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October 17, 2012

Sobsequy

Joe Girardi Has Faith

by Adam Sobsey

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The postseason has so far provided a useful corrective to what I thought of Joe Girardi after reading (and writing about) Gay Talese’s recent profile of the Yankee manager in the New Yorker. One thing I didn’t say, but probably should have, in trying to puzzle out why Talese made Girardi seem so bland, was that perhaps Girardi himself is bland, just not interesting enough for a long profile. I blamed Talese, but Girardi might actually have been the culprit.

Yet I’m glad I didn’t make that speculation. These playoffs have put Girardi into numerous tough positions where his binder was going to get him only so far, and his character and instinct were going to have to take over.

First thing first: Girardi has a reputation as a bullpen tinkerer. I don’t know whether the numbers really bear that out, but I was prepared for long slogs through the late innings of the Yankee postseason as Coffee Joe did his Joba-Rapada two-steps, drove his Buffalo Bill Cody Eppley to Dan’l Boone Logan wagon train, all to get to the shining sea of Robertson and Soriano. (No, I did not expect David Phelps to pitch high-leverage innings; but then, neither did David Phelps, probably.)

So it was a delight to see Girardi stick with his starters longer than the Orioles’ Buck Showalter did. After two games of the ALDS, Yankee relievers had thrown only 17 of 235 total team pitches, all by David Robertson. For the series, Yankee starters threw 78 percent of the team’s pitches; Orioles starters, 63. The capper, of course, was CC Sabathia’s complete-game closeout in Game Five, during which he looked so unflappable, so much like a man simply going to work, that it was easy to fail to marvel at the canny way he mixed and located his pitches—and all of this in a game that was far from a blowout. It was as if he made Coffee Joe calm; Girardi just let him go.

Now as Ben Lindbergh noted after Game Two of the ALCS, “some questionable calls by Girardi… exacerbated” what was already a bad night for New York. Some of those calls were the ones he made to the bullpen in rapid sequence in the eighth inning, which resulted in five straight Tigers facing five different pitchers, with basically game-ending results.

But at that point, desperation had set in, the instantly infamous blown call at second base having torn a hole in the painted scenery flats of the Yankees’ postseason theater. I found myself thinking that the main reason we need umpires to get calls right is, more (and more simply) than any other, so that ballplayers and managers can do their jobs the way they’re supposed to be done. Omar Infante made a bad mistake there, Nick Swisher and the Yankees made him pay for it, and Nelson took away what they had earned, forcing them to do more and harder work. That work, which included the domino-fall of relievers, essentially guaranteed failure, I thought, including Girardi’s failure to get Robertson or Soriano ready in case of meltdown.

Which was what happened, of course. Hindsight questions: Does Girardi leave his three days’ rest starter in there to get one more out if Nelson makes the right call? (I was watching at work with no sound on, one eye on my customers at the bar, no contextual understanding of the situation.) If he was going to make a change regardless, should he have gone against matchup handedness and used Joba Chamberlain versus the left-handed Quintin Berry, instead of setting up Boone Logan against Avisail Garcia? The right-handed Chamberlain was actually better against lefties this season, and Berry historically has hit right-handers a good deal worse than he has hit southpaws.

But I don’t want to play three-ring-binder (or rather, iPad) games with Girardi here. He made his bad decision—the only bad one he had made to that point, perhaps, since the playoffs began—and anyway maybe the data he needed came from a different book: Logan’s Run means mandatory premature death, and this was the inning that did in the Yankees before their natural time.  (And don’cha know, one of the projectiles Logan’s gun fires is called a Homer.)

Joe Girardi is managing. He is irate, yet he banks his rage at umpire Jeff Nelson until after Logan allows Avisail’s hit—no rocket, which makes it worse; a soft soul-crusher. It’s 2-0 and the Tigers are going to win. It’s obvious. Girardi comes out and we see the flip side of the “soulful monkishness” Talese saw in him, religious intensity wronged by sin. Girardi blows a gasket, because it’s obvious to him, too, that New York has lost. Jeff Nelson has cost Girardi the game. I’m not sure if Girardi is trying to get ejected here, exactly—there’s something tactical in all manager freakouts, even when they’re unexpectedly sparked—but I do know that he must get ejected. He acted on good faith and Nelson violated it. This line—the line of faith—cannot be crossed.

I can’t help thinking that part of what Girardi was mad at was the way in which Nelson missed the call. Nelson was in the right position, but he was looking only at Infante’s hand and didn’t see Robinson Cano tag him in the chest. Umpires are managers of the game, too, in a sense, and as such they need to have a stepped-back view, just as a skipper does. They need to see multiple things at once; they need to anticipate. Nelson had tunnel vision, and that tunnel vision sent Girardi down a tunnel of his own: a tunnel of relievers, which is never good.

Above all, Girardi had to broadcast to the ballpark and the TV audience that this was simply not okay, as he did again later in his pointed comments about the need for instant replay. Talese made a big deal about Girardi’s faith in his article, and in this case Girardi was really making a plea to the higher power of video. There is a greater authority out there, he seemed to be saying. Why not use it? Why let the error and shortcoming of our ways sabotage us and lead us down the path to ruin?

It’s starting to seem to me like Joe Girardi’s binder is only a prayer book, and that he’s really operating on faith alone. The cardinal evidence of this argument is his decision to bench Alex Rodriguez. It was the right move to pinch-hit for him, but the right move is often the one that defies sentiment, honor, tradition. God has no Hall of Fame. Humility is necessary, especially for Rodriguez. Clarity is all. “We cannot revive old policies or beat an antique drum,” writes the religious poet. I’m starting to see the character of Joe Girardi. I’m starting not to think he’s bland anymore. I’m thinking Gay Talese looked at all the wrong things, and the one thing he didn’t look at was Joe Girardi managing a game. I recall thinking, after I read Talese’s profile, that Talese came off as not really understanding baseball at all, and now Joe Girardi is showing me why I thought that.

I admired Girardi’s strong postgame words about the need for instant replay, and for noting practicalities (he’s a Midwesterner, after all) like the comparative length of time between checking a replay and arguing a call. I admired him for his patience in explaining to yet another reporter who was missing the point that a 1-0 game is vastly different from a 3-0 game, and also why it’s different. He was a man straddling the worlds of patience and impatience, as a manager must but often does not, as the truly faithful do.

And I admired him for helping the injured Derek Jeter off the field. It’s probable that he would have done the same for Jayson Nix or Nick Swisher or anyone else (even A-Rod, though? and would Jim Leyland do that for Miguel Cabrera?). Still, this was Derek Jeter. This was an extraordinary circumstance, perhaps the single most extraordinary Yankee circumstance since the 2004 ALCS meltdown against Boston, if not the 2001 World Series. Girardi was communicating to the crowd—the thinned-out, disbelieving, disappointing crowd, like tourists visiting a church—that he knew what the moment meant, and that he was equal to its gravity and crisis. He was also acting like a teammate, not aloof or above as he often seems to be. He’s in this in the same way that his players are.

Game Three: He sits A-Rod again. Sits Nick Swisher, too. But should he have benched Curtis Granderson, instead? What do the numbers tell us, or maybe more accurately, tell him? Swisher: 11-55 lifetime against Verlander, four doubles, three homers, seven walks, 20 strikeouts, 727 OPS. Granderson: 3-16 lifetime against Verlander, two doubles, one homer, two walks, seven strikeouts, 778 OPS. Both mired in dreadful slumps. (The whole team mired in dreadful slumps.) Granderson a bad fielder, apparently, Swisher better. Granderson: former Tiger. Is that an asset? Swisher was shaken by his treatment by the home fans over the weekend, and told reporters so. Is that a liability?

Did Girardi make this choice on faith, then? A hunch? Something he knew about Granderson and Swisher and we didn’t? It appears not to have mattered much, in the end. Girardi’s faith is being tested in this series because he is going to lose it, regardless. The ninth-inning dramatics in Game One were, it seems, just an initializing confirmation of Girardi’s faith, a way of reminding him in advance that there will be reason to believe even after Jeter breaks his ankle and Jeff Nelson breaks Game Two and Phil Hughes breaks his back in the fourth inning of Game Three. This time the bullpen chain didn’t break, but Eric Chavez—playing for A-Rod, of course—let one get through them, anyway.

Girardi makes the right moves, the faithful moves—although he again keeps his two best relievers out of the game, for no good reason—and they will not work. Eduardo Nunez isn’t starting because he’s better than Jayson Nix, he’s playing because he isn’t Jayson Nix. Nunez’s ninth-inning home run proves nothing. Joe Girardi knows this. He knows the same of Robinson Cano’s subsequent 0-for-29-ending single. There’s no proof of anything to the faithful, only the promise of what is to come, which is unknown, and which has to be lived for.

But he should have pinch-hit A-Rod for Ibanez in the ninth. Check the numbers.

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Adam's other articles. You can contact Adam by clicking here

Related Content:  Playoffs,  Yankees,  Managing,  Joe Girardi

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