“Okay campers, rise, and shine, and don’t forget your booties ‘cause it’s cold out there…”
In the movie “Groundhog Day,” Phil Connors wakes up these words when his clock radio goes off at six o’clock in the morning. Stuck in a time loop while in in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, for Groundhog Day, the Pittsburgh weatherman played by Bill Murray relives the same day over and over for an undetermined period of time. Originally indulging in excess due to the fact that there are no consequences to his actions within the loop, he eventually turns to learning new skills, as he becomes fluent in French, masters the piano, and learns how ice sculpting.
In order to escape the loop, however, Connors has to develop as a person, and while the movie leaves the exact reason ambiguous — is it because he forged a true romantic connection with his producer Rita, because he learned to appreciate the small town holiday he looked down upon, or because he finally used his knowledge of the loop to help those around him? — he most definitively leaves the loop a better person than he entered it.
In the spirit of the day, let’s consider: If people around baseball got stuck in a “Groundhog Day”-like time loop, what would they have to do to escape it?
After 19 scoreless innings to start his career, Luis Gil captured the attention of Yankees fans hoping for a homegrown ace to slot behind Gerrit Cole, and despite struggles in his last two starts of the season (7 earned runs in 10.1 innings), the 23-year old right-hander enters the 2022 season with high expectations.
Although Gil has shown success as a starter in an admittedly-miniscule sample size, most prospect lists still project Gil that will primarily find success as a reliever, with FanGraphs noting that “Gil’s pitch usage at Triple-A (60% fastball, 33% sliders, 6% changeups) indicates that...[the Yankees] weren’t truly developing him as [a starter], as it appears as though there was no real intention of finding a third pitch.” Additionally, Gil has struggled with command, with a 5.8 BB/9 that was second-highest on the team among all pitchers with 25 innings, behind only Aroldis Chapman.
A time loop would be the perfect opportunity for Gil to answer these questions by working on his changeup and improving his command. Fixing these two issues would go a long way towards making Gil a viable starter for the long haul.
The 2021 season was an absolute disaster for the young middle infielder, as he found success neither at the plate nor in the field. In many ways, it is tempting to say that, in order to escape his time loop, Gleyber Torres needs to fix, well, everything. But if we had to pick one, which of these two problems should command the infielder’s attention, his bat or his glove?
Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, I would say that it is more important to get the bat in order. After all, if Torres were to put up a 130 OPS+ with 30+ home runs, nobody would care about a few errors. However, as Josh wrote back in October, Torres’ bat seemed to come around at least a little bit when he was moved back to second base in mid-September. With this in mind, improving his defense — and thus allowing him to settle in and improve his all-around performance — is how Torres can escape his loop, and hopefully put him back on track to be the star everybody thought he could be.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, Torres wasn’t the only player to enjoy seeing 2021 in the rearview mirror. Once an exciting young player who almost won the 2016 Rookie of the Year Award despite making one appearance before August 3rd, catcher Gary Sánchez has become a polarizing figure due to his defensive struggles and incredible streakiness at the plate; he has become so unpopular, in fact, that many fans have called for him to replaced by a pair of backup catchers (first Austin Romine, then Kyle Higashioka).
Many readers will certainly want Sánchez to focus on his defense, but in truth, what really harmed the Yankees last season was the inability of anybody to consistently generate good contact besides Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Statcast pegged Sánchez near the league leaders in their swing/take metrics in 2016 and 2017, while ranking him among the worst in 2020 and league average in 2021.
A large portion of that decline comes from the fact that Sánchez has simply been bad at pitches over the heart of the plate. Improving his performance over the heart of the plate would go a long way towards turning himself back into the Kraken, and potentially force the Yankees into a difficult decision next winter.
Hey, who said that it was only players who could get locked in a loop? Under Hal Steinbrenner’s leadership, the Yankees have consistently been one of the top teams in the league, but they have not gotten over the hump and returned to the World Series — let alone won one — since the 2009 season. That was over a decade ago. And while you can’t blame all of that on the team owner — the 2013-2015 squads were painful in part because the team’s inability to develop homegrown talent prevented them from adequately replacing the aging core — the team has refused to spend money on multiple occasions to fill holes.
Having Manny Machado on the left side of the infield would solve a lot of problems this winter due to his ability to play shortstop. Claiming Justin Verlander off waivers in 2017 may have been the difference in the ALCS against the Astros, as could signing Max Scherzer as a free agent following the 2014 season. Adding Scherzer, or Robbie Ray, or any of the other pitchers available this winter would solidify a rotation with high potential but a lot of question marks.
I could keep going, but I’m going to stop there, as the point is made. The truth is, despite having one of the highest payrolls in baseball, the Yankees have not actually increased their payroll at all over the last decade. The Opening Day payroll in 2006 was roughly $194 million; in 2021, it was $197 million. Over the years, Hal has reinvested less and less of the team’s skyrocketing revenue into the product on the field, and while nobody is demanding a payroll north of $500 million (which is where it would be if the Yankees continued to reinvest upwards of 70 percent of their revenue into the payroll), it’s not unreasonable to demand that the team actually spend more money on players than they did in the mid-2000s.
All that said, how does Hal get out of his loop? Perhaps by getting visited by the Ghosts of Yankees Champions Past, Present, and Future to remind himself that his legacy will be defined by championships, not by his collection of gold-plated yachts.
In many ways, Rob Manfred is currently in his own “Groundhog Day” loop, reliving the experience that was the 2020 pandemic-shortened season negotiation in the negotiations for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Players make proposals in an attempt to actually advance the negotiations, the owners take forever to make proposals that are unacceptable, and everybody goes home frustrated. Two years ago, that resulted in a 60-game sprint of a season when, realistically, we probably could have had at least an 82-game season (if not 90-100 games); once again, it looks like we’re on a collision course for a shortened season.
Fortunately, Manfred has a relatively easy way out of his loop: do his job. I know, I know — technically speaking, the negotiations are not between him and the MLB Players Association, but between owners and the MLBPA. Nonetheless, as the commissioner of the sport and supposed steward for its wellbeing, Manfred is theoretically in a position where he could serve as a mediator, convince the owners to make meaningful concessions, and get spring training to start, if not on time, at least with only a short delay. Of course, I must emphasize theoretically here, because in reality, Manfred has pretty much done nothing except back the owners and try to pin blame for the owner-imposed lockout on the players throughout this entire process.
Were he to actually act in the best interests of the sport, and not in the best interests of the 2022 financial statements, Manfred would be able to get out of this loop. Unfortunately, he is not, and we are all still along for the ride.