Sometimes a school of thought forms over an issue, and while other, incidental pieces of this idea are debated, the basis is assumed to be true. It’s good to question our assumptions — for example, we’ve done quite a bit of debating over Mike Mussina’s "bitching" about Japan, Theo Epstein’s calling him out on it, and whether the Red Sox are afraid they could suffer similar effects.
What no one has questioned is whether the 2004 trip to Japan disrupted the Yankees — the basic assumption taken for granted while we’ve debated these ancillary points. So, with an open mind and no predisposition one way or the other, I wanted to see if there was a "Japan effect" in 2004, and if so, how large it was. In the end, my goal is to see what we should expect for the Red Sox this April, once they return from Japan.
No one questions that the Yankees seemed to be affected by their trip in 2004 because they had a terrible April during what was otherwise a stellar season. They won 101 games, after all, yet started the season 8-11. They then reeled off an eight-game winning streak, the last four of which were in April, improving the month’s record (including the two March games) to 12-11.
So what happened?
On offense, the Yanks finished the season with a .268/.353/.458 line, with a BABIP of .285, which is just about right. In April, however, they were atrocious — .230/.336/.387. Even accounting for the fact that offense in general is lower in the early months of the season, the Yankees were below average: an 89 OPS+, the only month in which the Yanks were below 100.
On the mound, the Yanks finished with a 4.69 ERA that season, allowing a .760 OPS, which was just about average for the league. The argument for the Japan trip affecting the Yankees breaks down a bit here. The Yanks allowed a 4.32 ERA in April, their second-lowest total that year. They did allow a higher OPS than their ERA would indicate, but opponents were only good for a 96 OPS+ against Yankee hurlers in March and April — the same as in May, and better than what the Yankees would allow in July, August or September.
It looks like the bats had trouble getting started, as opposed to the pitchers. The gamelogs bear this out, somewhat. The Yankees rarely scored more than three runs in a game during their first 19, while the pitching was a bit inconsistent — Javier Vasquez and Kevin Brown were great, Mike Mussina and Jose Contreras were terrible — and it evened out into a better-than-average line for the month.
Mussina claimed the trip wreaked havoc with his internal clock. Maybe it did (these trips affect everyone differently), but if so, he appears to be in the only one on the staff that had trouble adjusting. Contreras was awful all season long, so his struggles in April don’t seem unusual. Brown contracted a parasite that he blamed on the Japan trip, but he pitched well during the Yankees’ struggles (in fact, pitched well through early August), so even if the parasite and the Japan trip were related, the parasite and the Yankees’ poor April are not.
Back on the hitting side, the Yankees posted a .246 BABIP in April and never posted one below .259 the rest of the season. This would seem to indicate the Yankee hitters, rather than truly struggling, were simply fighting through some bad luck — particularly Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi and Bernie Williams, whose BAsBIP were very low. Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui, on the other hand, were riding hot streaks, while Jorge Posada managed to combine a .235 BABIP with a 1.122 OPS (eight home runs help). Just off hand, this doesn’t seem unusual for the opening of a season, or really any given month — some players slumping, others streaking.
In July, the Yankees posted a .265/.341/.457 line with a .281 BABIP. That’s 35 extra points of batting, 5 extra pojnts of on-base, and 70 extra points of slugging in a warmer month with 35 extra points of BABIP. It doesn’t seem like the Yankee hitters were doing much differently in July — just getting better results on the balls they hit.
Also, the April slump (.522 winning percentage) looks especially bad when considering the season-ending total of 101 wins (.523 winning percentage). Yet Pythagoras views the Yankees as incredibly lucky that season, saying they should have just won 89 games (.549 winning percentage). In an 89-win season, a 12-11 April doesn’t look out of place at all.
It’s hard, then, to see the Yankees’ slow start in 2004 as anything but bad bounces and some trouble getting started by a couple key members of the lineup.
Still, let’s see if the trip affected Tampa Bay at all. If we see similar troubles with them, then perhaps there is something about the trip that messes with certain people enough to drag down an offense or mess up a couple starts early in the year.
Tampa finished 2004 with a .258/.320/.405 line, with a .286 BABIP — a 90 OPS+. They won just 68 games. In April, they hit .243/.310/.357, with a .270 BABIP — for a 75 OPS+ that month. This was also Tampa’s worst-hitting month of the season. This seems more in line with a true slump, as the hitters posted a nearly identical BABIP in May, yet shot up to an 89 OPS+ and added about 50 points of OPS. Aubrey Huff and Jose Cruz were especially bad.
On the mound, where Tampa Bay has always been criminal, the club actually bettered their season-ending ERA (4.82) in April (4.78) while allowing a 98 OPS+ (as oposed to 104 for the season). Victor Zambrano and Paul Abbott had nice months, and that made up — well, kind of — for Geremi Gonzalez and Mark Hendrickson. No one got crushed like the Devil Rays, and they got crushed plenty of April, but over the same 19 games as the Yankees, they were one game worse with a respectable (for them) 4.68 ERA. In fact, they were much worse in the latter half of April than in the first half of the month.
The hitters actually followed this same pattern. In the first 17 games, they were hitting at about the same line with which they would finish the year, then tanked for the next two weeks. It doesn’t appear there was any Japan effect for Tampa Bay.
So we have a definite slump for the Yankee bats, no real difference for the Yankee arms, no discernible effects for the Tampa Bay hitters, and no real difference for the Tampa Bay arms. Let’s travel back to 2000, and see how the Mets and Cubs did following their Japan trip.
The Mets finished with 94 wins before being destoyed by the Yankees in the World Series. They hit just a tick below league average, .263/.346/.430, and posted a .290 BABIP. In April, they actually hit better than they wound up — .278/.372/.450, a 107 OPS+ with a .308 BABIP. So they rode a hot streak and some luck — including a nine-game winning streak late in the month — after returning from Japan.
The Mets’ pitching was very good, just a 4.16 ERA and 87 OPS+ allowed. Their April was not so good — a 4.54 ERA and a 98 OPS+ allowed. However, it was as good or better than their May (4.78, 92) and June (4.60, 98). The Mets really turned it on in the late summer months, posting ERAs under 4.00 in July, August and September. So it seems there’s no Japan effect for the Mets, either at bat or on the hill.
The Cubs, meanwhile, hit .256/.335/.411 for the season, with a .288 BABIP, for a 91 OPS+. In April, they batted .255/.338/.442 with a .286 BABIP for a 96 OPS+. Basically, right on the money. Not that the Cubs were good in April. They finished the month 10-17, but they lost 93 games that year, so a bad April simply mirrors the whole season.
On the pitching side, the Cubs were A-W-F-U-L, awful. A 5.26 ERA to end the season, with a 104 OPS+ allowed. With a pitching staff that bad, it’s difficult to say how much an awful 6.20 team ERA in April was caused by going to and from Japan — and how much of it was caused by running Kevin Tapani, Kyle Farnsworth and Andrew Lorraine out there for about 30 innings each. The Cubbies were even worse in September — a 6.31 ERA, with a 128 OPS+ allowed.
So, to round up:
- Record, 1st 2 weeks: 5-4
- April record: 12-11
- Batting results: BABIP-related slump for most of April
- Pitching results: Inconsistent starts, varying by starter
- Season result: 101-61, lost in ALCS
2004 Devil Rays
- Record, 1st 2 weeks: 4-4
- April record: 7-14
- Batting results: Late April slump
- Pitching results: Generally terrible
- Season result: 70-91, last place, AL East
- Record, 1st 2 weeks: 5-6
- April record: 16-10
- Batting results: Brief slump through first 10 games, but above average for the month
- Pitching effects: Solid performances all month
- Season result: 94-68, lost in World Series
- Record, 1st 2 weeks 1-14: 5-7
- April record: 10-17
- Batting results: Not unlike final results
- Pitching results: Terrible performances from back end of rotation all year
- Season result: 65-97, last place, NL Central
It appears that the idea of a Japan-induced slump is false. Even in the first 10 or so games of the season, when each of these teams was at or below .500, the Devil Rays were actually outperforming their final record. The struggles experienced by the Yankees in 2004 look to be deeper than any of the other three teams to make the trip — and the players most often cited (Mussina and Brown) wound up doing just as poorly or well most of the season as they did in April. In all, the Yankee pitching appeared to suffer no ill effects from the trip to Japan, so those complaints ring especially hollow.
The sample size is obviously very small, but it’s difficult to say based on the results thus far that any team that has started the season in Japan has actually suffered any short- or long-term effects. That’s heartening news for fans of the Red Sox and Athletics.