The Yankee Guide to Failure

There are a number of sports figures who have been able to market their approach to their sport as some kind of guideline for broader success in life. Basketball coach Phil Jackson was able to do this. Moneyball was implicitly about how to extrapolate Billy Beane’s approach to baseball to other professional settings. The late 49er coach Bill Walsh never did, but probably should have written such a book. Somebody could write a great book about the Yankees in recent years in the precise opposite vein. Since their last championship, the Yankees have been a great example of how not to succeed in virtually any endeavor. The Yankee approach of recent years is an excellent guide not just on how not to run a baseball team but also how to bankrupt your business, lose an election, govern poorly, do shoddy academic research or become a failure in life.

The fundamental mistakes the Yankees have made, a guideline to failure if you will, include: constantly raising expectations, believing their own propaganda, trying to accelerate processes that cannot be accelerated, failing to innovate and trying to win every year. These policies have allowed the Yankees go eight years in a row without a championship despite an ability to compete financially with anybody in baseball and a core of homegrown which included Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and, for most of that time Andy Pettitte, that rivals that of any team in baseball.

One of the first rules of success is to manage expectations. In a presidential campaign, for example, early primaries are as much about who actually wins as they are about who exceeds or fails to meet expectations. Thus, candidates seek to downplay their chances in advance, knowing that if they exceed expectations they will be viewed as winners, but if they do well, but not as well as expected, their campaigns will be damaged. Similarly, if a business promotes a new product as being a paradigm shifting invention, rather than just a useful new item, customers will be disappointed and angry. The Yankees raise expectations every year promising that the team, which in many years doesn’t really look all that solid on paper, is a strong favorite to win the World Series. While this is, on some level, just a ploy to sell tickets and create excitement for the team, by raising expectations the Yankees get themselves into a position where they have to make bad decisions over the course of the year chasing the increasingly unlikely dream of winning a championship.

The second Yankee mistake is a corollary of the Scarface rule-”don’t get high on your own supply”. In business and politics, the corollary to this bit of drug dealer wisdom is “don’t believe your own propaganda.” Perhaps because of the New York media market, the Yankees have an impressive ability to overhype prospects, repeat tenuous assertions such as the Yankees having an all-star at every position and suggest that certain veterans have magical intangible qualities. While many teams do this, the Yankees do it more and better. This leads to the problems because when the Yankee management begins to believe their own hype, they make decisions informed by spin rather than empirical evidence. Again, a government that believed all the good things it said about every policy would never address problems and would rapidly lose electoral support or would make decisions based on what it wanted to see rather than what actually existed. A business that really believed all the nonsense that it said in its advertisements, or a political campaign that believed all the things it said on television, and acted accordingly, would have a similarly difficult time remaining competitive.

The Yankees lack of patience has led to a mishandling of prospects that has severely damaged the team. Anybody who knows baseball knows that prospects, particularly pitching prospects need time to develop, yet the Yankees of recent years have not allowed this process to take place. Instead they have rushed prospects, traded some, like Dioner Navarro based on a poor season at a young age, or like Marcus Thames or Juan Rivera not given them a meaningful second chance. In business, you cannot market a product before it is ready; in academia you can’t publish an article until it has been properly thought through. Ignoring this tenet leads to inferior products and failure in baseball as well.

The Yankees failure to innovate is also striking. The team seems to have one solution to every problem. Whether the problem is weak defense, poor middle relief or virtually no bench, the answer seems to be signing, or trading for, an expensive veteran. The few times the Yankees have veered from this pattern, it has worked out well. The best example of this was the 2007 decision to slot Joba Chamberlain into the setup role rather than trying to trade for Eric Gagne. However, this has been the exception not the rule for the Yankees in recent years. The Yankees have never, with the exception of a couple of weeks in late 2006, tried any innovative approaches to solving the perpetual problems of an overcrowded outfield and no real first baseman which was a problem for the team from around 2004-2008. Am I the only one who wonders why Johnny Damon, Bernie Williams or Hideki Matsui was never given a first baseman’s glove in spring training?

The notion that the Yankees accept nothing less than a World Series victory every year has now entered our baseball consciousness. For many Yankee fans it is a point of pride, but of course the Yankees have failed to meet this goal eight years in a row. Trying to win the World Series every year has turned into an albatross around the franchise’s neck that has helped prevent them from winning the World Series once in the last eight years. Because they try to do this every year, even in those years when it is clear by early June that the Yankees are not going to win, the franchise never get a chance to make the adjustments, restock their farm system or let prospects develop. These are, of course, the behaviors that characterize most championship teams.

In each of the last eight years the Yankees have gone into the trading deadline as buyers. While, they have made some very good trades, such as the pickup of Bobby Abreu, and only occasionally gotten badly fleeced, the reasoning behind the trades has always been suspect. Few of these Yankee teams were ever actually one player away from being a championship team. Had they ever gone into July as a seller instead of a buyer, the Yankees would have been able to pick up useful prospects in exchange for some of their veterans, such as, at times, Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and others who were performing well but would have been expendable if the team had understood it was really two or three years away from being a top contender again. Because, this kind of thinking was forbidden, the Yankees were never able to cash in any of their veterans for prospects. To put it another way, if once in the last few years the Yankees had recognized in July that they were not going to win, and acted accordingly, they would have dramatically increased their chances of winning in the next two years.

Trying to win every year is a variation on trying to be everything to everybody, win everybody’s vote, come up with a theory that explains everything or target everybody as your customers. In competitive environments this never works; and the Yankees have the record to prove that. As long as they cling to this bizarre canard, the Yankees will never be able to get ahead of themselves and will constantly be trading for one more veteran who will be the silver championship bullet, but they, and their fans will always be disappointed.

The Yankees are a great franchise, the most successful in baseball history. They not only have the ability, but also the willingness, to spend money to put a strong team on the field. However, Yankee management has developed some very bad habits over the last few years. It doesn’t look like the next generation of Steinbrenners is any more patient than the first generation was. Moreover, they are already repeating some of their father’s mistakes. It is worth noting that the Yankees’ longest period without a pennant, since Babe Ruth joined the team in 1920, was 1982-1995 and occurred entirely during the elder Steinbrenner’s tenure, when the team was managed much how it is today. I don’t think any Yankee fan wants to go back to that, but this is the direction the franchise is going unless management’s thinking changes.