Yankees learn their money’s no good in MLB playoffs

Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 19, 2012

On Thursday, the inert, almost lifeless, New York Yankees got swept out of the playoffs. That defeat at the hands of the American League champion Detroit Tigers culminated an entire season with one stunning theme. This year marked the rapid deterioration of the biggest-budget and most glamorous teams of recent years: the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies. Those who tried hardest to emulate them, such as the Rangers and Angels, suffered just as badly. Three of the five didn’t even make the 10-team playoffs.

The old guard didn’t just teeter. It looks like it’s virtually certain to be replaced.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The most dramatic example is the Yanks, who have assembled, and are now stuck with, a group of astronomically paid postseason chokers. Harsh words, but what else can you say? They include Mark Teixeira (.195 in eight Yankees postseason series), Robinson Cano (.222 in 11 series), Alex Rodriguez (.234 in 13), Curtis Granderson (.231 in five), Nick Swisher (.162 in eight), Brett Gardner (.215 in eight) and Russell Martin (.154, one RBI in 52 playoff at-bats as a Yankee). Not one of them has any hidden redeeming stat value. The Yanks have a worse problem than age. Their entire everyday lineup, a fearsome home-run gorging group in the regular season, is allergic to October.

What must Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill and other Real Yankees — who all performed exactly as well (or better) in the postseason than they did in the regular season — think of this current bunch with the $200 million price tag?

However, the Yanks’ futility simply illustrates a trend first noticed in spring that now has played out in full: In 2012, money bought you next to nothing. Is it a one-year fluke? Whatever it is, it’s shocking.

This season, the 15 highest payroll teams ($124 million average) won 81.4 games on average. The 15 lowest budget teams ($72 million average) won 80.6 games. So, MLB’s top half paid an extra $788 million so it could win an extra 12 games. Only one of the top seven payroll teams (Detroit, sixth) is still in the playoffs. The most regular season wins went to the Nationals and Reds, 20th and 17th in pay.

Rough punishments came at the top to the three highest-payroll and highest-profile teams of recent years, the Yanks, Red Sox and Phillies. Boston lost 93 games, its worst season since 1965, and will need years to rebuild. Nine of the 10 most important Phillies (81-81) — all except Cole Hamels — are ancient: All will be 32-to-Social-Security-eligible by next season.

The Tigers are different. Owner Mike Ilitch, 83, ex-Marine, ex-minor leaguer and pizza mogul, spent $214 million for Prince Fielder. Why? Ilitch thinks his beloved home town has suffered too much deprivation and depression. So, he deliberately overpaid, but got the Prince because he wanted to make one more run at a world championship, for the sake of his town. The final Yanks out, putting the Tigers into the Series, was a popup into Fielder’s glove.

What happened to the Yanks this week will probably continue. Why? Teixeira, Cano, Rodriguez, Swisher and Gardner didn’t just kill the Yanks this week. They’ve done it the past three Octobers. If the Yanks hadn’t won the Series in 2009, it would’ve been noticed sooner. Here are their postseason at-bats as Yanks, followed by their career on-base plus slugging percentages and Yanks-playoff on-base plus slugging percentages: Teixeira: 138, .896/.619; Cano: 267, .854/.686; A-Rod: 231, .945/779; Swisher: 130, .837/.561; Gardner: 65, .723/.488.

The Granderson who hit 108 homers the past three regular seasons hasn’t shown up either. His 3-for-30 playoff rivaled Cano’s 3 for 40 and A-Rod’s 3 for 25. We don’t really know Rodriguez’s final average; did he strike out with the swimsuit model in the box seats?

“I will be back,” vowed Rodriguez, referring to the $114 million the Yankees still owe him. “And I’ll come back on a mission.”

That would be Mission Impossible: Reverse time.

New York cab drivers say some players thrive under New York pressure. Others wilt. This has always seemed like psychobabble to me. But as the size of the data sample of these New Yankees has grown, it might be true.

Except for the occasional breakout, such as A-Rod in the ’09 Series, these guys do little, year after year. What you saw in the Yankees’ dugout, after Jeter was helped off the field in Game 1 after he fractured his left ankle, is the truth about the current team. Once things start to roll against them in the postseason, they sit apart. They tighten up. To a degree, they might even quit.

Not long ago, the great Yankees of the early Jeter era had as good, or even better, stats in the playoffs as they did in the regular season. Rivera went from the best closer ever (2.21 career ERA) to the best pressure performer in any sport in his generation (0.70 ERA in 96 games). That was the old standard.

Even if you grew up far from New York, had no Yankee-loving relatives and understood that “Hating the Yankees” was as American as ice cream, you still had to respect and, okay, admire those Yanks.

But what about these Yanks who batted a collective .188 in the postseason? They are almost all homer-or-nothing sluggers. That’s what General Manager Brian Cashman wanted for the new bandbox Yankee Stadium with the joke porch in right. But a warped park encourages distorted playing styles. The Yanks set a team record with 245 homers this season, but it led them only astray. The less they scored, the harder they swung and the worse they hit.

It’s hard to find a late-’90s Yank who was a lousy playoff hitter. But there was one. He was in 12 postseason series, yet batted just .184 and had a pitcher-like OPS of .463, far below his career norm: Joe Girardi, now the Yankees manager. At least he knows what his players are feeling.

This will be remembered as a season when the old Yanks-Red-Sox-Phils order shifted and those teams, such as the Rangers and Angels, who copied them failed to supplant them at the top. Traditional names will meet in the World Series, but not the very biggest spenders.

For $788 million, you can buy 12 wins. It’s almost enough to give money a bad name.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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