To my way of thinking, the Yankees were lucky to be in the postseason to begin with. After they failed to sign Cliff Lee in the offseason, Brian Cashman and his cohort had a choice: go young or gamble. Predictably, they chose to gamble. In came Freddy Garcia, while A.J. Burnett, who could easily have been cashiered from the rotation after his 2010 death-spiral, was allowed to remain in his slot, anchored there by his albatross contract. Youth got a hat-tip in the form of Ivan Nova, by no means the most promising of the club’s many pitching prospects, and he got dropped from the rotation in early July with a respectable 4.05 ERA starter’s ERA—the average AL starter had a 4.21 ERA this year. The other young starter was Phil Hughes, but his dead arm and the associated long stay on the disabled list made room for Bartolo Colon.
Let’s review. The 2011 Yankees won 97 games with this cast of starters:
CC Sabathia (33 starts): Ace. No problem.
A.J. Burnett (32 starts): Now has an ERA of 5.20 for the last two seasons. Made just 10 quality starts all season long. His quality start percentage of 31% ranked last in the American League and just missed being last in the majors by a meaningless one percent.
Ivan Nova (27 starts): Put up a 3.18 ERA after coming back from the minors, showing improved command and a little more of a downward plane on his pitches, but his 5.7 Ks per nine was still nothing special, and he benefitted from a .275 BABIP, which suggests some luck at work.
Bartolo Colon (26 starts): Had last been healthy for a full season during the Civil War, chronically out of shape, had made just 47 starts from 2006 through 2009 and was completely absent from the majors in 2010.
Freddy Garcia (25 starts): A league-average pitcher for years and frequently injured, Garcia hadn’t made 30 starts in a season since 2006 and had become increasingly disposed towards the home run in recent years as his strikeout rate dropped. ERA over the preceding five seasons, 4.69.
Phil Hughes (14 starts): Had won 18 games in 2010, but his ERA had bloomed after a dominating start. His arm got tired, his velocity and strikeout rate disappeared, and he never did get going—although he was quality half the time, more than Burnett.
What you have there is not a championship rotation. It’s a mess. It shouldn’t have worked. By the end of the season, Burnett and Hughes were still lost, Colon was toast, and Garcia went back to giving up home runs. Only Sabathia and the UFO named Nova were still standing. By the time it was over, the Yankees had the eighth-best starter’s Fair Run Average in the league. They were about average overall, but the trend arrow was pointed down, south, to blazes.
So how did the Yankees win 97 games? The offense was quite good and so was the bullpen, and again, the sequence is important—Colon and Garcia were different pitchers in the first two-thirds of the season than they were at the end.
In that sense, it seems a bit unrealistic to complain too much about the ALDS loss to the Tigers. The Yankees gambled, won for awhile, and then kept putting their chips back out their until the bet didn’t pay off anymore. It worked just well enough, the Yankees had sufficient other assets, and the Red Sox and Rays had truly odd seasons. A lot of things happened in 2011 that won’t repeat themselves in a million baseball seasons, and this starting rotation is one of them (which is why it can’t and won’t be brought back next year).
So, okay, we should maybe be forgiving, but in the end they did get there and it’s fair and just for us to have expectations—in particular because it wasn’t really the pitching that did them in. Their three losses were by scores of 5-3, 5-4, and 3-2. Over and over again, the hitters simply failed to deliver in the clinches. Alex Rodriguez is playing hurt, so his total disappearance is somewhat understandable, although if he was really as poorly as he appeared, it seems reasonable to ask why he was playing in the first place. Eduardo Nunez and Eric Chavez belong in the class picture of Pointless High, but pointless is better than dead. Meanwhile, where Joe Girardi did use Chavez, it was to pinch-hit for Brett Gardner, who turned out to be one of the series’ better hitters. Gardner’s second half was a long study in being there in body but not in spirit (he hit .223/.320/.313 over the last two months), so Girardi’s intentions are understandable, but Chavez spent the season showing that he had very little left with the bat, plus the decision to use him led to Andruw Jones having to hit against the platoon, something that rarely worked in the regular season.
Still, Coffee Joe was largely in check in this series (the injury to Nova forced him to manifest in Game 5), and in a sense it was a problem. First was his odd willingness to go back to Luis Ayala in the ninth inning of Game 2 after his poor showing in Game 1, which had the result that a 4-1 ninth-inning deficit was increased to 5-1. Second was the Chavez-Jones sequence described above. Finally, Francisco Cervelli’s absence, combined with fear of having Jesus Montero playing defense, led Girardi to let Martin bat in key spot after key spot. Martin is a fine defender and goes through strange hot and cold streaks—he was Johnny Bench in April and August and harmless as a kitten in all other months. If the Yankees were so afraid of maneuvering around their catcher, they should have included Austin Romine on the roster and sacrificed Chris Dickerson or Ayala.
Alas. Now it’s over and preparations for the next adventure begin. Jorge Posada will have moved on or retired. Jeter, whose post-DL .331 hitting vanished in this series, will be 38, and though many of you will be expecting more .330, and I hope you’re right, the odds are still against it. Rivera, who somehow didn’t figure at all in this series—one of the insanities of modern managing is the tendency to lose games with your best pitcher having been a spectator—will be 42. Colon and Garcia might be gone. Sabathia can opt out of his contract. A.J. and A-Rod will still be here.
Just as the Red Sox will have to rebuild before they will have a chance to fall out of another pennant race, the Yankees will have a great deal of work to do before they can blow another division series. All the money in the world won’t make an improvised roster like this one a 97-game winner again.