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Yankees Offense Paranoid Nightmare Blues

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Of all the bits of Yankees history I’ve written about over the years, one I’ve never gotten around to is the short-lived "Go-Go Yankees" phase of 1982, when George Steinbrenner became enamored of the Whitey Herzog school of baseball and decided to emphasize the running game. He supplemented the aging core of the 1977-78 champions with Jerry Mumphrey, Ken Griffey, and Dave Collins and planned to run the teams of the American League into the ground.

Ironically, the Yankees had already tried a variation of the Herzog thing in 1976—Billyball was just Whiteyball with more power. You can’t really win with a pure speed approach in Yankee Stadium—classic or New Coke version—because the quality of the hitters is more important than their speed, and guys like Collins could be useful but just weren’t productive enough to build around, and the park in its modern configuration retards doubles and triples and hungers for left-handed power. The ’82 Yankees failed to hit, didn’t pitch all that well either, and were very unhappy because they had about eight outfielder-DHs lying around (another flaw in the master plan) fighting for playing time. The owner went through three managers on the way to a 79-83 record. It was like the Yankees’ version of 1841.

All of this came to mind recently when we were debating "Raul Ibanez or Bobby Abreu" on the Friday night radio show. Ibanez has power, but no speed or patience. Abreu has speed and patience, but seemingly no power. It seems to me that you would rather have the OBP—it plays in any ballpark, as does the baserunning ability. You can’t drive in runners that aren’t on base, and even though today’s game makes the stolen base more of a situational tool than something a team should make the center of its game, the home run is also devalued in the sense that it’s more of a basic qualifier for playing time than something special.

You can take this idea to extremes. Warning: about to cite some teams no one remembers. Take a look at the Indians at the very beginning of the 1980s under manager Dave Garcia. These teams are generally just lumped in with all of the losers that Cleveland produced in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, but they were actually interesting in that they were very good at getting on base but had very little power at all. In 1980, the Tribe ranked last in the AL in home runs, but first in on-base percentage. Mike Hargrove drew 111 walks and future Yankee Toby Harrah took 98. One-hit wonder Joe Charboneau was the sole power source with 23 home runs. Another one-hit wonder, 25-year-old outfielder Miguel Dilone, hit .341/.375/.432 with 61 steals but no home runs. Another future Yankee, catcher Ron Hassey, hit .318/.390/.446, but with just eight home runs (Hassey’s 1980, 1985, and 1986 are so good you would think he was actually a star offensive player, but he just wasn’t consistent at that level). They fielded variations on this theme over the next few years.

The Indians just couldn’t move enough of their runners to score even an average number of runners, but when you yoke power to a high-OBP lineup, you get a team that’s going to go places. The reverse issue, having power but no OBP, also is a problem. Look at the 2010 Blue Jays, who hit a league-leading 257 home runs, but couldn’t get on base at all—their .312 OBP was 12th in the league—and so they finished sixth in runs scored.

The overall point is that you need a mix to succeed. Earlier today, Rebecca wrote about how she was worried that the off years by A-Rod and Mark Teixeira would carry over to this season, and that, combined with any regression by Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, and Robinson Cano would leave the Yankees with something less than the offense they expect and are reasonably projected to have. They scored 867 runs last year, but some of that came from generous Yankee Stadium, so you have to take those numbers with a grain of salt. I’m not terrified that these things will happen—so much will have to go wrong at once—but it’s not impossible: Old teams have hit their end point all at once. Combine that with an unexpected slump or two and bang: you’re not scoring as many runs as you would think you might. Ibanez likely drags the Yankees in the wrong direction on several levels.

We need to see them play the games, of course; right now there’s nothing to do but contemplate best- and worse-case scenarios, not to mention plain ol’ what-is-most-likely (it’s that or the Dodger Stadium parking lots). You have two defense-first contributors in Russell Martin and Brett Gardner (and yes, defense counts towards their total contribution), a few others that might not perform at their best in the aforementioned corner guys, Ibanez, and the graying Mr. Jeter. The subs for the old guys, Eduardo Nunez and Eric Chavez, won’t hit. There really will be pressure on just a few players not to slip at all.

I started out this post thinking that was paranoia, but maybe it’s not so paranoid after all.