Should the Yankees be Surprised?

“I’m stunned. This team fooled me to some degree,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “This is a tough one because this team was capable of a lot, at least I thought.”

This was the reaction of the Yankees general manager to New York’s exit from the playoffs yesterday. Clearly Cashman is surprised that the Yankees could lose to the Detroit Tigers. In watching the game yesterday, the Fox announcers insisted that no one would have thought the Tigers could win (although TigerBlog was clearly the exception).

Should we really be surprised?

The Yankees had a payroll of close to $200 million in 2006. A fair chunk of this cash was spent on a line-up that scored a Major League leading 930 runs. To put the Yankees offense in perspective, the distance between 1st and 2nd place in the runs scored rankings – 60 runs – was about the same distance between 2nd and 12th place.

Of course scoring is not the entire story in baseball. Winning is determined both by how many runs a team scores and how many runs it allows. In sum, run differential is truly the key stat.

When we expand our focus to run differential our view of the Yankees diminishes. Yes, the Yankees scored 163 runs more than their opponents, and no team had a greater run differential. But the Detroit Tigers – with a payroll of $82 million – had a run differential of 147. And if we turn to the expecting winning percentage formula developed by Bill James, the Tigers stats were worth 97 wins while the Yankees stats were only valued at 96. So although the Yankees did indeed win two more games than the Tigers in the regular season, it is not clear that the Yankees were the much better team. After all, while the Yankees led baseball in runs scored, no baseball team allowed fewer runs than Detroit.

Of course the Tigers did not look like one of the best teams in baseball the last weekend of the regular season. The Tigers needed one win at home against the Kansas City Royals to clinch the Central Division title. The Royals had a run differential of -214, the worst mark in baseball. Plus the Tigers had dominated the Royals all season. One victory in three chances against such an opponent seemed an easy task. Yet the Tigers managed to lose all three.

Did the three game series last weekend indicate the Royals were better than the Tigers? No one would make such an argument. Even very good teams can be swept by inferior opponents in baseball. After all, every baseball team lost at least 65 games this year. So three losses in three days is not a surprise.

When we get to the playoffs, though, this reasoning seems to escape us. The Yankees took game one against the Tigers 8-4. This game marked the sixth consecutive loss for the Tigers and it looked like the Yankees were going to have an easy time advancing in playoffs. In game two the Tigers struck first, but a Johnny Damon three run home run in the 4th inning gave the Yankees a 3-1 advantage. It looked like the Yankees were on their way to a second victory.

But the Tigers pitching – again, the strength of this team – proceeded to shut down the Yankees. For the rest of game two the Yankees failed to score and the Tigers managed to win 4-3.

Game three was the masterpiece by Kenny Rogers, a pitcher the Yankees had historically dominated. And then in game four, Jeremy Bonderman shut the Yankees down again. After the Damon home run the Yankees only scored three more runs in the series, and two of these came in the 9th inning of Saturday’s contest when New York was already down 8-1.

What lesson should the Yankees learn from this series? The surprising answer is nothing.

To see this, consider how good the Yankees were in the regular season. No team in baseball won more games in the regular season than the Yankees. But that statement exaggerates the strength of this team. The Yankees only won 97 games, the same total as the New York Mets. Since 1995 the best team in baseball has bested 97 victories every season except 2000. Last season two teams did better than 97 wins. In 2003 and 2004, the Yankees mark in 2006 would have only been good enough for fourth best in baseball. In sum, the Yankees were good in 2006, but one cannot argue that this team was one of the best we have seen recently in baseball.

Unfortunately, the sports media seemed to focus solely on that giant payroll and potent line-up. The relatively weak defense – ten teams allowed fewer runs than the Yankees – was ignored in the analysis.

Obviously in the four games against Detroit the Yankees were let down by both their offense and defense. One has to remember, though, the sample size. We are talking about four games. In fact, it is really the last three that doomed New York. Should the Yankees make major changes to their roster – or coaching staff – because three games did not go their way? Or put it this way – are there any changes one can make to this line-up or coaching staff that would guarantee a different outcome in 2007?

The answer – and Yankee fans will not like this – is that there are no guarantees in baseball. As I noted in a Baseball Analyst column last April, the team with the best record in baseball has only won the World Series once in the last ten years.

Perhaps Billy Beane summed it up best when he was quoted in Moneyball saying: “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.”

Beane says this because the sample in the playoffs is too small. Just like the Tigers found out in their series with the Royals a week ago, in three games any team can win. This is true in the regular season, and it is true in the playoffs. Those who think the playoff sample truly tells us something unfortunately are just fooling themselves.

Of course, I don’t like the Yankees much. So maybe the Yankees getting fooled is not such a bad thing.

– DJ

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