Let’s make this short and sweet. Joe Girardi is one of the more intelligent and well-rounded guys managing in the big leagues today, but this weekend’s series against the Rays was like watching a chess match between Bobby Fischer and Ringo Starr. Girardi would have done better had he not shown up, as he and his infamous binder o’ stats wreaked havoc.
The Yankees opened the season with CC Sabathia on the mound. You might have heard of Sabathia—big lefty, 176 career wins, picked up a Cy Young award in 2007, has finished in the top five four other times? No? Doesn’t ring a bell? Well, he’s pretty good and has a career ERA of 3.22 with the Yankees in about a million innings. You might have confidence in a pitcher like that, but Girardi is smarter than you are.
In the bottom of the first inning of the first game of the year, Desmond Jennings led off with a walk. After a Ben Zobrist lineout to center, Evan Longoria singled, moving Jennings to second. Jeff Keppinger, the Rays’ unlikely cleanup hitter on this particular day, tapped to short, too weakly for Derek Jeter to do anything but go to first base. The runners were now on second and third, with two outs and Sean Rodriguez at the plate.
Pause here. Note the name: Sean Rodriguez. Not Alex Rodriguez. Not Ivan Rodriguez. Not even Chi-Chi Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a useful player. He’s also a career .229/.308/.365 hitter who has hit .263/.363/.424 against left-handed pitching.
Now, that’s not bad, but it’s also not Matt Kemp. Last year, the average major-league right-hander hit .264/.334/.418 against southpaws, so Sean Rodriguez isn’t more than the odd hit better than the average cat, and if you don’t trust CC Sabathia to retire the average right-handed hitter, who do you trust?
Girardi held up four fingers for the intentional pass—in the first inning of the first game with CC Sabathia on the mound. I know I’ve repeated that a few times now, but in the annals of over-managing, this is one special puppy.
The bases were loaded so that Sabathia could pitch to fellow left-hander Carlos Pena. Now, there are reasons why, in some situations, you might do this. Pena is a career .253/.371/.514 hitter against right-handed pitching, but against same-side hurlers, he drops to .210/.309/.428. Over the last two years, he has been even worse than that, hitting .159/.292/.348 against them. No-brainer, right? Trade pitching to the just-decent Rodriguez for the automatic out Pena, retire the side, enjoy the rest of the game.
Not so fast.
First of all, the correct answer is, you pitch to both. This is CC Sabathia, not Bob from the minor leagues. You have your perennial Cy Young candidate retire the .263 guy, then start the next inning with the .159 guy leading off, thereby cutting the Rays’ chances of scoring in that inning.
Second, Pena isn’t necessarily the pushover he first appears to be. First, he’s taken 50 walks in 336 plate appearances against lefties in those two seasons, a strong enough rate that the possibility of a bases loaded walk becomes a problem. Then, you look at his home-run percentage—he hit 15 home runs in 276 at-bats, or one every 18.4 at-bats. That’s a 30-home run pace in 550 at-bats. It means that whenever Pena does make contact against a southpaw, there’s a good chance the ball is leaving the park.
It did leave the park, of course. Not that it had to, not that the outcome was assured, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was a poorly considered strategy. In, again, the first inning of the first game, with Sabathia on the mound.
I will save for another post the question of why Girardi has anointed Eduardo Nunez as a nigh-starter platooning against left-handers—a utility infielder who can’t field and doesn’t have any great hitting potential. That’s already cost the Yankees one game with a key error…and he’s starting again tonight.