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In Game 3 of the ALCS, Raúl Ibañez struck out to end the game, with a left-hander on the mound and Alex Rodriguez on the bench. Did Joe Girardi simply forget to manage in the ninth inning?
In the wake of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, I will guess -- without taking the time to scour the Google for confirmation -- that the reviews of the two teams' managers will run something like this ...
1. Hey, Joe Girardi did everything he could do.
or, among the more analytical crannies of the blogospshere:
2. Man, Joe Girardi really blew it.
Because as I'm 100-percent sure a number of my colleagues have pointed out already, Joe Girardi didn't do anything in the ninth inning.
Down two runs, and with the world's best right-handed pitcher on the mound, Girardi let a weak right-handed hitter lead off the inning, even though he had a perfectly good switch-hitter on the bench. Granted, his switch-hitter has a .167 career batting average in postseason games, and has been struggling lately. Granted, too: that weak right-handed hitter actually fought like hell and hit a home run to trim the Yankees' deficit in half.
So we can give Girardi a pass on that one. Since, you know, it worked out so well.
With our right-handed pitcher on the mound, Girardi had a left-handed hitter coming up next. That seems like a good thing except, our left-handed hitter a) had not done much in his three previous at-bats, and b) had one hit to his credit since April.
Seriously. Brett Gardner's last start against a major-league pitcher came back in the middle of April. On the last day of the regular season, he did pick up a hit in a couple of at-bats; that was his first hit since April. There just wasn't a great deal of evidence that Gardner has returned to his status as a legitimate major-league hitter.
But he is a left-handed hitter. And that switch-hitter on the bench has been struggling. So we can give Girardi a pass on that one, too. Because he's the manager and knows a lot more about baseball than us. Also, he seems like a decent enough sort, and intelligent too.
There just some things, though ... Justin Verlander retired Brett Gardner, but by the time he was finished he'd thrown 132 pitches. All season long, he'd never thrown more than 132 pitches. He'd been taxed by both Eduardo Nuñez and Brett Gardner. So out from the dugout popped Jim Leyland, and he made the easy choice: Leyland summoned Phil Coke from the bullpen to replace Verlander.
Why easy? Well, Leyland had already demoted right-hander Jose Valverde from closer to reliever-without-portfolio. Coke played the role of Big League Closer in Game 2, and played it well enough. What made Leyland's decision really easy, though? The Yankees' next four scheduled hitters were Ichiro Suzuki, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Canó, and Raúl Ibañez:
Phil Coke isn't your average situational lefty. He throws hard. But he does have, considering his entire career, a hefty platoon split: 802 OPS vs. right-handed hitters, but just 623 against the lefties. Considering the numbers and what's happened in recent days and weeks, every Tigers fan in Michigan would have done exactly what Leyland did.
Oddly, Joe Girardi didn't seem to notice. For all of his celebrated binders, he spent the next few moments, the moments that would decide the game and the Yankees' fate in this Championship Series, managing as if nobody kept track of silly things like baseball statistics.
The Yankees needed baserunners. Ichiro Suzuki posted a .291 on-base percentage against left-handed pitchers this season, but he's fared decently against left-handed pitchers in the past. He'd cracked the Yankees' only two hits in the first eight innings and, you know ... he's Ichiro.
So we'll give Girardi a pass there, too. Even if Ichiro did ground out to leave the Yankees just one out from being down three games to none.
Which brought up Robinson Canó. As you might have heard, it had been a while since Robinson Canó had been credited with a base hit. A record-setting while, in fact; Canó had gone 29 straight at-bats without a hit, the record for a single postseason. What's more, Canó struggled terribly against left-handed pitchers this season; if he hadn't, he would actually be a pretty good non-Trout MVP candidate.
On the other hand, Canó has actually fared quite well against southpaws in his career. And perhaps Joe Girardi suspected that (as one wag pointed out) Robinson Canó was more due than any other hitter in baseball history.
Canó rewarded Girardi's faith with a clean single to left field.
Now, let's reset our game. The Yankees are behind by exactly one run in a game they exactly must win. There is a left-handed pitcher on the mound, with big platoon splits. The Yankees' next scheduled batter is yet another left-handed hitter.
Yes, there are people who follow the New York Yankees, or work for the New York Yankees, or are paid good money to talk about baseball during national television broadcasts, who seem to believe, as one particularly irascible friend of mine puts it, "that Ibañez has some magical pixie dust than enables him to hit home runs at will, and that someone put the voodoo kibosh on Swisher and A-Rod that won't go away until they each get two consecutive hits."
Ah, there they are: Nick Swisher and Alex Rodriguez, our switch-hitter and our right-handed hitter, sitting on the bench. Both have been struggling lately, as you've no doubt heard. Swisher started for the Yankees in right field all season; he's been benched. Rodriguez started for the Yankees at third base all season, and also made $31 million all season; he's been benched.
Against those struggles, Joe Girardi might have considered this salient fact: Over the last two seasons, Raúl Ibañez has been gifted with 194 at-bats against left-handed pitchers and posted a .206 batting average. With four home runs. Which is to say that against left-handed pitchers, Raúl Ibañez hits like a shortstop. A weak-hitting shortstop with a .236 batting average.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez and Swisher awaited on the bench.
Girardi didn't make a move. After the game, this did come up:
Yankees manager Joe Girardi was asked moments later if he consider hitting the right-handed Rodriguez for Ibañez.
"Well, they were going to bring in Benoit," Girardi said of Tigers’ right-hander Joaquin Benoit. "Ibañez has been one of our best hitters down the stretch here."
So they were going to bring in Joaquin Benoit. That's a bad thing? If Leyland responded to the sight of Alex Rodriguez with Benoit, Girardi could have countered with Nick Swisher.
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.
P.S. Oh, and Raúl Ibañez? He struck out on what Ron Darling described as "the best slider Phil Coke's ever thrown in his life."
Lest you think the above is merely second-guessing at its most rank, here are a couple of tweets from moments before Raúl Ibañez strode plateward:
Does Girardi let Ibanez hit against Coke if Cano gets on here?— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) October 17, 2012
@jcrasnick He can't. Or he shouldn't. I hope it comes to that, though!— robneyer (@robneyer) October 17, 2012
It did come to that, and he shouldn't have. But he did. And somewhere, my irascible friend still can't believe it.
Should Joe Girardi used Alex Rodriguez or Nick Swisher in the ninth inning of Game 3?
Yes, to pinch hit for Ichiro (11 votes)
Yes, to pinch hit for Canó (11 votes)
Yes, to pinch hit for Ibañez (113 votes)
Yes, to pinch hit for two of those three (52 votes)
No, Girardi managed the ninth just right (30 votes)
217 total votes