Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Good Day For An Off Night

Barring the occurrence of foul weather or some other act of God, the Yankees won't play on Thursday for the rest of the regular season. With the games coming in at even more sporadic intervals in the postseason, we are beginning to be weened off baseball, whether we like it or not. Fortunately, just as baseball season is winding down, football starts to gear up. Line drives are slowly supplanted by long drives, first innings by first downs, base hits by big hits, stolen bases by interceptions and pop ups by touchdowns.

Last year the advent of football season was a welcome relief because while the Yankees' season was in its final throes, the Giants were embarking on their first Super Bowl defense since I was in second grade. With the Yankees continuing to destroy everything in their path this year, it seems like football is here too soon.

Matt ushered in the College Football season a couple of weeks ago quite beautifully, but the pigskin doesn't grab my attention until the NFL schedule starts up. Today, Big Daddy Drew at Deadspin posted his first NFL Dick Joke Jambaroo of the year, a must read for any pro football fan.

I'm a baseball fan first, but I never sit in front of the TV on a Sunday and watch two or three games that the Yankees aren't playing in. Maybe it has something to do with the temperature outside or fantasy football or gambling, but I think all of those things speak to why football is more popular than baseball. It's inherently more compelling to the casual observer. Baseball might have more to offer to those who care to look deeper, but Football doesn't require that kind of commitment.

Tonight the ratings of the Steelers vs. Titans game will almost certainly squash those of all seven of the baseball games that are on, combined.

Way back in February, I made a hokey analogy equating baseball with friendship and football with love. I'd probably change a few things if I were to write the post again, but I think the point still remains. Football is electric and physical, baseball is cordial and cerebral.

It's probably a good thing that the Yankees season slows to a halt for tonight. We get to take a step back from baseball in general and Jetermania in particular.

If you're a football fan, enjoy the game. If you're a solely baseball fan, I guess you could watch the Mets? Either way, we'll be back tomorrow morning.

The "Yankees' Mount Olympus" And The Tragedy Of YES

I have to admit, I enjoyed Derek Jeter's record tying hit more than I expected last night. My buddy Frank and I had just settled in at my sister's place and flipped on the TV during Brett Gardner's at bat in the bottom of the 7th, with Jeter waiting in the hole.

After his line drive squirted down the right field line and Jeter took of his helmet, acknowledging the crowd while standing on first base, I said, "Wow, it would be awesome to be there right now".

And then I realized that the best thing about being at the Stadium at that moment wouldn't have been hearing the crowd noise firsthand or feeling like I was one of the people Jeter was responding to with the helmet tip or being able to say that I witnessed something special that night. No, the best part of being there would have been that the absence of a coarse voice incessantly reminding me how "special" and "historic" the moment was.

Like Cliff from Bronx Banter said his recap of last night's game, "It’s an impressive accomplishment that might have meant something to me had the YES Network not killed it to death by overhyping it beyond all reason."

For the people in attendance last night, the moment didn't get overhyped. I'm sure there were some graphics up on the scoreboard, but there was no one standing in between them and what happened on the field and the reaction in the stands. No one yelling in their ear, "LOU GEHRIG HAS COMPANY!!", like there was in mine.

When Jeter was standing on first base, Michael Kay said, "The bedrock of this franchise since 1996, the Yankee Captain now stands atop the Yankees' Mount Olympus with Lou Gehrig". And with that, the deification of Derek Jeter was complete.

As Matt demonstrated earlier, if one were to create a hypothetical "Yankees' Mount Olympus", it certainly wouldn't be based on who had the most hits for the franchise. Yet Kay had clearly crafted that phrase for that precise moment and been sitting on it for days, betrayed by the fact that he used it during the intro pieces for the two games of the double header.

Amazingly, it was the radio duo of Sterling and Waldman who were calm and collected by comparison. When Jeter rounded first and the stands started to erupt, Sterling simply said "And Jeter has now tied Lou Gehrig at two thousand, seven hundred and twenty one hits...". Suzyn described the cap tip, what the scoreboard said and the reactions of the fans while Sterling added that the Rays dugout was also applauding Jeter. They focused on the present instead of preemptively trying to declare the moment as historic.

As much as the events of last night helped congeal and quantify Jeter's presence among the greatest Yankees, it also badly exposed the most unbearable aspect of the YES Network.

The network apparently is convinced that it is vital to their success to make sure that every viewer in constantly reminded of the history of the Yankees at every possible turn. The dramatic irony is that YES turns moments that should be enjoyable to excruciating with each attempt to frame its significance, making them more memorable for the ridiculous way in which they are covered than for the moments themselves.

Some Perspective On Jeter And Gehrig

Today is Thursday and the Yankees are off, as they will be every Thursday for the remainder of the regular season. As such, news is hard to come by, so we will be given more and more of the Jeter/Gehrig Story.

While the mainstream media continues to beat that drum, in the Yankee blogosphere the narrative has turned to the coverage overkill by the mainstream media. It's a warranted criticism, perhaps best summarized by Bronx Banter's Cliff Corcoran.

Jay and I have both been guilty of giving this story more legs that it doesn't need. However, much like our friend Jason at IIATMS, Fack Youk is trying to supply a little perspective on this achievement. The mainstream media is making this out to be a little bit more than it is. The inevitable backlash from elsewhere is probably selling it a little bit short. As usual, the truth likely lies somewhere between.

Keith Olbermann had blog post earlier this week lamenting Gehrig once again being knocked from the record books, and fearing that the Iron Horse might some day be forgotten. I can appreciate Olbermann's sentiments, but I can't agree with them. As I stated this morning, Gehrig is amongst the best baseball players ever. Period. His peers are Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Aaron, Musial, Mays, Cobb, Mantle - the best ever to play the game. If Gehrig were ever to be forgotten, it certainly wouldn't be because Jeter passed him on a leaderboard that while glamorous because it belongs to the most celebrated franchise in the game, is relatively meaningless in the big picture of baseball history. If anything, perhaps the recent media storm will actually increase the profile of this all-time great.

Jeter's latest accomplishment is something to be recognized and is as good a reason as any to celebrate his remarkable career that has been at times both over and under rated. But lest we lose sight of just how incredible Lou Gehrig was, let's take a look at what Jeter and Gehrig did with their 2,721 career hits:

The point isn't to say that Derek Jeter isn't the slugger that Gehrig was. They are two very different players in that regard. The point is to illustrate that while Jeter will soon surpass Gehrig in total number of hits, the New York Yankees franchise will have received far more value out of Lou Gehrig's 2,721 hits than they did out of Jeter's 2,722.

Gehrig still sits comfortably atop the Yankees all-time double and triple lists, and is safely third on the all-time home run list. He sits behind only the imcomparable Babe Ruth on the franchise's total bases leaderboard. Jeter is fifth, within five total bases of Joe DiMaggio in fourth, but a good two seasons behind Mickey Mantle in third, and light years behind Ruth and Gehrig. Consider this: Derek Jeter has 718 career extra base hits. Lou Gehrig has 697 combined doubles and triples before even counting his 493 home runs.

Of course, the object of baseball is to score runs, and they key to scoring runs is reaching base safely. While hits are the most valuable way to do that, it's just one of three ways to reach base safely. Here's a look at the franchise's all-time leaderboard in times on base:

Jeter will likely sit atop this list one day as well, but it will take him a good two and half to three more years to get there. And that doesn't take into account his on base percentage, which is currently 7th amongst all Yankees with at least 4,000 career plate appearances. And as Steve Goldman pointed out earlier this week, Jeter's OBP will likely begin to fall as he enters the decline phase of his career.

None of this is meant to discredit what Derek Jeter has done over the past fourteen seasons, has done this week, or will do this weekend and over the remainder of his career. He is sure fire first ballot Hall of Famer and is undoubtedly the greatest Yankee shortstop ever. Lou Gehrig is amongst the select few members of the Hall of Fame who are deserving of their own wing. Jeter is on the shortlist of the greatest players in Yankee history. Gehrig is amongst the best players in baseball history.

Though people of my generation have been treated to all-time Yankee greats like Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and less recently Bernie Williams and Don Mattingly, more than any of them, Derek Jeter is the name in recent Yankee history. This milestone, and all the others Jeter will reach before his career is over, will be deservedly trumpeted. However, next time someone waxes nostalgic about Gehrig losing another record, or next time someone in the paper or on TV gets overly hyperbolic about Jeter setting this record, please try to remember the context.

Jeter, Gehrig, And Home/Road Splits

Good morning Fackers. So how about that game last night? An eight batter renaissance from Joba, outstanding relief from Alf and Albie, a huge home run from Posada, a clutch fielders choice from Swish - OK, maybe not on that one.

But of course, Derek Jeter was deservedly the story of the night. Exactly one year after he surpassed Babe Ruth for second place on the Yankees all time hit list, he tied The Bambino's long time partner in crime, Lou Gehrig. Last night's events came exactly one week short of the one year anniversary of the last time Jeter and Gehrig were intertwined in a historical achievement.

On September 16th last year, Jeter came to bat against the White Sox' Gavin Floyd in the bottom of the first with Johnny Damon on first base and no one out. Just as he did in his record tying at bat last night, Jeter jumped on the first pitch, grounding one under the glove of third baseman Juan Uribe. The play was scored a hit, giving Jeter 1,270 at Yankee Stadium, surpassing Lou Gehrig's ballpark record of 1,269.

Yet here we are nearly a full year later and Jeter is just now tied with Gehrig for the franchise hit record, meaning Gehrig still has a sizeable advantage over Jeter when it comes to hits away from the Bronx. Here's a breakdown of both men's 2,721 career hits:

Gehrig: 1,269 at Yankee Stadium, 1,452 away
Jeter: 1,360 at Yankee Stadiums, 1,360 away, 1 at a Shea Stadium "home game"

Some interesting stuff there, besides Jeter's virtually even split between home and away games. Gehrig still leads Jeter by 92 road hits, meaning we'll likely endure another "chase" late next season as the media looks for another storyline with the season winding down.

But more interesting, Lou Gehrig accumulated about 53.36% of his career hits on the road. Percentage wise, this isn't a huge difference, but he had 183 more hits, nearly a full season's total for him and about 13 additional hits per season, away from his home ballpark.

Why is this? Yankee Stadium, particularly in its pre-1976 incarnation, was a great ballpark for left handed hitters like Gehrig. So why this difference?

Unfortunately, doesn't have detailed split information pre-1954, so we can't hammer down on the cause for Gehrig's discrepancy. We can assume that Gehrig, since he played everyday, would have had roughly the same number of plate appearances at home and on the road. Considering that the Yankees won seven pennants and had just one losing record in his fourteen full seasons with the team, we know that the Yankees won a ton of games in Gehrig's career. As such, he may have picked up a number of ninth inning at bats on the road that he didn't get at home, but certainly not the 538 additional at bats it would have taken a .340 career hitter like Gehrig to accumulate an additional 183 hits.

So perhaps it was Yankee Stadium itself that was the cause. With its inviting right field porch just 295 feet away and no one near his own skill level batting behind him, Gehrig drew 1,508 career BB, good for 15th on the all time list. We can't know for certain without the split statistics, but perhaps the lion's share of Gehrig's walks came at home, reducing his number of at bats, and consequently his opportunities for hits, there.

Another potential cause could be Yankee Stadium's cavernous pre-renovation deah valley (487 to feet to straightaway center and 490 to left center). Even though Gehrig was a left handed hitter, he assuredly lost a number of hits to the cavernous centerfield dimensions. But I'm not quite sure that explains the difference, particularly with the extra hits Gehrig likely accumulated thanks to the short right field.

So what about other big Yankee bats to follow Gehrig? It's tough to find a good comparison for Gehrig, who's one of the top 5 to 10 offensive players in the history of the game. Mickey Mantle is closest, but was a switch hitter and the first three years of his career pre-date b-r's split data. The first seven years of Yogi Berra's career pre-date the split data. Roger Maris didn't play nearly the number of games with the Yankees as Gehrig, was not a power threat for the final two seasons of his Yankee days, and may have incomplete split information. Reggie Jackson was a power threat on the same order as Gehrig, but not nearly as complete a hitter and spent his entire Yankee career in the remodeled Stadium. Ditto for Don Mattingly, whose power abandoned him gradually in his sixth season and completely by his eighth season.

Still, here are the percentage of career Yankee hits accumulated on the road for those five men:
Berra: 51.56%
Mantle: 49.43%
Maris: 53.83%
Jackson: 52.34%
Mattingly: 51.09%
All the exclusively left handed hitters are over 50% and Maris' percentage exceeds Gehrig's 53.36%. Perhaps when it came to accumulating hits, not just home runs, Yankee Stadium wasn't as kind to left handed hitters as its reputation would have led us to believe. What do you think Fackers?