“What went wrong?” seems like a natural question given the fact that the Yankees’ 13-year streak of playoff appearances came to an end this season, but before we begin to sus out the answer to that inquiry, it’s worth asking, “How wrong did things go?” The answer might surprise those Yankee fans who had become spoiled by a playoff streak that was nearly as old as this fall’s high school freshmen.
To begin with, the Yankees had the fourth best record in the American League this year. Their 89-73 mark was a half-game better than that of the AL Central champion White Sox, who needed a tie-breaking 163rd game to pick up their 89th win. Over in the NL, just three teams won more than the Yankees’ 89 games. Joe Torre’s Dodgers, who took their skipper past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004, won just 84 games while playing in a division in which the other four teams had a combined .449 winning percentage. By comparison, the four non-Yankee teams in the AL East had a combined .535 winning percentage. Here are the aggregate winning percentages of each of baseball’s six divisions:
.535 AL East*
.515 NL Central
.501 AL Central
.490 NL East
.487 AL West
.463 NL West
*not including the Yankees’ .549
Playing in a division in which just one team had a winning percentage below .531, the Yankees had the toughest row to hoe in all of baseball in 2008. Even so, they performed at a 90-win pace against their own division—40-32 (.555)—splitting their season series against the Red Sox and Blue Jays and going 11-7 against both the Orioles and the pennant-winning Tampa Bay Rays. The Yanks were even better in interleague play (.556), and against the AL West (.563) despite once again struggling against the Angels, and stayed above .500 against the AL Central (.525). They had just two losing months all year, combining to be just three games below .500 in April and August, and played .582 ball after the All-Star break (a 94-win pace over a full season).
In fact, for all of the injuries and disappointing performances from young players that they endured this year, the Yankees won just five fewer games than in 2007 and actually won two more games than the 2000 Yankees, the last Bomber squad to win the World Series. Then again, that 2000 team was the only Torre-era Yankee team to win fewer than 92 games, and with the Rays having finally arrived atop the AL East, even 92 wins is unlikely to return the Yankees to the playoffs any time soon. Still, when asking what went wrong, it’s worth noting that, while the 2008 Yankees failed to live up to the standards of the franchise’s 13-year playoff streak, they didn’t miss by that much.
Given that, the answer to “what went wrong?” is surprisingly quick and easy: Jorge Posada got hurt, and the team couldn’t compensate for that loss because they were too busy compensating for other problems. With the lone exception of the injury to Posada, the Yankees were able to balance nearly every other set-back they experienced in 2008 with increased production elsewhere on the roster. Robinson Cano had a miserable season, losing 31.6 runs of VORP from 2007, but his 2007 production came playing next to a first-base collective lead by Doug Mientkiewicz, Andy Phillips, Josh Phelps, and Miguel Cairo. Healthy once again, Jason Giambi put together a fine final season in pinstripes, increasing the team’s first-base production by 35.5 VORP and thereby more than compensating for Cano’s losses.
Similarly, Hideki Matsui’s knee injury left the Yankees at a loss at DH for most of the second half of the season, but the acquisition of Xavier Nady at the trading deadline and a rebound season from Johnny Damon picked up that slack. Similarly, while Derek Jeter had something of an off year, he rebounded with a solid second half (.324/.388/.426), and his aggregate loses were largely made up by the gains of Bobby Abreu, who had an even stronger second-half, hitting .327/.408/.522. As a group, Jeter and the Yankees’ corner outfielders and designated hitters fell just two runs shy of their 2008 production, a miniscule margin that disappears into the gap between Cano’s losses at second base and Giambi’s gains at first base.
The one other glaring hole in the Yankee offense in 2008 was center field, where Melky Cabrera hit just .249/.301/.341 and Brett Gardner did even less in his stead. The trick there was that, as bad as Cabrera was in 2008, he was only marginally better in 2007, when he was not even a full win above replacement level. In other words, the Yankees didn’t have much to lose in center field, and they didn’t, dropping just a win and a half in center.
By comparison, Posada was the Yankees second-most valuable hitter in 2007, and the eighth-most valuable hitter in baseball, posting a 73.4 VORP. Limited to 195 plate appearances this year by a frayed labrum and rotator cuff tendonitis in his throwing shoulder, Posada managed just 8.1 VORP. Altogether, the Yankee catchers contributed roughly seven wins* in 2007 (with Jose Molina at 3.9 VORP and Wil Nieves at -6.4), but wound up costing the Yankees nearly a full win in 2008 (total -7.5 VORP, with only Posada in the black and Molina dragging the lot down with a -10.4 VORP), a total loss of nearly eight wins.
*ten runs of VORP are roughly equal to one win
No one expected Posada to repeat his outstanding 2007 season, but it was his regression that was supposed to be tempered by the anticipated rebounds from Damon, Abreu, and Giambi, or a potential mid-season acquisition such as Nady. Instead, those gains were eaten up by the injury to Matsui, the collapse of Cano and Cabrera, and Jeter’s regression. That Posada, rather than simply suffering some correction, flat out vanished from the team, was the fatal blow.
The one spot in the lineup missing from the above analysis is that belonging to Alex Rodriguez. Like Posada, Rodriguez, who led the majors with 96.6 VORP in 2007, was expected to suffer some correction this year, which he did, shedding nearly three wins worth of value, but still ranking sixth in baseball with a 65.6 VORP. Rodriguez’s losses were similarly uncompensated for by the rest of the lineup due to the need for those salves elsewhere, but unlike the eight wins lost at catcher, the three wins returned by Rodriguez were made up on the other side of the ball due to the improvement of the pitching staff.
Yes, you read that right. For all of the problems faced by the Yankee pitching staff in 2008—not the least of which were the foot injury that ended Chien-Ming Wang’s season in mid-June, Andy Pettitte’s poor second half (2-7, 6.23 ERA over his last 11 starts), and the struggles of and injuries to Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy—the Yankees were better at keeping opponents from scoring in 2008 than they had been in 2007.
To begin with, the loss of Wang was almost entirely compensated for by Joba Chamberlain’s move into the rotation. In 2007, Wang missed most of April due to a hamstring strain suffered at the end of spring training. As a result, he fell just shy of 200 innings. In 2008, Wang threw just 95 innings, but Chamberlain added 65 1/3 as a starter, leaving the Yankees just 40 innings shy of Wang’s 2007 total. What’s more, Chamberlain’s 65 1/3 innings were more valuable than Wang’s 95 according to SNLVAR*, and Chamberlain and Wang’s combined 4.8 SNLVAR fell just a half-win short of Wang’s 5.3 from 2007. Similarly, as poor as Pettitte’s season turned out to be, it was more than made up for by Mike Mussina’s improvement. Together, the two were actually a half-win better in 2008 (8.4 SNLVAR) than they had been in 2007 (7.9). Thus, the top three spots in the Yankee rotation were a draw, despite Wang’s injury and Pettitte’s struggles.
*Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Added over Replacement, a Baseball Prospectus alphabet soup stat that measures a starting pitchers’ value by using win expectancy, adjusting it according to the strength of the lineups he faced, and comparing that lot to replacement level; put simply, it’s adjusted wins over replacement
As for the back-end of the rotation, despite the struggles of Hughes (who got his SNLVAR in the black with a pair of comeback starts in September), Kennedy, and Kei Igawa (the only Yankee pitcher with a negative SNLVAR in each of the last two seasons), the rotation behind Mussina, Pettitte and Wang/Chamberlain was just 1.6 wins worse this year than in ’07, when a finally finished Roger Clemens and more effective Hughes were the primary contributors out of the fourth and fifth spots.
The real story of the 2008 Yankees, however, was the improvement of what proved to be a largely homegrown and/or team-controlled bullpen. Buoyed by an tremendous season from 38-year-old Mariano Rivera, 35 dominant innings from Joba Chamberlain, and a surprisingly strong four months from Kyle Farnsworth, but also by a diverse, fungible, and inexpensive assortment of minor league reinforcements, the 2008 bullpen was a whopping seven runs better than its 2007 counterpart. Those seven wins helped patch a lot of holes, including those 1.6 wins lost at the back of the rotation, the three wins lost to Alex Rodriguez’s natural regression, and even a small portion of Posada’s last production. In fact, if you do the math, you’ll see that the net result of all of this VORPing and SNLVARing is a loss of about five and a half wins, almost exactly what the Yankees experienced in declining from 94 wins to 89.
I’ll address exactly what lessons can be drawn from all of this as the Yankees and re-upped general manager Brian Cashman go about replenishing the roster in my next post.