Recipe for Success
BY DEB SEYMOUR
Not that many years ago, it was a popular assertion among baseball fans the Yankees had purchased many of their more recent championships, because George Steinbrenner had acquired the reputation of an owner who was willing to spend and spend and spend, at any cost, to put a championship caliber team on the field every single season.
This included picking up costly contracts at the trade deadline, investing throughout the Yankee system in developing top players, and paying for the best scouting and coaching staffs and general management money could buy.
Sure, there were dark years at the major league level during the George Steinbrenner “reign of terror” – notably in the 1980s; but overall, the reputation he took with him to his final years micromanaging the team he’d purchased was of success with disregard for cost.
George was as shrewd an owner as he was a generous owner, however. He was a tough businessman, and he understood that investment is what leads to a big payday.
Or so many people in baseball circles used to think, anyway.
Then luxury taxes became a complicated part of the picture, George’s children took over team ownership and decision making (and along the way huge inheritance taxes entered the fray), and some other owners started to step up and spend big on their teams, as well.
Fast forward to 2023, and the two teams with the largest payrolls aren’t exactly producing at a championship caliber level to date.
Steve Cohen, new owner of the Mets, rescued the team from years of what looked (from the outside) like bad decision making by its owners all the way on down to the product on the field and how it was both handled by general management and management.
Cohen decided he was willing to blow past the top luxury tax threshold this year, in order to make the Mets a competitive and very watchable product. He’d been a fan of the team for years, and with its acquisition he finally had the opportunity to have some deep influence on how it was run – and on who populated both the executive level positions and the positions on the field.
Meanwhile, the Mets have looked like some of their investments weren’t all that smart, with the starting rotation (including former Cy Young winners Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander) underperforming expectation and the bullpen being utterly unreliable, as well as some of their top position players having off years both at the plate and in the field.
Of course, some of this is just a series of bad luck happenstance co-occurring all in the same season, raising questions about whether the team will be a seller instead of a buyer at the trade deadline; but the overall picture does appear as if the large investment in the team just isn’t paying off.
Across the East River over in the Bronx, Hal Steinbrenner’s Yankees are faring a bit better than the somewhat hapless Mets, but still nowhere near where expectations lay for a team whose payroll is just below the top luxury tax threshold.
It’s another year chockful of injuries for the Bombers, who haven’t seemed to stay even remotely healthy over the past five years; and another year of questionable choices about who’s in the lineup and playing which position on any given day of the week.
Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees poses for a photo with Yankees principal owner Hal Steinbrenner after a press conference at Yankee Stadium on December 21, 2022 in Bronx, New York. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)
It’s great when you have multiple utility players on your team and have the flexibility to move players around from position to position constantly – until it isn’t.
Not one player on the Yankees is hitting .300 or above; and as of the end of Sunday’s game (the last game started by ace starter Gerrit Cole), the Yankees were 13-5 in Cole’s starts, and a .500 team in all other starts combined.
Yes, starting pitcher Domingo German joined the somewhat exclusive perfect game club while pitching in Oakland the last week of June; but he hasn’t exactly been stellar across all starts this season. German, ironically, is only in the rotation due to injuries to Carlos Rodon and Frankie Montas, both acquired by GM Brian Cashman and each having contributed exactly nothing so far this season to the Yankees.
The injury in early June suffered by reigning MVP Aaron Judge at Dodgers Stadium dealt a large blow to this year’s Yankees, and it remains to be seen if and when he will return – and how the team will continue to fare in his absence.
(One quick note we’ve mentioned before at BallNine is that former Yankee right fielder and current Yankee TV analyst Paul O’Neill, who won four World Series with the Yankees from 1996-2001, once said the 1998 Yankees, who won 114 regular season games and the World Series that year, were a team who managed to stay unusually healthy throughout the season and postseason. A notable statement, because it already provides a chink in the armor of the notion that you can simply “buy a World Series.”)
And so taking all this into account, it pays to ask if payroll is the factor it once appeared to be in World Series success, and what the 2023 recipe for success looks like, to date, across MLB.
Juan Soto #22 of the San Diego Padres looks on from the dugout in the third inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on July 01, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
But let’s leave New York for a minute and take a brief detour across the country to the San Diego Padres, whose payroll is third highest in the majors this season and who, quite honestly, don’t look much better than do the Mets or Yankees to date.
The Padres are loaded with superstar position players – from Manny Machado to Juan Soto to Fernando Tatis, Jr. to Xander Bogaerts. Their starting pitching includes both Yu Darvish and Blake Snell. Their closer is Josh Hader.
On paper, this is a team that should have one of the best records in MLB this season. Instead, they find themselves under .500 for the first half of the season, and struggling to stay fewer than 10 games back of the division leading Arizona Diamondbacks.
Did Padres owner Peter Seidler not spend enough to win a World Series? Surely that can’t be the case. The Padres have had some injuries, but nothing like the Yankees have suffered. They didn’t lose their closer to a freak injury as did the Mets, with Edwin Diaz lost for the year after suffering a key injury at the end of the World Baseball Classic.
And yet, they don’t look like an above average team, even with some players who’ve been labeled either “a generational talent” or among the best position players in the game at their particular position.
The stark question for MLB owners and general managers in 2023 has become: which teams are leading their divisions, and how did they get there?
By now, it must seem obvious money isn’t the key, although not spending enough certainly won’t position your team for success; so what is it that’s making the Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers, Atlanta Braves, and Arizona Diamondbacks tops in their respective divisions right now? We could even throw in the Cincinnati Reds to that mix, although the competition in both the AL and NL Central divisions doesn’t really stack up well against that in the other four divisions. And the Baltimore Orioles, who are riding only second to the Rays in one of the toughest divisions in MLB.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr #12 of the Arizona Diamondbacks celebrates with third base coach Tony Perezchica #21 after hitting a solo home run against the New York Mets during the fourth inning at Chase Field on July 04, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
We at BallNine have reviewed various reasons for some teams’ success over others, including having a little less emphasis on analytics and a little more on the baseball strategies and routines that have worked since the game became an organized sport, for one. Another would be trying to get athleticism out of your players as much as bat speed, launch angle, pitch framing, high velocity pitching, and hard hit balls.
But there’s also youth. And the successful team knows how to capture the essence of that youth without it being too costly in terms of errors, miscues, and failure.
One observation about the high payroll teams this season is they aren’t particularly populated with youth. The oldest team averages in terms of age in the NL include the Mets, Padres, Cardinals, Giants, and Dodgers (with the Marlins and Rockies being in the mix, despite not having huge payrolls). In the AL, the Yankees lead the way, followed closely by the Boston Red Sox.
Interestingly, the NL East division-leading Braves are pretty high on the list, as well; but shrewd general management of that team, as we’ve detailed elsewhere, has locked up some of its best and also some of its youngest players into long-term contracts pretty early in their playing cycles.
As in all sports, part of success entails building a baseball team with a solid leadership core, usually – but not always – signaling a core of veteran players, along with sufficient youth to give you speed and energy when you need it most. Too much of a swing in one direction or the other doesn’t always make the grade.
And as mentioned above, capturing the sweetest essence of that youth can be like catching lightning in a bottle. Because along with youth comes inexperience, lots of failure, and many ups and downs throughout the long season.
Alex Anthopoulos of the Atlanta Braves aknowledges the crowd at Truist Park during the World Series Ring Ceremony on April 9, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Adam Hagy/Getty Images)
The recipe for championship success isn’t an exact science – it’s not like every World Series-winning team has been of the same average age. But once you look beyond payroll, the picture gets pretty complicated pretty quickly, and all you can do is tease out trends.
Some givens are wise team management, often by an older, veteran manager – but not always. Craig Counsell took his Milwaukee Brewers to the NLCS at age 48; Kevin Cash took the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series at age 42.
Other givens include clever general management, which is not only about signing and trading for the best and brightest of the current crop of players, but is also about knowing when it’s time to bring up your rookie players so they’re going to actually be that lightning in a bottle (in other words, not too early, and not too late).
Teams that have deep farm systems tend to be more successful than teams that do not, whether the system was built through patience and investment or through shrewd trades over an extended period. After all, where are you going to get your best and brightest rookies from, if not from your own system?
And, at the end of the day, there is always a bit of luck. Since 2019, the Yankees have been ridden with injury, year after year. They’ve changed strength and conditioning (S&C) staffs, and are this year doing another audit of their second S&C group over that period. Perhaps their strength and conditioning activities are to blame, perhaps the way they conduct on-field game practice is to blame, or perhaps populating the roster with injury-prone players is to blame. Perhaps it’s all three, or something else.
But, as a wise baseball coach once told me, “in baseball, there’s always an element of luck.” And the Yankees have not had the luck of health over the past five years, as they did back in 1998, and as mentioned by five-time World Series champion Paul O’Neill. O’Neill also mentioned that multiple players on that 1998 team happened to have career years all at the same time.
And in the recipe for success, a little bit of luck can go a long way.