Paranoia Self-Destroyer

While I was bushwhacking my way through the flora of the Wind Rivers range in Wyoming (as opposed to the bushwhacking I might have been doing back in New York City), good ol’ Will Carroll invoked a recent conversation of ours to lead off one of his Under the Knife columns at Baseball Prospectus:

It was just a couple weeks ago, sitting in Mickey Mantle’s restaurant, that my pal Jay Jaffe said that there was no such thing as a paranoid Yankees fan. Paranoid Yankees owner? Maybe.

I’m sure Jay will want to reconsider that statement as the Sox continue to surge and the Yanks continue to… well, choke is a strong word for September, isn’t it? Teams slump and surge throughout the season, and the timing of those swells is what makes a season exciting. I’m not writing off the Yankees, and I’m not yet ready to give Theo Epstein an apology for all the things I said about that trade, but baseball analysis (if you can call what I do “analysis”) is humbling. Even the smartest and the best miss things and stare at the opaque window of front offices and clubhouses blankly.

Returning to civilization, I was greeted with the news that the Yankees had just suffered a loss of epic proportions, a 22-0 drubbing by the Indians that was the worst in franchise history. Furthermore, the team’s once-insurmountable 10.5 game lead over the Red Sox had shrunk to a mere 3.5 and has since dropped to 2.5, an especially narrow margin with six Sox games still to be played this month.

Paranoid? As a black sheep in the Yankee fold, I won’t attempt to back up that claim, not with my pal Alex Belth a mere one click away. My thoughts on the Yanks these days tend less towards paranoia and more to a bracing for the worst, which in this case means a one-and-done postseason scenario for the Yanks à la 2002.

That situation became just a bit more likely when the pitching staff’s putative ace, Kevin Brown, lost an argument with a clubhouse wall the other night, turning his non-pitching left hand into a maraca during an over-the-line exhibition of his gung-ho perfectionism. While Brown admitted “stupidity” and promised to make his next start, the Yankee team doctors ruled otherwise and inserted two pins into his broken hand, shelving him for a minimum of three weeks and perhaps the season. His teammates, to whom he issued a hollow apology, might think of inserting a few more objects into his various body parts, and the Yankee brass was even less amused:

You just can’t do this, there’s no doubt about it. You’ve got to keep your emotions in check,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “It’s a major issue that we shouldn’t be dealing with. It’s a problem.”

Cashman and Yankees manger Joe Torre were visibly annoyed. Cashman said Brown could be disciplined or fined. Torre said he spoke to Brown and expressed his disappointment.

“Certainly uncalled for and unnecessary,” Torre said. “There’s more to this game than one person. We rely on him a great deal. It’s not something that’s helping the team, obviously.”

After the game, the Yankees began reviewing Brown’s contract to determine whether a self-inflicted injury could void the guarantee language, one baseball official said on the condition of anonymity. No determination had been made, the official said.

Brown is earning $15 million this season and is due $15 million next year, the final season of his $105 million, seven-year deal.

All of this has set up a scenario which likely finds both Yankee haters and fans on the same side of an issue for once, eagerly awaiting an eruption from Mount Steinbrenner. If ever a player deserved to be ripped a new asshole in public by the team’s bombastic owner before being nailed to a cross and left to the vultures (how do you really feel, Jay?), it is Brown. Spitting the bit? If that isn’t a description of a team leader abdicating his responsibilities through a selfishly childish act, I don’t know what is.

Injury-prone 39-year-old aces are one thing, injury-prone 39-year-old faux aces with documented tendencies towards self-mutilation another entirely, and if Brown indeed cannot pitch for the rest of the season, expect his punishment to make Aaron Boone’s seem light by comparison. On that condition, the Yankees would likely press to have his salary forfeited for the rest of the season, and may further attempt to free up that $15 million of 2005 money for a less, er, destructive pitcher. Only the certainty that swallowing some salary and banishing him to, say, Pittsburgh would mean a turnaround trade to some other contender in the Yankee path might prevent that scenario from playing out.

Will Brown’s stupidity cost the Yanks the AL East crown? Like Steven Goldman and other smart folks, I tend to think that strength of remaining schedule will save them. But in any event, the conclusion that the Yankees have in fact lost the Jeff Weaver-plus-two-for-Brown trade with the Dodgers is inescapable, especially now that Yhency Brazoban has shown strong signs that the Guillermo Mota element of the team’s controversial deadline trade wasn’t crack-addled:

           IP    ERA   HR/9  K/9  K/w  WHIP  VORP

Brown 126.1 3.99 1.0 5.7 2.4 1.25 27.2
Weaver 188.2 3.72 0.6 6.5 2.5 1.26 39.7
Brazoban 18.0 1.00 0.5 9.0 6.0 0.83 8.9

That’s a 21.4-run advantage for the Dodgers, a shift of about two wins, and actually even more than that that when one considers the sub-replacement level dreck the Yanks have thrown out there in his place. As to it benefitting the Dodgers, I didn’t say I was entirely unhappy with the deal, did I? But how a converted outfielder who was expected to be A-ball pitching fodder in the Yankee chain (Brazoban) has instead become L.A.’s version of K-Rod is no small indictment of the pinstriped organization’s minor-league system. Furthermore, Weaver has now become the latest data point in what should be an Office Space-esque conversation with Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, as in “What would you say ya do here?”

Whether it’s the multiple myeloma or the championship rings, Stottlemyre has become the sacred cow of the Yankee organization during the Joe Torre regime. Deep starting rotations, quality relievers and oodles of cash can make any pitching coach look pretty smart, and ol’ Mel is no exception. But when it comes to ironing out a pitcher gone awry, Stottlemyre has shown a serious lack of fix-it aptitude that shouldn’t just be chalked up to a particular hurler’s resemblance to Ed Whitson. Consider this admittedly selective list:

                Years   IP   ERA   Car. ERA*

Kenny Rogers 96-97 324 5.11 4.13
David Cone 00 155 6.91 3.27
Denny Neagle 00 91 5.81 4.16
S. Hitchcock 01-03 140 5.84 4.68
Jeff Weaver 02-03 237 5.35 4.20
Jose Contreras 03-04 167 4.10 3.92
Esteban Loaiza 04 28 8.46 4.60
* besides listed seasons

These pitchers, all of them at least proven middle-rotation starters elsewhere, spent the listed years in pinstripes showing a puzzling and out-of-character ineffectiveness that Stottlemyre could do no more to solve than he could build that perpetual motion machine which Don Zimmer was said to be cooking up a few years ago. Injuries — reported ones, at least — played only minor parts in these dramas, except perhaps in Hitchcock’s case. Many of the pitchers were acquired mid-season, perhaps creating a mitigating discomfort factor. And it’s arguable whether Hitchcock and Neagle ever found their pre-Yankee form after leaving New York.

But then again, this list ignores then 2001 World Series meltdown of Andy Pettitte, who was widely reported — most notably by ESPN Radio’s Rick Suttcliffe — to be tipping his pitches, and it downplays a similar problem by Contreras against the Red Sox (13.95 ERA as a Yank). It also ignores legions of ineffective and perhaps washed-up relievers (Tony Fossas, Jay Witasick, Juan Acevedo, Chris Hammond, et al) who were given only a handful of innings to show their stuff — or lack of same — in the Bronx.

Now, I don’t claim to be able to comparatively analyze a pitcher’s mechanics via videotape and spot the flaws, but then again, I’m not drawing a generous six-figure salary from Boss Steinbrenner either. Stottlemyre, on the other hand, is getting paid to do things like spot a tipped pitch or a dropped elbow, yet he’s shown either a lack of ability or interest in doing just that, many times over. If George Steinbrenner wants to find a scapegoat for the Yankee staff’s ailments beyond Kevin Brown, he could do worse than to consider whether his pitching coach is still doing his job.

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