“During the 1920s New York Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert once described his perfect afternoon at Yankee Stadium. ‘It’s when the Yankees score eight runs in the first inning,’ Ruppert said, ‘and then slowly pull away.’” – Peter Golenbock
The first week of the 2018 season has done nothing but fuel expectations. That seemed all too impossible considering that the tone surrounding the Yankees and its fandom is “World Series or Bust.”
After a low pressure 2017 season that saw the young core shockingly come within a game of the World Series, that “World Series or Bust” attitude is back. It’s back in a way that the late 90’s and early 2000’s teams never experienced.
The first two games highlighted all of the perceived strengths of the club. The stars won game one. The depth won game two. The bullpen was spectacular, while the starters were more than adequate.
Giancarlo Stanton formally announced his presence with authority by blasting a home run in his first official at-bat. He decided to make it a two home run Opening Day later on, becoming the first Yankees player to do so in his debut since Roger Maris in 1960. Maris, of course, is forever remembered for his 1961 season, but he was also the Most Valuable Player in 1960 as well. And, as well documented, Maris was scrutinized in so many ways as he marched towards the 61 home run mark in 1961.
There is an argument to be made that Roger Maris was one of those most scrutinized players in Yankees’ history. Nobody could ever imagine the pressure he was under, whether it was from media scrutiny, fan volatility, and his own need to prove his worth. There is certainly an equal argument that Giancarlo Stanton will most certainly eclipse that level of scrutiny in 2018, his first professional season outside of Miami.
Days like Opening Day add to that. With so much anticipation, Stanton actually managed to exceed the hype by delivering one of those spectacular games, that rare handful of games out of the 162 that gets repeated on highlight reels for years to come. Everything is magnified early in the season. That goes even more on day one.
I once asked Rick Peterson the difference between coaching in Oakland as opposed to coaching in New York. He gave me a line that seems to be appropriate for the 2018 New York Yankees. Peterson said, “In Oakland, we played one, 162 game season. In New York, we played 162, one game seasons.”
Giancarlo Stanton experienced that in week one. That aforementioned spectacular opening in Toronto was followed up with a 1 for 14 stretch. Stanton then had the introduction to the New York crowd with his epic five strikeout performance in the home opener. He, of course, was booed.
Peterson’s words were never truer.
Now, fans have every right to boo. But, that right doesn’t make the action any less intelligent. Stanton is a prolific home run hitter, but he is also a slugger who comes with a 27.8 percent strikeout rate. He is going to strike out quite a bit. Game five was definitely a rough game for Stanton, but his team did win 11-4. Booing him after his first game was a level scrutiny that few, if any Yankees have ever received.
The very next game, it was Stanton who hit a mammoth home run in the first inning to give the Yankees a lead that they would never give up. He, of course, was given a loud ovation. He followed that up with three more strikeouts. There were few boos this time because, of course, he hit that home run. It is going to be that type of season for the 28-year-old. He isn’t the homegrown Yankee like Judge and Sanchez. He is the big ticket acquisition who comes with the unrealistic burden of having to prove his worth every single plate appearance. He appears to have the right mindset for the challenge; that mindset will certainly be challenged in his 162 one-game seasons.
Perhaps the only person who will be under more scrutiny is the Aaron Boone, the surprising and somewhat controversial choice to lead this playoff hopeful team. Off the field, Boone has done everything right. His press conferences are engaging. He has a certain way of deflecting things while effusively praising his players. He minimized the Stanton five strikeout game and the booing by simply saying that Stanton just missed a few pitches and that he looks fine mechanically. After Didi Gregorius’ nine RBI performance, Boone was asked if Gregorius was underrated. He responded by saying that those in the game know how good he is. It was the perfect answer. It wasn’t the narrative of being underrated, the type of narrative that causes even more scrutiny. It wasn’t overpraise that often comes after epic performances. It was an answer that ended the conversation, but gave the reporter a good quote. Boone has shown that ability every time he steps up to the microphone. In New York, especially with a team that has high expectations and even higher levels of scrutiny, this is a valuable skill.
And, while the Yankees have gotten off to a solid 4-3 start, it was the two games over the weekend in Toronto that brought some criticism Boone’s way. That criticism even came in the form of WFAN’s new drive time show—we’ll leave opinions on that show’s quality out of this—to poll the audience on whether or not they were nervous after four games. This conversation was started because of Boone’s perceived poor bullpen management over the first weekend. Saturday’s starter, CC Sabathia, threw 87 pitches in five innings. Boone didn’t let him start the sixth, a smart move considering Sabathia’s age, it being his first outing, and the fact that he no longer goes much deeper in games. Boone brought in Adam Warren, who got two outs that sandwiched a walk to Kevin Pillar. With two outs and Pillar on second, Boone went to Jonathan Holder, looking for a strikeout. Holder didn’t execute, giving up a single to Luke Maile before finally getting that strikeout.
Boone’s Yankees came back with a run in the top of the seventh to tie it at three. Boone went to Dellin Betances, a sound move. Betances pitched a scoreless 8th inning and was brought on to pitch the 9th. He immediately gave up a home run to Yangervis Solarte. After a strikeout, Betances walked Pillar, who promptly stole second and third before stealing home. The idea of going to Holder could be questioned a bit, but it is not as if he lifted Aroldis Chapman for him. And, leaving Betances in a tie game on the road is the absolute correct thing. Boone was criticized because his bullpen, the strength of the team, didn’t execute. There was logic in each and every decision.
On Sunday, Boone faced another critical decision in the bottom of the 8th with the Yankees holding a one-run lead. With two outs and a runner on first and second, Josh Donaldson came up. Donaldson has 3 career hits (2 home runs) in 8 at-bats against Robertson. Meanwhile, Justin Smoak, the on deck hitter, was 0 for 5 with 4 strikeouts against the veteran right-hander. Boone gave the option to walk Donaldson, the historically better hitter to load the bases. Robertson got ahead in the count on Smoak, but ultimately missed with a fastball in the middle of the plate, which Smoak put into the stands. Boone was criticized, but his rationale was sound. Robertson is historically better against Smoak. He simply didn’t execute at all. It was an awful pitch.
Fans can criticize the reliance on analytics, but at least Boone has had a rationale for every decision he’s made. The game has evolved where data supersedes gut. Boone’s choices were logical. The players simply didn’t execute. Given their track records, if and when Boone makes the same choices again, the results will be different.
The first week is always over analyzed and scrutinized. In the Bronx, that tendency is even more exaggerated. And, it is a tendency that will never go away. Giancarlo Stanton will get some loud cheers with his majestic home runs. He will also get the loud boos when he fails to come through every single time he steps up to the plate.
Dealing with criticism is likely in the Manager’s job description, but Aaron Boone will see every decision dissected. When a decision doesn’t work out, he will be blamed, even if the right decision was made. Unlike the previous two Managers, Aaron Boone has inherited a team that many view as a World Series favorite. If the team fails to reach those expectations, Boone will be blamed.
Stanton and Boone are finding out what Peterson meant about playing in New York. Every day is treated like a season. Every pitch, every swing, every decision means something. And, yes, the criticism is too much and too dramatic. But, that’s what makes New York different. Everything they do means something.