about uniforms. The obvious point is that the Yankees’ big-money guys, while they grow old and aren’t the players they once were, are still very good baseball players. The Yankees have nine key players who finished the year with an OPS+ higher than 100 — 100 OPS+ being league average. No other team in baseball can say that.

Having seven or eight above-average hitters in your lineup every day is a powerful thing. You would probably say that only one Yankees player, Cano, has had a spectacular offensive season, an MVP-type offensive season. But Jeter hit .316. Curtis Granderson hit 43 homers. Mark Teixeira slugged .475. Nick Swisher had a .364 on-base percentage. A-Rod may be a shell of the monster he was from 1996 to 2008, but he still hit 18 homers and scored 74 runs despite missing 40 games.

Point is — and it’s easy to underestimate this — the Yankees can still bludgeon teams with good player after good player after good player. The Yankees were second in the league in runs scored. And GM Brian Cashman, who I think is wildly underrated for his keen sense of how to win games, realized that with the Yankees scoring runs night after night, he could piece together enough pitching to win with the return of Pettitte, the acquisition of Hiroki Kuroda and the uneven but often-good-enough stylings of Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova.

Put it this way: The Yankees’ record when scoring five or more runs was quite mediocre. They were 68-19 — 17th in baseball — in winning percentage. Teams across the league win about 79 percent of the time when they score five or more (the Braves went 61-3, for example). The Yankees won 78 percent of the time, ranking them 17th in baseball.

Did this matter? No. Because there was a more important statistic. The Yankees scored five-plus runs more times than any other team in baseball. And so, low winning percentage or not, those 68 wins were more than any team in baseball. The Yankees simply overpowered teams. When they trailed the Blue Jays 5-1 in that moment of crisis, Jeter doubled … A-Rod walked … Cano doubled … Granderson walked … Raul Ibanez singled … Jeter, A-Rod, Cano and Granderson singled … after a four-inning flurry the Yankees had nine runs and another victory, and the nightmare was extinguished once more.

Two nights later, when they trailed Boston 3-1 in the ninth, they were able to send up Ibanez as a pinch-hitter — maybe not the hitter he once was, but still a threat — and he homered to tie the game. The Yankees may not be what they once were, but they are not playing the ghosts of Yankees teams past. They are still good enough to overwhelm.

The second thing, about the power of the Yankees’ tradition, history and aura, the power of the uniform — well, it’s kind of hard to ignore. When the Yankees acquired Ichiro Suzuki, he was a thoroughly worn-down hitter, and had been for a year and a half. He posted a .288 on-base percentage in his first 95 games this year in Seattle, this coming off a full season in which he hit .272/.310/.335. He was a nightmare because he was a legend, getting paid like a legend, but playing like a replacement player. The Mariners were undoubtedly thrilled to ship him off to New York, to get him off the books … heck, they had to send some cash along just to make the deal.

So what happens? Ichiro comes to New York, and looks five years younger. He hits .322, slugs .454, goes through a crazy 12-game stretch when you couldn’t get him out (just when the Yankees needed it most).

This seems to happen a lot for the Yankees. Eric Chavez had been an injured wreck for Oakland for four years before he came to New York. This year, in part-time play, he’s hitting .281 and slugging .496. Ibanez was coming off by far his worst season in Philadelphia at age 39, and while he’s hitting .240, he has also banged 19 home runs, including perhaps the most important one of the Yankees’ season. Andy Pettitte — 40 years old and retired for a whole season — comes back and posts a 2.87 ERA in 12 starts with a higher strikeout rate than he has had in years.

Even guys having rough seasons overall have helped the cause. The Yankees seem to have told Andruw Jones and Russell Martin that their job at the plate is to swing for the fences. They’re hitting .211 and .197 respectively, but they have 35 homers combined. Clay Rapada, who has bounced around baseball, has suddenly found a role as a situational lefty with baseball’s most famous team.

And, of course, Jeter has had a stunning comeback season at 38, his best offensively since 2009.
Is there something about playing for the Yankees? Is their something about the pinstripes that adds a little secret formula to this recipe? I tend to be averse to that kind of mythology. But one thing I was thinking about when the Yankees seemed right on the brink was that I could not remember a single Yankees team that had collapsed down the stretch of a pennant race. I’m talking baseball history. I mean, you think about any of the longtime teams in baseball, and the collapses come quickly to mind — the ’64 Phillies, the ’69 Cubs, the ’78 Red Sox, the ’07 Mets, the ’51 Dodgers, the ’62 Dodgers, the ’87 Blue Jays, the ’95 Angels, the ’09 Tigers, the ’11 Red Sox, the ’11 Braves …

No Yankees. Can’t think of one. You can think of Yankees collapses in the playoffs — 2004 against the Red Sox, of course, and 2001 against the Diamondbacks as a start — but as far as I can tell the Yankees have never gagged at the finish line of a season. Maybe 1948, when they were tied for the lead and lost four of their last seven … but that’s hardly the same thing as a collapse.

This Yankees team, had they failed to win the division, would have become the first. But they did not fail. They won 13 of their last 17 and celebrated again. I underestimated their power. And I underestimated their glory. And after all these years, I should have known better.

25 Responses to Theeeeee Yankees Win

  1. Dinky says:

    Give the Yankees credit, especially Joe Girardi. It’s not easy to keep a team focused when so many players on the bench are used to playing every day, and might be playing every day for some weaker teams. I think Showalter or Melvin deserves Manager of the Year, and I hate the Yankees, but I think Girardi deserves some consideration.

    • brhalbleib says:

      “It’s not easy to keep a team focused when so many players on the bench are used to playing every day”. I would spin this fact a different way and suggest the reason that the Yankees’ bench vets always seem to exceed where they had slipped elsewhere is that the Yankees ask them only to do what they are good at, in situations where they are more likely to succeed. Thus Eric Chavez, not asked to be an everyday 3rd baseman and hit in the middle of the order, plays part time and looks like a better player. So does Raul Ibanez. Most teams couldn’t afford not to give players like that 600 plate appearances, thus exposing their weaknesses over the course of a season. The Yankees can and do (and have done so going back to Casey Stengel)

  2. I’d point out that Mariano Rivera was home grown and injured for the year, and Joel Pineda was acquired for a home grown prospect (Montero) and missed the year. If things had gone according to plan (never do!) there would have been two more healthy, non-big-money-acquired players on the starting roster, in addition to Gardner.

  3. Flax says:

    The 2000 Yankees gagged down the stretch – they went 3-15 from September 14, when they led the AL East by nine games, until the end of the season. But no one took it from them – they still won the division by 2.5 games as Boston, their closest competition, went just 10-9 over the same period – and they got into the playoffs, and ended up winning the World Series again anyway.

  4. Neither Nick Swisher nor Curtis Granderson were salary-dump trades, they were garden-variety trades, the latter one that helped all three teams involved, and neither Raul Ibanez (shoved into an everyday role when Gardner was hurt) nor Russell Martin count as “big-money” free agent signings. And three-fifths of the Yankee rotation are homegrown: Pettitte, Hughes, and Nova, as was one of the two main backup starters (Phelps).

  5. blovy8 says:

    There’s 2004, Joe. The biggest playoff collapse of all. And I’m a Yankee fan.

  6. blovy8 says:

    Yeah, you had that, but it’s still worse than Texas this year, Atlanta and Boston last year, etc. Those were just bad times to have your slump that probably evened out where those teams really were over the course of a whole season. 3-0 is really commanding, and it’s unmatched in the sport’s history.

  7. Unknown says:

    This should be an excellent lesson to avoid the dramatic and hyperbolic when the moment doesn’t call for it. “Nightmare?” Come on, Joe. You’re better than that.

  8. Unknown says:

    This should be an excellent lesson to avoid the dramatic and hyperbolic when the moment doesn’t call for it. “Nightmare?” Come on, Joe. You’re better than that.

  9. The Yankees were 2.5 games up on September 15, 1974, and 1 game up as late as September 23. That’s not exactly a collapse, but it’s not mythical winning, either.

  10. Rob Smith says:

    The Red Sox and Braves choked and collapsed last year. The Red Sox were awful this year, while the Braves won 94 games. I also think the Red Sox panicked, scapegoated, and then dumped good players. The Braves stayed the course and won with the same players as last year. I think panicking is worse than choking. The Braves choked in ’11, but they didn’t panic. The Red Sox choked, then panicked.

  11. Rob Smith says:

    The Phillies have that expensive lineup, but they were healthy the second half of the year and played well, even briefly getting back into the wild card hunt after an awful first half. This is where the Yankees are headed and you’ve already seen some of it. The team is dangerous ….. when their players can stay on the field. Age = injuries. Injuries to key players = losses.

  12. Rob Smith says:

    The Red Sox and Braves choked and collapsed last year. The Red Sox were awful this year, while the Braves won 94 games. I also think the Red Sox panicked, scapegoated, and then dumped good players. The Braves stayed the course and won with the same players as last year. I think panicking is worse than choking. The Braves choked in ’11, but they didn’t panic. The Red Sox choked, then panicked.

  13. Mark Daniel says:

    Maybe the Yankees uniform intimidates pitchers into throwing meatballs to Yankee hitters. Or perhaps opposing batters are so intimidated by the Yankees uniform that they tremble at the plate and make outs. Whatever it is, something is happening. It sure ain’t luck that the Yankees have made the playoffs 17 times in the last 18 seasons.

    The payroll provides for an environment where the pressure is not all on one player. As you said, guys like Andruw Jones have one job – hit home runs. Curtis Granderson probably was told not to worry about striking out and hitting poorly against lefties. In Detroit, he was continually harassed about those things. In NY, not an issue. This, to me, suggests good leadership coupled with an abundance of talent. You can probably throw an intimidation factor of the uniform in there as well, probably amounting to a handful of extra wins.

  14. Devon Young says:

    I’m perpetually perplexed at how people forget the ’93 Yankees collapse. At the end of the games of September 5, they were tied for 1st in the AL East (78-60). They’d spent much of the past 2 months fighting for 1st place. Then suddenly, they go 10-14, finishing 7 games back of the Blue Jays. That’s a pretty solid collapse, and stung hard in NY at the time. It’d been over a decade since the Yanks were in the playoffs, and it felt like they’d been resurrected to glory before they fell from the sky like Icarus. I guess the 5 championships since then, have blurred the hindsight of history.

  15. mgarbowski says:

    Another Yankee year that still stings is 1987. Halfway through the season they were 51-30, a .630 PCT and a 102 win pace. That’s the high water mark for the season, and since they only had a 5 game lead their collapse is not quite epic. On Jul 12 they were still 55-34, .617 PCT and 100 win pace heading into All-Star break, when they traded for Steve Trout, fresh off 2 straight complete game shutouts. Steinbrenner famously told manager Lou Piniella “Lou, I just won you the pennant.” Trout went 0-4 with a 6.60 ERA, the Yankees went 34-39 the rest of the season, ending at 89-73, 9 games back in 4th place. Obviously a lot went wrong besides Steve Trout, but whatever the cause, the second half of the season destroyed a stellar first half.

  16. Frank says:

    With the most recent expansion of the play-offs, we may have seen the last penant race “collapse” last year. Playing under 2011 rules, the Rangers would have had an historic collapse this year, ending in a tie for the wild-card with the Orioles – and even that would not have been the case had not the Orioles lost on the last day. But no one is talking about the Rangers collapse because they made the post-season by means of the expanded system. Thanks, Bud Selig, for removing what was left of the drama.

  17. Kwaz says:

    Frank Abagnale Sr.: You know why the Yankees always win, Frank?
    Frank Abagnale, Jr.: ‘Cause they have Mickey Mantle?
    Frank Abagnale Sr.: No, it’s ’cause the other teams can’t stop staring at those damn pinstripes.

  18. Glenn says:

    If money was no issue, Jeter would have been drafted by Houston. They couldn’t afford what he wanted and couldn’t risk having a number one pick refuse and go to college – Michigan in Jeter’s case.

  19. Wrong , Joe! I’m talking about your premise that the Yankees have never blown leads or collapsed in September. The Yankees definitely blew a lead in late September in the 1974 A. L. East race versus Baltimore. You can check and The Directory Of Major League Years to confirm my facts but here is a synopsis of that race.
    After the Boston Red Sox had led the division all summer the Yankees tied them for first place September 4 and took the division lead the next day.
    By September 12 the Yankees lead stood at 2.5 games over Boston but the third place Baltimore Orioles had cut the gap to move to 3.0 games back. They maintained those margins over Boston and Baltiomore through Sept. 14.On Sept. 16 the Orioles were in second 2.5 games back, Boston was 3.5 games back and from that point Boston fades and is no longer a factor.
    Baltimore ties the Yankees for the lead Sept. 20, but the Yankees gain it back the next day and are up by 1.0 games. That 1.0 game lead continued through September 23. The following day September 24, the Orioles take the division lead via a win and the Yankees loss of a doubleheader. although they now lead the division by just half a game the Orioles will never be caught. The Orioles lead is still a half game on Sept. 29 and they lead by one game through Sept. 30 with with two games games left in the season.
    On Oct. 1 The Orioles win a day game while the Yankees must win their night game in order to be one game behind with one game to play to have a chance to tie the O’s and send the season to a one-game playoff. They fail when the Milwaukee Brewers’ Sixto Lezcano drives in a key run to defeat the Yankees 19 game winner Doc Medich. The Orioles have clinched the division on the next to last day of the season after trailing the Yankees by three games September 12 -Sept. 14.
    This is the only exception I can find to your premise that the Yankees have never been caught late in the season.
    Still, I’d check my facts carefully before issuing a blanket statement like the one in your headline and lead about the Yankees late season invincibility!. – Dennis O.

    • John Autin says:

      Dennis, if what the Yanks did in 1974 was a September collapse, we’re working with very different definitions.

      – Going into September, they trailed by 3 games. They went 20-11 that month, but finished 2 games back.

      – Their best position that month was ahead by 2.5 games with 15 to play. They went 9-6 … but got blown away.

      – Yes, the Yanks lost the last 3 games they played against Baltimore to fall a half-game out with 12 to play. But they went 9-3 from there, which is usually enough to make up half a game. Baltimore went 10-1.

      – Their last day in 1st place was Sept. 22nd, ahead by a game with 8 to go. They went 5-3, but Baltimore went 8-0.

      The story of the ’74 AL East is Baltimore’s surge and Boston’s collapse. It was the Red Sox who led by 3 games entering September, then went 12-19. The Orioles were 6 games back and one game over .500, then went 25-9.

      (All data from

      • DennisK. Orlandini says:

        The Yankees took over first place on Sept. 4. They were leading the Orioles by 3 games on Sept. 14 and by 2.5 games on Sept 16. They still led the O’s by 1.0 games on Sept. 23. They only had to hold onto the lead through Oct. 2, but they couldn’t do it. They were clearly outplayed by Baltimore in the month of September and particularly over the final 10 days of the season.
        To say the Yankees have never blown a September lead is purely conjvenient amnesia on the part of Yankees fans and on the part of Posnanski and Bill Madden, who years ago also wrote an article similar to this one, extolling the Yankees for the fact that they never blew a September lead However, the “Inconvenient Truth” for these writers and Yankee fans is that they definitly blew the lead in1974 and lost a division title that was theirs for the taking..
        Posnanski and Madden should have researched their topic more diligently before issuing erroneous blanket statements.
        Attention Joe & Bill: Your Pinstripes are showing!

        -Dennis Orlandini

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