Springtime Storylines: Are the Yankees the best team in baseball?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The New York Yankees.

The Big Question: Are the Yankees the best team in baseball?

The Yankees won 97 games last year and then they went out and fixed what most people considered to be their biggest problem: lack of starting pitching depth. That, plus the fact that they were six games ahead of the competition, and that the competition didn’t go crazy over the winter, has to make them the favorites this season, right?

I think so. Even with Michael Pineda ailing as the season gets underway, the addition of he and Hiroki Kuroda — and the elimination of A.J. Burnett and what I think will be an improvement in Phil Hughes, no matter where he pitches — makes the Yankees staff extremely formidable. Between what is now a deep rotation and the deadly 1-2 combination of David Robertson and Mariano Rivera in the late innings, there are few if any teams who can match the Yankees’ arms.

And of course the bats are there too. They’re boringly good, of course. What I mean by that is that it’s so expected and ho-hum by now that the Yankees are going to score a lot of runs, that it is hardly remarked upon during spring training. Think about it: how many times  have you heard Robinson Cano or Curtis Granderson mentioned in the last month?  Not much. Because there isn’t much to say beyond “they’ll score at least 850 runs even if they have Raul Ibanez in the lineup.” Ho-hum.

Anyway, you can try to make an argument that there is a more complete team than the Yankees right now. And I might entertain said arguments from Rangers fans. But unless father time catches up with five of these guys at once, I think the Yankees get the nod as the top team in the league.

What else is going on?

  • I mentioned Ibanez. That’s brutal stuff, man. He had a bad year last year and has looked awful in spring training. While Andruw Jones mashes lefties just fine, the left-handed part of the Yankees’ DH platoon is going to stink on ice, methinks. Shoulda kept Jorge.
  • Speaking of old dudes from the glory days, Andy Pettitte is back and should be joining the rotation at some point during the season. Again I’ll offer the Pineda health caveat, but it seems to me that people are really underestimating the fact that the Yankees brought in three above average starting pitchers this winter to join what was a 97-win team.
  • There is another potential weakness here, and it’s akin to “half of the DH platoon sucking.”  It’s the lack of a solid lefty in the pen. Boone Logan ain’t exactly vintage Jesse Orosco. Of course, having a great lefty in the pen is not the most important thing on the planet. If that’s one of your biggest problems, you have a decidedly high class set of problems.
  • As mentioned above, one possible weakness here is age. If Jeter, Rivera, A-Rod and maybe, I dunno, Mark Teixeira suddenly went Dale Murphy on us, yes, it could be a horrible season. But people have been saying that about these guys for years. It’s an older team, sure. But their best hitter (Cano) and their best pitcher (Sabathia) are not particularly gray, so it’s more of a storyline/narrative issue than it is serious strategic issue.  One of the veterans could implode and the team would OK. Maybe two could.

So how are they gonna do?

They’re my choice for first place in the east. And I think you’re being a little too cute or optimistic about the Red Sox, Rays or maybe even the Blue Jays if you pick otherwise.

Hunter Strickland says he doesn’t have an anger problem

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Giants closer Hunter Strickland struggled in the ninth inning Monday against the Marlins, surrendering three runs en route to a 5-4 loss. Strickland took issue with Marlins outfielder Lewis Brinson, who tied the game with a single and celebrated as he rounded first base. When Strickland was yanked from the game, Brinson was on third base, so Strickland had some parting words on his way to the dugout. Then, in the clubhouse, Strickland punched a door in anger, breaking his pitching hand. He’ll miss six to eight weeks as a result.

Strickland posted to his Instagram on Tuesday, taking responsibility for his actions. He wrote, “To my family, my teammates, my coaches, this organization, and our fan base, I am truly sorry that one split second, stupid decision has caused so much harm and now set me back from being out there with my team to pursue our goal.”

Speaking to the media for the first time since breaking his hand, Strickland said (via Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY Sports), “I don’t think I have an anger problem, but sometimes I let my emotions get the best of me.”

Well, if that emotion is anger, and you let it get the best of you, then you have an anger problem. This isn’t an isolated incident.

In the 2014 NLDS against the Nationals, Bryce Harper had Strickland’s number. In Game 1, Harper hit a solo home run ioff of Strickland, putting the Nationals on the board trailing 3-1. Strickland gave up another home run to Harper in Game 4 which tied the game at 2-2. Though the distance made it a no-doubt home run, the ball went down the right field line, so Harper was watching the ball in the air and didn’t immediately run the bases, which irked Strickland. The Giants still went on to win the game and advance to the NLCS, but Strickland carried the grudge with him into the 2017 season. The 2017 season! It just so happened that Strickland never faced Harper at all in the 2015-16 seasons, which makes sense because the two clubs only meet for two series per season and Strickland only pitches one inning per game if he gets into one.

The Nationals and Giants met in San Francisco at the end of May last year. In the first game of the series, Strickland entered with the Giants trailing 2-0 in the eighth inning. He got two quick outs, bringing up Harper for their first meeting since Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS. With his first pitch, Strickland nailed harper on the hip with a 98 MPH fastball. Harper didn’t like it, so he charged the mound and the two threw punches at each other as the benches and bullpens spilled onto the field.

In the 2014 World Series, Strickland had a beef with Royals catcher Salvador Perez. Strickland gave up a double to Perez, then a two-run home run to Omar Infante. As Perez crossed home plate, Strickland started yelling at Perez. He appeared to yell, “Get in the dugout, boy.” The term “boy” carries a racist connotation when used by white people towards men of color. It’s unclear why Strickland was upset with Perez, but Perez said Strickland started jawing at him when he was on second base after hitting his double.

So here’s what we know about Strickland:

  • He gets angry when players look at their home run balls in the air, even if that player is unsure if it will stay fair
  • He gets angry if you get a double off of him in an important game
  • He gets angry when players pump their fists and yell in celebration after getting a big hit in the regular season
  • He gets angry a lot
  • He sometimes gets violent when he’s angry

Short of hitters not showing any emotion at all and not getting hits off of him, it’s not clear what kind of behavior satisfies Strickland and won’t make him angry. So, essentially, anything a batter does could potentially set Strickland off. I’d call that an anger problem. If this weren’t in the context of sports, Strickland’s behavior would be problematic.

Strickland’s behavior doesn’t come off as particularly unique because he’s far from the only player to injure himself punching something in anger. He’s far from the only player to get ticked off when batters get a hit off him and celebrate. This anger is part of baseball culture, part of sports culture at large, and embedded in masculinity — what it means to be a man. We teach men, particularly athletes, to repress a wide range of emotions. As a result, many men resort first to anger — one of the few emotions we allow men to express openly — when dealing with any type of adversity.

If Strickland were a well-adjusted person with high emotional intelligence, he would realize that throwing a baseball close to 100 at someone with the intent to injure them is not a good way to resolve a conflict. Strickland could have gone to the Marlins’ clubhouse after the game and had a level-headed chat with Brinson, saying, “I felt embarrassed and emasculated when you got a hit off of me and celebrated the way you did. Perhaps in the future, you could tone it down.” But we don’t teach men and allow them to discuss and express their emotions in healthy ways, so Strickland lashes out at Harper and Perez and Brinson instead.