Belated thoughts on Yankees and Fear

May 19, 2010 at 2:12 pm Leave a comment

First of all, the Twins nearly continued their amazing lack of fortune against the Yankees. I was going to say ineptitude, but lack of fortune is a better word, considering how often the Twins have leads against the Yankees, only to squander those leads in seemingly inevitable and supernatural ways.

Our story begins in 2004. It was game 2 of a first round series with New York. The Twins had won the first game. For the second time in two years, they had taken a 1-0 lead in the series. In the top of the 8th inning in game 2, the Twins trailed 5 to 3. With one outs against Tom Gordon, then a middle relief ace, or rather, the only viable option the Yankees had besides Mariano Rivera in their bullpen at the time, Jacque Jones struck out, but reached base on a wild pitch. After Torii Hunter singled, Joe Torre brought in Rivera as the next batter, Justin Morneau, represented the tying run in a game the Yankees couldn’t afford to lose. Facing the best relief pitcher ever, Morneau hit a single that drove him Jones and cut the deficit to one. Then, still facing the best relief pitcher ever, Corey Koskie hit a ground rule double that scored Hunter and tied the game. There was still only one out and a runner on third (Who maybe could have scored had the ball not bounced into the stands, after all, it was pinch runner and second baseman extraordinaire Luis Rivas who ended up on third). Next up was Jason Kubel, who simply needed to put the ball in play to give the Twins a lead. He struck out in awful fashion, on a cutter in on his eyes. Then Christian Guzman grounded out.

The game remained tied until the top of the 12th, when Hunter hit a two out home run to left field off of Tanyon Sturtze. Joe Nathan was pitching his third inning, but started his save chance with a strikeout of John Olerud. But then he walked Miguel Cairo. You don’t walk Miguel Cairo. Then he walked Derek Jeter. At this point, with the Yankee crowd starting to go crazy, it felt as though going to the 13th would have been the best outcome. And the Twins still had a lead. Of course, Alex Rodriguez, who at this point and for 5 years afterward was considered a playoff choker, hit a profound ground rule double to deep center, driving in Cairo and tying the game. Hideki Matsui ended it with a sacrifice fly.

The Twins were 2 outs away from going ahead 2-0 on the Yankees team that had won 101 games during the season. And then that thing happened that has happened countless times since then. That thing that defies description. That thing that buzzed into Phil Cuzzi’s head and made him momentarily demonic in calling Joe Mauer’s double foul in the 2009 series. That thing that floated into A-Rod’s bat that made you know he was going to hit a homer off of Guerrier last week. That thing that caused Latroy Hawkins to throw the ball away on a ground ball by Jeter in game 2 of the 2003 series as part of a three run inning (Entering the inning, the Twins led the series 1-0 and were tied 1-1 in the game). That ridiculous indescribable thing that caused Johan Santana to hang a fastball to Nick Johnson in the game 4 elimination game of 2003, when a slider was the only pitch that could’ve worked (It turned a 2-0 deficit into a 4-0 deficit, and also the end of the day for Santana, then at the top of his game). That thing can’t be summed up very easily, whether it be by stupid phrases like Yankee Mystique or Ghosts of Yankee Stadium, or simply the fact that pitch-to-contact pitchers, who run through the Twins system like blood in their veins, are exactly the type of pitchers Yankee lineups love to beat the crap out of.

Joe Nathan is a twitchy, nervous guy. But the best example of this thing that causes every bounce to go the Yankees way against the Twins and every heart wrenching defeat, is the look on his face when he faces the heart of that lineup in the playoffs. He is scared out of his mind!

Now Jon Rauch doesn’t really have a fastball. He has sort of a nice curveball, and is a nice complementary piece to any major league bullpen. But he isn’t a closer. At the same time, however, Jon Rauch is not scared. Jon Rauch struck out Derek Jeter, the guy who always gets on base against the Twins when the game is on the line, whether it be by hit or walk or fielders choice or a mishandled ground out. He struck out Brett Gardner, the sort of Yankee player who’s the 9th guy on the team, the guy all the fans want to see benched in favor of trading for an established slugger, the guy that keeps the team from having a stud at every position on the diamond. The guy that, like Miguel Cairo, always sets up the big inning. Jon Rauch struck out Mark Texiera, the middle of the order slugger who always bats when the tying run is on base, the guy who won game 2 of the series last year with a home run. Jon Rauch isn’t a closer. But he sure as hell is not afraid.

Now most independent baseball blogs are very much up to date with statistical analysis, but sometimes I think that can go too far. Sure, managers saying that they don’t want slow, high OBP guys because they clog up the bases is completely irrational and counterproductive. And certainly praising high energy, gutty players like David Eckstein despite the fact they can’t hit is likewise not in any teams best interest. But there are certain intangibles that really, and I know there’s some ridiculous stat guy who thinks he can say otherwise*, shouldn’t fit into statistical analysis. Jon Rauch doesn’t just have neck tattoos, he is the sort of guy who gets neck tattoos. Joe Nathan is big and tall, sure, but he’s more Mikey from the show Recess than.. Spinelli. Jon Rauch is Spinelli. When you go up to bat in kickball and you’re either facing Mikey or Spinelli, it doesn’t matter as much that Mikey is a better pitcher. In heated moments, fear matters. If you’re facing someone who’s up there sweating and twitching, and you’re playing on the most decorated team in sports history, don’t tell me that doesn’t give you extra confidence. Don’t tell me that doesn’t mean that when that pitch is coming down the middle, you’re not 100% sure you’re going to be a hero.

*Me in a few paragraphs

Last year the two most badass pitchers the Twins had were Nick Blackburn and Carl Pavano. They shut the Yankees down. Brian Duensing did not. Scott Baker wouldn’t have. Kevin Slowey would have given up 9 home runs. I’m not saying this theory is definitely right 100% of the time. There is too much random occurrence in baseball for that to be possible. But the Twins ineptitude against the Yankees is too large of a sample size to ignore. Pitching effectively has a lot to do with fear. I’m sure a lot of pitchers would tell you that. Bob Gibson, for one (Circle me Tim McCarver?).

There is one way to measure this, I might add. A study would have to be done, in which a pitcher described as badass, or otherwise tough, or big game oriented, was included. Also included would be a fluffy scare no one type pitcher. Let’s say Barry Zito and Roy Halladay. Both good pitchers (Except Zito the past few years). Someone would have to find a way to measure the amount of stuff that those two pitchers had on every start for a length of time, whether by amount of break on their breaking ball, difference between fastball and changeup velocity, or simply velocity on their fastball. Then organize their good stuff days and their not good stuff days. My hypothesis would be that Halladay would have a better FIP on his not good days, comparable to his overall FIP, than Zito. The theory is that although Halladay doesn’t always have great stuff, he has enough of the fear factor to get by. Maybe you can get a hit off him, but he could still stare you down and throw one at your face. Conversely, when Zito doesn’t have good stuff, hitters have no fear and feast on his wimpy fastball and loopy curve. Maybe Halladay’s FIP is 20% worse when he has a bad stuff day, and Zito’s is 50% worse. Just a broad prediction.

Another theory could equate fear with how hard the pitcher throws + how often they throw inside. Do pitchers who throw harder and more inside have better results when they don’t have good stuff?

Couldn’t tell ya. But I would say that it might be a bit hasty to say the Twins failures against the Yankees is completely a random occurrence. If I’m Joe Rogan, THEN FEAR IS A FACTOR.

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Chinks in the ol’ Armor Hold On Now, Reusses

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