LADY AT THE BAT: Yankees Predictions for 2016? Looking Back 50 Years for Inspiration

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Yankees Predictions for 2016? Looking Back 50 Years for Inspiration

In what is now becoming an annual feature at Lady at the Bat, we, the staff writers will be predicting where the Yankees will finish at the end of the year.  Look for them in a future blog post right before Opening Day. 

Baseball pre season predictions have been around for a long time. Most prognosticators miss the mark, some badly. As we turn the calendar to March, it was fifty years ago this month, that at least one publication predicted the Yankees to recapture their previous glory and take the American League pennant in 1966, thus erasing the memory of the dismal sixth place finish of 1965. 

That prediction was wrong, so very far off the mark, because the Yankees finished dead last in 1966.
I don't remember the name of the publication, but it was some baseball pre-season soft cover book, not a magazine such as The Sporting News or Street and Smith. I cannot say any other publications or newspapers bought into the revived Yankees of '66, but I can say Sports Illustrated wasn't one of them. In a cover story dated June 21, 1965, SI declared: "New York Yankees--End of an Era." A tired looking Mickey Mantle graced that cover, and pages within were devoted to 1) The current sad state of affairs in Yankeeland and 2) A lengthy review of the glory years 1921-1964 in the Bronx, reading much like an obituary.

So why did at least one publication tout the Yankees return to glory in '66, ignoring the funeral and burial SI gave them a year earlier? Perhaps this publication would hit many newsstands in the metropolitan New York area. (But it also found its way to a neighborhood drug store near my Illinois home.) Or perhaps it felt that a roster that still included the likes of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford,Roger Maris,  Elston Howard, Tom Tresh, Joe  Pepitone,  Bobby Richardson and Mel Stottlemyre was good enough to match the Twins' roster of Harmon Killebrew, Cesar Tovar,Earl Battey and Tony Oliva, the guys that won the American League pennant in 1965.

Turns out the Yankees roster could not beat any of the other nine American League teams in 1966.

In fairness, the last place Yankees went 70-89, which is nowhere near as bad as say,  the '62 Mets, or a lot of last place teams for that matter. The '66 Cubs finished in the NL cellar with 103 losses. Not that it matters, but the Yankees were only a half game behind the ninth place Red Sox in '66.

So what happened?

There was a saying about the Yankees of that era that went, "We all got old at once." Truth was, except for Ford and Howard at 37, and Mantle at 33, everybody else on the roster was of prime baseball age. Injuries took their toll on the team and replacements, for the most part, were inept at best. Except for rookie lefty Fritz Peterson, who quickly positioned himself as the team's second best starter behind Stottlemyre,  most of the rookies did not contribute. Roy White and Bobby Murcer, who  saw limited time on that '66 team, were not the players they would eventually become later in their careers. The rest of the replacement call ups gave mediocre performances as well.

The Yankees opened the season with three straight losses at home to Detroit.  Peterson won his major league debut in Baltimore on April 15, which turned out to be the  only Yankees win until game 12. The Yankees were 4-16 on May 6 when manager Johnny Keane got the ax. Ralph Houk returned to the dugout and the Yankees won 13 of the next 17 games to pull the Yankees to within 3 games of .500. That is the closest the Yankees ever got to .500, as the rest of the season unraveled.

Shortstop Tony Kubek was forced to retire at age 30 due to a neck injury, and was replaced by Ruben Amaro as the number one shortstop, but  Amaro was lost until September when he injured a knee in a collision with Tresh in shallow left field the first Saturday of the season in Baltimore. Horace Clarke wound up playing the most games at shortstop with regular third baseman Clete Boyer just behind him. Bobby Murcer saw some time at shortstop but was optioned to the minors early on.

So many veterans were injured and/or had reached their declining years at the same time. Neither Maris or Mantle reached 400 at bats in '66. Mantle managed 23 home runs, but drove in a mere 56 runs. Maris contributed just 13 home runs and 43 RBI. Tom Tresh led the Yankees with 27 home runs, but had started his decline, batting only .233. Elston Howard finished at 6 HR 35 RBI .256 AVG and was traded to Boston the next season.

Pitching was another mess. Young pitchers who arrived in  the early 60's such as Jim Bouton, Rollie Sheldon and Bill Stafford were done or nearly done. Old ace Whitey Ford won two games making only nine starts. New ace Stottlemyre lost 20 games mainly due to poor run support and sloppy defense. Peterson was impressive as a rookie, but Al Downing was third on the staff with 200 innings pitched. a good stat nowadays but dismal back in the days of four man rotations. Fred Talbot, acquired in a June trade, was fourth in innings at 124 1/3. Aging veteran Bob Friend was brought in to shore up the rotation,

By the close of 1966 the baseball community could all agree that there would be no Yankees resurgence anytime soon. Maris was traded to St. Louis. Boyer went to Atlanta. Mantle would become the regular first baseman to save his knees, with Pepitone replacing Mantle in center field. Richardson retired, as expected. The Yankees finished 9th in 1967, but it was no improvement.

So here we are 50 years later and the everyday lineup is actually older today than in '66. There are injury concerns because of recent issues involving Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Alex Rodriguez and most of the rotation. Nothing major has surfaced so far this young exhibition season.

How do we go about predicting this year's finish?. The lesson from 50 years ago is, if it could go wrong it will go wrong. But the Yankees have begun the task of acquiring young talent and stockpiling their farm system to try to avoid so many roster gaps that could ruin a season. It is clearly a work in process because of the possible loss of two or more starting pitchers, or the likes of  third baseman Chase Headley or first baseman Mark Teixeira going down with a serious injury, and there is little protection as far as the depth chart goes. Certainly, Greg Bird's season ending injury affects the first base depth chart.

Attempting to answer the question, I honestly can't say right now where I'm leaning. You see, I've never forgotten that lesson of five decades ago. All I can say is if that lesson rears its ugly head this time around with unfortunate injuries, the down time will be short lived thanks to some forward thinking in the player development area coupled with the trade strategy which has been employed the past couple of years. So, yes, we could be looking at a down year, but at least the near future looks much more promising.

"Hope springs eternal"  is something that is repeated often this time of year. Maybe that is the thinking we all should have. At least one prognosticator thought along those lines fifty years ago. Here is hoping the results are better this time around.

1 comment:

Fritz Peterson said...

Great summary. Hope we get out of the chutes quickly.