Thursday, August 16, 2012


On the Sabermetrics versus Mark Twain front, as a fan during the playoffs I'd be on Twain's side.  There were players who were good but not great on a regular basis, but they seemed to have a knack for making an important play in the clutch.  At bat, sometimes it was just hitting a sacrifice fly to get the needed run home.  Other times it was hitting a squibbler through the infield to keep a two-out rally going.  In the field it sometimes meant playing with pain and performing under par, yet giving it 100 percent.  When the Yankees surged in the late 1990s, Paul O'Neill played this role, perhaps along with Scott Brosius.  These players endeared themselves to the fans.

Soon thereafter the Yankees brass decided it needed to go after more "firepower" at the plate.  In short order they acquired Jason Giambi, who was a complete disaster as a Yankee because he couldn't play a lick as a first baseman and his batting average dipped significantly from his Oakland days, this apart from the steroid use, Gary Sheffield, who was reasonably effective with one exception I'll mention next, and A-Rod, the coup de grace.  Sheffield seemed to psych out A-Rod on occasion, because he couldn't replicate Sheffield's ferocity.  Indeed, A-Rod at the time seemed like the anti Paul O'Neill.  In the clutch A-Rod performed anemically, well below his own norms.

A-Rod eventually redeemed himself.  With Sheffield long gone, A-Rod carried the team in the playoffs and World Series during the 2009 season.  He was a horse at the plate hitting long ball after long ball, against very good pitching.  But baseball is a team sport and other players still need to contribute.  On a winning team there is inevitably at least one player in the Paul O'Neill role.  For the 2009 Yankees that player was Melky Cabrera.   The Yankees were generally an older team.  Cabrera brought the force of youth with him.  At the start of the season, Johnny Damon was the regular center fielder.  Sometime in mid season Damon moved to left field and Cabrera took over center on a regular basis.  I remember hearing a Damon quote to the effect that this move made the Yankees a better team.   Certainly it did defensively.  Cabrera wasn't a great hitter.  But in the playoffs he got several clutch hits.

After that season was over you knew the Yankees were going to clean house.  Hideki Matsui was a free agent and so he would need to be replaced, Damon too.  I was okay with that but I really didn't want the Yankees to get rid of Melky Cabrera.  He was just the type of gutsy player the Yankees needed, or so I thought.  The Yankees had other ideas and acquired Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson and they promoted Brett Gardner from within.  Cabrera seemed expendable and went to Atlanta. 

For Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa the consequence of the steroids became obvious on their physiques.  They grew bulkier and stronger.  For a player like Melky Cabrera (or for that matter Curtis Granderson or Alphonso Soriano) with a leaner look, it is virtually impossible for fans to know whether improved performance at the plate is simply a consequence of improved technique from lots of practice with the hitting instructor or if PEDs were involved.  Ultimately major league baseball is a business and the player's principal responsibility is to earn a good enough living that he'll be set for a lifetime.  No doubt that at salary time sabermetrics rules, especially for a younger player.

The real shame here, however, is not that Cabrera fell to temptation.  It is that we seem to have lost the memory of Melky from 2009, when he was the invisible glue that held the Yankees together.

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