By In Stuff

Yankees School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Every now and again — well, let’s face it, pretty much every day now — I get another email telling me that Vernon Wells — Vernon Bleepin’ Wells — just got another two hits with another homer with another three RBIs and so on.

The emails are from Michael Schur, Parks and Recreation executive producer, and the emails have a purpose: Michael is convinced that it is time that I just admit that I am wrong, and he is right about the New York Yankees being a magical species, not unlike house elves. He is fairly enraged that I will not just admit defeat. I picked the Yankees to collapse under their own weight this year. He thinks I’m a flat-earther who will not face the obvious truth — that the Yankees will always, continuously, endlessly, constantly, incessantly and unceasingly win forever and ever, amen. He thinks it is way past time for me to admit it doesn’t really matter who is actually ON the Yankees — doesn’t matter if every single baseball player on earth gets hurt and they are forced to have Shecky Greene hit second and play centerfield. In this case, Mike is convinced that Shecky Greene would hit .289 with 24 homers and win a Gold Glove.

His latest evidence for this Yankees sorcery is, of course, Vernon Wells, who at this moment for the Yankees is hitting .299/.349/.526 with nine homers — he’s ninth in the American League in home runs per at-bat after a career of never once being in the Top 10 in that category. He is roughly on pace for 100 runs and 100 RBIs, something he did only once, a long time ago, when he was 24 and full of promise.

Vernon Wells, the last two seasons, made a compelling a case for being the worst semi-regular player in baseball. I don’t think it was quite a winning case — it seems to me there are probably a half dozen players like Adam Dunn and the ever popular Yuniesky Betancourt* who were worse — but the point is he was in the discussion.

*Four times this year — FOUR TIMES THIS YEAR — the Milwaukee Brewers have hit Yuniesky Betancourt in their cleanup spot. There … um … you know … it seems … but … the thing … I’m sorry, the mind’s spluttering, I can’t even come up with a joke for this.

How bad was Wells? Well, usually you can’t define someone by a single number but Wells’ on-base percentage in 2011 and 2012 was .258. That is not just bad. That is legendarily bad. At the very core of offensive baseball is the game’s golden rule “Do not make outs.” Vernon Wells has been one of the great transgressors in baseball history.

Adding to the Wellsian knot was the seven-year, $126 million deal Toronto gave him beginning in 2008. Wells was a pretty good player in 2008, but he was also 29 years old and he only played 108 games. Bad signs sparked like fireworks. But by then the deal was signed and it was too late. He was fairly dreadful in 2009, a good player in 2010, and then the roof caved in, but not before Toronto managed to unload him on the Angels, who seem desperate to corner the market on terrible contracts. You can almost imagine an Angels-inspired movie, sort of the anti-Moneyball, with Bruce McGill as a GM shouting, “How in the heck did Philadelphia beat us on this terrible Ryan Howard contract? Were you guys even paying attention? Was the bank closed that day?”

Wells hit 25 homers for the Angels in 2011 but posted an astounding .248 on-base percentage, which was the lowest for a corner outfielder since the legendary George Barclay, nicknamed Deerfoot, posted a .241 OBP in 1904. Wells only played 77 games in 2012, hit about the same in those games, and then then Angels were so desperate to get rid of him they gave him to the Yankees and agreed to pay about 70% of his remaining contract.

It should be added that the Yankees were so injured and desperate, that they took Wells and agreed to pay 30% of his remaining salary, which still comes out to $13 million, which still would be a huge overpay for the Vernon Wells of the last two seasons.

But, Michael — a huge Red Sox fan who has watched such Yankees miracles from a front row seat — immediately predicted that Wells would end up having a really good year. His prediction was not based on Wells looking good in spring or being in the best shape of his life or anything like that. It was simple math. The Angels are in that low funk where everything they do is just kind of stupid. And the Yankees, of course, are magical.

And it seems that Michael, despite what seem to me obvious flaws in his thought process, is right again.

Not that he ever doubted it. Michael now includes a list of players in his Vernon Wells emails. You look at this list and decide:

1. Shawn Chacon. He was a generally struggling pitcher for the Rockies who in 2004 had gone 1-9 with a 7.11 ERA. The league slugged .500 against him that year. In July of 2005, the Yankees — who hovered only a few games over .500 and in second or third place all year and were desperate for starting pitching — traded for Chacon. His first start, he threw six innings of shutout baseball. His first seven appearances, the Yankees won six of them. They were battling for first place. And in mid September, Chacon threw back-to-back starts of eight innings, zero runs, as the Yankees overtook first place and, eventually, won 95 games. The league hit .225 and slugged .348 against Chacon with the Yankees.

The next year, Chacon returned to being generally struggling pitcher.

2. Aaron Small. A Michael Schur favorite. He was 33 years old and in that same year, 2005, and he had started all of three games in his big league career. He started nine games for the Yankees and the Yankees won eight of them. In September that year, he threw a five-hit shutout against Oakland and came in against Toronto in the second inning and threw 6 2/3 shutout innings. His record, that year, was 10-0.

The next year, he pitched 11 games with an 8.46 ERA and did not pitch another big league game.

3. Raul Ibanez. One of my favorite people in the game, Raul has had a nice career, but he was 40 years old his one year with the Yankees. He hit 19 homers in 384 at-bats. But veterans will sometimes do that, you know, swing for the fences and give a team a few home runs. What made Ibanez magical was the time. In October he was like a walking miracle. Against the Red Sox on Oct. 2, with the Yankees in a huge fight for their postseason lives, Ibanez hit a two-run homer to tie Boston in the ninth then hit a walk-off RBI single to win it in the 12th.

A week later, in the ALDS against Baltimore, he pinch-hit for A-Rod in the bottom of the ninth with the Yankees down one and hit the game-tying homer. Leading off the 12th, he homered again to win it.

Three days later, with the Yankees losing to Detroit by two in the ninth, he homered again to tie the score..

For about 10 days, Raul Ibanez was Roy Hobbs. “Could this have happened on any other team but the Yankees?” Michael asks.

4. Eric Chavez. He was a terrific player as a young man, but once the injuries started it seemed like they would never end. After winning six Gold Gloves and hitting 227 homers before he turned 30, Chavez did indeed turn 30 and for the next three years he played only 64 games and hit .222 with three homers. He was thoroughly done, and then the Yankees got him, Then, at age 34, last year, he hit 16 homers, slugged .496 and helped the Yankees reach the postseason again.

5. Ichiro. He was 38 years old last year.

Ichiro for Seattle in 2012: .261/..288/.353.

Ichiro for Yankees in 2012: .322/.340/.454

6. Bartolo Colon. He did not pitch at all 2010 and had not made 25 starts in a season in six years. He made 26 starts for the Yankees and the team won more than than half of them, and while there was all sorts of talk about HGH and stem cells and various other nefarious methods that Colon might have used to get back, Michael is convinced it was simply Yankees black magic.

Now, at this exact moment, the Yankees are by any objective measure a dreadful team. Look at a typical lineup.

Leading off: Brett Gardner (CF). Missed almost all of last year with injury.

Batting second: Robinson Cano (2B). Truly great player.

Batting third: Vernon Wells (LF), who the Angels paid $29 million to go away.

Batting fourth: Travis Hafner (DH), who is 36, and hasn’t slugged .500 in seven years. He’s slugging .500 now.

Batting fifth: Ichiro Suzuki (RF), who the Mariners dumped last year. Batting FIFTH?

Batting sixth: Jayson Nix (3B). Thirty-year-old on his fifth big league team, replacing injured Kevin Youkilis who was dumped by both Red Sox and White Sox last year.

Batting seventh: Lyle Overbay (1B). Thirty-six year old on his fifth team since 2010. He’s slugging .480.

Batting eighth: Alberto Gonzalez (SS). Thirty-year-old backup shortstop for five teams, he replaced Eduardo Nunez, who was hitting .200 while replacing Derek Jeter, whose ankle may or may not be getting better.

Batting ninth: Christ Stewart (Cat.). Thirty-one year old backup catcher for fifth organization.

Now, seriously, what if that team was playing in Kansas City. Or Seattle. Or Milwaukee. Take away Cano, and you can imagine it very easily. How many games would that team win? More to the point, how many would they lose? Ninety-five? A hundred? In New York, that lineup — and a pitching staff with 41-year-old Andy Pettitte and 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda trying to get the game to 43-year-old Mariano Rivera — is in first place with the best record in the American League.

I continue to tell Michael It won’t last. But the truth is, I’m losing faith in the science-based baseball world. I know that sooner or later, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter will return. And, I must admit, that’s magic even I have no choice but to believe in.

24 Responses to Yankees School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

  1. Ian says:

    Michael Schur says the exact same thing I’ve been saying for years. The Yankees simply can’t lose. Once a guy puts on the pinstripes, he becomes a winner.

    I had the same hunch when they acquired Vernon Wells. I knew he’d end up being a key contributor somehow. It’s just what they do. You can’t stop them. I hate it.

  2. Noe that this is ONLY true of the guys who WEREN’T expected to be good, as opposed to guys like Jaret Wright, Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez, Randy Johnson, A.J. Burnett etc., all of whom represented the taking on of big contracts, and were major disappointments.

  3. TJMac says:

    This is generally true, but what about the 80s / early 90s? I guess they lost the black magic mojo over that time.

  4. goldglove51 says:

    Ah, but Wright, Brown et. al. were pitchers, and they had the likes of younger Jeter, ARod, Posada, Bernie, etc., and only were factors every 5th day. This team, early on, reminded me to some extent of the ’96 Yankees, but upon further thought that team had the ‘core four’ in the first or second years of their careers, along with castoffs like Charlie Hayes, Wade Boggs, Cecil Fielder, etc. There isn’t much mystery about this years’ team…it’s pitching, and pitching, and then, pitching. Pettitte has found his fountain of youth, Kuroda continues to be one of the most underrated starters in the game, CC is CC, and even Hughes, recently, seems to have found a groove. Add to that the endgame trio of Joba, Robertson, and the nonpariel Mo, and you don’t need alot of runs to win.

  5. Bah, there is no magic. Here’s the deal: The Yankees can afford to play a player to be a part time player and other teams can’t. End of story. Tell you what, trade Jeff Francouer to the Yankees, he would be play only against LH pitching, would do well (career splits against lefties .289/.340/.477) and everyone would be saying, oh look the Yankees did it again. But the Royals (and most teams) cannot afford to pay Frenchy to play only 1/3 of the time, so he doesn’t succeed in KC.

  6. Frank says:

    Can’t help but wonder: If / when the regulars – Granderson, Tex, Jeter, and especially A-rod – come back, will the worm turn and the magic run out?

  7. KCJoe says:

    “For about 10 days, Raul Ibanez was Roy Hobbs”

    I have like Raul since the Royals gave him a chance to hit against lefties way back in ’99 and ’00. Great guy.

    BTW, Yankees still suck.

  8. blovy8 says:

    Ichiro is crappy this year; you can’t count him as a .254 hitting wizard who doesn’t walk. Nix is crappy, Nunez is crappy, the guys REPLACING them right now should even be worse. Gardner is a below-average offensive player getting the most at bats. Cano is worse than he was last year so far, that’s still good, but still. Hafner is a big lefty in NY, hitting only .260 and not facing lefties, the slugging for a month is not that surprising. Overpay stinks, but isn’t facing lefties either. I will grant Wells, obviously has no business being good. But this is the platooniest team going. If there were enough left handed pitching in the league Girardi would let Ben Francisco to set the record for the most useless at bats in a row.

  9. blovy8 says:

    Also, Joe, tell Schur he doesn’t get to complain after 2004 happened. That choke job should just about make up for any stuff he’s complaining about right now. It’s essentially what ever National League fan complains about with St. Louis.

  10. Richard S. says:

    I wonder if there’s anyone in the Yankees organization actually thinking that they should slow down the rehab of Jeter, Granderson, et al. and keep them on the DL longer because, with the way the team is playing right now, those guys might actually be *worse* than the current lineup…

  11. Joe says:

    You could write this exact column about the Cardinals. Cesar Cedeno / Chuck Finley / Will Clark, etc.

  12. Wilbur says:

    They said the same thing about the Yankees in the 50’s and early 60’s. They’d get strong production out of veterans thought to be washed up like Johnny Mize, Enos Slaughter, Eddie Robinson, Johnny Sain. Pitchers who were crap before and after their stint with the Yankees like Bob Turley, Don Larson, Luis Arroyo, Pedro Ramos.

    Something about those pinstripes …

  13. Pretty weird how they got rid of Ibanez and Swisher last season.. check my blog to read about it.

  14. Ross says:

    I think the fact that the Yankees can afford to pay big money for part-time players is a key point. I’ve argued for a long time that teams need to take advantage of more platoons, but they allow egos and the concept of “starters” to actually cause less effectiveness.

    For example, league average hitting splits last year were .253/.317/.402 (.719 OPS). Alfonso Soriano was a very productive hitter according to that standard: .262/.322/.499 (.821 OPS) with 32 home runs and 33 doubles. He had 466 PA against RHP and 149 PA against LHP, with very little difference in splits. He made $18 million dollars.

    If I look around, I can find guys like Scott Hairston ($1.1 million 2012 salary) and Brandon Moss (picked up off waivers, made ML minimum). I can save over $16 million platooning these two guys and get great production:

    Giving Hairston 149 PA strictly against lefties, we’d have a .286/.317/.550 line (his 2012 splits vs. LHP) with 41-for-142 batting, 7 walks, 13 doubles and 8 home runs. Giving Moss 466 PA against righties, he’d hit .290/.363/.646 on 122-for-422 batting with 44 walks, 39 HR and 33 doubles.

    The total stats for that platoon if inserted into Soriano’s place: .289/.347/.622, 51 walks, 47 HR and 46 doubles. That would be MLB’s best slugging percentage and the .969 OPS would tie with Giancarlo Stanton for 4th in MLB. 47 homers would lead the league and 46 doubles would rank 6th. Basically, you’d have the NL MVP for under $2 million.

    I understand that these are two guys with very pronounced platoon splits that had career years, but literally any team could have had Moss and Hairston may not have signed on for only 25% of the plate appearances, but perhaps for a little extra money he would (and even if not, there are no shortage of guys who hit lefties well). You could plug in John Mayberry, Jr. on his $517k salary; he hit .271/.317/.494 with 8 HR and 13 doubles in 180 PA vs. lefties last year. So there you have an MVP platoon for under $1 million.

  15. Chris M says:

    In that second to last paragraph you suggest that those guys would suck in KC, Milwaukee, Seattle, etc., but put them in New York and they succeed. As a Mets fan, I just want to make sure to point out that it is most certainly not a New York thing, but a Bronx thing. Queens seems to have the exact opposite effect on players.

    • Brian Klein says:

      I saw someone at Citi rocking a “Vaughn 42” jersey last week. Might as well have Bonilla in the OF these days since they’re still paying him and well, Ankiel was just signed.

  16. No, it’s voodoo. The players who were great elsewhere but not in NY (i.e. Burnett) simply refused to drink the blood of Home Run Baker, noted warlock.

    Seriously though, it was obvious Wells would do well. I’m a serious Yankee-hater, but even at their (seemingly) lowest ebb this year, I figured they’d make the playoffs. By all reason and analysis, no way – but they will.

  17. Unknown says:

    So, we’re talking here about veteran bounce-back years mostly. Do the Yankees have some amazing ability to pick the right players who can bounce back from a crummy season? Like many Yankee questions, the answer is best explained by the Yankees simply having the deck loaded in their favor. Let’s delve in, shall we?

    1) The money. It all starts with the money. Free agents mostly choose the best monetary offer. Thus, the Yankees get first dibs at any aging FA bounce-back player. So the odds are already stacked in their favor and the Yankees get the cream of the crop. Travis Hafner? He used to slug .600. Contrast that with the A’s, who have long used a similar strategy (aging vets), but had to settle for a Yankee cast-off in Hideki Matsui two years ago.

    2) The money, part 2. If the Yankees do take on a bum, well they can cut bait and try again. A.J. Burnett was a bust, so the Yanks dumped him and went and grabbed Hiroki Kuroda instead. They’re still paying Burnett $8.5 million this year. Add that to the $15 million Kuroda’s making for 2013 and the true cost for that #2 pitcher slot is actually $23.5 million.

    I LOVED the scene between Beane and Justice from the Moneyball movie:

    Billy Beane: Oh, you’re special?
    David Justice: You pay me seven million bucks a year, man. So, yeah. Maybe I am a little bit.
    Billy Beane: No, man. I ain’t paying you seven. Yankee’s are paying half your salary. That’s what the New York Yankee’s think of you. They’re paying you three and a half million dollars to play against ’em.

    3) Right guy in the right role. Many posters above have mentioned platooning ability. With endlessly deep rosters, the Yankees can afford to give veterans more off days and play them in favorable match-ups. The Yankees can make wise baseball moves. But that doesn’t make them smarter, just better able to put theory to practice.

    4) Depth. This ties to money as well, but you’re all tired of hearing that. When Rivera went down last year, well thank goodness Rafael Soriano was there to fill in, and at a mere cost of $11 million that year. It cost the Yankees a mere $250,000 per save that year.

    The Yankees aren’t stupid. I’d love to see a full list of team contracts that are “good” vs. “bad”. Unlike, say, the Royals, the Yankees do a pretty good job evaluating talent. But “bad” for many teams is tied to both production and money. For the Yankees, it’s purely a production question, so it’s that much easier. The Yankees have the best access to the best players, a near-limitless ability to replace players, and mistakes just don’t hurt them like they hurt other clubs. Joe, your last line was a typo. Here, I’ll fix it:

    “And, I must admit, that’s MONEY even I have no choice but to believe in.”

  18. JGA says:

    It is undoubted that putting on a Yankees uniform instills the anticipation – nay, expectation – that you WILL win, you WILL be a great player. It can’t help though, to have a ‘rigged’ stadium for a leftie like Ibanez. And though it is bad form to bring it up (what the heck, if the CHB can bring it up, so can I) how could it be that a couple of years ago, 6 Yankees’ players, all in their mid-30’s, are having career-like years? Not statistically probable. Could it be they’ve got a really sophisticated trainers adept at avoiding detection of chemical ‘black magic’? They certainly would be rich enough to afford it…

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