What Smaller Market Teams Might Learn from the Yankees

When Robinson Cano tossed the ball to Mark Texeira for the final out of the sixth game of the World Series, the Yankees won their 27th World Series and fifth since Major League Baseball first used the current expanded playoff system in 1995. The Yankees have now won one third of all World Series since 1995, an impressive accomplishment given how difficult it is to survive a three round playoff system. Clearly the Yankees have benefited from a front office that is willing and able to spend the money needed to put a strong team on the field every year, but just as clearly, there are additional explanations for the Yankees’ success.

There are many oft repeated theories to how to win in the post-season. These include the two dominant starter theory which states that the team with the two best starting pitchers will have the best chance of winning the championship, and the pitching and defense theory which is more of a platitude, stating that pitching and defense win championships. However, no Yankee team has really had two dominant starters on the scale of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks or even Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright on the 2009 Cardinals who, incidentally, got eliminated in the first round this year. Moreover, while the Yankees have had some good defensive teams, notably in 1998-2000, these were not extraordinary defensive teams with Ozzie Smith or Brooks Robinson types anchoring the infield or spectacular centerfielders who could reach anything.

All five recent Yankee championship teams, 1996, 1998-2000, and 2009, share some attributes which might be considered the Yankee formula for winning in the post-season, particularly in the World Series. First, all of these teams have had players in the top two spots in the batting order who could get on base. The primary leadoff and number two hitters for these teams were Derek Jeter on all five teams, Tim Raines, Wade Boggs and Johnny Damon on one each and Chuck Knoblauch on three. The lowest regular season on base percentage of any of those players in a year when the Yankees won the World Series was .361. Every team the Yankees beat in the World Series during this period, except the 1998 San Diego Padres had at least one, and frequently two hitters in their top two spots with a lower on base percentage than that during the regular season. This disparity carried over to the World Series where the Yankee set up men got on base at a better clip than their opponents in all five World Series which the Yankees won. The ability of Jeter, Knoblauch, Raines and Damon to reach base during these years was absolutely central to all five World Series victories.

A related characteristic of Yankee teams is that have they hit from top to bottom. Melky Cabrera, Scott Brosius and Chad Curtis were among the hitters batting ninth for Yankee championship teams. All of these players were better than the bottom ends of Yankee World Series opponents lineups. In 1996, the wors hitting Yankee regular was Joe Girardi with an OPS+ of 82, which towered over Mark Lemke, the Braves’ second baseman and, inexplicably, number two hitter who had an OPS+ of 67. Similarly in 1998, Chad Curtis (OPS+ 90) was as good or better with the bat than two Padre regulars, Carlos Hernandez (OPS+ 83) and Steve Finley (OPS+90). This gap was even wider in 1999 and 2009 as the weakest Yankee hitters in those two years, Scott Brosius (OPS+84 and Jorge Posada (OPS+91 ) in 1999 and Melky Cabrera (OPS+ 97) in 2009, were far more valuable than their counterparts on the Braves (Eddie Perez (OPS+ 69 and Walt Weiss (OPS+62) and Phillies Jimmy Rollins (OPS+85) , who also inexplicably batted leadoff ,and Pedro Feliz (OPS+ 80). The exception to this was the 2000 Yankees which was actually quite a weak team for a World Series winner.

The Yankee championship teams were always strong in the middle of the order, but with the exception of the current team, not among the top three-four combinations in baseball. From 1998-2000, Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams were batting in the middle of the Yankee lineup. The most home runs either of these players hit in these years was 30. The highest slugging percentage for either player was 575. These are good numbers but did not stand out in the offense heavy late 90s. Yankee championship teams were good in the middle of the lineup, but there real strengths were that their top two hitters got on base and that nobody in their lineup simply could not hit.

The third major characteristic of these Yankee championship teams has been the willingness of both Joe Torre and Joe Girardi to use their closer for more than one inning. While the Yankees have been fortunate to have an extraordinary closer since 1997, both managers get some credit for not staying with the often strict and generally irrational “rules” about how to use a closer that have evolved over the last two decades. Mariano Rivera has been a great, but not perfect, post-season closer for the Yankees during this run, but Girardi and Torre have made him a better one by using him more freely than many managers use their closers.

During this impressive run, from 1996-2009, the Yankees have also gotten eliminated from the playoffs seven times. Many of those teams followed a similar formula but faltered either because of bad starting pitching, bad breaks or frankly, a choke of historical proportions. Clearly the tactics the Yankees have used to build a strong post-season team have been good but not flawless. Interesting, teams looking to emulate the Yankees may find that doing so does not require a Ruthian payroll. Yankee advantages have been in the middle of the lineup, which is the most expensive part of a team, but at the bottom and top, which is often the cheaper, and in an attitude about bullpen use that would probably work, although not as well, even without a Rivera.