By Mike Jaggers-Radolf
Setting aside the Steinbrenner family’s gargantuan annual expectations for the Yankees, one thing is certain: 2009 has been a fantastic success for the team on the field, no matter when the Yankees’ season comes to its eventual end. The team put up its best record since 2002, has advanced deeper into the playoffs than at any time since Alex Rodriguez moved to New York, has already begun generating a return on its expensive off-season shopping spree, and, for anyone living in the City, has anecdotally breathed new life into the fan base.
Yankee haters -- yeah, those guys, and there are plenty in New York, even if they can’t get heard right now -- will try to marginalize the team’s success, as they always do. They tend to focus on one number: $200 million, also know as the number of dollars the team plays its players. The argument, embraced by Yankee fans and detractors alike, is best captured by the tagline on Nomaas: “If we had $200 million to burn, the Yankees would never lose a game.”
This season there is a better number to focus on: 15.8. That’s the difference between the combined 2009 WARP and the combined 2008 WARP for Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Nick Swisher, Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui, otherwise known as half the team. For those who don’t know, Baseball Prospectus defines WARP as the number of wins a player’s combined offensive and defensive performance contributed above what that team would expect to get from a replacement-level player, or what Yankee fans call a Cody Ransom.
In an alternate universe in which Xavier Nady’s elbow still falls off, but Cano, Melky, Swisher, Jorge and Hideki perform to their 2008 levels, the Yankees only win 87 games. The team would have added CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, gotten the same 2009 performances from Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez (both of which were completely unexpected) and won two games LESS than it did in 2008. In this alternate universe the Yankees play a one-game playoff against Texas for the Wild Card, and George Steinbrenner’s head explodes all over Brian Cashman.
There are two more numbers that are also worth looking at: 10.1 and $12.8 million. These are the combined improvement in WARP from 2008 to 2009 and the combined dollars paid to Cano, Melky and Swisher. If we exclude Jorge and Hideki, both of whom performed well ahead of their expectations but are also two of the most expensive players in baseball at their positions, the Yankees still benefited in 2009 from outsized performances from the bottom of the order for great value, at least as far as the Yankees are concerned. A hypothetical 93-win Yankee team with a combined OBP of .313 from its 7, 8 and 9 hitters—which is what we would have gotten had Cano, Melky and Swisher not turned it around in 2009—looks vulnerable, and opens the ALDS on the road, IN Anaheim.
Should the Yankees go on to win the World Series in 2009, amid the praise and Yankee fan jubilation, there will no doubt be detractors who will bemoan baseball’s lack of a salary cap, and the Yankees’ bloated payroll. The argument will be that for $200 million the Yankees bought the championship (even though it was something they failed to do in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, other years the Yankees also had the highest payroll in the game and little to show for it). This argument is flat-out wrong.
The success of the 2009 Yankees, win it all or lose it all, was unexpected, and rested as much on the performance of the team’s least paid, most overlooked players, as it did on its superstars. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system for predicting player performance, for example, shows that Robinson Cano performed above the 90th percentile of his expected performance, while Nick Swisher reached his 90th percentile projection. Never mind that Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Johnny Damon, Melky Cabrera, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada also performed above their PECOTA-predicted levels.
Yankee fans should take pride in a successful 2009 season even if the team doesn’t win another game. The 2009 Yankees didn’t just make it to the World Series. They actually put forward an unexpected performance that took resurgent seasons from established superstars A-Rod and Derek Jeter, difficult transitions to the pressure of the Bronx for newcomers CC, Tex and A.J., and outsized, unpredicted successes from Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher and Melky Cabrera (to say nothing of Jorge and Hideki) to produce.
Money doesn’t buy that kind of success, and it didn’t buy it for us in the past. That is why I was screaming as loud as anyone in the top of the 7th in Game 5 at Anaheim as the Yankees plated six highly unexpected runs to take the lead, and cringing as much as anyone as the bullpen unraveled and gave it all back in the bottom of that same inning. By all accounts the 2009 season has already been a magical one. But will anyone stop to appreciate it if the Yankees don’t bring home number 27?
This is the first post from new Yankeeist writer Mike Jaggers-Radolf.