Game Theory: Why Joe Girardi Needs an Attorney
In a 1990 episode of L.A. Law, a disgruntled season ticket holder sues Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka, played by, according it IMDB, ”himself” (talk about type casting) for decisions that ran counter to the team’s promise to season ticket holders to “field a winning team.” If ever there is a case for a class action suit by a fan base for managerial malpractice it occurred last night in the 9th inning in Detroit. It’s a good thing for Yankees manager Joe Girardi, that Michael Kuzak and Victor Sifuentes are no longer practicing law.
Here’s the set-up: Justin Verlander, for the third time this post-season, completely shut down an opponent’s offense. As he walked out to the mound to the cheers of 43,000 towel-waving Detroit fans to start the 9th inning, he had pitched 24 innings in the 2012 playoffs and had given up exactly one run for an ERA of 0.38. However, Eduardo Nunez led-off the 9th inning for Yankees with a home run to left field, cutting the Tigers lead to 2-1. Although it was just the third hit in the game that Verlander had given up, the 9-pitch battle with Nunez raised his pitch count to 124 – more than he’d thrown in either of his two starts against the A’s. After it took him 8 more pitches to retire Brett Gardner on a weak comebacker to the mound, Jim Leyland called on Phil Coke to retire the last two batters of the game and preserve the win.
Phil Coke, a left-handed pitcher part of the three-team, 2009 off-season trade between Arizona, Detroit, and the Yankees – a trade that, incredibly, none of the teams involved would want to amend – appeared in 66 games in 2012 and pitched a total of 54 innings. Take a look at that sentence again – anything jump out at you? I tossed a lot of filler in there to obscure it, but from a performance standpoint it’s this: Phil Coke is left-handed and in 2012 his average outing consisted of pitching less than one inning. In fact 34 of his appearances lasted less than one inning, including 13 of his last 14. The only exception was a 2-inning appearance is a 12-2 blowout win. Essentially since August, Jim Leyland used Coke exclusively for just a batter or two.
Why is this? Because, as much as you can use an absolute when talking about a major-league player, Phil Coke can’t get right handed batters out. Once that became painfully apparent during the season, he became a left-handed, one out guy. Or as it’s known in mom’s basements across the American population of blogging, baseball geeks, a LOOGY. Before Leyland turned him into a LOOGY specialist, right-handed batters hit .396 off of Coke this year. You know who never hit .396? George Brett. Tony Gwynn. Rod Carew. And so on. In 2012, when you sent a right-handed hitter to the plate against Phil Coke, you had a better chance of getting a hit than sending Brett, Gwynn or Carew up there during the greatest seasons of their careers.
Entering the 9th inning, Joe Girardi had not used a single player off his bench, which included right-handed hitting Alex Rodriguez and switch-hitting Nick Swisher. Benching both of those players vs. Justin Verlander, for Brett Gardner and Eric Chavez – neither of whom have gotten a hit the entire 2012 post-season themselves, mind you – smacks of desperation and in the case of A-Rod something personal, but it did give Girardi extreme flexibility should a crucial situation arise late in the game against the Tigers bullpen. I’d say there is nothing more crucial than finding yourself down one run with one out in the 9th inning and trailing two games to none in a best-of-seven series.
Scheduled to hit in this situation for the Yankees was left-handed hitting Ichiro Suzuki. Rather than force Coke into a position of extreme weakness, by pinch-hitting A-Rod, or Swisher, Girardi let Ichiro hit. Look, it’s not that Ichiro wasn’t a good candidate to get a single and put the tying run on base, it’s that Phil Coke murders left-handed hitters. Here are his 2012 results, by handedness of the batter:
Vs. RHB 115 .396/.446/.604
Vs. LHB 130 .263/.313/.373
Think it’s just 2012 where there is a big difference? Here’s 2011:
Vs. RHB 307 .314/.375/.431
Vs. LHB 130 .215/.289/.295
That’s nearly 700 batters worth of evidence over two seasons. This is why Jose Valverde continued to close even when it was clear he didn’t have the necessary skill set anymore to be an effective closer; every Tigers bullpen pitcher brings a considerable weakness to the table. In the case of Coke, it’s an inability to get out right-handed batters. Rather than exploit this extreme weakness, Girardi let Ichiro hit and kept Swisher and A-Rod on the bench. (Ichiro grounded out to second on two pitches, both strikes.)
A note on A-Rod: Yes, his career is in considerable decline. He’s essentially worsened as a player every year since his last MVP campaign in 2007. Pinch-hitting for him with Raul Ibanez in Game 3 vs. the Orioles was absolutely the right decision (more on that below.) But you know what he still does pretty well? Yup, hit left-handed pitching. In 2012, the worst year of his career, he hit .308/.410/.514 vs. southpaws. His OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) of .924 is only mildly below his Hall-of-Fame career OPS of .945. In other words, if you can get him up against a left-handed pitcher, you’re essentially getting the 14-time All-Star and 3-time MVP (.300/.384/.560).
After passing on the opportunity to create a huge shift in win probability with Ichiro at the plate, Girardi was reduced to hoping his next two hitters, Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano could get on base and extend the game. Teixeira, batting right-handed(!) promptly singled and Cano, a hitter you simply don’t pinch-hit for under any circumstances, finally broke out of his astounding 0-29 slump with a single. This brought post-season hero, Raul Ibanez to the plate.
Raul Ibanez is 40 years-old and as any Phillies fan can tell you from watching him during his 37-, 38- and 39-year old seasons, the aging process has left the likable veteran with one useable skill: Raul Ibanez can run into a fastball vs. a right-handed pitcher. That’s not a back-handed compliment; he’s a serious threat against a right-hander, and the dimensions of Yankee Stadium are tailor-made to compliment that talent. That’s why pinch-hitting him for A-Rod against a right-handed killer, Jim Johnson, in the last series was the correct decision. Specific Strength (Ibanez vs. RHP) – Specific Weakness (A-Rod vs. RHP) + perfect environment (Yankee Stadium) = Increased Run Expectancy and Yankees fans were rewarded with yet another magical post-season memory.
You know what the 40-year old Raul Ibanez can’t do? Hit left handed pitching. He hit an anemic .197 vs. lefties in 2012 and his decrepit slugging percentage was the same as his on-base percentage (.246). It’s not just this year; the Phillies stopped playing him against lefties in 2011 when it was apparent he was a liability in the line up. He hit .211 vs. lefties in 2011 (.232 on-base percentage). Note the small differences each year between on-base percentage and batting average: Raul Ibanez hardly walks at all against lefties clearly suggesting he can’t pick up the ball as well against southpaws. (This shows up in his strikeout rate which is nearly 50% higher vs. lefties than righties the last two years.)
In short, there can be no possible worse match-up for the Yankees than LHB Raul Ibanez vs. LHP Phil Coke. It’s extreme weakness vs. extreme strength. Not understanding why Raul Ibanez has been effective this post-season calls into question the wisdom of any previous decisions.
What should have Girardi done? He should have pinch-hit A-Rod for Ichiro. Because Coke had just entered the game, Leyland would not have been able to bring in a right-hander to face A-Rod. Then with Ibanez up he should have brought up the switch-hitting Nick Swisher. Even after letting Ichiro hit, A-Rod for Ibanez is a preferred decision. Yes, Leyland probably calls in Benoit but he is not a righty-killer (like Darren O’Day or Johnson for Baltimore) and he is an extreme-fly ball pitcher, pretty much exactly what you want if you’re the Yankees and the tying and go-ahead runs are on base and you’re sending a power hitter to the plate – even if he’s diminished. The worst match-up for A-Rod is a right-handed power pitcher most likely to induce a strikeout or a ground ball.
It doesn’t matter how much, as a Yankee fan, you’ve lost confidence in Swisher and A-Rod or vow to buy Ibanez a drink if you ever see him in a Manhattan bar. Ibanez vs. a LHP is a 10th percentile result (for the Yankees) and Coke vs. a LHB is a 90th percentile result for the Tigers. That can fool people into thinking, therefore that a .200 hitter like Ibanez vs. a .200 pitcher like Coke results in an expected result of .200. It doesn’t. For projection purposes, a 90th percentile result vs. a 10th percentile result projects to about a 1 percentile outcome. (Think of it like this: When a .600 team (the team with the best record in baseball) plays a .400 team (the worst record in baseball) they don’t win 60% of the time, they win over 75% of the time.)
Joe Girardi apparently has no idea why A-Rod isn’t as good as he was a few years ago, he doesn’t know why Ibanez succeeded in the last month, and he has no appreciation of the relative strengths and considerable weaknesses of his opponent. If I were a season ticket holder and I ran across Girardi, I’d tell him, in the words of Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, “you better lawyer up *$^%#*, because I’m not coming for 3%, I’m coming for all of it.”
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. The book is available for pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346604029&sr=1-1&keywords=trading+bases
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