Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 20, 2019

In The Bronx, End Of A Decade To Forget

The evidence now allows us to posit a new hard and fast rule of the Great Game, certain that at the very least our assertion cannot be disproved anytime soon – as in for at least the next ninety years. Whatever outcome other periods may produce, in every century the decade of the teens is a hard time to be a fan of the New York Yankees. When Jose Altuve’s 9th inning walk-off home run sent the Houston Astros to the World Series very late Saturday night, ending the Yankees’ season, it marked the tenth straight year, from 2010 through 2019, that New York failed to reach the World Series. The last calendar decade in which the Yankees were shut out from participation in the Fall Classic was the 1910s, which was also the first full decade of the team’s existence in Gotham.

A century ago things changed rather dramatically with the arrival of a pitcher turned power-hitting outfielder by the name of Ruth prior to the 1920 season. In the 1920s the Yankees played in six World Series, winning three of them and beginning to build a winning tradition unlike any other franchise. The 2009 title was the franchise’s 27th, and its 40th appearance in MLB’s championship round. Along the way there have been droughts of more than ten years – eleven seasons from 1965 through 1975, and fourteen from 1982 through 1995 – but within the admittedly artificial construct of calendar decades, each one has seen at least one trip by the Yankees to the Series, with all but the 1980s seeing championships as well.

Which makes the current string of early winters in the Bronx a big deal, at least for Yankees fans. To be certain, given the overall success of the franchise no fans in Boston or L.A. or any other big league town will be organizing a pity party, nor will anyone be starting a GoFundMe page to help the Steinbrenner family afford a higher payroll. Any baseball writer would be quick to point out that over the past ten years no team had more regular season victories than the Yankees’ 921. The Bombers also made seven trips to the postseason including four to the ALCS. That’s more appearances in the penultimate playoff round than any other American League team.

All of which would lead many analysts to ascribe New York’s drought through the teens to greater parity across the Great Game. The standard offer of proof for that argument is the fact that no team has won consecutive titles since the Yankee’s three straight championships from 1998 through 2000. But a closer look suggests what that really proves is the inherent randomness of the short series that comprise the playoffs, from a one game Wild Card contest to the best-of-five division series to the best-of-seven format in the final two rounds. For while there may in fact be parity in the big leagues, it is among a handful of franchises that clearly stand above the rest.

In the same decade that the Yankees failed to make it to the World Series, the San Francisco Giants won three championships and the Boston Red Sox won two. Should the Astros prevail over the Washington Nationals in the Series that begins Tuesday evening, Houston will join the Giants and BoSox as winners of multiple titles. Even if the Nats prevail, Houston is already assured of being one of seven teams with multiple World Series appearances during the decade. That list includes Texas and Kansas City from the American League and St. Louis and Los Angeles from the senior circuit in addition to the Giants, Red Sox and Astros. In total those seven franchises account for three-quarters of the World Series contestants in the decade.

Yankees fans are right to wonder what has held their team back, despite all those regular season wins and ALCS appearances. The mounting evidence suggests that, as unlikely as it might seem given New York’s reputation built under the late George Steinbrenner, the answer now that the family’s next generation is in charge is a reluctance to spend money at crucial times.

Burdened with an aging and expensive roster in the early part of the decade, Hal Steinbrenner made clear his belief that a team did not need to have a $200 million payroll to win a title. He’s right, as plenty of teams on the list of championship prove. But since the Yankees were already in luxury tax territory because of prior contractual commitments, Steinbrenner’s desire to bring payroll down limited the offseason options of GM Brian Cashman. The general manager did a brilliant job of rebuilding the club, making it younger and cheaper, without the season or three of tanking that is now in vogue. But more recently, while New York’s payroll has again climbed, the Yankees remain reluctant to go beyond whatever internal guidelines they have set from season to season.

That limitation has shown most clearly in the team’s lack of quality starting pitching. New York passed on Gerrit Cole two years ago because the Pirates wanted Miguel Andujar and Clint Frazier in return, and Cashman deemed that too high a trade price. But Cole will be pitching for Houston this coming week, while after a very promising 2018 Andujar missed almost all this season following labrum surgery, and for all his talent Frazier has yet to play a role beyond occasional backup for the big league club. Then last winter the Yankees were outbid for Patrick Corbin because Cashman refused the left-hander’s demand for a six-year deal. The advanced analytics that are now de rigueur suggest that out years of a contract that long will give the team very little return. But in the present day, Corbin will be pitching for the Nationals in this year’s World Series.

Instead of the top pitchers available the last two offseasons, the Yankees signed J.A. Happ and James Paxton. And this year, Cashman asserted that the plan was to rely on a lights-out bullpen. But that was a plan born of necessity. Ultimately the team had so little confidence in Happ that he was demoted to the bullpen for the playoffs, and while Paxton was very good in Game 5 against the Astros, in Game 2 he couldn’t make it out of the 3rd inning. Meanwhile over-relying on the relief corps left several of its key members worn out by the start of the ALCS.

Meanwhile the Yankees continue to draw more than three million fans a year, and ancillary business lines like the YES network, the most-watched regional sports network in the country, add to the cash flow. That must certainly please Steinbrenner, who made clear early in his tenure that he was much more attuned to the bottom line than either his famous father or other members of his family. But Yankees fans hold their team to a higher standard, one that they have come to expect will be met given the franchise’s long and glorious history. Measured against that, Altuve’s home run put the exclamation point on a decade of failure. As yet another winter comes too soon to the Bronx, the question is whether that view is shared by Steinbrenner and Cashman.

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