Right Field

What Was Girardi Thinking?

So asks Grantland’s Jonah Keri regarding the ninth inning of last night’s game at Comerica Park:

Justin Verlander shut down the Yankees for the first eight innings, before Eduardo Nunez parlayed a hard-fought at-bat into a solo home run to cut Detroit’s lead in half. Verlander then got Brett Gardner to ground out to the mound. After 132 pitches, Verlander’s night was done. With Jose Valverde no longer the Tigers’ closer, Jim Leyland turned to left-hander Phil Coke instead. There was some logic behind the move, with the next four batters due up going lefty-switch-lefty-lefty. But Coke’s entry into the game also created an opportunity for the Yankees. Right-handed batters hit .396/.446/.604 this season off Coke, for a 1.050 OPS; by way of comparison, major league leader Joey Votto posted a 1.041 OPS this year, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera .999. Coke’s career splits aren’t nearly that dramatic, with righty hitters posting an .802 OPS against him, lefties .623. . . .

Mark Teixiera singled and Robinson Cano did the same (breaking an 0-for-29 megaslump), bringing Ibanez to the plate with two on and two outs. Ibanez did hit his game-winning homer in that ALDS Game 3 off a lefty, Brian Matusz. He’d also hit .197 with no homers in 65 plate appearances against southpaws this season, with an ugly .639 OPS from 2009 through 2011 facing lefties. You could argue that the Tigers would have countered with a right-hander like Joaquin Benoit or Octavio Dotel if Girardi subbed in A-Rod for Ibanez. But this ignores Benoit’s very even splits, and the Yankees being able to counter any conceivable move with Swisher the switch-hitter. Girardi leaving in Ibanez with the game on the line came down to pixie dust worship: Ibanez had been on fire, producing a series of huge hits for the Yankees over the past couple weeks. But he still might be the worst Yankee hitter on the roster against left-handers, and Coke offered a gigantic split ripe for exploiting. Never happened. Ibanez worked the count to 3-2, then Coke struck him out on a wicked slider to end the game.

There’s no guarantee that using A-Rod or Swisher at some point would have salvaged the game for the Yankees. But the bottom line is that the Bombers are now one game from being ousted from the playoffs. And for one night at least, their manager didn’t give them their best chance to win.

(Shockingly, the New York Post seems way more interested in A-Rod the playah instead of A-Rod the player.)

In a colum entitled “Joe Girardi plays the percentages . . . until he doesn’t,” Rob Neyer of SB Nation is even less charitable:

So Girardi had a choice: Raúl Ibañez and his massive platoon splits against a left-handed pitcher with big platoon splits, or switch-hitter Nick Swisher against a right-handed pitcher. Swisher, in his career, hasn’t been great against right-handed pitchers but he’s been good, with an 820 OPS.

Essentially, Joe Girardi gave up somewhere between 200 and 250 points of OPS when he chose Raúl Ibañez over Nick Swisher. Unless you believe that Swisher really can’t hit in October, and Ibañez is still covered with a layer of that magical pixie dust.

Which Joe Girardi apparently does. Or maybe he doesn’t.

It’s a funny thing, though. You can’t really say you’re making unorthodox moves because it’s time to play the percentages, and then turn around nine innings later and completely ignore the percentages.

I mean, you can do that. It’s just a lousy way to win baseball games.

As for Verlander’s performance, Jack Moore of Fangraphs notes how the Tigers ace adjusted his approach during the middle innings.

The short work was over; from here on Verlander honestly labored. It took 99 pitches to record his final 16 after just 33 for the first nine. Verlander lost control of the first-pitch strike, throwing just seven to 19 batters faced beyond the fourth.

“The approach was to get ahead and be agressive . . . kind of went out the window in the 4th,” Verlander said in his postgame press conference. . . .

After sticking to the fastball completely, Verlander engaged his secondary pitches as the Yankees took their second and third hacks against him. Verlander threw 47 pitches in the last six innings with either two strikes or in an 0-1 count — 12 curveballs, eight changeups and five sliders (or 25 total off-speed pitches) against 22 fastballs. When he owned the advantage, Verlander aggressively used his off-speed pitches to try and end at-bats.

On 33 other occasions, Verlander found himself behind in the count (excluding full). He threw five changeups and one slider.

Verlander’s mid-game alterations proved quite successful, and this morning the Yankees found themselves facing elimination.

Jason Epstein is the president of Southfive Strategies, LLC. He was a public-relations consultant for the Turkish embassy in Washington from 2002 to 2007.


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