What’s wrong with Dellin Betances? After another meltdown, that question has been echoing throughout the Yankee Universe, but it’s really no mystery. Betances has been the victim of his own success, and the Yankees’ over-dependence on him.

The knee jerk reaction to Betances’ late season struggles has been to question his mental makeup. Maybe he doesn’t have what it takes to pitch in the ninth inning, some have asked? Others have suggested the big righty’s inability to hold runners and throw to bases are cause for blame. These are both plausible theories, but only if you ignore the evidence.

Betances has always been slow to the plate. His difficulty throwing to bases is also well established. Before this month, however, neither of those deficiencies mattered much. Opposing hitters had a hard enough time simply making contact, much less reaching base. So, what changed? Was it the pressure of the ninth inning?

In his first 14 games since being named the closer, Betances converted nine of 10 save opportunities, and did so in spectacular fashion. His 0.57 ERA with 25 strikeouts and only five walks doesn’t exactly resemble a pitcher battling jitters in the final frame. If Betances’ struggles are really rooted in an inability to handle the closer’s role, it seems a little curious that it took over a month for this shortcoming to manifest.

Before and After: Betances’ Performance Since Become Closer on Aug. 1
Note: After period begins with 40-pitch outing on September 6, the first time in his career that Betances pitched on three straight days.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

The only thing that has changed with Betances over the last few weeks is how the Yankees have used him. Since becoming manager, one of Joe Girardi’s cardinal rules has been to avoid using a reliever on three straight days. There are always exceptions, but this steadfast belief has given Girardi a well-deserved reputation for deftly managing the bullpen. And that’s what makes his recent use of Betances particularly baffling.

Before this month, Betances had never pitched on three straight days. Now, he has done it twice. On the first occasion, the hard throwing right hander was brought into a game with a three-run lead and then allowed to throw a near career-high 40 pitches. A high leverage situation might have justified making an exception to the three-day rule, but the Yankees had more than enough cushion to back off. Instead, they wound up pushing Betances to the limit. And then, 10 days later, they did it again. Instead of learning from his mistake, Girardi doubled down by bringing the righty into another low leverage save opportunity. With one out, no men on, and another three-run lead, Girardi hit the gas, and Betances crashed once again. Continue Reading »

Despite providing instant gratification, debilitating long-term deals have forced the Yankees into a prolonged period of mediocrity. That’s the argument the organization has used to explain its relative underinvestment in the team, and which many fans and most in the media have adopted as infallible, conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, all of the available evidence contradicts that claim, with the latest rebuttal coming most emphatically from C.C. Sabathia.

After two seasons plagued by injury and poor performance in 2014 and 2015, Sabathia’s contract became a focal point for those who argue that long-term deals are detrimental to long-term success. It was expected that the Yankees would have to throw good money after bad and shell out another $50 million to the big lefty without getting anything back in return. Instead, what they ended up getting was their money’s worth.

Sabathia’s fWAR heading into his last start of the season is 2.5, which seems modest, until you realize it ranks among the top 60 in the majors and stands above such names such as Zack Greinke, Jeff Samardzija, and Jordan Zimmerman. Why is that trio relevant? Before getting back to that question, it’s worth noting fangraphs.com values Sabathia’s contribution at around $20 million, which isn’t the black hole most expected from the Yankees’ $25 million investment.

WAR-Based Evaluation of C.C. Sabathia’s Contract
Source: fangraphs.com

Over the course of his Yankees’ tenure, which includes a seven-year deal signed in 2009 as well as two years added as part of an extension, Sabathia has provided the Yankees with $197 million worth of value in the regular season alone. In return, the Bronx Bombers have paid the lefty $186 million. Even before considering his post season contribution, the Yankees have come out ahead. Throwing in a championship for good measure only sweetens the deal.

Several common mistakes are made when fans and media evaluate long-term deals. The most obvious one occurs when they ignore the cumulative value provided and only focus on the backend. As it turns out, Sabathia has managed to justify his expense in the waning years of the deal, but even if he had struggled this year, the overall value of his contract would have been commensurate with the cost.

C.C. Sabathia’s Extension Compared to 2016 Free Agent Deals


Note: Samardzija’s 2016 salary includes signing bonus.
Source: fangraphs.com

The second mistake results from ignoring the inflationary pressure on baseball salaries and the inevitable need for teams to fill out their roster. And that brings us back to the trio mentioned above. Had the Yankees not extended Sabathia’s deal in 2011, they would have been on the market for a veteran starter this past winter, and the likes of Greinke, Samardzija, and Zimmerman would have headed the list. It took over $400 million in commitments to secure those three pitchers, which makes the final two years tacked on to Sabathia’s contract more than a reasonable alternative.

Conventional wisdom was wrong about Alex Rodriguez. It was wrong about Mark Teixeiria. And, now it’s been proven wrong about C.C. Sabathia. The Yankees’ demise hasn’t been the result of too many expensive, long-term deals. The problem has been having too few. Who knows? With more bad contracts like those signed by Robinson Cano and Max Scherzer, the Yankees’ could be proving the conventional wisdom wrong instead of wallowing in its ignorance.

Gary Sanchez should be the Yankees’ biggest concern heading into 2017. Sounds absurd, right? After all, what trouble could come from a catcher who hits like Babe Ruth and throws like Johnny Bench?

The trouble with Gary Sanchez isn’t the catcher himself, but the degree to which his unprecedented performance may be overshadowing the significant flaws that remain on the team. Many theories have been advanced to explain the Yankees’ improbable resurgence after surrendering at the deadline, but the only credible explanation is Sanchez. Without him, and his historic debut, the Bronx Bombers would probably be close to the bottom feeders that many expected after their late-July purge.

Gary Effect: Yankees’ Offensive Performance With and Without Sanchez
Source: baseball-reference.com

If you remove Sanchez’ performance from the team’s offensive totals, the sudden improvement mostly dissipates, and that’s without replacing his production. Although it’s possible that more at bats for Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Austin Romine, etc. would have mitigated the absence of Sanchez, their performance this year suggests the problem would have been exacerbated. Also, while other players have contributed during the Yankees’ recent hot streak, the aggregate aside from Sanchez has pretty much been the status quo. So, as the Bronx Bombers’ brain trusts looks to 2017, they shouldn’t assume Sanchez will continue his extraordinary performance, and more importantly, overlook the fact that the rest of the team remains offensively deficient.

If the Yankees ride Gary Sanchez’ production from a white flag to a checkered one, the accomplishment won’t be lessened by its concentration around one player (two players if you include Masahiro Tanaka’s season long performance on the pitching side). However, simply being in the wild card race isn’t worthy of a victory lap. And, the team’s resurgence since unloading at the deadline should not be viewed as a harbinger for next year. The Yankees still have a lot of work to do during the offseason, and if the goal really is to build an “uber team”, Sanchez is going to need a lot help.

Flags fly forever, and nowhere have more championship banners been hoisted than at Yankee Stadium. This year, however, the flag flying in the Bronx is a white one. With the Yankees fresh off their first in-season surrender in nearly a quarter-century, there has been a lot of focus on how well Brian Cashman performed at the deadline, but what the Yankees do from this point forward will have more to say about how quickly they re-emerge as an elite team than the trades they made last month.

Before looking ahead, it’s worth debunking a popular narrative about what brought the Bronx Bombers to the point of surrender. The argument being advanced by the organization and parroted in the media is the bill had finally come due on the Yankees’ long run of success. According to this logic, the Bronx Bombers’ recent dominance had been built on an unstainable level of spending that was further complicated by rule changes designed to foster competitive balance. So, after four years of valiantly trying to compete amidst inevitable decline, the Yankees finally swallowed their pride and acquiesced to a rebuild. It’s a compelling story…if only it were true.

The Yankees were not forced into the role of sellers because of the excesses of the past. On the contrary, cutbacks in the relative level of player investment is why the team has gone from chasing pennants to waving the white flag. Had the Yankees made the right free agent acquisitions over the past few years, the team could have tacked on several more seasons to its run without exceeding the investment levels of the recent past. Instead, the front office promoted profit over performance, and mediocrity became the middle ground. That strategy failed, and the end result wasn’t a contender, but an organization pretending to be one.

The purpose of re-litigating the past isn’t to say “I told you so”, but point out that the Yankees’ in-season capitulation doesn’t have to happen again anytime soon, including in 2017.  As long as the team is willing to use its resources, which now include not only more money than any other club, but more prospects as well, the Bronx Bombers can hasten their transition and even compete for a championship while the course is being corrected.

Where do the Yankees go from here? Before the Yankees can look ahead to next year, they need to take stock of the roster, at both the major and minor league levels, and decide which players are part of the long-term future. That includes taking a look at prospects like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Tyler Austin, but also seeing if Alex Rodriguez has anything left in the tank. Although the idea of simply releasing Arod has started to gain steam, the fact remains that his contract will represent an adjusted average value (AAV) of $27.5 million in 2017. Clearly, if Rodriguez has anything left, the Yankees have millions of reasons to find out.

Arod and the kids will be the focus of the last two months, but the Yankees also need to determine the long-term plan for some of their more entrenched veterans. Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract is unmovable, but there may be wiggle room with Starlin Castro, Brian McCann, and Brett Gardner, all of whom are signed through at least 2018. With Sanchez on the rise, and Judge and Clint Frazier close to cracking the outfield, McCann and Gardner, in particular, seem expendable. Presumably, the Yankees will spend the off season trying to move both players, and, if successful, it would better align the team’s needs with the upcoming free agent market.

It’s possible that, after this season concludes, the Yankees will determine 2017 is a lost cause. This would particularly be the case if the likes of Judge and Sanchez appear not quite ready. If so, then any additions in the winter should be purely cosmetic (and, more importantly, inexpensive and short term). However, if the front office believes there is a reasonable basis for optimism next season, it shouldn’t be afraid to use its resources. Whether that’s a trade for a top starter and/or a free agent acquisition, the right combination of moves could set the Yankees up for a quick rebound without sacrificing their financial and roster flexibility for the much coveted 2018-19 free agent class.

2017 Yankees

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Alex Rodriguez’s ninth inning single in last night’s game did more than just give Yankee fans false hope for a late rally. It also matched the career hit total of Dave Winfield, another Yankee legend whose many accomplishments in pinstripes have been surpassed by a lack of appreciation for them.

The historical ties that bind Rodriquez and Winfield are much stronger than the temporary tethering of a shared ranking on the all-time hit list. Though seldom compared, there are other strong links between the two players, and the resultant chain of events reveals many interesting, and unfortunate, parallels.

Top-10 Yankees Hitters, Ranked by OPS+ (minimum 3,000 PAs)

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Winfield and Arod came to the Bronx (Winfield directly, and Arod via Texas) as superstars, but the spotlight intensified because of the historic nature of the contracts they signed. Record setting in terms of both length and compensation, the contracts would come to define both players almost as much as the performances that had merited them.

As if the expectations created by their salaries weren’t high enough, Arod and Winfield had the added pressure of joining teams that had sustained periods of success before their arrival. Winfield’s Yankees had just won 100 games in 1980, and were only a few seasons removed from consecutive championships. The team Arod joined had won six consecutive division titles, four championships and six pennants. In other words, neither could be the straw that stirred the drink. They could only stir it bad.

Winfield and Arod were good soldiers when they first donned the pinstripes. Despite being superior defenders at their incumbent positions, each ceded ground to the existing Yankee legend who occupied their space. These magnanimous gestures, however, didn’t free Winfield and Arod from unfair comparisons. For Winfield, Reggie Jackson became the immediate benchmark against which his performance would be measured. Looking over Arod’s shoulder was Derek Jeter. And, that was just during the regular season. In the postseason, Winfield’s bar was set by Mr. October, but, you could have forgiven Arod if he wasn’t impressed by that challenge. He had to keep up with Mr. November.

Has anybody seen Reggie Jackson? I need Mr. October. All I have is a Mr. May, Dave Winfield.” – George Steinbrenner, quoted September 1985

Although the entire team struggled, Arod bore the brunt of the Yankees 2004 collapse.

Although the entire team struggled, Arod bore the brunt of the Yankees 2004 collapse.

Unfortunately for Winfield and Arod, their immediate postseason performance, or lack thereof, would mark them with a scarlet letter. Despite very successful regular seasons in 1981 and 2004, respectively, not to mention big contributions during the early postseason rounds, Winfield and Arod struggled during the biggest moments of their respective October baptisms. Winfield’s stain was going 1-22 in the 1981 World Series. Arod’s crime was a meager 1-12 in the final three games of a historic collapse in the 2004 ALCS. Winfield would eventually become derisively known as Mr. May, while Arod would forever be dogged with the unfair reputation of not being clutch. The transition from superstars to scapegoats was quick, but the stigma lasted much longer, as Winfield and Arod would continue to endure unfair criticism and disproportionate blame throughout their careers. Continue Reading »

Democrats and Republicans agree upon very little these days, but, luckily for Major League Baseball, protecting the national pastime seems to be one area of bi-partisanship. How else to explain a bill sponsored by a Kentucky Republican and Illinois Democrat that is designed to exempt low-income workers from protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)? Apparently, sports and politics make the strangest bedfellows.

In a rare show of Congressional cooperation, Reps. Brett Guthrie and Cheri Bustos have co-authored H.R. 5580, better known as the “Save America’s Pastime Act”. Who could argue with that? As it turns out, just about every professional baseball player who isn’t a member of the MLBPA because what H.R. 5580 hopes to save the American pastime from is having to pay THEM a higher wage.

The impetus for the bill stems from an existing lawsuit that has sought to apply the terms of the FLSA to minor leaguers. Led by former pitcher turned lawyer Garret Broshuis, the litigation has been winding its way through the court system since 2014, picking up dozens of plaintiffs along the way. Recent revisions to the FLSA, which upped the overtime ante for eligible employees, have only added to the potential impact of the pending case. So, instead of rolling the dice on the outcome of a trial, baseball has sought a legislative circumvention, and found a bi-partisan Congress willing to help.

Not surprisingly, news of the “Save America’s Pastime Act” has been met with near universal and justifiable derision from outside the industry. However, Reps. Guthrie and Bustos aren’t the real villains, and the Act itself isn’t the cause of injustice. Rather, what makes the current predicament faced by most minor leaguers so unfair are the antiquated binds of baseball’s labor system.

MLB has argued that its minor leaguers should be exempt from the FLSA because they are essentially apprentices who are learning on the job with the hope of earning a rare, but lucrative opportunity in the future. It’s hard to argue with that description. And yet, it fails because, at the beginning of their careers, when they are most vulnerable, professional baseball players have no say in the terms of their employment. Because of the Rule IV draft and service time confinements dictated by the vestiges of the reserve clause, a player essentially becomes property at the beginning of his career. The idea of players as apprentices sounds quaint, until you acknowledge they aren’t opting for that arrangement, but are being forced to accept it.

The exploitation of minor league players seems to cry out for intervention. However, though well-intentioned, those who argue for higher wages in the minors often overlook the potential consequences. There’s no way to deny that the application of FLSA rules to minor league salaries would significantly alter the current structure of the system. Paying players by the hour would be untenable (the cost of compliance alone could be prohibitive), and even bumping everyone up to the at least $913 per week prescribed by law would take a financial toll. Some will argue that as a nearly $10 billion industry, MLB could easily absorb the cost, but that doesn’t mean it will. So, unless one is prepared to advocate for a much more dramatic change to baseball’s labor rules, a narrow focus on monthly salary not only misses the point, but has the potential to do more harm than good.

Hypothetical Impact of Applying FLSA Rules to Rookie League Labor Cost (Pulaski Yankees)

Players Current Salary/Month Months Total
32  $1,100.00 3  $ 105,600.00
Players FLSA Salary/Week Weeks Total
32  $913.00 12  $350,592.00

Note: Salary excludes potential college scholarship funding and $25 per diem on the road.
Source: milb.com, Department of Labor

Take the Yankees, for example. The franchise currently has five rookie ball affiliations. Under the current financial structure, that might make sense, but what if FLSA rules are implemented? If so, labor costs for a single Rookie League team could more than triple (not to mention the ripple effects at higher levels), and, at that point, the Yankees might decide four teams were more than enough. Who knows, maybe the Pulsaki Yankees wouldn’t make the cut? If the Yankees pared down their rookie ball affiliations, not only could a small town in Virginia lose its team (and the seasonal jobs it creates), but those players who weren’t relocated could face a much earlier end to their big league dream. For example, does Icezack Flemming need a roster spot more than he needs a living wage at this point in his career? Although it’s a shame such players often have to pick between the two, it’s better than not having a choice at all.

Good intentions alone do not solve problems, especially when it’s the government extending a helping hand. Minor league players absolutely deserve fairer pay, but any attempt to bring about change must carefully consider the ramifications. That’s why the answer isn’t a court mandated settlement or a legislative exemption. A better way to address the current inequities would be in MLB’s upcoming collective bargaining agreement. Between millionaire players and billionaire owners, there should be a way to collectively provide for fairer compensation in the minor leaguers without jeopardizing the system that has served the game so well. Otherwise, the sport will deserve whatever solution government can inflict upon it.

The trade deadline is still six weeks away, but the Yankees are fast approaching a big decision. Or, at least they should be. Although an upcoming stretch against bad right handed pitching has thrown the Bronx Bombers a life line that will last until the end of June, the team’s decision makers should be focused on lessons learned from the last three years and two months, not the next eight games.

No More DMC? The Yankees may soon be forced to choose between marketing and rebuilding.

No More DMC? The Yankees may soon be forced to choose between marketing and rebuilding.

If the Yankees continue to struggle against the Twins and Rockies, there should be no doubt about how the team approaches the trade deadline. However, even if the Yankees were to breeze through what is by far the easiest portion of their schedule, Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner should at least begin to lay the groundwork for a grand scale fire sale. Granted, the Yankees have never been an organization to throw in the towel so early in a season, but until recently, they weren’t the kind of team to eschew top free agents, including their own incumbents. By choice, and not necessity, the Yankees no longer operate as a franchise dedicated to winning at all costs, so, now, they must make the hard decisions that come with operating on a budget.

While the Yankees debate their deadline status, the rest of the league will be paying close attention. Perhaps no other team on the fringe of contention has as many marketable players as the Bronx Bombers. Carlos Beltran, Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller might arguably be the three most coveted players who could be made available in July. By trading these three players alone, the Yankees could not only bolster their farm system with high-end prospects, but, perhaps, also acquire major league ready talent and/or shed an onerous contract or two.

How would Chapman look in Flushing? You can bet the Mets would love to find out. After all, they saw firsthand how important a dominant bullpen can be in the postseason. But, would they trade Zack Wheeler to get him? What about taking on half of Chase Headley’s remaining contract to boot?

Then there’s the Texas Rangers. Despite leading the AL West by a healthy 6.5 games, Texas also sports the second worst bullpen ERA in the majors. And, although the Rangers are a good bet to make the postseason without adding a reliever, Jeff Banister would probably love to have an arm like Miller available should there be another October rematch with Jose Bautista. What price would Texas pay for such a luxury? Is Joey Gallo too much? It wouldn’t hurt for the Yankees to ask.

Because of the extra wild cards, and abundance of mediocrity, the trade deadline has become a seller’s market, and this year, the Yankees have plenty of wares. In addition to the three chips mentioned above, the Yankees could also market the likes of Dellin Betances, Ivan Nova, and Brett Gardner. Who knows, even Mark Teixeira could become a potential rental if he returns healthy and productive (and would waive his no-trade clause). Regardless of the players involved, or the teams to which they are traded, the Yankees will have plenty of opportunities to make acquisitions that could positively impact the team down the road. The only obstacle to taking that course is the Yankees’ willingness to cut its losses and rebuild for the future.

Over the last four years, the Yankees’ commitment to fielding a championship team has rightly been called into question by its systematic reduction in payroll. That lack of investment has placed the team at a crossroads. Should the Yankees continue to pursue mediocrity, and hope the illusion of contention is sufficient to stabilize business interests (i.e., attendance, ratings and other brand-related derivatives)? Or, is it time for the Yankees to tear down the facade of competitiveness, and lay the foundation for renewed success on the field? As the team’s brain trust tries to wrap its head around that conundrum, hopefully a sober view of the recent past and a realistic outlook for the future will play a larger role than how well today’s Bronx Bombers perform against the Minnesota Twins.

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