There's a reason why we love baseball. Because in March, the universe of baseball seems orderly enough that we can make predictions, projections, and forward-pitched analyses. And then the umpire yells "Play ball" and all hell breaks loose.
If, at this time last year, some sportswriter suggested that a) the Yankees would win 125 games; b) Sammy Sosa would hit 66 home runs and not set the home run record; and c) a 20-year-old pitcher would strike out 20 guys; you would have thought he or she was crazy. And you would've been right.
The reality is that the arc of any baseball season is influenced by enough variables to make Stephen Hawking's head spin. Second basemen get divorced. Outfielders get cancer. Pitchers figure out how to throw strikes. Pitchers forget how to throw strikes. Rotator cuffs tear.
And then there's just plain random chance, something we dismiss altogether at least on a week when David Wells doesn't throw a perfect game. Baseball guru Bill James once wrote a computer program that kept replaying one player's season (in this case Joe DiMaggio's) in order to explore the outer boundaries of his accomplishments to see what would happen if his career had been 1000 years long instead of 20. Would he ever hit 60 home runs? Hit .400? Hit in 60 consecutive games? (The answer to each of those questions, by the way, was No.) But what he did find was that in two consecutive years, two computer-generated Yankee Clippers, identical to the last megabyte, produced the following two vastly different stat lines:
"Suppose that a real player did this," James wrote. "Every explanation under the sun would be offered for his decline: He got fat and lazy after a winter of celebration, or he was affected by the absence of X who hit behind him in his big year, or he had a minor injury he was compensating for, or even he began pressing after a slow start. Do you suppose that anyone would write that he was the same player, just hitting in tougher luck?"
So was last year's magical Yankee season the result of some massive statistical anomaly? And do they stand to come crashing down to earth this year?
"It was a little bit of a fluke," suggests Don Zminda, Vice President of STATS Inc. What does that mean exactly? Well, the Yankees were a little lucky. A complex formula devised by James, which projects a team's winning percentage according to the number of runs they scored and how many they allowed, suggests that the Yankees should have won 110 regular-season games, or four fewer than they did. Their run differential placed them in the top 20 all-time, and third among teams since 1950 behind only the '69 Orioles and the '54 Indians. So you might say they were pretty good.
But how do you explain the larger arc of Yankee fortunes, going from winning the World Series to a distant second-place finish in 1997 to winning 114 games last season? It's reality-check time. Quick, which team was better, the 1996 Yankees or the 1997 Yankees? If you're counting ticker-tape parades, it's no contest. But if you stick to baseball numbers, it's very different. The 1997 Yankees scored 20 more runs and allowed a whopping 99 fewer runs than the 1996 squad. So why didn't they win more games? They did: 96 to 92. They finished second because Baltimore improved even more.
So what should we expect from the Yankees this year? Let's pigeonhole the lineup based on their 1998 performance.
Overachievers: 3B Scott Brosius, LF Darryl Strawberry, C Jorge Posada, SS Derek Jeter. Brosius had a dollar-and-a-dream kind of year. If he turns back into Cinderfella, his average drops 40 points. Strawberry could make an Eric Davisstyle comeback, but don't count on it. Posada, however, is young enough to expect that his improvement is no mirage, and that's doubly true for Jeter.
Underachievers: 2B Chuck Knoblauch, DH Chili Davis. Why will Chuck Knoblauch be better in 1999? a) He used to play in Minneapolis, just like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince; b) his .361 on-base percentage was his lowest in six years; and c) his divorce is final. Davis? If healthy, he'll hit.
Same Old, Same Old: 1B Tino Martinez, CF Bernie Williams, RF Paul O'Neill. Barring injury, expect status quo greatness from Bernie and Tino. But O'Neill, at 36, has reached an age at which a rapid decline is possible, if not inevitable.
Pitching Overachievers: David Wells, David Cone, Orlando Hernandez, Hideki Irabu. Wells is gone, but even an average effort from Roger Clemens should more than match Boomer's career year. Do you worry about Cone? We all do. But he's actually got far less mileage on his arm than Clemens 878 fewer innings. Does this make you worry less? Or more? El Duque should have a better post-Series season than his brother. Pencil him in for 15 wins. And Irabu is shaping up to be the El Sid of the Bronx. His hits per innings were third in the AL, behind only Clemens and Pedro Martinez, and he held lefties to a .218 batting average, bettered only by the Rocket. Now if he could just win.
Pitching Underachiever: Andy Pettitte. Despite his postseason atonement, he's far from his Cy Young form of 1996. And at 26, he is the staff's biggest question mark. But at least he's not Kenny Rogers.
Same Old, Same Old: Mariano Rivera, Ramiro Mendoza. Rivera is simply the most irreplaceable player on the team. And if (when?) one of the starters gets injured, it's easy to see Mendoza in the rotation, winning 16 or 17 games.
So what's the bottom line? Figure that the offense sags by 30 runs that's what STATS Inc. projects. Figure that the pitching staff gives up 30 more runs, bringing them back to a 1997 level. Crunch the numbers and the Bronxville Nine projects out to 105 wins in a division where 92 should get you second place which would make Don Zimmer Bob Lemmon with a plate in his head.
But could they make another record run? "I think you're more likely to see teams winning 107, 108 games," says Zminda. "But 114? That's going to be tough."
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