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October 11, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Three Recap: Yankees 3, Orioles 2

by Ben Lindbergh

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The questions addressed to Joe Girardi in his pre-game press conference looked a lot like the ones he fielded several hours later, after the Yankees had come from behind to beat Baltimore 3-2 in 12 innings and take a 2-1 series lead. Both times, the emphasis was on Alex Rodriguez, with a bit of Raul Ibanez. Girardi’s responses about A-Rod earlier in the day weren’t very revealing. But by the time the second presser started, the questions almost didn’t have to be asked. Girardi’s in-game actions had already supplied the answers.

The Yankees broke Baltimore’s string of 16 straight extra-inning wins, handed the O’s their first loss of the season in which they held a lead after seven innings, and homered off of Jim Johnson—who’d entered the series having allowed three home runs all year, and none since June 5th—for the second time in three days. To hear Girardi tell it, they owed it all to his insides.

Girardi credited three separate body parts—his heart, his gut, and his stomach—with being behind the move. If his brain (or his binder) played a role, it barely merited a mention. Here’s the lone mention of any data-driven decision-making from his post-game presser:

“But I just had a gut feeling. We talked about it in the pre-game about being a great pinch-hitter, and you’ve got a left-handed hitter who’s a low-ball hitter in a sense, and you’ve got a low-ball pitcher. I just kind of had a gut feeling.”

The impetus for the move wasn’t whatever information came up in that meeting. Girardi mentioned the objective factors in favor of the matchup almost apologetically, sandwiching them between two references to his guts, which were clearly calling the shots. And while it’s easy to make fun of gut feelings, sometimes they contain truths.

This chart shows where Johnson has delivered his pitches this season. As Girardi suggested, he’s a low-ball pitcher, working most often in the middle of the zone and below.

And here’s Ibanez’ True Average by location against right-handed pitchers during the PITCHf/x era:

Again, a lot of red low in the zone. The areas where Johnson tends to throw the ball most often have a lot of overlap with the areas where Ibanez tends to hit the ball best.

So Girardi went with the platoon advantage—though Johnson has a career reverse split—and the low-ball pitcher against the low-ball hitter. But where did he get the gut feeling?

Maybe Ibanez’ recent pinch-hit heroics had made an impression. Maybe he remembered Johnson striking out A-Rod like this the night before.

Or maybe he simply didn’t like the way A-Rod had looked going 0-for-3 with 2 Ks earlier in the game. But I think there might be a bit more to it. This season, Ibanez has been very good against righties and very good at home, which makes sense, given typical platoon splits and the way Yankee Stadium tends to treat left-handed hitters. But when both of those advantages have been combined—against righties, and at home—Ibanez has been an absolute beast. In 175 plate appearances and 156 at-bats against right-handers at home, Ibanez hit .276/.354/.596, with 14 home runs. That’s a rate of one home run every 11.1 at-bats. Babe Ruth, overall, hit a home run every 11.8 at-bats. Yankee Stadium is the House That Should Have Been Built for Ibanez.

Wieters was set up outside, but Johnson missed his target, and the pitch ended up inside and a little below the belt—right in Raul’s happy zone.

With that pinch-hit homer, Ibanez’ homer rate against righties at home rose to one every 10.5 at-bats. The walk-off shot came off a lefty, Brian Matusz, whom I dubbed one of the toughest pitchers for a left-handed hitter to hit after Game Two.

Small-sample splits like these are ephemeral. Take Ibanez’s stats as a pinch-hitter, which Girardi cited in the excerpt above. Before last night, Ibanez had hit .320/.379/.640 in 29 pinch-hit plate appearances as a Yankee. Girardi called for each of those plate appearances personally, then witnessed what happened firsthand. Having been rewarded for calling on Ibanez before, it’s only natural that Girardi would have a high opinion of his abilities off the bench. But something interesting happens when you look at the bigger picture instead of the last few frames: in 150 career regular-season PA as a pinch-hitter, Ibanez has hit .188/.267/.323. Maybe he’s perfected the art of pinch-hitting at age 40, or maybe his last 29—sorry, make that 30—pinch-hit plate appearances aren’t at all representative of his true talent. That sky-high homer rate probably isn’t either, but it held out long enough to make Girardi look good.

It’s inevitable that Girardi’s decision will be compared to Joe Torre’s choice to drop Rodriguez to eighth in the order in Game Four of the 2006 ALDS, but the similarities between the two situations are superficial. In 2006, Rodriguez was 30 years old and between two MVP seasons. He’d ended the regular season hot, having hit .358/.465/.691 in September. Torre was basing his decision on A-Rod going 1-for-11 in the first three games of that series, after having struggled in the 2005 ALDS and the last few games of the 2004 ALCS. Essentially, he was allowing his expectations for Rodriguez to be swayed by a small sample of postseason games spread across three seasons, rather than his much larger, more recent record of regular-season success (or, for that matter, his past successes in the playoffs). Not only was the demotion an affront to A-Rod’s honor, but it was a misguided move from a tactical perspective.

Things have changed. Rodriguez is 37, increasingly fragile, and less potent at the plate with every passing season. In my Game One recap, I made a montage of A-Rod missing fat fastballs, which has become a familiar sight. Matthew Leach backed up that observation with some stats at MLB.com:

A total of 160 Major League players saw at least 1,000 fastballs this year. Only three swung and missed a higher percentage of the time at fastballs in the strike zone than Rodriguez's 22 percent. By comparison, as recently as 2010, Rodriguez swung-and-missed at only 12.6 percent of fastballs in the zone.

After Game Two, I joined the chorus of writers calling for Rodriguez to bat lower in the lineup—not because it’s October, or because I think he’s un-clutch, but because I think Robinson Cano is too good not to bat higher. Girardi didn’t make that move. Instead, he made an even bolder one. Whether it was the right move might be debatable; whether it worked is not. Either way, we just witnessed one of the defining decisions of Girardi’s managerial career, a moment when he risked everything for a move that felt right. Luckily for him, Ibanez came through; as much as we might harp on the primacy of process over results, most managers' job security depends on whether their players deliver.

“I’m one of the leaders of this team,” Rodriguez insisted in the clubhouse after the game, sounding as if he was reassuring himself as much as he was reminding the assembled writers. Maybe so, but players who don’t produce, or who lose the trust of the team in big spots, don’t tend to stay leaders for long. Rodriguez said that this wouldn’t cause tension, that he accepted the decision and stood on the top step to watch the at-bat, and that no one was happier for Ibanez than he was, which was certainly how it appeared. But the Yankees have to figure out how to handle him not just for the rest of this series and any subsequent rounds, but for the next five years. Barring a rebound, the answers aren’t going to be easy.

Had Girardi not made the move he did, or had Ibanez not rewarded him as richly, I would have had plenty of other storylines to write a recap about. The home run hit by Manny Machado (on an 84-mph slider out over the plate, one of the few mistakes made by Hiroki Kuroda), who became the second-youngest player ever to go deep in the postseason (after Andruw Jones). The starts by Miguel Gonzalez and Kuroda, who allowed a combined 10 hits (most of them soft) in 15 1/3 innings. (Gonzalez, who struck out eight without a walk in seven innings, was particularly dominant.) The way Adam Jones played Jeter’s third-inning fly ball into a triple, which may have cost the Orioles the game. But in the end, all of those stories took a back seat to Ibanez—and, as always, A-Rod.

A bunch of bullet points to tide you over until tonight:

  • Rodriguez claimed that he hadn’t been pinch-hit for since high school, or “maybe junior high.” Actually, he’s been pinch-hit for 54 times, most recently allllll the way back on October 1st of this year, when Melky Mesa replaced him in a 10-2 game. Rodriguez probably meant “in a meaningful game,” and most (if not all) of these look like blowouts, injuries, or relics from his first partial seasons as a teenager. Here’s a Google spreadsheet with all the times it happened, in case you’re curious. The “GAME_ID” column contains the date (ignore the extra zero).
  • In my recap of Game Two, I made the not-so-bold prediction that we’d see a home run hit in Game Three. In fact, we saw four, which accounted for all but one of the runs scored in the game. That’s more like it.
  • There’s no cheering in the press box, but there’s no rule against grinning. Many of the writers who’d been forced to delete their ledes after Ibanez’s first homer an hour or so earlier cracked involuntary, stupefied smiles after his second. Not the smug or celebratory smiles of fans who’ve just seen a game go their way, but the half-disbelieving, half-satiated smiles of people who write about baseball for a living but haven’t seen quite so much of it that they’re incapable of finding it fun.
  • Nick Swisher was heard to exclaim “EXCITEMENT OVERLOAD!” from the shower area before emerging to talk to reporters. “Excitement overload” is Swisher’s default state.
  • Derek Jeter fouled a ball of his foot in the first inning and hobbled around on it until the eighth inning, when he was removed due to an injury for the first time in his 155-game postseason career. He said he’d be fine for Game Four, though Girardi was a bit more equivocal.
  • Much has been made of the advanced age of the Yankees roster—as John Perrotto writes today, the need to keep his players rested and rotating through the DH slot makes Girardi’s job more difficult, and according to Colin Wyers, we should be slightly more pessimistic in our projections for elderly teams. Fortunately for the Yankees, most of their old players can still produce. Their runs last night were driven in by the 38-year-old Jeter and 40-year-old Ibanez, and the 37-year-old Kuroda silenced Baltimore’s bats. Oh, and the 42-year-old Mariano Rivera threw out the ceremonial first pitch. It was—what else?—a cutter for a strike.
  • Mark Reynolds’ defense at first was a popular topic of discussion on the TBS broadcast and in the BP roundtable, as the former third baseman made a number of nice plays (including this diving stop of a third-inning Eric Chavez grounder wide of the bag). FRAA still thinks he’s almost as bad as he was at the hot corner, but the eye test suggests that he’s less of a liability now that he rarely has to go to his left. The Orioles’ defensive efficiency in games with Reynolds at third this season is .707, compared to .716 in all other games. That probably doesn’t mean much, since the “Reynolds at third” sample is so small and the O’s have made other improvements in the field—although their improvement from 2011 to 2012 is suggestive—but it’s still tantalizing to think that a move across the diamond could whitewash such serious flaws. If the Yankees could create a position that required no lateral movement in either direction and introduce Derek Jeter to it, he might be more deserving of a Gold Glove.
  • David Robertson pitched two nearly perfect innings last night, with two strikeouts. Both of the strikeouts were called, which isn’t unusual for him. This season, 40 percent of Robertson’s strikeouts have been looking, compared to the league average of 24 percent, and 35 percent of his strikes have been looking, a higher rate than all but three other pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched: Burke Badenhop, Jose Veras, and fellow Yankee David Phelps. According to Trackman, a Danish technology company that uses Doppler radar to track pitches, Robertson’s average “extension” in front of the pitching rubber when he throws a fastball was the greatest of any pitcher’s as of early last season: seven feet, compared to the average of five feet, 10 inches. Robertson’s reach and stride make his fastball look like it’s traveling faster than it is, which leads to a lot of surprised batters and called strikes. It doesn’t hurt that he has Russell Martin framing pitches for him, either.
  • Speaking of Martin: the Yankees’ catcher hit .258/.347/.539 in September with seven home runs, and he’s hit .300/.417/.700 with another homer in this series. One of my enduring memories of Martin is how he faded in the second half of the season, posting an OPS 122 points lower after that All-Star break. The culprit could have been chance, but it also could have been his workload: Martin got into 155 games that season, and Torre used him at third base on his “off-days” from catching. This season, Martin has played only 133 games, and he still seems fresh. Not necessarily a clear cause-and-effect relationship here, but it’s something to think about.
  • The Orioles won’t be starting Chris Tillman in tonight’s Game Four, as I speculated they would in my series preview. Instead, they’ll go with Joe Saunders, who’ll be starting his second elimination game in a week. Despite his success in that start, I’ll stick with the same advice I offered the Orioles against Texas.
  • Here’s the audio of the Rodriguez and Ibanez interviews I recorded after the game:

    Alex Rodriguez Clubhouse Audio

    Raul Ibanez Interview Room Audio

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

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

Related Content:  Alex Rodriguez,  Playoffs,  Yankees,  Orioles,  Raul Ibanez,  Joe Girardi

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