Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 24, 2014

In The Upper Deck, Hope Lives On

Perhaps it was the stark reality of the standings, which say that if the season ended today the Yankees would miss the playoffs for the second straight year. Perhaps it was the unseasonably cool temperature in New York on Friday, when as evening turned to night a bit of a breeze in the upper deck at the Stadium brought with it a definite autumn chill. Whatever the reason, as I sat in my usual spot high about the left-handed batter’s box late last week one thought kept recurring. To borrow a metaphor from another sport, the longest season is rounding the far turn, about to enter the home stretch.

As this weekend’s play concludes teams have just over 30 games remaining. Soon the calendar will flip to September, and the final desperate rush to the postseason will begin in earnest. Baseball Prospectus, the highly regarded organization behind the website of the same name and various annual publications offering sabermetric analysis of the Great Game, runs thousands of computer simulations of each team’s remaining schedule to provide a daily update of every squad’s chances of reaching the postseason. The simulations take into account year-to-date run differential, current rosters, and the strength of the opposition.

On Sunday the Baseball Prospectus analysis gave 13 teams a one percent or less chance of making the playoffs. Another 6 teams were given less than a fifty percent shot at postseason play. That latter number includes the Yankees, who sit 7 games behind Baltimore in the AL East and 3 ½ games behind Seattle for the second Wild Card, with Detroit in between. For the statistical mavens, that position and their simulations yield a 3.4% chance of winning the division and a 3.9% chance of capturing a Wild Card berth, for a 7.3% overall shot at October.

Should the computer simulations prove correct, it will be an interesting early winter in the Bronx. After failing to reach the playoffs last year, Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner was adamant about reducing the team’s payroll to get below the salary cap for this season. That would have reset New York’s luxury tax rate for future years from its current 50% back to 17%, freeing up millions for investments in players in 2015 and beyond. But it also would have meant a roster that had zero percent chance of reaching the playoffs right from Opening Day. Other teams understand the reality of rebuilding periods. In other cities fans accept the idea of a down year or two as the roster is restocked and prospects are developed. At Wrigley Field they measure the rebuilding not in years but in generations. But the great conceit in the Bronx is that the Yankees must and should contend for a championship every season.

Because of that imperative, created by Hal’s late father, general manager Brian Cashman and others in the front office were able to persuade Steinbrenner to abandon his notion of frugality. The Yankees opened their checkbook as usual last winter. The second generation owner lacks George’s bombast, but if the result of blowing past the salary cap is the same darkened Stadium come autumn that would have resulted from not doing so, one would think that Hal might be looking for someone to blame. Conveniently enough, Cashman’s current three-year contract comes up for renewal this November.

But from my perch in the upper deck for three games this past week such matters were for another time. The immediate urgency is to try to win games. On the surface one would think that the Yankees’ place in the standings was a direct result of the decimation of their starting rotation. Of their five starting pitchers on the Opening Day roster, only Hiroki Kuroda has taken the ball every fifth day. Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia were both lost for the season to injury early on. Michael Pineda was suspended for ten games for using pine tar, and then injured himself while working out during the suspension. Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka had a Cy Young worthy first half, but is now trying to avoid Nova’s fate after being diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament.

But despite losing eighty percent of the starting rotation, the Yankees pitching hasn’t collapsed. A patched-together group of minor league call-ups and midseason acquisitions, while not striking fear in the hearts of opposing batters, have performed reasonably well. That performance was on display this week.

On Wednesday night Pineda rejoined the rotation, making his first start since April 16th. In six-plus innings against Houston he surrendered just four hits and a walk while striking out three. He was lifted after throwing 89 pitches, and walked off the field to a standing ovation with New York leading 2-1 and a runner on first in the top of the 7th. Six batters later Houston led 5-2. David Huff recorded one out before allowing a single. Huff yielded to Esmil Rogers, who gave up four singles on just six pitches, and Pineda’s fine outing was wasted.

Perhaps as a result of seeing what the middle relievers did the night before, starter Brandon McCarthy took matters into his own hands Thursday afternoon. Acquired from Arizona in a barely noticed early July trade, the 31-year old McCarthy has been encouraged to rely on his cutter, a pitch that the Diamondbacks inexplicably took out of his repertoire. He dominated the Astros with a complete game four-hit shutout, improving his record in pinstripes to 5-2 with a 1.90 ERA. The Yankees gave McCarthy a three run lead in the second, in a rare game in which both starters went the distance. In just two hours and seven minutes New York salvaged the finale of a three game series against Houston.

Friday night’s starter was rookie Shane Greene, called up from AAA in April as the pitching injuries piled up. Greene has impressed in his first shot in the majors, and after a rocky first inning he settled down, striking out seven over five-plus. Still the White Sox had an early 3-0 lead, and that caused plenty of concern in my section of the stands. For the Yankees problems this season have not been on the mound, but rather at the plate. When Huff and Rogers allowed the Astros to run their tally to five on Wednesday, we knew the game was likely out of reach. At that point the Yankees were playing their ninth game since they last scored five runs.

But on Friday New York rallied. Martin Prado, another midseason acquisition who was picked up for his defensive versatility, stroked a two-run homer to left in the bottom of the 3rd. With Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter on in the 5th, Jacoby Ellsbury drove the ball into the right field corner, plating Gardner to tie the score.

So we came to the bottom of the 9th with the score still tied. Ichiro Suzuki singled to lead off, and we cheered. But Gardner was out on a sacrifice bunt and Jeter lined to center, so we readied ourselves for extra innings. Then Ellsbury was walked intentionally, and Mark Teixeira was walked less so, bringing Prado to the plate with the bases loaded. Three straight fouls put him in a hole, then three straight balls ran the count to full, and to a person we in the stands were on our feet. Daniel Webb’s 97 mile per hour fastball came to the plate, where it met Prado’s bat and went sailing safely into center field for the winning RBI single. Our roar was like an erupting volcano, even as Martin Prado’s teammates poured from the dugout to mob our newest hero.

In the end the odds are that the computer simulations will prove correct. In the end the Stadium may well be dark come October, and that ever so interesting offseason will begin. But the projections ultimately are only just that. Back at the beginning of the season those same projections set the postseason chances for the Orioles, Royals, and Brewers at sixteen, twenty, and twenty-nine percent respectively. Today all three teams lead their divisions. So for now, with Friday night’s final roar still ringing, we’ll keep playing every game.


  1. Nice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: