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Coffee Joe's open mind

Joe Girardi says all the right things. You don’t want players to take their jobs for granted. Thus, the organization may know who it wants to win the Joba Chamberlain/Phil Hughes battle, it may know if it wants Brett Gardner or Randy Winn in left field, but Girardi isn’t going to say so. Nothing too deep to say here, except that this kind of talk can be a bit frightening even when you recognize it for exactly what it is. You can make a reasonable argument about who the fifth starter should be, but left field… If Carl Crawford is going to be the left fielder next year, if Charlie Keller is going to be the left fielder next year, the Yankees still need a viable asset in left field, not just for the 2010 championship, but for 2011—for leverage, for depth, for trade possibilities. If Winn reached his career numbers for the team this season, well, having a 36-year-old .286/.344/.418-hitting left fielder doesn’t do anything for you, doesn’t even keep you treading water, and it doesn’t leave you with anything to work off of for the next season other than to ask Crawford to name his price.

…But as I said, this is all talk anyway, so no need to get exercised about it for now.

Earlier this month, the wonderful, indispensable Retrosheet unveiled box scores for the 1940 season. Among other things, that means that they now have posted boxes for the first five years of Joe DiMaggio’s career, and we can begin to answer the eternal question of just how badly DiMaggio was hurt by the big ballpark in the Bronx that was pre-renovation Yankee Stadium, with its vast left field power alley.

The answer, shockingly, is "not too badly," at least not in those first years. DiMaggio’s home run production was definitely affected, and this probably cost him a few points of batting average, but for the most part he seems to have adjusted fairly well. In those first five seasons, the Jolter played in 686 games, all of which are represented in the Retrosheet splits. Overall, DiMaggio hit .342/.407/.605 with 70 home runs (one every 19.4 at-bats) at home, .344/.397/.640 with 98 home runs (one every 15 at-bats) on the road.

The really amazing thing is that one of the reasons that DiMaggio looked so much better on the road was not just because of the contrast with Yankee Stadium, but because he was able to take extreme advantage of some of the Triple-A teams masquerading as major league clubs at the time. During those five years, the St. Louis Browns went 268-498 (.350, equivalent to going 57-105 today) with an average team ERA of 5.83. It seems as if DiMaggio personally helped them to that record, batting .424/.487/.838 against them in 104 (!) games, hitting 41 home runs in 432 at-bats. This was by far his best performance against any team. He hit .419/.486/.860 with 25 home runs in 229 at-bats in the bandbox that was Sportsman’s Park. Whatever Yankee Stadium took away from the Yankee Clipper, the Browns helped give back by abdicating in season after season.

Because DiMaggio was dining out, some of the home-road splits are stark in excess of what Yankee Stadium might have appeared to do had the league been more balanced. In his rookie season, DiMaggio hit .313/.351/.514 with just eight home runs at home, .332/.355/.628 on the road with 21 home runs. In some seasons he actually was more effective at home. In 1938, he batted .351/.411/.635 at Yankee Stadium with a home run every 20 at-bats, .297/.362/.528 with a homer every 18 at-bats. In 1939 he was terrific at home, hitting .350/.410/.578 with 12 home runs, but he was insane on the road, hitting .413/.486/.769 with 18 home runs. Yet, we can’t assume that the ballpark prevented DiMaggio from joining Ted Williams in the .400-hitter category. Rather, he was playing in a high-offense year (the league scored 5.21 runs per game, more than last year’s 4.82 and that was with the designated hitter), in a league populated by some extremely poor teams playing in some very good hitter’s parks.

Yankee Stadium was a tough place for a right-hander to hit a home run, but in light of these numbers, perhaps the right formulation is not that DiMaggio’s Yankee Stadium was unfair and the rest of the league was normal, but that Yankee Stadium was normal by our standards and the rest of the league was Coors Field.

I’m doing a lot of radio right now because the Baseball Prospectus annual I edited, currently the bestselling sports book on Amazon, is a hot topic. Most of the time I’m asked about the baseball issues of the day, but because the book is often used as a fantasy guide, I get the odd question about how I prepare my draft. This is difficult for me because (a) I stopped playing fantasy baseball many years ago—too much of a good thing, and (b) I was never all that scientific about it anyway. I get a little nervous at these times, and a I really want to say something flip, but I take the questions and the questioners seriously and try my level best. But some day, some day, when asked "What are some of the most common mistakes people make in their fantasy drafts," I’m going to say, "Going for the bean dip in the early rounds, Ralph. If you indulge too heavily, too soon, you’re going to be making your mid-round picks under pressure."

I talk about the aforementioned BP annual with journalist and baseball book enthusiast Ron Kaplan.

• Once again, I’ll be here chatting about the upcoming baseball season on Friday at 12:30 PM ET.

Wholesome Reading has been updated. You know the drill: Warning! Politics!