As much as I was pining for baseball by the end of my honeymoon -- having gone the better part of three weeks without catching more than a few innings here and there -- I've had a tough time sinking my teeth into the action since returning home. That's as much a product of putting the various non-wedding-related strands of my life back together as it is of the current woes of my two teams, the Dodgers and Yankees. But either way, I'm still a bit disoriented, so, with my new double-wide iMac in place today, I've been strolling through the stats to see where these teams are. Today I'll hit the Yanks, with the Dodgers coming in the near future.
When I departed for Milwaukee, the Yankees held a 15-19 record, having won four straight games at a time when many analysts, myself included, were calling for a priest to administer last rites to the dynasty. The streak reached ten wins, just in time for the team to cross the .500 threshold by the season's quarter mark and preserve a few necks, particularly that of pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. The big bat during that stretch was Tino Martinez, who reeled off eight homers in an eight-game span, creating a morality play in which the golden child's Bronx virtues of wholesome clutch goodness were hailed as trumping the mercenary black arts of the disgraced (and nearly demoted) Jason Giambi. During the streak, the New York Times' Murray Chass credited George Steinbrenner's intervention, which is fine if you believe in the kind of General Patton/Knute Rockne bullshit that the Boss sells and perhaps no more outrageous than all of the Chicken Little pronouncements that this was a team on its way to 100 losses and a new dark age.
Jotting down some notes during my brief return to New York, I noted that the most important part of the Yanks' season might come while I was in Italy, when the Yankees' own honeymoon from the streak wore off and they needed to maintain some kind of day-in-day-out consistency. Two weeks later, that consistency is nowhere to be found. After dropping two out of three to the Red Sox, the Yanks have just been swept by the worst team in baseball, the Kansas City Royals -- a team Joe Sheehan called a contraction candidate just a few days ago (fellow BPer John Erhardt's take on the Royals was hilarious).
While Alex Rodriguez had a hot enough May to be named the AL Player of the Month and the offense as a whole has rolled to a 5.31 runs per game clip -- tied for third in the majors -- the team is still fighting several drags on the offense. Giambi (.234/.379/.355) is hitting like a man who left his bat speed in the Gold's Gym "pharmacy". Hideki Matsui (.262/.319/.398) has borne more resemblance to the hitter who struggled in his first year in America than last year's slugging superstar, though with fewer groundballs. Robinson Cano (.247/.266/.393) has shown a little pop and exactly no control of the strike zone, walking a mere three times in 95 plate appearances. All the speed in the world can't make Tony Womack (.265/.310/.298) a productive hitter, particularly at an offense-first postion; his OPS is nearly 150 points worse than the average AL leftfielder. And even a seven-hit burst over a four-day span hasn't returned Bernie Williams (.252/.329/.371) to being the fearsome hitter of yesteryear.
As bad as those hitters have been, A-Rod (.313/.422/.626) and Gary Sheffield (.325/.415/.540) have been propping up the offense. They've had considerable help from Derek Jeter (.386 OBP as the entrenched leadoff man), Jorge Posada (coming off a scorching .325/.398/.588 May that has quieted the doubters), and Martinez has provided some of the pop Giambi apparently can't, though at .245/.341/.532, it appears he's crested as well.
But make no mistake: pitching and defense are still the main culprits of this team's woes. At .660, their Defensive Efficiency Ratio is 28 points worse than any other AL team, 38 points below league average, awful at a record-threatening pace, and one point lower than it stood on May 10, a week after the big shakeup that sent Womack to left and Wiliams to the bench. The team's 4.57 ERA is the ninth-worst in the majors, and the 6.08 strikeout rate is lower than it was when I bitched about Stottlemyre. Mike Mussina (3.92 ERA) appears to have gotten rolling, but Randy Johnson (3.92) has hardly been the dominant force from the catalog, Carl Pavano (4.50, with a team-high 13 homers allowed) has gopher trouble, and despite reeling off four straight wins while I was gone, Kevin Brown (5.14) still looked like the staff ace of the Suck City Sucky-Sucks the other night against KC. Rookie Chien-Ming Wang, however, has been a pleasant surprise, posting a 4.06 ERA despite a very low K rate (3.35 per 9 innings); his secret is keeping the ball on the ground (a 2.70 G/F ratio, which is Derek Lowe territory) and he's yet to allow a homer. It's too early to start fretting about where he'll wind up if and when Jaret Wright returns; on a staff this fragile and uneven, he's certain to have a role.
The front end of the bullpen has sorted itself out, with Mariano Rivera and Tom Gordon blessedly returning to form, while Tanyon Sturtze has maintained the gains he showed last fall. But the back end looks like a trainwreck at which Felix Heredia and Jay Witasick would be welcomed; Paul Quantrill (6.53), Buddy Groom (6.59) and Mike Stanton (7.36) have obviously taken a few paddlings. The depth they had at the outset of the season is gone. First, the numbers game caught Steve Karsay off base -- he was released after being designated for assignment (Bronx Banter's Cliff Corcoran weighed in with a fine, lengthy piece about Joe Torre's penchant for burning through relievers and Karsay's place in that history). Almost on cue, Felix Rodriguez went down with a knee injury just as they watched Karsay depart. It's like that.
At 27-26, just one game from the one-third mark of the season, the Yanks have ridden their current five-game losing streak into fourth place in the AL East. They're five games out of first and 4.5 out of the Wild Card spot; get used to hearing about the latter as much as the former, as this team will likely have to scrap for its October invitation. The 100-win season typically pencilled in for the Torre Yanks would require a 73-36 record (that's a .669 winning percentage, not quite '98 territory but not far off) to attain. Ninety wins (63-46, or .578 from here on out) will put them in the thick of the Wild Card but guarantee nothing other than frayed fingernails. There's nothing wrong with that kind of excitement, of course, but that shouldn't distract anyone from the harsh lessons the season has brought so far. This is not a team of miracle-makers, this is every bit the Homer Simpson-designed kludgemobile I envisioned in March. The ride over the next two-thirds of the season doesn't promise to be any smoother.
More pixels for everybody! Or something like that.
I build and maintain this site to entertain myself along with everybody else, so you'll have to forgive the compulsion to rearrange the furniture now and again (I am a designer, after all), not to mention the silliness of that new banner with the bobblehead mini-me. The story behind that is that several months ago, Andra found someplace that made customized bobbleheads based on photographs, and decided to have one made of me -- wearing a Dodger uniform -- as a Hanukkah gift. This soon turned into a fiasco, as the makers forgot to put a cap on "me," insisted that the team's road greys were its home uniform, and forgot the one element which lifts the Dodger uni above all others -- the red numbers on the front. Also, the rendition didn't bear much resemblance even with the glasses (which I still wear 98 percent of the time, contrary to many recent photos). For better or worse, the company attempted to redress some of her grievances, only they again forgot the cap, and the head on the second version appears to be that of Keith Olbermann:
Eh, no worse than most other bobbleheads, resemblance-wise. Both versions now sit atop my CD carousel, among what I like to refer to as the Futility Infielder Executive Board (it's basically a bunch of yes-men, geddit?). Wanting to get some mileage out of the little statue, I had initially planned to put a photo of one on the homepage, then decided to have some Photoshop fun. Somehow, the result wandered up into the banner during a moment of whimsy and chutzpah, and until I've got a better idea or acquire a sense of shame, there it will stay.
Anyway, the actual upgrade process for the site seems to have gone through relatively hitch-free. Under the hood, not much has really changed except for my penchant for posting photos to the blog. There are now permanent links to the blog archives and the 2004 DIPS results in the navigation bar. The links page has been retired in favor of what's on the blogroll to the left, the contact form has been mothballed in favor of a simple email link because I don't know enough Unix to configure the Form Mail script. Most of this means bubkes to you except that more text fits on the screen to accommodate the fact that 3/4 of you have wide enough monitors to see it all, and if you don't, you probably need a new computer (in an unrelated story, I just plunked down for a new one myself).
One post-wedding project down. Back to baseball soon enough...
But by the eighth day of our ten-day trip, our sightseeing -- at a more hectic pace than we'd promised ourselves -- began to take its toll. The churches, piazzas, crucifixion frescoes, and Madonnas-with-child began to blur together, the chintzy glassware, high prices (screw the 100 euro gondola rides that are "mandatory" for such romantic-themed trips; we couldn't be bothered) and tourist traps grated on our nerves, the Venetian canals and confusing maze of alleys drained our mental energy. When Mrs. Jaffe's stunning blue eyes began to well up with tears as she told me she needed a vacation from our vacation, I knew there was no shame in my secret yearning for the grid and the grit of New York City.
More than anything besides orderly street numbering, I missed baseball, subsisting at best on a thin gruel of two-day-old line scores in the International Herald Tribune. I missed my electronic conduit to the game, my Internet pals who make following the bouncing balls so much fun. Keeping a very low profile, I checked my email a couple of times, mostly to prevent my inbox from overflowing with junk mail, dropped by this site to read the kind words my visitors had left, skimmed Under the Knife, Bronx Banter, and Dodger Thoughts for quick fixes on the sly. And I yearned for the time I could kick back on the couch with a cold brew and a ballgame, whether to watch the surging Yankees or the struggling Dodgers, those two teams having reversed course since the point at which I went into turbo-wedding mode.
I've been saying for the past ten years that you know you live in the right place when you look forward to coming home from a vacation, and in my case that rings true even for a milestone event such as my honeymoon. With my return, the circus that has dominated my life for the past year is leaving town, and while I'm grateful that such a momentous occasion is now in the rearview (and perhaps a bit sad that I won't be so much a center of attention for awhile -- how else can I get a hundred and sixty people, not to mention a three-piece band, to humor my vocalized rendition of "Ring of Fire"?), I'll now have considerably more energy to devote to my writing and the rest of my work. I've got a slew of projects -- for Futility Infielder, Baseball Prospectus, and beyond -- that have been back-burnered for too long and I'm excited to dig in.
One of the advantages of traveling abroad is the opportunity to step back from the everyday mindset one falls into as a citizen of the U.S. As I explored the cradle of the Renaissance, I was reminded of how often our dearly held beliefs turn out to look ridiculous, even malevolently so, years or centuries later when new discoveries are made and the light of reason and truth outshines those Dark-Aged dogmas. There are a host of politicalparallels I could offer, particularly in this polarized environment, but there's plenty to which that applies even in the baseball sphere. I'm looking forward to spreading a bit of that good light around.