Sure, I will admit it: Since the start of the baseball season -- really going back a year or two -- I thought that the New York Yankees were in a lot of trouble. I thought that the bill had finally come due. It seemed to me that the Yankees were counting on a fading and decrepit lineup without a single meaningful player younger than 29. I saw an erratic pitching rotation that desperately needed good work from Andy Pettitte -- heck, why not Ron Guidry? Why not Whitey Ford?
I thought -- and this will be the last part of what I thought, because, once more, I was spectacularly wrong -- that the Yankees' big-money deals had finally caught up with them. In baseball these days, the big-money teams put success on layaway. Look at the Phillies:
• Six years, $144 million for Cole Hamels
• Five years, $120 million for Cliff Lee
• Three years, $60 million for Roy Halladay
• Five years, $125 million for Ryan Howard
• Seven years, $85 million for Chase Utley
• Four years, $50 million for Jonathan Papelbon
• Three years, $33 million for Jimmy Rollins
When you sign players to these kinds of deals, you hope -- "hope" being the key word -- that they will still be good players when the contracts near expiration in the same way that you hope that the car you buy will still be running strong at 120,000 miles. But while that’s the hope, it’s only a hope. The purpose of these deals is simply: Win now. The Angels weren’t thinking too much about 2019 when they signed Albert Pujols. Win today, win tomorrow and you’ll worry about next Tuesday when it comes around.
No team has better exemplified this than the Yankees of recent years. The Yankees have two homegrown players in their every-day lineup.* One, Robbie Cano, was signed for a fairly sizable bonus out of the Dominican Republic in 2001. The other, Derek Jeter, was drafted out of high school when the first George Bush was president. Everybody else who plays regularly was signed to a big-money deal or acquired in a salary-dump trade. There’s no question that in the short term, this flashing of cash can be spectacularly effective -- money may not buy you love, but it can buy you a pretty good baseball team. The Yankees won the World Series in 2009, and reached the postseason with ease the next two years. But, I thought, sooner or later, the waiter puts the check on the table.
*A third, Brett Gardner, was hurt for most of the year.
So, yes, I thought that check would come due for the Yankees this year. When they went up 10 games in the AL East in mid-July, I thought: Well, I guess that was wrong. I guess they still have too much. But then they started fading. From July 19 through Sept. 11 -- 75 games -- the Yankees were just one game over .500. Their pitching anchor, CC Sabathia, was hurt. A-Rod was hurt. Mark Teixeira was hurt. This happens to older guys. Even when those guys got healthy, even when the Yankees started to win again, the Orioles had become so convinced of their destiny that they kept winning at the same pace. It was a real race.
Last Sunday, there was a moment when the Orioles were pounding the Red Sox and the Yankees were losing 5-1 to Toronto, and if that held, the Yankees would be a game behind the Orioles with three games to play. The Yankees had been 10 games up and they were on the brink of having the division out of their control. And I tweeted this: “The Yankees nightmare grows darker and darker and darker …”
Yes, that was retweeted a few times after the Yankees clinched the division on Wednesday night.
I was wrong, impossibly wrong, about the Yankees, and I think there are a couple of reasons: one, a fairly obvious point about talent, the other a guess about uniforms. The obvious point is that the Yankees’ big-money guys, while they grow old and aren’t the players they once were, are still very good baseball players. The Yankees have nine key players who finished the year with an OPS+ higher than 100 -- 100 OPS+ being league average. No other team in baseball can say that.
Having seven or eight above-average hitters in your lineup every day is a powerful thing. You would probably say that only one Yankees player, Cano, has had a spectacular offensive season, an MVP-type offensive season. But Jeter hit .316. Curtis Granderson hit 43 homers. Mark Teixeira slugged .475. Nick Swisher had a .364 on-base percentage. A-Rod may be a shell of the monster he was from 1996 to 2008, but he still hit 18 homers and scored 74 runs despite missing 40 games.
Point is -- and it’s easy to underestimate this -- the Yankees can still bludgeon teams with good player after good player after good player. The Yankees were second in the league in runs scored. And GM Brian Cashman, who I think is wildly underrated for his keen sense of how to win games, realized that with the Yankees scoring runs night after night, he could piece together enough pitching to win with the return of Pettitte, the acquisition of Hiroki Kuroda and the uneven but often-good-enough stylings of Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova.
Put it this way: The Yankees' record when scoring five or more runs was quite mediocre. They were 68-19 -- 17th in baseball -- in winning percentage. Teams across the league win about 79 percent of the time when they score five or more (the Braves went 61-3, for example). The Yankees won 78 percent of the time, ranking them 17th in baseball.
Did this matter? No. Because there was a more important statistic. The Yankees scored five-plus runs more times than any other team in baseball. And so, low winning percentage or not, those 68 wins were more than any team in baseball. The Yankees simply overpowered teams. When they trailed the Blue Jays 5-1 in that moment of crisis, Jeter doubled … A-Rod walked … Cano doubled … Granderson walked … Raul Ibanez singled … Jeter, A-Rod, Cano and Granderson singled … after a four-inning flurry the Yankees had nine runs and another victory, and the nightmare was extinguished once more.
Two nights later, when they trailed Boston 3-1 in the ninth, they were able to send up Ibanez as a pinch-hitter -- maybe not the hitter he once was, but still a threat -- and he homered to tie the game. The Yankees may not be what they once were, but they are not playing the ghosts of Yankees teams past. They are still good enough to overwhelm.
The second thing, about the power of the Yankees’ tradition, history and aura, the power of the uniform -- well, it’s kind of hard to ignore. When the Yankees acquired Ichiro Suzuki, he was a thoroughly worn-down hitter, and had been for a year and a half. He posted a .288 on-base percentage in his first 95 games this year in Seattle, this coming off a full season in which he hit .272/.310/.335. He was a nightmare because he was a legend, getting paid like a legend, but playing like a replacement player. The Mariners were undoubtedly thrilled to ship him off to New York, to get him off the books … heck, they had to send some cash along just to make the deal.
So what happens? Ichiro comes to New York, and looks five years younger. He hits .322, slugs .454, goes through a crazy 12-game stretch when you couldn’t get him out (just when the Yankees needed it most).
This seems to happen a lot for the Yankees. Eric Chavez had been an injured wreck for Oakland for four years before he came to New York. This year, in part-time play, he’s hitting .281 and slugging .496. Ibanez was coming off by far his worst season in Philadelphia at age 39, and while he’s hitting .240, he has also banged 19 home runs, including perhaps the most important one of the Yankees' season. Andy Pettitte -- 40 years old and retired for a whole season -- comes back and posts a 2.87 ERA in 12 starts with a higher strikeout rate than he has had in years.
Even guys having rough seasons overall have helped the cause. The Yankees seem to have told Andruw Jones and Russell Martin that their job at the plate is to swing for the fences. They're hitting .211 and .197 respectively, but they have 35 homers combined. Clay Rapada, who has bounced around baseball, has suddenly found a role as a situational lefty with baseball’s most famous team.
And, of course, Jeter has had a stunning comeback season at 38, his best offensively since 2009.
Is there something about playing for the Yankees? Is their something about the pinstripes that adds a little secret formula to this recipe? I tend to be averse to that kind of mythology. But one thing I was thinking about when the Yankees seemed right on the brink was that I could not remember a single Yankees team that had collapsed down the stretch of a pennant race. I’m talking baseball history. I mean, you think about any of the longtime teams in baseball, and the collapses come quickly to mind -- the ’64 Phillies, the ’69 Cubs, the ’78 Red Sox, the ’07 Mets, the ’51 Dodgers, the ’62 Dodgers, the ’87 Blue Jays, the ’95 Angels, the ’09 Tigers, the ’11 Red Sox, the ’11 Braves …
No Yankees. Can’t think of one. You can think of Yankees collapses in the playoffs -- 2004 against the Red Sox, of course, and 2001 against the Diamondbacks as a start -- but as far as I can tell the Yankees have never gagged at the finish line of a season. Maybe 1948, when they were tied for the lead and lost four of their last seven … but that’s hardly the same thing as a collapse.
This Yankees team, had they failed to win the division, would have become the first. But they did not fail. They won 13 of their last 17 and celebrated again. I underestimated their power. And I underestimated their glory. And after all these years, I should have known better.