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On Process and Results

As many of you–if not all of you–know by now, I’m an English teacher in real life. Teaching is all about adjusting a process in the hopes of better results. Sure, I use the same general formats and texts for my lessons year over year, but every year, my coteacher and I have to tweak them to better suit the kids in front of us. And while we have certain tools, tricks, techniques, and tactics to deploy, none will guarantee perfect results every time. Such is the nature of teaching. Baseball, similarly, features a similar interplay of process and results: they don’t always match up.

You can sting the ball perfectly…and it’ll go right to someone; you can call on the right guy at the right time…and he gets lit up. Conversely, you can squib a ball in front of the plate and wind up on base; you can throw a hanger and the batter could whiff. It’s a part of the game we’ve all come to accept and embrace, both on the field and off. Yesterday, Yankees GM Brian Cashman spoke about process, results, and how those things fit into the team’s organizational philosophy:

While there are a lot of words in there–Cashman spoke for nearly two minutes–I found the response to be lacking. In fact, I found it to kind of be a bit of a rambling word salad. He sounded like one of my students who knows the basic facts of something, knows the general form his answer is supposed to take, but has trouble going beyond the surface and actually analyzing or interpreting said facts.

What I say beyond this comes with an obvious caveat. I’m not inside the Yankees’ organization and don’t know what the internal workings look like there. But that applies to pretty much everything I and we say about baseball. If we’re going to limit comments on things because we don’t have inside access, we may as well not comment at all beyond watching the games and rooting for the teams.

The Yankees have been a good team for a long, long time. The entirety of Brian Cashman’s run as GM has seen them make the playoffs in all but four years. That is a remarkable streak of success, especially in the face of a game that has changed a lot in that twentysomething year span. Certainly, that’s evidence of adaptability in the face of a game that’s much harder to win now than then. But are they good enough at it? While we can’t see inside and say that for sure, look at what keeps happening. Every year, the Yankees are bounced from the playoffs by the same teams and every game and every series feel exactly the same. It’s the same disappointing result over and over again.

Since the Yankees last made and won the World Series in 2009, they’ve watched their chief rival win two championships while remaking the team multiple times. They’ve seen their other big rival win one championship and make it to four of the last six. They’ve seen another club become a regular season juggernaut and win one championship and make it to two others.

In missing out on the World Series beyond 2009, the Yankees have the company of about half the league. That’s obviously not a small number, but none of the teams can boast of the year over year success the Yankees have, which makes their failure to reach the fall classic even once a little more acute.

Winning a World Series is incredibly hard and only one team gets to do it every year. And in baseball, things just happen differently than they do in other sports. It’s subject to more variance, more randomness and more than the other sports, good process doesn’t guarantee good results. However, when the lack of a championship is explained the same way every year–‘we had good process, things just didn’t break our way’–fans are likely to be frustrated and less likely to keep trusting that process. A process can be good and yield less than desirable results, but if the process keeps spitting out less than desirable results, might it be time to change that process?

Whatever process the Yankees are using, it’s yielding generally good results. Like I said, they make the playoffs virtually every year. But all their actions off the field and their execution on it smacks of ‘good enough.’ For a team that espouses a championship or bust mentality, good enough is not good enough.

You want to be a good team and compete every year? Go for it. That’s what every team should strive for and what every fanbase should want. But if what’s going to keep happening is the same thing that’s been happening for the last decade plus, then stop blowing smoke with the ‘championship or bust’ mentality. It doesn’t seem like the process speaks to that stated goal. As for the results? Well, it’s the lack thereof that does all the talking.

Growing Frustration

On Thursday night, the Yankees made folks across the fandom happy by calling up infielder Oswald Peraza, a move many felt was long overdue. People were abuzz and excited about seeing another youngster get his turn, following Oswaldo Cabrera who’s impressed with his versatility in the field since joining the Yankees. Then, Friday evening, the Yankees announced their lineup; notably absent was Oswald Peraza. Immediately, fans were once again abuzz, but not excited this time.

The immediate question this move prompted was why call up Peraza if he wasn’t going to start playing right away? It also makes me wonder why he was playing on Thursday evening before being called up, but that doesn’t matter as much anymore. Close to game time, Bryan Hoch relayed a quote from Aaron Boone (this is going to be a running theme in this post, so thanks to Bryan Hoch for helping me here):

Sure, no one wants to put undue expectations on a young player on a floundering team. But, again, what’s the point of calling him up if he’s not going to play? If it’s just “a great opportunity for him to get up here and be in this environment,” that’s a waste of a roster spot for the club and a waste of time for the player, who’d be better served playing every day. “Some opportunities” is absurd to say. He should be getting the opportunities. Hoch had something similar from Boone earlier in the evening:

Reading this made my eyes bug out and my head spin. It was paired with this:

I get that Boone–like any manager–isn’t going to throw one of his players under the bus. But it is clear that Isiah Kiner-Falefa is not a player the Yankees should be trotting out every day. By almost any measure, he’s one of the worst shortstops in baseball. “Everything [the Yankees are] doing right now” is losing a lot and blowing their division lead over the Rays and, yes, IKF is right in the middle of that, and is, frankly, one of the causes. The organization is either unwilling or unable to face the reality that IKF is not worthy of a starting spot on a team with playoff and championship aspirations; neither of those is a good thing. But the thing that got me the most, the thing that made me the most incensed?

No set plan? NO SET PLAN?! You called up one of your top infield prospects and don’t have a plan for how and when and where he’s going to play? This reflects so incredibly poorly on Boone, on Brian Cashman, and the organization as a whole. The thinking and decision-making processes of this team are mind-boggling and, at the very least, need some deep, deep examination in this offseason, if not completely overhauled.

By calling up a player, you’re signalling that you think he can help your team. Peraza was prized enough that he wasn’t dealt for Major League help at the trade deadline, yet he’s not good enough to take the place of one of the worst regulars in MLB this year?

This is remarkably confusing, as this entire season has been for the Yankees. But one thing is clear: I’m moving closer and closer to embracing the idea that the Yankees need wholesale changes in the front office and most of the dugout (Matt Blake seems fine).

On the VF314 twitter account, I’ve cautioned about the possible post-Cashman front office. Such a front office would likely be even more beholden to Hal Steinbrenner’s self-imposed and self-defeating austerity plan than Brian Cashman is. However, after more than 20 years in charge, it is probably time to move on. Something is flawed, maybe many things, in the way the Yankees go about their business now and a new process may be needed. Whatever it is now, it isn’t working the way it should. In the past, I’ve been very willing to the give Yankees–generally a smart and well-run organization–the benefit of the doubt. But I’m not nearly as willing to do that anymore when that benefit has been squandered over much of the last year or so.

I won’t go as far to say the Yankees don’t try to win, but there’s a difference between trying to win and trying to win a championship. The Yankees do the former, but they no longer seem to do the latter. That’s likely more an ownership problem than a front office problem. But at the end of the day, the Yankees haven’t won a championship since 2009 and have stagnated in their pursuit of one over and over again. Perhaps it’s time to let someone else try under ownership’s constraints instead of Brian Cashman.

Priorities

Every day, no matter what, my students write down their learning target. It’s a simple sentence I put on the board or in my presentation that helps them figure out what it is they’re supposed to, well, learn, by the end of the lesson and how they’re going to do it. Let’s give the whole Yankee organization:

I can be a better, more winning baseball team by being more flexible.

The Yankees knew when it was time to let Joe Torre go. After twelve seasons at the helm of the Yankees, things went stale by 2007 and they made a change. They did the same after nine seasons with Joe Girardi, though that seemed way less clear and clean a break. Now after four years of Aaron Boone, they’re running it back again, but things most definitely don’t seem fresh in the Bronx after the 2021 season.

The flexibility needed for the Yankees to succeed more, to get over the hump, must come from the top down. It starts with the front office approaching roster construction in a different way. First up is depth.

The Yankees have more or less ignored meaningful depth in the last few years, especially when it comes to middle infield. We’ve been harping on this–especially Randy–for pretty much the entire existence of the blog, and definitely the entire existence of the podcast. In an era of load management and aggressive resting of players, your infield depth can’t be Tyler Wade and Andrew Velazquez. This means stockpiling good players. It’s why I’d opt for keeping Gleyber Torres, even if he’s not the starting shortstop (hopefully a free agent signing) OR second baseman (a hopefully healthy DJ LeMahieu).

Torres can’t and shouldn’t man short for a full season, of course, but as part of some load management system, he’s more than fine. He’s young and talented enough that the team would be more than justified keeping him around. As I’ve said in the past, follow the Dodgers’ model. Just get as many good players as you can and let the rest fall in line. These ‘problems’ usually sort themselves out.

Second, the front office needs to be more flexible–whatever it might mean in this context–in delivering and applying its analytics to the field, be it players or coaches. For its part, the coaching staff also needs to get more flexible. Too often it seems like they don’t quite know what to do, how to react when the script they wrote doesn’t come to fruition.

From what we can tell on the outside, the Yankees have one of the biggest, most well-funded analytics departments in the entire league. At times, it feels that their deployment thereof is not great and that needs to change. If it’s a flaw with the numbers, dig deeper. If it’s a flaw in communication, fix it. If it’s a flaw in decision-making, if things are too rigid, too orthodox, loosen up.

Third up is financial flexibility. And I don’t mean the type the front office people usually love. I mean the flexibility to spend beyond what other teams spend. When I think back to Brian Cashman’s ludicrous comment about the Yankees and their payroll, I get rage blind for a moment. Yes, the Yankees spend a lot of money. Yes, only the Dodgers spend more than they do. BUT as many have pointed out, the Yankees’ payroll is more or less the same, in terms of raw dollars, as it was when I was in high school and early college.

Considering inflation, considering the jumps in spending made by other teams, the Yankees’ financial commitments to their roster have gone down. This doesn’t even take into consideration their other financial factors, like a new stadium, cable money, etc. Yes, again, the Yankees spend a lot, but they could spend more and still be more than okay.

I understand Cashman’s desire to prove himself as a GM, but hasn’t he done that over the last twenty something years? I understand the Yankees want to flex their analytical muscles instead of their financial ones, but is that really working after a decade without a championship? No matter what the Yankees do, outside forces will be critical. Just lean into the heel role and spend.

Doing the same thing over and over again is not working for the Yankees anymore. The results haven’t been desirable and the process has soured. Breaking out of the mold, doing things more flexibly is now an absolute necessity. Can the Yankees do it? Good thing for them they’ll have 162 games to figure it out, not just 45 minutes like my students do.

News & Notes: Cashman on YES, Hicks, Cortes returns

The Winter Meetings have come and gone with a thud. Sure, a few deals went down, but nothing earth-shattering. I suppose this was to be expected. Rather than a steady flow of rumors and moves, it was just like every other week this offseason.

Brian Cashman sheds some light on the Yankees’ offseason

The Yankees stood pat this week, but we do have some team-related news to relay, mostly thanks to Brian Cashman’s interview on YES yesterday. NJ.com’s Randy Miller transcribed a number of relevant quotes which I’ll break down here as well.

  • Cashman expressed the team’s intent to bring back free agent DJ LeMahieu. No shocker here.
  • After discussing LeMahieu, Meredith Marakovits asked if Masahiro Tanaka fits into the picture if the team re-signs LeMahieu. Cashman was very coy here, basically saying he couldn’t answer the question about what fits into the team’s budget. I’ve seen folks read that response as if Tanaka is a goner. I understand that sentiment, especially given his openness about wanting to bring back DJLM. However, it’s not like he was directly asked about wanting to bring back Tanaka. I wonder if he used the question being targeted toward the financial aspect to avoid talking about Tanaka at all. Perhaps that means a reunion with Tanaka isn’t out of the cards, though maybe I’m just overthinking it.
  • The GM had plenty of good things to say about Gary Sánchez, though he couched his statement by saying that they’re not giving him a pass. Cashman cited how hard he hit the ball this season when he made contact, which was obviously an issue for him (36 percent strikeout rate). It should come as no surprise that the team tendered him a contract last week based on Cashman’s steadfast belief in the backstop.
  • It sure sounds like Domingo Germán has been welcomed back based on the way Cashman spoke about the rotation. Hal Steinbrenner had previously said the team would need “proof that he [Germán] turned his life around”.
  • Cashman would like to add to the rotation this offseason, but he also stated that “you could certainly daydream” that the pitching staff might actually have everything that it already needs. Look, I love some of the young arms that this team has, but let’s add some depth please.

Aaron Hicks says his elbow still isn’t 100 percent

In addition to Cashman, the Yankees’ center fielder was also on YES last night. I believe Hicks mentioned this during the regular season, but I found it notable that he said yesterday that his elbow still doesn’t feel 100 percent after Tommy John surgery. Perhaps it won’t be, which stinks.

As Hicks noted in the interview, he felt like it took him until the end of the year to really feel more like himself. His numbers bore this out too. Offensively, that may be as a result of changing his swing so he doesn’t hyperextend his elbow. I’m pretty sure this is the first we’ve heard of Hicks having to adjust his swing mechanics since the surgery.

Nestor Cortes is back in the organization

Per his own Instagram account, Nestor Cortes has re-signed with the Yankees after spending 2020 with the Mariners. The Yanks dealt him to Seattle last offseason, and sheesh, did Cortes struggle. He had a 15.26 ERA in 7 2/3 innings with the Mariners. Elbow issues appear to be the blame here as an elbow impingement shut his season down mid-August. The lefty is now pitching in the Dominican Republic, so he’s presumably healthy.

The Yankees haven’t announced the move yet, but it’s safe to assume that this is a minor league deal. I’m sure we’ll see Cortes receive an invite to spring training, too. Odds are he’s just minor league depth during 2021, though he could serve as a mop-up man if absolutely needed in the big leagues.

Thoughts after the end of season press conferences

Aaron Boone and Brian Cashman spoke to the media yesterday afternoon. Each took the better part of an hour for their discussions with the media, though I think folks were a bit more curious to hear what the general manager had to say. We had already heard Boone talk a bit after the Game 5 loss, though yesterday came with a few days to marinate after the end of the season. I know I was more interested in what Cashman had to say, at least.

I do have one thing I want to say about Boone’s presser, but the rest of my thoughts relate to Cashman’s briefing. Without further ado, let’s get to it.

Aaron Boone needs to stop saying how close the Yankees are to winning a title.

This is grating. Boone said this in what seemed like a dozen different ways yesterday. Close? If this is close, then how do you describe the 2001 Yankees? Or the 2011 Rangers? Maybe make a World Series before you start saying that this team is close. Here’s how Boone’s seasons have ended since taking the helm:

  1. 2018: 100-62, Wild Card, Lost ALDS to Red Sox 3-1
  2. 2019: 103-59, Division Title, Lost ALCS to Astros 4-2
  3. 2020: 33-27, Wild Card, Lost ALDS to Rays 3-2

The “closest” Boone’s Yankees have gotten was a year ago. I don’t think there’s any other way to describe 2020 except as a step back for this group, unusual circumstances of this season notwithstanding.

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