An Offensive Juggernaut?


ESPN’s Bob Klapisch: The Final Bonehead for 2005


By Scott Glab, January 1, 2006



The story:



For years, I’ve suspected that there are memos that get circulated at ESPN, which say something like, “Employees must comply with the minimum requirements for east coast biased hyperbole every month.”  Well, just before Christmas, Bob Klapisch went over and beyond the call of duty, comparing the 2006 Yankees with the addition of Johnny Damon to the infamous Murderer’s Row of the 1927 club.  Almost (but not quite) as embarrassing as his column is that we missed covering it until the New Year.  But have no fear Bob, you still win the final Baseball Evolution Bonehead Sportswriter of the Month for 2005.  Way to go!


Here is the lineup that Klapisch envisions matching Murderer’s Row:


CF Johnny Damon
SS Derek Jeter
RF Gary Sheffield
3B Alex Rodriguez
1B Jason Giambi
LF Hideki Matsui
C Jorge Posada
DH Bernie Williams
2B Robinson Cano


Let’s begin at the bottom.  At the age of 33, Jorge Posada posted a .782 OPS last year, his lowest since the age of 27.  It ranked barely above the league average.  It’s hard to stress enough how quickly catchers decline with age.  You tend to see much less of the gradual downhill slope that you do with players at other positions, and a lot more, “Charles Johnson?  Who the heck is that?” 


Next, we have the amazing Bernie Williams, a fine specimen of a hitter for the latter part of the 90’s, and a decent hitter coming into the new millennium.  After seasons in 2003 and 2004 where his offensive value was similar to what Posada’s was last year, Bernie certainly-no-longer-the-mac managed a .688 OPS in 546 plate appearances at the age of 36.  In his prime, Williams could be counted on to draw about 70-90 walks a season, and hit over .310 with over 20 home runs.  But those days seem as far away as the days of Lou Gehrig and the Babe.  Williams hit .249 with 12 HR last year.  His 53 walks were his lowest total since 1992, when he was breaking into the league at age 23.  It sure looks like pitchers aren’t afraid to come right at him anymore.  Murderer’s Row?  The ’05 version of Williams would have trouble stealing a loaf of marble rye.


At the nine spot, we have the kid, Robinson Cano.  Out of the bottom three of the lineup, he is the most likely to get better.  But his on-base average last year was .320, almost fifteen points below league average.  His slugging was only slightly better.  And he stole one base in four attempts, making his ability to create runs in other ways somewhat suspect.  He is by no means a super-prospect, but at age 23, he is likely to improve marginally on those numbers. 


Even if you throw the ancient Tino Martinez into the mix at DH, or (heartbroken?) Bubba Crosby, we’re looking at an American League lineup with 1/3 of the hitters expected to provide league-average offense.

To be fair, the starting trio of C Pat Collins, 3B Joe Dugan and SS Mark Koenig combined for about league average production for the ’27 Yankees squad.  But they were balanced out by Ruth’s 1.256 OPS and Gehrig’s 1.239 OPS.  Each number was well above twice the league average.  To put that into perspective, there have only been 61 instances in major league history where a player’s OPS was at least twice his league average (an OPS+ of 200 or better, with 100 denoting a park-adjusted league average OPS).  Of those instances, nine occurred before the modern era.  Ruth and Gehrig’s 1927 campaign rank 13th and 17th all-time, respectively.  And the other three regulars on the 1927 Yanks combined for an OPS+ of over 130.


Just for shits and giggles, let’s look at some telling stats for the current crop of Yankees:



AGE        NAME                                    CAREER OPS+   HIGH OPS+          2005 OPS+           TREND 

32        Johnny "Idiot" Damon         102                          117                  113               none

32        Derek Jeter                         121                          161                  121               steady

37        Gary Sheffield                      146                          190                  132               downward

30        Alex "Tops" Rodriguez        145                          167                  167               steady

35        Jason Giambi                       149                          202                  156               none

32        Hideki Matsui                      125                          139                  125               steady/none



All fine hitters for the most part.  Gary Sheffield is on the decline, and reportedly grumpy and unhappy, but still a fine player.  A-Rod is at the top of his game, with 2005 as one of his best seasons along with 1996 and 2000.  Jeter is like a punch card, posting an OPS+ between 113 and 127 in the last six years.  Matsui is a bit of a wild card, but out of all of them is most likely to improve on his numbers.  Giambi rebounded big time in 2005.  Yankee fans shouldn’t expect numbers from him like he had in his prime, but at age 35 if he can match last year’s production, New Yorkers should be very happy.


But take the expected productivity of these guys and average them, you get an OPS+ a bit over 135, which is about what Ruth and Gehrig’s three effective sidekicks achieved.  That’s like Murderer’s Row with Ruth and Gehrig replaced by clones of Tony Lazzeri and Bob Meusel:  effective, productive, possibly league-leading, but not historically elite.



Damon, the catalyst for Klapisch’s article, and supposedly for the Yankees’ lineup, has hit better than the league average in 5 of his 11 major league seasons.  As recently as 2003 and 2001, he has had on-base averages below .350.  He steals a moderate amount of bases at 78% efficiency, but this is still no guarantee that he will not make a lot of outs at the top of the Yankees’ lineup.  Is he likely to have an abysmal season like he did in Oakland in 2001?  I don’t think so.  Is he a valuable leadoff hitter?  Yes.  Is he the catalyst for a historic Yankees batting order?  I doubt it.


He is, as Klapisch points out, “a durable, fleet center fielder, albeit one with a below-average arm.”  But Williams, the Yankees’ center fielder for more than a decade, has absolutely one of the worst arms in the history of center field.  It is little things like this that make you wonder if Klapisch is paying any attention to what he’s writing.


Want to find lineups better than the 2005 Yankees?  Try the 1930 and 1931 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1995 Cleveland Indians, and the 1975 and 1976 Cincinnati Reds for starters.  Maybe even the 2004 Cardinals.  There are others out there that are similarly productive to what should be expected of the ’05 Yanks.  Have fun finding them, and stay secure in the knowledge that you have more sense than nationally-known sensationalist sportswriters.