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  • Cary Greene

The Inevitable Happened!

by Cary Greene

October 19, 2022

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After pulling off a pretty remarkable win in Game 4 against the Guardians on Sunday night, the Yankees were able to bring the series back to the Bronx for a decisive Game 5. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton finally took a chunk out the Guardians vaunted pitching and the Yankees own even better pitching, fueled by “Nifty” Nestor Cortes, who was quite crafty and even brazen at times, combined with a solid outing from the Yankees bullpen, propelled the Yankees towards what has seemed like the inevitable for some time now - a clash with the Astros!


How was it that the light spending Guardians were able to take the big-budget Yankees to the limit?


Put simply, throughout the five-game Division Series, the Guardians pitching choked the Yankees patchwork lineup, which was missing Matt Carpenter, Andrew Benintendi, and DJ LeMahieu, into submission and as a result, they were in every single one of the five games. They also did a good job holding Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton mostly in check, until Game 5, when Terry Francona made the fateful decision not to use an opener.


That, coupled with a big series from both their star left-fielder and leadoff man, Steven Kwan and their All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez, outstanding base running and timely hits from a supporting cast made up of the likes of Josh Naylor, Amed Rosario, Oscar Gonzalez, Andres Giminez, and Gabriel Arias allowed the Guardians to put a few runs on the board every game against generally superb Yankees pitching. Cleveland had an opportunity to advance. Some may blame Francona. Some may credit the Yankees. In any case, it’s onwards and upwards, so bring on the Astros!

Because pitching wins championships, as I’ve been saying like a broken record every year. Having “the best” pitching doesn’t matter all that much. What does matter are two things. Teams intent on competing favorably need to have solidly better than league-average pitching throughout the regular season and that pitching needs to be firing on all cylinders come the postseason. With that in mind, teams who want to win in the postseason need just enough offense to break through and put a few runs on the board against elite postseason pitching that will inevitably be brought to bear against them by their prospective opponents that await along the road to a World Series championship.


Dating back to 1903, World Series winners have one particular thing in common. 110 of them, 94% of all previous champions, registered an above league average ERA+. Granted, six-percent of the time an anomaly occurs, but I can say with relative certainty that pitching crowns champions.


Seven teams who had below-average regular season pitching did win the World Series. But five of those teams, the 2012 Giants, 2011 Cardinals, 2006 Cardinals, 1987 Twins, and 1913 A’s all received well above league-average pitching in the World Series. On those grounds, they can all be weeded out and leaves two anomalous teams that had below league-average regular season pitching and below average pitching in the World Series - yet they won anyway.


Not surprisingly, the most recent of the anomalous teams were the 2017 Astros, who had below league-average regular season pitching (99 ERA+/with League-average being 101 in 2017) and despite having Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton, their pitching staff posted a 4.64 ERA in the playoffs, yet the Astros won the World Series anyways and we all know why. They were cheating!


Another anomalous past champion, the 2014 Giants, had a regular season ERA+ of 99, which was below the 2014 league-average of 101 that season. But, they posted a 3.98 team ERA as they won the World Series behind their Ace, Madison Bumgarner. The 2014 league-average ERA was 3.74 and even though “Mad-Bum” had a World Series ERA of 0.43 in that fall classic, the rest of the pitching staff was pretty bad, outside of Closer Segrio Romo, who was literally unhittable.


More than ever, pitching is something to really consider at this juncture of the season when we’re all making predictions. World Series history has taught us that the team with the best pitching isn’t guaranteed a championship. Look no further than what happened to the Dodgers this season. The boys-in-blue had the best single season pitching in MLB history, registering a staggering 150 ERA+, yet they were eliminated by the Padres. Only 23 times (19.7%) in World Series history did the team with the best regular season pitching win the title.


Indeed, past champions on average have only the fifth best pitching each season and yes, they do average a 113.31 ERA+. Past champions also rank fifth or sixth (actually 5.6) in the league offensively, as measured by their average OPS+ of 104.1.


A total of 38 past champions (32.5% of past winners) ranked first in OPS+ in the year they won, so having a great offense certainly helps, but it by no means guarantees a championship. In fact, great offenses are far more often eliminated by good postseason pitching.


Today’s advanced stat lovers might argue that having the highest WAR is the best way to ensure a championship, but I’d shoot that argument down as well because past champions average having the fourth best WAR each season. 45 times in 117-years (38.5% of the time), the team with the best WAR has won a championship.


At the end of the day, winning the World Series is largely dependent on being healthy, having good pitching that shines in the postseason and being able to do whatever “enough” is against the good pitching a champion will likely face. This is why I use regular season ERA+ as a way to identify real contenders and also weed out all of the pretenders.


I said with confidence this season that the Mets weren’t legitimate contenders. They had a regular season ERA+ of 108 and it was therefore highly unlikely that they had what it would take to succeed. I also lambasted the Blue Jays with their ERA+ of 101 (exactly league-average this season) and though they did make the playoffs, I never took them seriously. The Phillies had a 103 ERA+ so history might argue that since they’re above average, they have a chance but only 16 (13.7%) of the past 117 champions had an ERA+ of 103 or worse. In the Padres case, only seven (6%) teams won with pitching on par or worse than theirs - which was a below league-average(101) ERA+ of 99. They did add some impressive pieces like Josh Hader, Juan Soto, and Josh Bell, but I’m not sure their own pitching can keep a team like the Astros or Yankees in check, so I expect history to play out accordingly.


Thankfully, the Yankees slipped past the Guardians and have advanced to face the Astros, who now loom as the road block between the Yankees and the ultimate goal of the Bombers winning a 28th World Series championship. Most of the SSTN faithful were aware this scenario would likely play out this season and since the Yankees held up their end of the bargain, here we all are!


Unfortunately, I do believe the Buck, er - “Boone'' stops here. I’ve maintained all season, as I do every season, that only a few select teams can be considered “real contenders” and I make this assessment using the regular season ERA+ of each team. I track it throughout the season and after the final regular season game, I look at this stat above all others and I always have.


I also know that it’s very difficult to predict the game of baseball. But regarding this topic, I’m right a whole lot more often than I’m wrong, so I’ll use my insights I’ve shared here today to help me answer this week’s question that our leader has commanded be answered!


First, I’ll proclaim that it's highly likely at this point that either the Yankees, who averaged 119 ERA+ during the regular season this year, which was third best in the league or the Astros, who were second best, with a 134 ERA+ will go on to win the World Series this season.


If history plays out (and it usually does), Yankees or Astros should easily score enough to win and likewise stifle either the Phillies or the Padres in a seven-game series. In fact, I’d give the American League an 86% to 94% chance of winning, depending on which National League team advances. This doesn’t mean I’ll be right, because anomalies do happen. The Phillies or the Padres could etch a place in World Series history and win in a way that very few teams have ever managed to likewise win.


Affirmatively, I believe the American League Championship series will produce the World Series winner. Offensively, Houston is easily the superior team right now to the Yankees. Could Andrew Benintendi, DJ LeMahieu, and Matt Carpenter suddenly turn the Yankees fortunes? It’s possible, but this series is going to be about which pitching staff can better strangle their respective opponent. The real question might be, can Frankie Montas come out of nowhere and pitch a shutout or two for the Yankees?


I’m not feeling super “rosy” about the chances of the Yankees 11th hour depth coming to the rescue like Gandalf the Gray did during his famous cavalry scene during the thunderous “Ride of the Rohirrim” at the battle of Helm’s Deep. I’m not going to be sitting around looking to the east for Gandalf’s coming on the first light of the fifth day at dawn for players who haven’t played now in some time to suddenly win the day for the Yankees.


Houston’s pitching is actually peaking at this point in the season and they’re well rested to boot! The Astros are also healthier overall than the Yankees are. Granted, workhorse reliever Phil Maton went down recently with season ending hand surgery and of course Michael Brantley was lost for the season back at the end of June.


These injuries aren’t nearly as dilapidating as what the Yankees have dealt with this season and so at this point I’ll call a spade a spade and pencil them in as the World Series champs. If healthy and at full strength, I think the Yankees would give the Astros a serious run for their money, but the Astros are catching the Yankees in the ALCS this season with a patchwork lineup and an injury riddled bullpen. Not to mention, the Guardians took the Yankees to a full five games so the Yankees pitching is already gassed while the Astros pitching is now on regular rest.


On the plus side, power right-handed pitching gives the Astros fits and I could see two Yankees players as standouts in the ALCS. It’s no surprise that Gerrit Cole, who was very tough on the Astros lineup in his one start against them this season, and Luis Severino both could conceivably win two starts each and propel the Yankees past the Astros. For this to happen, the patchwork Yankees offense needs to max all four of these starts out by putting up enough runs to make four quality starts stand up.


If the Astros win even one of those matchups by matching zeroes with Cole and Severino and breaking through against the Yankees bullpen, they likely win the series at worst, four-games to three. More likely, I think the Astros win four games to one and I make this prediction based simply on the sheer strength of Houston’s pitching, which can match any team in baseball, inning after grueling inning.


Offensively, the Astros compare very favorably to past World Series champions. Since 1903, World Series winners have averaged a Regular season OPS+ of 104.1 and Houston averaged a 111 OPS+, which was seventh best in the league. The Yankees averaged a 113 OPS+ (fourth best) so as you can see, if the Yankees were playing at full strength, they are built to win a World Series and there’s not an argument to the contrary that exists that can suggest the 2022 Yankees weren’t built to win it all. Historically speaking, the numbers prove that the Yankees were absolutely good enough.


The cold reality is that a series of back breaking injuries really did sabotage the Yankees as the season went along. Brian Cashman failed to secure a closer at the August Trade Deadline and his big move, acquiring Frankie Montas, blew up in his face. Losing Chad Green and Mike King both were massive setbacks to the Yankees bullpen and when coupled with Aroldis Chapman quitting on his teammates and Zack Britton never making it back, Cashman really should have done more at the deadline to bolster the bullpen for a World Series run. His lack of action is going to cost the Yankees in the ALCS and it will further come into focus this offseason.


Being fair with Cashman is important also. He made a nice deadline deal for Scott Effross (who is out for the season) and he also acquired Lou Trevino who’s been solid. Unfortunately, the Yankees needed more gas in the tank and yes, the price of getting that extra fuel was absurdly high at the deadline-pumps.


Which begs the obvious (to me) question: Why not figure all this out BEFORE the season, rather than continually having to trade all of your prospects away DURING the season to make up for what you didn’t do when you had the chance?


We’ll likely have all offseason to ponder this question but for now, the Yankees are alive and I plan on enjoying it.



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