The Devil’s Advocate: All-Star Lineupby Larry Mahnken
April 08, 2005
The lineup the Yankees fielded on Opening Day against the Red Sox was only the second in Major League history to feature an All-Star at every position, including starting pitcher, matching the feat of the 1977 Yankees. 17 players on their Opening Day roster (and one player on the DL, Kevin Brown) have combined for 71 All-Star appearances (77 with Brown).
But this really doesn’t count for anything more than a footnote. While the label “All-Star Lineup” is sexy, what it implies – that the Yankees are fielding an All-Star caliber team – is hardly accurate. I would estimate that the Yankees have eight or nine players with a realistic chance of making the All-Star team this year, five of them hitters. Certainly impressive, but I would also estimate that at least eight players in the Boston lineup have a legitimate shot at the All-Star game, and maybe even all nine, and they have two or three pitchers who could be there, too. The Yankees have a good team, they’re fielding more All-Star candidates than most teams, but they’re hardly fielding a juggernaut.
A-Rod, Matsui, Sheffield, Jeter and Posada are all worthy of being labeled All-Stars, and while the steroid scandal leaves Jason Giambi’s skill in question, he was an All-Star recently enough that it’s not laughable to call him one. But Bernie Williams is a shadow of the player he was when he played in the Mid-Summer Classic, Ruben Sierra played in his last All-Star game 11 years ago and arguably hasn’t been worthy of it in 15 years, Tino Martinez hasn’t made it since he was last worthy, in 1997. Tony Womack’s claim to being an All-Star is the most comical. He made it once, in 1997, when he entered the break with a .675 OPS. But his .272 average and his 33 stolen bases made him look All-Star worthy to Bobby Cox, when really the stolen bases merely made him average.
The Yankees as a team probably don’t care that their lineup is full of former All-Stars. That curiosity is more likely the result of their systematic targeting of proven veterans over younger players, and as inexplicable as the Tony Womack signing was, it’s highly unlikely that his ’97 selection played any part in that decision.
The ultimate point of all this is that having a lineup of past All-Stars signifies nothing more than that you have nine players who were once considered by some to be worthy of playing in the All-Star Game halfway through a season. To highlight this point, I present my custom made All-Star lineup, made of active players who were All-Stars once.
C: Sandy Alomar, Jr.
1B: Tony Clark
2B: Fernando Vina
SS: Alex Gonzalez (the Florida one)
3B: Jeff Cirillo
LF: Brian Jordan
CF: Kenny Lofton
RF: Raul Mondesi
DH: Robert Fick
Godzilla vs. Cookie Monster
As much as Yankees fans hate to see David Ortiz coming to the plate, Red Sox fans have to feel the same way about Hideki Matsui. While Matsui struggled against Boston for most of his rookie season, his transformation into an elite hitter has been especially felt by the Sox. Since Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, where Godzilla played a key role in the Yankees' comeback, Matsui has posted a .390/.441/.699/1.140 line against Boston. Extrapolated to 162 games, his performance would work out to 259 hits, 65 doubles, 43 HRs, and 178 RBI. Even with his slow start against them, Matsui has posted a career .931 OPS vs. Boston.
Ortiz is much the same: when he came to Boston he had a career .798 OPS against the Yankees, since then he's hit .338/.407/.662/1.069 against them, smacking 15 HRs in 55 games.
It's all the worse that Matsui and Ortiz are classy, likeable ballplayers, who anyone would be thrilled to have play for their team. It makes hating them feel that much more petty.
Sample Size Police
Sabermetrics isn't just about using statistics, it's about using them the right way. If you're going to misuse them, you're often better off not using them at all.
Case in point, on Opening Day Joe Torre played Ruben Sierra over Tino Martinez because Sierra had a .371 career batting average against Wells in 62 at-bats, while Tino was hitting just .176 in 34.
These numbers were in a small enough sample that it's tempting to ignore them, but playing Sierra over Martinez was justifiable anyway, and those numbers reinforced that. But what they didn't justify is what Torre ultimately used them for – he batted Sierra cleanup.
Not only was Sierra's success in a small sample, none of his at-bats against Wells have been since early 2003, the last time Wells and Sierra were on different teams in the same league, and most of them had been many years ago, when Sierra and Wells were different players than they are today. And no matter how good his numbers looked, Sierra's success didn't justify pushing Matsui and Posada back in the lineup.
Statistics are a record of what someone has done, not what they will do. They can give us an idea of what's likely to happen if they're put into context, but without context they're just toys.
Interestingly, Sierra went 0-3 against Wells on Sunday night, and has gone 2 for 3 with two doubles against everyone else since then.
Few things were more bizarre to me this offseason than the mainstream reaction to the Yankees' signing of Tony Womack. In his career, Womack has been little better than mediocre at his best, and little better than replacement-level at his worst. He was hardly worth a two year deal for four million dollars, wholly undeserving of starting at second base for the Yankees, and completely unworthy of even a moment's consideration as a leadoff hitter (he's been called a "prototype leadoff hitter" by some this past offseason. Obviously there were a lot of bugs in the first model).
Womack had a red-hot spring, much to the surprise of many, but fortunately it didn't sway Joe Torre's decision to bat him ninth. While the season is only three days old, Womack is hitting .333 so far, and that more than anything else shows how worthless he is offensively.
Womack is hitting .333, but it's about as empty as a .333 batting average can be. With only one walk and no extra-base hits, Womack's OPS is a putrid .718, and while he's certain to have a few extra base hits this season (but not many -- his career Isolated Power is a comical .087), he's certainly not going to hit anywhere near .333 this season, and – believe it or not – his walk rate is currently far above his career average with only 1 walk in 13 PAs! Womack is currently on a hot streak, and his bat is still killing the Yankees.
There's probably only one thing to come out of the first series against Boston that the Yankees could genuinely be worried about, and that's the utter failure of Mariano Rivera.
On Tuesday, Rivera blew his first save opportunity by giving up a home run to Jason Varitek, though the Yankees won on Derek Jeter's walkoff homer in the bottom of the ninth. Wednesday was much worse. While there was no big blast, and an error by Alex Rodriguez cost the Yankees a chance to end the inning and win the game without giving up any runs, Rivera was still smacked around by the Red Sox, giving up five runs and blowing his fourth consecutive save opportunity against Boston.
Pretty much every season, Rivera goes through a stretch like this, blowing two or more saves in about a week, and every season it sparks a series of "What's Wrong With Mariano?" articles, declaring that his aura of invincibility has been shattered, and that the Yankees have lost a big advantage.
He then usually becomes untouchable for a long stretch of time, until he has another slump, and the cycle continues.
This slump looks worse because it's at the beginning of the season, and it's the only thing on his record. If he'd rung up 15 or so saves before this and had an ERA under 2.50, it wouldn't seem nearly as bad. His two blown saves in the ALCS exacerbate things even more.
Well, those two blown saves consisted of a walk, single and a fly ball, so forget about those, there was nothing wrong with him then, and Boston didn't "have his number". I don't think they have it now, either, he just doesn't have theirs. Great lineups like Boston's will sometimes beat the daylights out of great pitchers like Mariano Rivera. The Yankees pounded Trevor Hoffman in Game 3 of the 1998 World Series, he turned out just fine. Unless Rivera's slump continues past mid-April, I see no reason for serious concern, and the last thing the Yankees should do is consider not bringing him in the next time the game is on the line, even against the Red Sox.
Larry Mahnken is a staff writer for The Hardball Times, and co-editor of the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog. You can contact him with your comments, questions, romantic propositions and incoherent rantings at DLMahnken@hardballtimes.com.