Saturday, August 28, 2004

Mystery Men 

Steve Karsay joined the Yankees on Toronto on Thursday. He had a successful bullpen session before Friday's game. He is expected to be activated when rosters expand on September 1.

Jason Giambi's comeback has been slowed by a groin pull and an upper respatory infection, but he took 30 swings on Friday.

As for the 25 men on the active roster, since my last post on the Yankees' late-season swoons the team has gone 4-1, scoring 5.8 runs per game and allowing 4.6, both of which are superior to their full-season rates. Their next 18 games are against the Blue Jays, Indians, Orioles, Devil Rays and Royals. The Red Sox may be hotter than a hot dog in hell, but they're still 5 1/2 back and starting Tuesday will play nine straight games against the three AL West teams battling them for the Wild Card. There's no good reason that the Sox should be within striking distance come those final six games against the Yankees in late September.

posted by Cliff at 4:03 PM

Monday, August 23, 2004

So Swoon? 

With yesterday's 4-3 victory, the Angels became the first team to sweep the Yankees since the Mets in early June and just the third on the season (the formerly infamous Red Sox series in April rounding out the trio). The Yankees have now lost six of their last seven games to contenders as the Red Sox have won six straight from the White Sox and Blue Jays, knocking five games off the Yankees' lead in the AL East which now stands at a mere 5 1/2. I'll take a look at what ails the Yanks in a future post, but before I do, this sort of late-season swoon seems rather familiar coming from the Joe Torre Yankees. What follows are the August and September winning percentages of the eight previous Torre teams followed by their worst run of games in each month in parentheses. For comparison's sake, each team's overall winning percentage also listed:

2003 (.623):
Aug: .586 (5-7, 3-5)
Sep: .667 (1-4)

2002 (.640):
Aug: .607 (4-6)*
Sep: .704 (1-4)*
*both runs began the previous month

2001 (.594):
Aug: .517 (2-6)
Sep: .640* (1-4)
*includes 11 October games

2000 (.540):
Aug: .600 (2-4)
Sep: .433 (3-15)

1999 (.605):
Aug: .655 (3-5)
Sep: .548* (1-6)
*includes 3 October games

1998 (.704):
Aug: .688 (2-6)
Sep: .593 (1-5)

1997 (.593):
Aug: .621 (2-5)*
Sep: .607 (0-6)*
*a single win on 8/31 separated the Aug and Sept runs

1996 (.568):
Aug: .433 (0-5, 2-7)
Sep: .593 (1-3)

In every year but 1997 and 1998 the Yankees played one of the last two months below their overall pace and the other above that pace. That's not particularly unusual. In baseball (as elsewhere) you arrive at a final average or percentage by playing both better and worse than that final number. But let's look at these closer.

First the exceptions: In 1997, the only Torre team to settle for a wild card played slightly better than average in both of the last two months (they won the wild card by 12 games but fell two short of the Orioles in the AL East). In 1998, when they won 114 games, they played below their pace in the final two months with a tremendously disappointing September that was .107 points below their final winning percentage. That month they split two game series with the A's, Devil Rays and Red Sox, dropped two of three in Chicago and lost three of four to the Blue Jays at home. August was actually their second worst month of the season, .043 points below their third-"worst" .731 June, which points to the fact that in 1998 these "disappointments" came more from the team having set an impossibly high standard for itself than from legitimately poor play. Still, had they played "mere" .700 ball in September, the Yankees would have finished the season with 117 wins, which would still stand as the most regular season wins by a team in major league history. Instead they only broke the AL record, and lost it three years later to the 116-win Mariners.

Getting back to the other six seasons, of the six sub-standard months listed, two of them were truly dreadful, those being the two months that the Yanks failed to even play .500 ball: August 1996 and September 2000. Curiously, they had a .433 "winning" percentage in both months. In August 1996 they lost five of nine series (to the Tigers, White Sox, Angels and two to the Mariners), splitting a seventh with the Royals. Their real problem that month was the Mariners who went 6-1 against them on the month, outscoring them 19-7 in a three-game sweep in Seattle. Fortunately, the Yanks had some room in the East as the Orioles had just had played .407 ball in July and the Red Sox were at a mere .448 on the season through the end of July. The Yankees recovered to match the Orioles record in September and win the East by four games, while the O's politely beat out those pesky M's for the wild card by 2 1/2 games.

September 2000 was a very different story and is the near-collapse that haunts the Torre Yankees whenever they have a bad streak in the season's final months. After playing .600 ball in August, the Yankees entered September with a record of 74-56 (.569), a 5 game lead over the Red Sox and a 5 1/2 game lead over the Blue Jays in the AL East. They then won 10 of their first 13 games in September to push their record to 84-59 on Sept. 13. To the Yankees' great fortune, the Red Sox and Blue Jays went 6-7 and 5-7 respectively during those first 13 days of September, giving them leads of 9 and 9 1/2 games over their two closest rivals. I say "great fortune" because the Yanks then won just 3 of their remaining 18 games as they were outscored a mind-bending 148-59 by the Indians, Blue Jays, Tigers, Devil Rays and Orioles, the last two of whom swept them as the Yankees finished the season with a seven game losing streak. Saving the Yankees' hides was the fact that the Blue Jays, who did sweep the Yanks in Toronto in late September, lost 8 of their last 10 to the Devil Rays, Orioles and Indians, while the Red Sox were unable to take direct advantage of the Yankees swoon and won just ten of nineteen against other opponents during that span. As a result, the Yankees held on to win the East by a mere 2 1/2 games over the Red Sox (4 1/2 over Toronto). That that team then gathered itself enough to go 11-5 on it's way to a third-straight World Championship is nothing short of remarkable.

The Torre Yankees' third and fourth biggest swoons came in August 2001 when they played 77 points worse than their final record and September 1999 when they played 57 points worse than their final record. In neither of the previous two seasons have the Yankees had a late-season swoon that differed from their final by more than 37 points.

What does this all mean? Well, one could notice that the larger the swoon, the better the Yankees seem to do in the postseason, but I'm not convinced that's a trend worth pursuing. Rather, the tendency for the Joe Torre Yankees to suffer late-season swoons does not seem to be imaginary, though they always seem to hold on to their playoff positions, which might be somewhat reassuring to some of you, though I'm not entirely sure it should be. In fairness, I should compare these numbers to the August and Septembers of the other 48 playoff teams from this period to get a better idea of how unique this tendency truly is. No time for that now, unfortunately.

As for what ails the current home nine, they've lost six of their last seven, the one win being a wild 13-10 comeback victory in Minnesota. In those six loses they've scored an average of 1.83 runs and allowed an average of 6.17 (again, this is not counting the ten runs scored by the Twins on Thursday, which pushes the seven-game average to 6.71). On the season, the Yankees have allowed 4.97 runs per game and scored 5.5 runs per game, which means that while they've been suffering through some poor pitching (which can be explained in part by rusty starts from Vazquez and Mussina and what may be the last start Esteban Loaiza makes for the Yankees for a while), their offense (which itself can be partly explained by the four-game suspension served by Alex Rodriguez) has been a more significant problem. Of course, facing the Indians in six of their next ten games could reverse this problem. Ultimately, 19 of 30 games in September against the Orioles, Devil Rays, Royals and Blue Jays could solve all of their problems, pushing those final six against the Red Sox back into the "irrelevant" category. Of course, that's why they play em. Stay tuned . . .

posted by Cliff at 1:24 AM

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