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Breaking news: Wang ready to go

Now how about a replay of the season starting from mid-June?
10/24/2008 4:07 PM ET
By Steven Goldman / Special to YESNetwork.com

The oft-injured Carl Pavano left Sunday's game in the sixth inning. (AP)
Having finally completed his rehab, Chien-Ming Wang pronounced himself ready to save the Yankees season. Despite two games of the World Series having passed, the Yankees have asked Commissioner Bud Selig that players be called back and the season replayed from June 16 on.

Though the memo was not released to the public, sources say that it included the persuasive clincher, "Only we can save Baseball from the potential ratings disaster of a Phillies-Rays World Series." The Commissioner is said to be giving the matter serious consideration, though it is not clear how he would overcome the lack of warm-weather sites. One possibility is that all remaining games will be played in Tampa, so as to make up for their lack of attendance during the regular season despite their stellar performance. Stay tuned for updates...

DR. GOLDMAN'S MAGIC BULLET
There isn't one, really — the quest for simple solutions to complex problems is probably a quixotic one. Yet, from time to time something tries to tell you somebody. When you spend a lot of time looking at the building processes of winning teams, as I do when I'm wearing my historian cap, you start to see certain things recur with regularity. Now, there is no single correct way to fix a problem team, but I'm beginning to believe that there are some shortcuts. Last night, in a piece on the Phillies liked below, I was writing about the early 20th century manager Pat Moran. Moran bossed two pennant winners, the 1915 Phillies and 1919 Reds. That's long enough ago, and a different enough game, that in many cases trying to draw inferences for today would be a stretch. However, on a broad basis there are still some lessons to be taken away.

The year before Moran came to the Phillies (you ever think about the 1915 Phillies for a whole week? They scatter crumbs on all your mental furniture and leave the television on all night), they went 74-80. Under Moran, they jumped up to 90-62. The 1918 Reds were a .531 team at 68-60 (it was a shortened season due to an inconvenient world war). Moran got them to 96-44 and a World Series win — yeah, the White Sox threw the Series, but that doesn't mean they would have won even if they had been trying. Maybe they would have lost anyway.

Our first question is, can we find any obvious reason why these two teams improved dramatically for one year to the next? Yes we can. One of the reasons shows up in a very simple statistic called defensive efficiency. Defensive efficiency answers a very simple question: what percentage of batted balls did the team turn into outs? This year — remember this number — when a ball was put into play against the Yankees they turned it into an out 68 percent of the time. Going back to our early days Phillies and Reds, the 1914 Phillies had a defensive efficiency of .666, worst mark in the league.

This contributed to their pitching staff allowing the most runs per game in the league. Moran made many changes that offseason, including acquiring a future Hall of Fame defensive shortstop in Dave Bancroft, and in 1915 the Phils converted 72 percent of balls in play into out. It was a relatively small change to be certain, but it was good for the best mark in the league. Moran couldn't change things, like the Phillies' tiny home ballpark, but despite the consistency of their venue, the Phillies' pitching staff was suddenly the best in the league.

Similarly, the 1918 Reds converted only 70 percent of balls of play into outs, fifth-best in an eight-team league. Moran brought in a new infield and they improved to 73 percent, best in the league. Their 1918 staff, by one measure the worst in the league, suddenly rated as the best. Yes, Moran made personnel changes there as well, but the improved defense played a major part.

Now here's another example for you: in 2007, the Rays got outs on only 65 percent of balls in play in 2007, worst rate in the American League, and indeed, all of baseball. This year, the rate was 71 percent, best rate in the American League and indeed, all of baseball. They were the doormats of the American League, a joke. Now they're in the World Series. At 68 percent, the Yankees weren't last, but they were close enough. You can draw your own conclusions about this, you can argue about where the defensive holes are for the Yankees — it's not all Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu, sorry to say — but the reality is that they exist, and you can import whatever pitchers you like, but until this problem is patched, they're not going to do the job you expect of them. But for strikeouts, walks, and home runs, almost everything we interpret as pitching is influenced by defense. The Yankees need to understand this before they go forward.

MORE FROM ME
I am pleased to be one of those asked by Alex Belth to contribute a lasting memory of Yankee Stadium. Mine is about an unwilling look at a part of the building the public never sees.

I babble about various ancient Phillies in my You Can Look It Up history column.

Since last time at Wholesome Reading: Just a few items, as I had to complete both of the above plus this here Pinstriped Bible plus a special item I'll mention next week. I'll be updating as soon as I hit "send" on this entry, and throughout the weekend as well. Warning! Politics!

Have a grand weekend and enjoy the World Series. It's been a great show so far. If the Yankees trade for Matt Kemp and Chad Billingsley over the weekend you'll see me here. Otherwise, back Monday with more readings from the Pinstriped Bible.

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Thursday, October 23: Posted at 7:34 p.m. EST

THE LATEST OUTFIELDER UP THE FLAGPOLE
George King reports that the Yankees are wondering if the Brewers will pick up a $10 million option on center fielder Mike Cameron, 36. If not, the outfielder is a free agent and fair game.

The Yankees need another veteran player like Sarah Palin needs a bigger wardrobe budget. You know that. Cameron is a low-average hitter with decent selectivity, some power, and many strikeouts. He continues to be a good fit in center, if no longer the Gold Glover he used to be. As always, the question with any player of his vintage is, "How long will he be able to stay at his present level?" — which in this case would be something like .250/.325/.440. Once again, we must offer this caveat: those numbers are distinctly in the Eh Zone (adjacent to the Twilight Zone, though Rod Serling only went there for later episodes of "Night Gallery"), but the Eh Zone is an upgrade on the Melky Zone, or, as George Harrison once sang, the Sour Melk Sea. "Better" is not the same as "good."

Cameron's last two seasons, the most recent of which included a suspension for failing a banned stimulant test, were intriguingly consistent. Here are his numbers against left-handers in 2007 and 2008:

2007: .294/.404/.510
2008: .282/.397/.555

You're thinking, 'Gee whiz, Fonz! That's pretty good!' right? Let's move on to the rates against right-hander:.

2007: .222/.316/.413
2008: .231/.309/.452

Hrm. Not so good. Cameron was also bashful about performing in front of the home fans, something that made sense in the tough hitting environment of San Diego but shouldn't have been true in Milwaukee:

2007 at home: .229/.316/.413
2007 on the road: .254/.341/.449

2008 at home: .224/.313/.388
2008 on the road: .258/.346/.548

Everything about Cameron shouts, "Beware! Player in decline!" He had a difficult time getting more than a one-year deal last winter. If the Yankees blow him away with two years, they're going to get burned, if not in year one than definitely in year two, though year one has the distinct odor of possible bust as well.

I would argue that if Brett Garner hits as he did during his second stint with the Yankees (August 15th on) — .294/.333/.412 with eight steals in nine attempts — the Yankees will be in good shape next year, given the defensive bonus they should also reap from his range. If Gardner hits only as well as he did in September — .283/.321/.377 — they will basically be getting what they got from Melky Cabrera in his good days, plus speed. It's not great, but you can live with it given good defense and the thought that Gardner will build with experience and reach greater heights further on, say, .295/.390/.410. Remember, Gardner is a more selective hitter than he showed in the Majors this year, and these .320, .330 on-base percentages are a little low.

What the Yankees seem to be missing here is that if they upgrade in right field, they can worry less about bringing in someone expensive to play center. An outfielder-DH in the Adam Dunn mode, combined with reasonable performance from Gardner, would do far more for the team than Cameron plus an Abreu return, or Cameron plus Nady. You can make book right now on a Damon-Cameron-Nady outfield being both defensively bland and offensively subpar. This is a formula for another year of mediocre offense and thousands of words wasted on why the Yankees aren't "clutch" when they just don't have the runners on base to be heroic.

The Yankees need to keep thinking outside of the box — their box. The box they're standing in right now is the 1980s box, the box of indiscriminate application of superior financial resources. It leads to big contracts for the likes of Dave Collins, not to championship rings. They had the right idea last year. They didn't get good results for a variety of reasons, but that doesn't mean they were wrong — sometimes you have to tinker with a plan before you get it right.

MORE FROM ME
Transcript from the roundtable during yesterday's World Series game is here.

Since last time at Wholesome Reading: Palin v. Chesterton; Harry Hopkins v. McDonald's; FDR at Fenway Park; and more. Warning! Politics!

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Wednesday, October 22: Posted at 4:29 p.m. EST

From the NY Baseball Digest site comes a rumor that the Yankees are hot and bothered over Giants center fielder Aaron Rowand. If true, there's a certain irony at work here, because Rowand was a free agent a year ago and the Yankees could have bought on their own terms. Melky Cabrera was only 10 percent less questionable then than now, given a 2007 season which began and ended with as much futility as he experienced in 2008.

Yet, there were good reasons to hesitate on Rowand. His defensive reputation was arguably overstated. More definitively, Rowand had just come off a year in which he had been greatly helped by Citizens Bank Ballpark, and a regression to his career numbers, .279/.334/.446, which were going to be further shrunken by playing in a pitchers park, seemed inevitable. In the event, Rowand batted .271/.339/.410 for the Giants, thoroughly mediocre rates. He batted just .256/.328/.386 at home, .287/.350/.434 on the road. His career line is .283/.342/.453. His career road line is .288/.344/.446.

The average Major League center fielder batted .268/.334/.420 this year, .272/.338/.420 in 2007. The Yankees got a glorious .260/.320/.391 out of their center fielders in 2008, which breaks down to .244/.297/.340 out of Melky, and good stuff out of Johnny Damon and Brett Gardner (Gardner batted .300/.347/.414 in 70 at-bats at the position). Assuming consistency on Rowand's part, he would certainly be an upgrade at the position, but a modest one. The Yankees are right to focus on the middle pasture, one of three positions along with catcher and second base that ate them alive in 2008, but Rowand won't be a big boost.

Further complicating the Rowand situation is a contract which rolls on through 2012, Rowand's age-34 season. When you take a player who has been a break-even at best player on offense and defense in three of the last four seasons, then age him into his 30s, allowing for a predictable decline, you end up with a defensively subpar center fielder whose bat can't support a corner. That's a bad place for a team to be.

Additional food for thought: last year's PECOTA projections identified Rowand's top comparable as Mike Devereaux, a player who was done at 33, but worked in a spectacularly awful .203/.256/.332 season at 31.

If you want one more complication, since the Yankees now have to trade for Rowand instead of simply signing him, there's the matter of recompense to the Giants. The Yankees have limited chits to trade, and they really have to score when they do move someone, be it Hideki Matsui or Robinson Cano or their copy of Amazing Fantasy #15. Whether Rowand constitutes an acceptable return in any trade depends, obviously, on who the Yankees give up, but also on what possibilities are foreclosed by giving up those players. Rowand is a small win in any trade, and the Yankees have so little flexibility that they need to exploit what they have to the utmost.

MORE FROM ME
Along with several colleagues, I'll be chatting this evening as part of the BP live roundtable during tonight's World Series opening game. As always, you can get questions in early.

Since last time at Wholesome Reading: Another Butterfly Manifesto from Andy; an Elvis Costello video going out to Karl Rove; and a Things We Read Today starring Harry Hopkins. Sing it with me: Warning! Politics!

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Monday, October 20: Posted at 10:35 a.m. EST

STUCK INSIDE OF MOBILE WITH THE MEMPHIS BLUES AGAIN
Matt Garza and Jon Lester. Garza is 24. He'll turn 25 on November 11. Lester is also 24. He'll turn 25 in January. David Price is 23. He'll turn 24 next August. The three of them combined to pitch the most spectacular portions of a historic League Championship Game 7. The Rays' portion of the contingent, along with Scott Kazmir (25 in January) and Andy Sonnanstine (26 in March) now head to the World Series where they will take on a Phillies team fronted by Cole Hamels, who will turn 25 two days after Christmas.

Almost simultaneously, news was coming out from Yankees camp that they planned to respond to these, their divisional rivals, by attempting to sign some of the following free agent pitchers: CC Sabathia (28 next July), Derek Lowe (36 in June), A.J. Burnett (32 in January). Ben Sheets may get a look (30 in July), and if Andy Pettitte (37 in June) and Mike Mussina (40 in December) want to come back, maybe something can be worked out. Meanwhile, according to Jon Heyman, "Pitching prospects Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy presumably won't have the same untouchable status they had last winter."

In many ways, none of this is news. The Yankees are merely opening the cash window. That's not unexpected. At the same time, this is a repudiation of patience and an embrace of the philosophy that made the 1980s a lost decade and put 18 years between Yankees championships. Yes, Hughes and Kennedy were beaten up some and also had physical problems. Yet, Lester had ERAs of 4.76 and 4.57 in his first two shots at the Majors, along with a timeout for a rather severe health problem, cancer, before posting this year's 3.21 ERA. Garza, who had a 3.70 ERA this year, first came up two years ago and went 3-6 with a 5.76 ERA. Kazmir's ERA in his first audition was 5.67. Sonnanstine, merely average at 4.38 this year, had an ERA of 5.85 last year.

Not every pitcher is an instant success. If I may take the liberty of reaching far back in time, when John McGraw became the manager of the Giants, in 1902, the team had become so disappointed in 21-year-old Christy Mathewson that it was contemplating moving him to first base. That would have been a 350-win mistake. Greg Maddux's ERA was well over 5.00 in his first 35 or so starts, and at a time when 5.00 was truly terrible. No one is suggesting that Hughes or Kennedy will win 350 games; this is merely a very extreme example of the benefits of patience.

Hughes or Kennedy (or Hughes and Kennedy) might not ever work out — Hughes was roughly treated in his most recent Arizona Fall League start (the fate of most AFL pitchers, so don't lose all hope) — but if the Yankees aren't willing to give them more rope than they received in 2008, they never will succeed in growing their own pitchers and will resume the ultimately fruitless chase that led from Doug Drabek-for-Rick Rhoden to millions for Carl Pavano, with forfeited draft choices along the way speeding the rest of the team's decline.

This policy does not work, it has not worked, and it is very difficult to sustain a winning effort through this kind of policy. To borrow from the most recent presidential debate, free agent acquisitions should be used as a scalpel to refine a roster, not a hatchet or a hammer. (Or a cheese grater, or a golf club... what is it with these empty analogies, boys, and what are they doing in the Pinstriped Bible?) And so we wait patiently for the conclusion of the World Series and the opening of free agent season to see what will really happen, and which of these many acquisition targets will take the bait-and-sign on to play in the House that Jeter Built.

The only good thing about this winter's crop of free agents is that it offers a team like the Yankees some choices. They have only one must-get, first baseman Mark Teixeira. As for the pitchers, any one, along with some good luck in terms of health in the case of Burnett or Sheets, will do. What isn't clear is if the Yankees will stop at Teixeira plus one.

Oh, and there's one important item that hasn't been mentioned at all — a right fielder who can play defense as well as hit. That would be a huge boon to the pitching staff.

MY WORLD SERIES PICK
Rays in seven. This is a ballclub on a roll. Expect to hear a lot about the Phillies having too long a layoff.

MORE FROM ME
I'll be doing my part to help you pass the workday with a live chat at Baseball Prospectus today (Monday) at 1 p.m. As always, you can get your questions in early. I'll be talking World Series baseball, hot stove league stuff, and anything else that comes to mind. I see there are already some Yankees questions in the queue...

Since last time at Wholesome Reading: John McCain channels the 1928 election on socialism; ACORN rules northern New Jersey and other fantasy stories; the usual assorted linkage, plus more. You know the drill: Warning! Politics!

CLICK HERE TO COMMENT

Steven Goldman's Pinstriped Blog appears daily on YESNetwork.com. "Forging Genius," Steve's biography of Casey Stengel, and "Mind Game," the story of the Red Sox' 2004 championship, and "Baseball Between the Numbers," from the authors of Baseball Prospectus, are now available at Amazon.com. More Steve is available on YESNetwork.com in the Pinstriped Bible, and the Baseball Prospectus Web site. Your questions, comments, suggestions welcomed at oldprofessor@wholesomereading.com. The opinions stated above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to anyone connected in an official capacity with the YES Network.
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