Yankees' Postseason: Slump or Coughing Canary?

Al Bello - Getty Images

Do the struggles of October foreshadow those of next April?

There are slumps and then there is the inexplicable. Even Ty Cobb and Ted Williams took a 2-for-20 at times because in baseball luck and muscle memory can desert a player all at once-his mechanics go and what he does manage to square up is hit right at someone. We can understand that. Sometimes, though, the slump seems to go beyond baseball being a capricious game. In Williams' sole World Series he was ripped for going 5-for-25 with no extra-base hits. Over the course of his career, he struck out once every 11 at-bats. That October, he struck out once every five. The greatest hitter of all time had apparently let the pressure get to him.

It wasn't that Williams slumped, it was that he didn't look like Williams doing it. At one point in that 1946 World Series he attempted a bunt, something that he almost never did in the regular season-a .400 hitter doesn't need to throw away at-bats. That October, though, whatever Williams was, he wasn't the guy who hit .400. Nonetheless, the World Series went seven games before the Red Sox finally lost in part because not all of Williams' teammates were as lost as he was.

The Yankees are now in the same boat as the Red Sox were with Williams all those years ago, except that you can multiply that by four, with Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher all lost at sea with seemingly no hope of finding land. Two of these we can dismiss-whatever his other positives, Swisher has been a miserable postseason hitter during his career; with last night's 1-for-3 he's now hitting .167 in 45 career games. His weak showing is disappointing, but it shouldn't be surprising. Conversely, Cano has hit extremely well in past postseasons, and though he's now 2-for-32 this October, it looks more like just one of those things than something pathological-he's putting the ball in play, however poor the results.

Granderson and Rodriguez may fall into the latter category. With three more Ks last night, Granderson has now whiffed in 14 of 26 at-bats this fall, or 54 percent. Consider that Adam Dunn, who trailed the American League in strikeout percentage, whiffed in only 41 percent of his at-bats. It just isn't normal, even in the postseason, for established major league stars to start striking out so much they make Rolando Roomes look like a contact hitter. Rodriguez added another two strikeouts to his postseason pile on Sunday and has now whiffed in 11 of 23 postseason at-bats, or 48 percent. Casey Stengel once mused, "There comes a time when you get a weakness and it might be physical." Barring an explanation involving warped contact lenses, this isn't physical, it's mental, it's ballplayers who have completely lost touch with the skills that had made them great. They'll find them again, there's little doubt of that (though in Rodriguez's case perhaps not to their fullest extent-it's been five straight years of declining production), but finding them now? That seems like a lot to ask for, their being so far away.

When Alfonso Soriano had this kind of postseason in 2003, the Yankees traded him-for Alex Rodriguez. It's difficult to envisage a scenario of that kind repeating itself. Soriano was 27 years old in 2003. A-Rod was 27 too, though already a nine-year veteran. None of the Yankees regulars are 27. A good many of them aren't even 37. This is the oldest roster of Yankees position players in team history, and their best and youngest regular, Cano, is about to turn 30. If the team fails this postseason, it's not clear how the organization gets younger, more vital, and more resilient. It's important, because if unchanged, next year's roster will break its own record for age, and one suspects that what is happening here is not just a fluke slump by Cano, Swisher's postseason aversion, or mental lapses by Rodriguez and Granderson, but rather that, aside from the apparently ageless Raul Ibanez, this team is tired.

Can the Yankees win four of five games and take this series? Sure, though obviously that's going to be harder without Derek Jeter. As long as the pitching staff keeps performing the way it has, they're going to have a chance-and that goes for next season as well. Their ultimate trajectory may be similar to that of the Phillies, which had an old, injury-prone, declining offense supported by a pitching staff that was, though not as good as that of the Yankees, solid enough to keep them from cracking completely. The Phillies too have little in their farm system, Ruben Amaro, Jr. having dealt a good deal of talent away to keep his aging team's run going.

If you know what the Phillies are going to do to solve their problems, you know what the Yankees will do to solve theirs. It seems to me that both have been backed into a corner where money won't help them. In fact, with some of the contracts they have signed, the availability of money has worked against them. The Yankees seem to have learned that lesson recently. It was a long time in coming. The only problem is, they don't have the young players available to make good on their newfound frugality.

For now, we wait and hope for the pinstripers to rally. If they do wake up and go to the World Series, it will be one last hurrah for this assemblage of players. If they don't wake up, it will still be a last hurrah, for win or lose, they won't get any younger.

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