The trouble with compiling data for the purpose of proving a point is sometimes the final analysis doesn’t match the pre-conceived notion. When this occurs in the world of science, the hypothesis is rejected. In sports writing, however, facts need not get in the way of a good story.
In a recent article at Yahoo! Sports, Jeff Passan, whose body of work stands up against anyone in the business, fell into this trap. According to Passan, the genesis for his article was to test Brian Cashman’s contention that the Yankees have done a pretty good job developing pitching. In order to accomplish that goal, he looked at every pitcher who had debuted in the major leagues over the past five years and calculated the amount of value they provided (i.e., WAR) since then. Based on his data, the Dodgers rated best, the Athletics and Rangers were strong runners-up, and the Astros, Angels and Cubs were horrendous. What about the Yankees? Using overall WAR as a guide, their track record was actually pretty good, something Passan openly acknowledges. Vindication for Cashman? It would seem that way. And yet, despite the evidence he presents to the contrary, Passan strongly concludes, “over the last half-decade, the Yankees have developed pitching depth almost as poorly as any team in the major leagues.”
Don’t view this data in a vacuum. Coke was part of a trade that landed Curtis Granderson. Noesi went to Seattle for Pineda. The innings cutoffs are arbitrary, too. And considering the Yankees lock up a roster spot every time they spend big money in free agency, it is ostensibly tougher to crack their roster than most. – Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports!, February 19, 2013
In order to support what must have been a pre-conceived notion that the Yankees had done a poor job developing pitching, Passan ostensibly created two new categories (the number of pitchers with at least 25IP and 100IP for each franchise), and in each, the Bronx Bombers rated decidedly below par. If measuring the ability to develop pitchers based upon random innings thresholds seems arbitrary, that’s because it is. To his credit, Passan acknowledges as much. He even discloses a litany of other flaws in the underlying logic of his analysis. And, yet, the narrative was undeterred.
Note: Data includes Yahoo! Sports’ research for 2008 to 2012 plus 2007 compiled from BR.com
Source: Baseball-reference.com, Yahoo! Sports
Because Passan is so thorough explaining all the reasons why his data doesn’t support his conclusion, it isn’t necessary to offer a rebuttal for most of the claims in the article. However, it’s worth noting that if the study was extended by just one year, the Yankees would climb up the list dramatically, including in those categories used by Passan to downgrade their pitcher development prowess.
Since 2007, the 29 pitchers who debuted in pinstripes have compiled a bWAR of 27.4 while in the Bronx, good for eighth and ninth best in baseball, respectively. In addition, the Yankees move to the middle of the pack in terms of pitchers with at least 25 innings as well as total games started. And, when David Phelps records his next out, he’ll give the Yankees six hurlers with at least 100 innings, or the same as the Rays in the same span. What a difference a year makes. Is excluding the Yankees’ class of 2007 blurring the line? Once again, Passan doesn’t hide this slight of hand, but his argument relies upon the reader looking the other way.
Another important variable that Passan mentions, but dismisses, is the Yankees’ relatively low draft position throughout the last decade. From 2002 to 2011, Cashman only had seven regular first round selections and six supplemental picks, which is among the lowest during that span. In addition, the team’s highest draft position since 2002 was the 17th selection it had in 2005. Otherwise, the Yankees’ first pick has usually been toward the end of the first round, resulting in the lowest average first pick position in all of baseball. Although picking high in the draft doesn’t guarantee finding a future star, it’s much easier to cultivate players when selecting from the cream of the crop. It’s not easy to quantify how much of a handicap the Yankees’ draft position has been, but when evaluating the team’s success developing pitchers, this dynamic should be considered more carefully.
I feel we’re having a lot of success. We have produced pitching. Phil Hughes, a 16-to-18-game winner two of the last three years. Ivan Nova. David Robertson. Joba Chamberlain. Last year was David Phelps. This year is it Adam Warren?” – Brian Cashman, quoted by Yahoo! Sports, February 19, 2013
One last puzzling element to Passan’s article is the inference he makes from Cashman’s comments. Based on the tone of his takedown, you’d think the Yankees’ general manager had been overly boastful about the team’s ability to develop pitchers. However, the comments from Cashman cited in the piece were hardly chest pounding. In fact, they were rather fair. Passan’s own data proves it. And yet, for some reason, his prose took another tact.
Whether using Passan’s data or the information provide above, it’s hard to not conclude that the Yankees have done a solid, albeit unspectacular, job developing pitchers. Of course, that doesn’t make for a sexy headline. Perhaps that’s why Passan chose a contrived version of his story instead of alternatives, such as why teams like the Pirates and Astros have struggled to develop pitchers despite having relatively high draft positions? Apparently, even if the facts don’t support the narrative, a good story is too hard to pass up. In other words, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend, especially if it provides the opportunity to throw in a few snarky comments about the Yankees.