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The Yankees Need to Learn How to Innovate Again

by Lincoln Mitchell

January 4, 2021

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On January 5th, 1920, the Yankees purchased Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. That was the most famous transaction in Yankees history and started the Yankees on the road to becoming baseball’s best and most celebrated franchise. Part of the reason Ruth evolved from the best left-handed pitcher in baseball to the greatest player ever was because he was an innovator who changed the game. Moreover, his new team, the Yankees, embraced that innovation. With Ruth in the everyday lineup, the Yankees revolutionized the game leading the way in the new home run style of play.

The Yankees won six pennants in the 1920s with the first offense that relied on the power game rather than an offense built around singles, doubles, walks, stolen bases and what we now call small ball. The team went so far as to build a brand new ballpark with a short rightfield porch made so that the Yankees could further take advantage of Ruth’s left-handed home run swing. They scouted for players with similar power and signed a sweet lefty swinging local boy to play first base and hit home runs to right. Lou Gehrig teamed with Ruth to become the most feared slugging duo in baseball history. Other early adapters like the Philadelphia Athletics did well in that era too, while teams that didn’t adapt fell behind.

Several decades later, the Yankees dynasty was faltering. As the 1940s were winding down, the Cardinals, led by the great Stan Musial and the Dodgers, whose innovations included integrating baseball with hugely talented African American stars like Jackie Robinson, seemed like the two teams poised to dominate the next decade or so. The Yankees frontline talent was aging, although they had an excellent young catcher in Yogi Berra. The Yankees made an important decision by hiring a 58 year old manager known by many more for being a character than as a tactician. The truth was a little different. Casey Stengel was a brilliant baseball man who, as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves had explored his ideas about platooning and other ways to get the most out of players.

The Yankees went on to win 10 pennants and seven World Series during Stengel’s time as manager. As time passes, that era of Yankees dominance is seen as having been inevitable because of just how good they were. It is true that Berra, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were three Hall of Famers in their prime for much of that period, but the Dodgers frontline talent, including Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella was at least as good. By the late 1950s, the Braves’ three player core of Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn was probably better than Mantle, Berra and Ford. Even the Cleveland Indians with Al Rosen, Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn may have had better top of the roster talent. The Yankees won so much in that period because they were good, but also because Stengel knew how to platoon, use his pitchers and add key role players when needed.

A generation later, in the 1976-1977 offseason, the Yankees had just been swept by the Reds in the World Series and, like every team, had to negotiate the brand new free agent market. Yankees manager Billy Martin wanted to sign Bobby Grich, a star second baseman who would move to shortstop. The Yankees needed to upgrade at shortstop and Grich would have fit the bill. However, instead of trying to sign a player to fix an existing problem, the Yankees simply signed the best player available. He was a right-fielder, but that position was a relative strength already. A year later, despite having a reliever, Sparky Lyle, who had just won the Cy Young Award. The Yankees again signed the top free agent player who was also a relief pitcher. Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage turned out to be extremely valuable for the Yankees. The former helped the team win the World Series in 1977 and both contributed mightily to their 1978 championship. Again, faced with free agency, the Yankees innovated and instead of plugging holes focused on acquiring talent and then adjusted the roster accordingly.

Two players who were central to the Yankees success from 1996-2009 were Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter. There is an innovation story around these two great players as well. Both struggled with defense in the minor leagues and throughout their big league careers, but the Yankees kept them at catcher and shortstop respectively. Even in the late 1990s, these positions were considered defense first positions and it was widely believed that championship teams needed great defense up the middle. With Posada behind the plate, Jeter at short, Bernie Williams in center and Chuck Knoblauch at second, the late 1990s teams had decidedly mediocre defense up the middle, but they got fantastic offense from those positions. This is another example of how the Yankees innovated and thought creatively to help win championships.

It is precisely this kind of thinking that has been missing from the Yankees in recent years. The Yankees seem to be one step behind every trend in baseball. They were late to bullpenning, one of the last teams to use the shift creatively, still have not mastered roster flexibility and have not figured out how to consistently turn prospects into impact players. The most glaring example of the Yankees being behind the innovation curve occurred in game two of the LDS last year when the Yankees started Devi Garcia, but then pulled him after one inning in favor of JA Happ. The Yankees lost the game, but the whole episode was humiliating. It was as if the Yankees were trying out a new toy that they couldn’t quite figure out how to use.

This inability to innovate keeps the Yankees one step behind teams like the Rays, the Dodgers and other who are leading, not following, with regards to new ideas and approaches. Because the Yankees have so much money, they are still able to compete, but they are forced to use that money to catch up with smarter more innovative franchises, rather than to build a winning team based on their own new ideas as they have done so many times in the past.

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