Empire State of 599: Why A-Rod's Chase for 600 Didn't Cause Yankees' Skid

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Empire State of 599: Why A-Rod's Chase for 600 Didn't Cause Yankees' Skid
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

There’s nothing wrong with making unquantifiable excuses when your favorite team isn’t playing well—it’s only human.

If the whole roster seems a little off, it must be residual jetlag from that last long road trip they were on. If it’s a certain player who’s mired in a slump, he probably hasn’t fully recovered from the paper cut he got three years ago. Here in Cleveland, we’ve been doing it for three years—it’s called “rebuilding.”

Sometimes the reasons are legitimate and they’re almost always benign; in most cases, there’s no reason to burst people’s bubbles (unless, of course, they root for your rival team).

But when a particularly idiotic excuse starts getting picked up and spewed out by the national media, someone has to put his foot down.

Indeed, cognitive dissonance has erupted over the last few days over the New York Yankees’ subpar play, and it must be put to an end.

Yankees fans were feeling restless Wednesday morning; the Bombers entered the day having dropped three and a row and six of their last 11 games—enough for the Rays to pass them in the AL East.

Coincidentally, Alex Rodriguez spent that span of games searching for his 600th career home run. To many fans and analysts, this meant that the Bombers were distracted by the pressure of their teammate’s attempt to make history—a notion that seemed to be confirmed when Rodriguez hit the long-awaited dinger in a 5-1 Yankees victory.

New Yorkers, I have news for you: this whole story is ridiculous.

For starters, the notion that this publicity stunt could bring down the whole team is ridiculous. I buy that it affected A-Rod—it was a huge moment in his career, and he certainly struggled at the plate (.178/.240/.222 slashline in the 12 games between Nos. 599 and 600).

But could it really have affected the rest of the team? This is a sport where even the best players fail 70 percent of the time, with hundreds of thousands of people watching. If you can’t handle a little pressure, you don’t belong in the big leagues—especially when you’re playing for possibly the most recognizable franchise on the planet.

Of course, there is a clubhouse chemistry factor, and bad feelings can spread quickly. There was depression in the Indians’ dugout, for example, after de facto captain Victor Martinez was traded to the Red Sox last year, and the Angels weren’t terribly motivated to do their best after Nick Adenhart was killed. Does anyone really want to try and compare the tragic loss of a teammate to the two-week delay it took for an egomaniacal multimillionaire to reach an arbitrary number of home runs?

A believer in this preposterous theory might suggest that, while the pressure might not have actually spread to his teammates, a fully focused A-Rod would have made the difference in some of New York’s recent losses; this idea is even more preposterous than the last.

Let’s assume for a minute that Rodriguez normally provides a full run of value every game (meaning he would be worth 16.2 Wins Above Replacement over a full season—by the far the best in MLB history).  There was only one game during that stretch in which the Yankees lost by a one-run margin. You could have added a better hitter than Babe Ruth to the Bombers’ lineups for the last two weeks and it couldn’t have been expected to change more than one game.

Shall we humor the even more absurd idea that Alex Rodriguez changes the score by an average of two runs every single night? Fine—only twice in the last two weeks have the Yankees lost by fewer than three runs.

But, as the guys from Baseball Tonight would tell you, you’re forgetting the piece d’resistance: if A-Rod’s quest for glory had nothing to do with the losing streak, why did they win when he hit No. 600?

This is the part where you laugh in your opponent’s face.

Putting aside the ridiculousness of declaring that the team has turned a corner after one game (even the worst teams win a couple times a week), anyone who spouts this rhetoric has, ironically, done what he (in all likelihood) accuses sabermetricians of doing: getting too caught up in minutia to see what’s actually happening in the game.

Did the New York Yankees really win that game because they were relieved to have the pressure lifted off their backs? Or was it because the two runs that scored just from A-Rod’s homer were one more than the Blue Jays got all night?

Fifteen of Rodriguez’ 17 homers this year have come in games New York has won; the Bombers are 14-2 when he goes yard (.875) and just 47-38 (.540) when he plays but keeps the ball in the park. Over his career, a full 65 percent of his long balls have coincided with his team winning.

Across the league this year, teams are averaging more than twice as many dingers a game when they win (1.3) than when they lose (0.6). That’s not because of the psychological boost a team gets from watching the ball sail over the fence; it’s because of the extremely controversial theory that scoring runs improves a team’s chances of victory.

I have no idea what the Yankees’ problem has been for the last couple weeks. Could be bad luck, could be delayed grief over the death of George Steinbrenner—heck, maybe it really is jetlag.

But if you really believe that the anticipation surrounding an arbitrary milestone that did not effect on A-Rod’s place on the all-time list and had zero impact on 96 percent of the 25-man roster is enough to send the team down the toilet, I have to ask: how can you possibly expect them to win in October?

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