Tuesday, October 20, 2009


"In your heart, you know he's right"-- Barry Goldwater slogan circa 1964 election
"In your guts, you know he's nuts" -- LBJ parody of Goldwater slogan

Perhaps Randy Levine devised this Joe's contract with an incentive clause too. For each playoff game the manager can use all his relievers he receives a $1,000,000 bonus. After all, didn't the Levine cabal insinuate that Joe Torre's cavalier style cost the Yankees in the post-season? Somewhere the Baseball Gods are laughing.

Beware half-wits armed with numbers. From Pentagon scientists' "acceptable losses" to hedge fund managers' "rational markets" to baseball manager's "match-ups": inside their little black books lie the mathematical formula for everything from winning a nuclear win to repealing the business cycle to winning the next World Series.

Whatever may come of this October, A-Rod acolytes finally can savor the thrill of watching the Human Scapegoat disarm the pundits, stifle the critics, quiet the jeers, mock the steroid tribunal, and consign Selena Roberts' yellow journalism to the sewers of history. But no one should be more grateful for the Yankees third baseman than his manager. For without A-Rod's sudden flair for the eleventh-hour, plot-turning, Hobbesian dramatics-- "there's goes Roy Hobbes, the best there ever was in this game"-- Joe Girardi already would have returned to Florida. And here in New York, the lynch mob would have tied the noose and started to clamor for Rope Day.

A sentiment that recalls something Benjamin Franklin once said, the "Mob's a Monster; Heads Enough but no Brains." Although in this case, I can't shake the apprehension that Joseph Elliot Girardi's singular brain is precisely the problem. The thin-lipped anxiety, the crew-cut rigidity, the officer's regimented strictness, obstinate certitude, and humorless laughter bespeak a man of unquestioned intelligence yet with a mind so inflexible and doctrinaire no practical wisdom or instinctive truth could violate it. The mind of beautifully wrought abstraction.

How else is one to fathom a manager who has studied all the reports, mastered all the stats, read and re-read, no doubt, every piece of information at his disposal and persists in the same recklessness from which only an inept opponent, blind umpire, and the prodigies of A-Rod (assisted by a bravura supporting performance by Jeter, Posada, Sabathia, and Rivera) have spared his team from elimination?

Why else would the Yankees' manager persist in applying preconceived formulas and "match-up" statistics for managing his bullpen-- rather than allowing his relievers visible, immediate performance to dictate his choices-- when time and again, the results has cost him. (To be sure, Bill James has observed and proven over and over again the naked eye often deceives us. The difference in impact a .275 hitter and .300 hitter make, even witnessed every day, on a team's success can't be discerned. But James never concluded statistics would enable manager's to discard his indispensable faculty, practical discretion.)

Girardi's reliance upon numbers rather than his reliever's performance has resulted in two harmful patterns. The 11th inning of the 2009 ALCS's Game 3 illustrated one: he has removed flourishing relievers in the middle of innings when neither high pitch counts nor run-scoring threats warranted it and replaced them with relievers who then falter . Second and closely related, he has squandered his most formidable relievers, Chamberlain, Hughes, Coke, and Robertson in truncated outings-- calling upon them and then summarily dispatching them-- in early innings of close games. As a consequence, when they flounder or extra-innings arise, he has had to rely upon Marte and Aceves, less proficient arms in critical situations.

Let's recap.

ALDS Game 1
Sabathia, subduing his own post-season demons, shines in his October debut as the Yankees' designated ace. Without dominating, he nonetheless delivers 6 2/3 innings of two run baseball, only one earned. He starts to languish in the 7th but weathers the storm. With the Yankees ahead 6-2, no one on base and one out, Sabathia hits Tolbert, yields a single to Punto, and throws a wild-pitch. Tolbert and Punto advance to 2nd and 3rd. However, Sabathia retires left-handed hitting Span on a pop-fly and then to face, Orlando Cabrera, Girardi makes the obvious and logical move.

The manager calls upon his ostensibly 2nd best reliever, set-up man Phil Hughes. Cabrera battles through 10-pitches but strikes out. Hughes returns in the 8th inning but again labors. 15 pitches through the 8th (25 in total), the Franchise has surrendered a single to Mauer and only recorded 2 outs. Accordingly, Girardi, in a move seemingly dictated by foresight, albeit more ominous in retrospect, summons Chamberlain for a single out. It appears Girardi simply has exercised a perfect opportunity to reacquaint Joba with his old role. But using Joba for two pitches in the 8th, and then using Mariano, despite a five-run lead, for what becomes a 23 pitch, non-save appearance, turns into a recurring pattern that will carry fateful consequences for the future.

The omens first realize their ill-fated prophecy. After six innings, the game is tied 1-1. While starter Burnett has thrown 96 pitches thus far, his control suffers and his pitches-per-out mount with each inning. So Girardi, wisely, removes him. Enter Joba for the 7th, the 2007 incarnation. Three consecutive 95-mph fastballs retires Span on a groundout. Two more, clocked at 97 and 95, follow to Cabrera, the third, a changeup, induces a feeble groundout. Next follows the Twins most forbidding hitter, presumptive AL MVP, the left-handed Joe Mauer. Coke time? Consult the Book. Mauer is 3 for 4 against Coke with one homerun, true; but he's also 1 for 2 against Chamberlain with a homerun. Statistically significant? Evidently, Girardi thinks so; Joba stays. Chamberlain unleashes 5 straight heaters averaging 96 mph, yet on the fifth, ahead 3-1 in the count, Mauer singles on a ground ball through the middle.

This is the moment when the eccentric, rash, and misguided decisions Girardi's bullpen management has betrayed this October first manifested. Letting Joba pitch to left-handed Mauer but then removing him when otherwise thriving, having thrown only 11 pitches in a tie game no less and insisting that lefty Coke face the left-handed Kubel-- warrants skepticism. Although left-handed Kubel is 0 for 4 against Coke and has proven throughout his career a markedly less prolific hitter against left-handed pitching than right-handed (OPS+ of 68 vs. 109), Joba has fared well against him too (1 for 3 lifetime, a single.)

More importantly, Joba is dominating; his control and velocity are nonpareil; he has only thrown 11 pitches; the day to follow is an off-day; Coke is only good for a batter, after whom, with Cuddyer batting, Hughes will follow. Worse, it's only the 7th inning, Hughes struggled the previous game, and the Yankees confront the possibility of facing extra-innings. Apres Mo, qui?

Isn't Joba too precious a resource to squander via mixing and matching righties and lefties and just for Kubel? Doesn't Joba's unrivalled fastball-slider repertoire in combination with his starter's endurance, of one to two innings at the very least, warrant greater faith in his ability to retire Kubel?

Look what happens as a consequence. Coke retires Kuble but in the 8th, Hughes struggle again. With two outs, he walks Gomez, yields a single to Harris and Punto, Gomez scores. Who's up next? Lefty Denard Span. Now, would have been a good time to use Coke, no? But Girardi can't because he expended him the inning prior. Then, in an unorthodox move, he calls on Rivera. How often has one seen a manager use his closer in the 8th inning of a game he's LOSING. Isn't Marte, after all, on the roster expressly for the purpose of the second left-handed hitter, late in the game? If not, why isn't Bruney? Anyway, Span hits Rivera, another run scores, but Mo keeps the Twins lead to 3-1 into the bottom of the ninth, when A-Rod ties the game.

But now what? Expending Mariano in the 8th inning precludes using him again in the 10th inning. (The two innings recommend against it, as does a pitch count of 27 pitches, following the 25 he gratuitously threw in Game 1.) What's more Girardi squandered Joba after 11 pitches, discarded Coke after a batter, and gone through Hughes already. So Girardi is compelled to use Aceves for the 10th inning. Aceves finishes the inning without giving up a run, but with two outs, he does walk Punto and Span singles before he retires Cabrera. Hardly a flawless outing certainly but hardly one that would demand his removal either. Consider, too, that Aceves is the reliever best equipped to pitch multiple innings because as a reliever, Gaudin is an enigma.

Does Girardi use Aceves then for the 11th? No, of course not. He enlists Marte for a single batter, Mauer, who singles, and then Girardi lets him pitch to Kubel, who does likewise. Remember earlier in the game when he let Joba pitch to Mauer but not to Kubel. Notice the contradiction. Why let Joba pitch to him and not Aceves? Anyway, with Marte failing wretchedly as usual, Girardi brings in Robertson against whom Cuddeyer hits the Twins third consecutive single. Then, Robertson performs a great Houdini act and with 9 pitches, tallies three outs, without a single run scoring.

Now, the manager who relies upon empirical evident rather than statistical abstraction might have concluded that Robertson possesses two essential qualities statistics can't measure-- heart and aplomb. Evidently, Girardi doesn't belong among this company as Game 3 of the ALCS demonstrates.

Through 6 innings, Andy Pettitte has dazzled, having yielded a single run on three hits and having thrown only 75 pitches. (As late as the fifth, in fact, Pettitte actually flirted with perfection.) In the sixth, Span earned only the Twins second hit against him, stole second, and then scored on a weak grounder through the hole at shortstop. Pettitte however struck out Cuddyer to end the inning.

In the 7th, A-Rod comes to rescue, homering off Pavano to tie the game, followed by Posada to put the Yankees ahead. Now enjoying a one-run lead, Pettitte returns to the mound in the bottom of the seventh and strikes out Kubel on 6 pitches, totalling 81 pitches for the game. Wouldn't it behoove the manager to exhaust every last pitch and inning from a starter who is still well under 100 pitches in the 7th inning and thriving besides? Just 48 hours earlier, after all, Girardi used every single one of his relievers save Gaudin. Doesn't Pettitte's gem recommend in favor of proceeding batter-by-batter at the very least?

Well, consult the magic book. The magic book indicates that in 2008, Delmon Young was 2 for 3, each hit a double. 2009? Nothing. Evidently, that's good enough for the engineer. Girardi enters and removes Pettitte and replaces him with Joba. Young, promptly, gets the double on Joba Girardi feared Pettitte would yield but quickly recovers. (Irony is lost on the humorless however.) Has Joba the pitcher the Yankees nursed through September to fortify his endurance for the post-season-- does Girardi allow Chamberlain to muster this strength to face another batter or two in the following inning after 17 pitches, particularly because through 2 post-season games, Hughes hasn't acquitted himself well in the set-up role? No, of course, not.

Hughes rewards Girardi's faith accordingly by promptly yielding a double to Punto and a single to Span, but Punto overruns third base and all is forgiven. The Yankees win the ALDS in three games and advance. Has Girardi learned from his experience? Does he absorb any of the lessons his bullpen decisions in the ALDS might imply?

Alas, no, the same rigid abstraction, profligate use of relievers, distrust of first-hand observation, unwillingess to acknowledge mistakes or to incorporoate its lessons, thus far, have informed his bullpen management in the ALCS as well.


In Game 1, CC Sabathia leaves Girardi no room for error. Through 8 innings, the Angels collect 3 hits and a walk and score one run. Mariano is Mariano in the 9th. Girardi's Leninist syndrome recurs, however, in Game 2.

Through 6.33 innings and 114 pitches, AJ Burnett holds the Angels to two runs, largely containing the wildness that accounted for them. Although his infielders don't help him. Cano succumbs to his habit for timely errors and muffs Iybar's routine grounder to 1st. Burnett exits and Girardi assigns Coke the job of retiring switch-hitting Figgins (his career OPS+ 84 from the right side, 24 points lower than the left) and lefty Abreu Coke. Coke walks Figgins and strikes out Abreu. Having reduced Coke to a lefty-specialist, however, the manager summons Chamberlain to face Hunter and Guerrero. Hunter hits an infield single to Jeter, but Joba bears down. He gives Guerrero three consecutive fastballs at 94, 95, and 95, which the Angels DH can only foul off and finishes him off with a devastating slider. All total Joba throws ten pitches against two batters. The Game stays tied at 2 entering the 8th.

Does Girardi learn from ALDS Game 2, then, that in a tie game, at home, with a day off to follow, perhaps, it's a good idea and to ride Chamberlain until either his stuff wavers or Angel batters hit him in order to reserve Hughes to pitch after Rivera, should the game proceeds to extra innings? No, of course not. Before Joba can throw to a single batter in the 8th, Hughes relieves him. Worse, Girardi doesn't even let Hughes finish the 8th inning. With two outs, a runner on second base following a Jeter error that derailed an inning-ending double play, and his set-up man having thrown a total of NINE pitches, Girardi calls upon Mo. What does this mean? In the mere 2.3 innings since AJ Burnett left the game, Girardi has exhausted his four best relievers-- Coke, Chamberlain, Hughes, and Mo-- and the game hasn't even entered the 9th inning.

So naturally, what happens when the manager has to resort to his bullpen's B-list in the 11th inning, after Mo, himself, pitches the next 2.3 innings? Girardi goes to Aceves. He walks the lead-off hitter, Gary Matthews, of all hitters, and the Angels score to go ahead 3-2, entering the bottom of the 11th. The script here gets so bizarrely familiar that I actually wonder whether the Baseball Gods were trying to send the Yankee manager an omen of hubris he finally would recognize: A-Rod homers again, repair the cosmic breach his manager has opened. Aceves and Marte get one batter each in the 12th and Robertson the last soldier standing between Gaudin and oblivion, hold the fort long enough for the New York cold to sabotage the Angels' defense. Yanks win in an error in the 13th.

General Girardi doesn't register the message of course. ALCS Game 3, in fact, brings still more dubious decisons. This time, after Pettitte has thrown 80 pitches and holds a slender lead on the road, Girardi, for some reason, lets him pitch with a runner on first base and to his opponent's preeminent power threat besides. Guerrero makes him pay for it, hitting a home run to tie the game. In the 7th, Pettitte induces Morales to line out to left field and exits. Who follows? The prefabricated formula, of course, calls for Joba.

Thus begin the point at which Girardi's discretion degenerates from miguided to indefensible. In the interest of time and space, I'm going to elide innings 8,9,10, other than to decry Girardi's squandering of Marte and Coke consecutively on Figgins and Abreu for the 7th innings last out and 8th inning's first. The debate Mo's entry in the 9th provokes-- and in general whether a manager should deploy his closer in a tie-game on the road when, in advance, he has decided to use him exclusively for a single inning, in a playoff series he leads 2-0 without an off-day following no less-- deserves its own blog entry. Suffice it to say, I disagreed with it, but its a defensible call. What's more, its myopia, it pales before the delinquency of following Coke with Marte and the inexplicable contradiction that ended the game.

Recall Joba enters the game in the 7th inning with one out to pitch to Yankee nemesis Howie Kendrick, who triples on a first-pitch 96 mph fastball and who scores on a sac-fly. Cut to the 11th inning. Dave Robertson, owner of a 0.00 ERA for the post-season, starts the inning. His repertoire of 93 mph fastballs and a sinister breaking ball dispose of Rivera and Morales in 11 pitches. Kendrick is next. But not before Girardi can consult his magic "match-up" primer and summon Aceves. Why? The authors, evidently, warn Kendrick "sits dead red." From which Girardi concludes his seventh and final reliever before Gaudin, Aceves' and his arsenal of cutters and changeups stand a better chance against Kendrick than Robertson's staple of fastball and curve and 0.00 ERA. But doesn't that beg the question of why Girardi both let Chamberlain pitch to Kendrick in the 7th and Posada call a first-pitch 96 mph? How to explain the contradiction? I can't. Can you? All I know is that two batters later Kendrick and Mathis ended Game 3.

If Girardi sleeps better after these games than I do, I would ask him to think about a quote that occurred to me just before I finally drifted off at 4:00 am. It's hardly profound, but because of the source, it's one Girardi would do well to heed. Man and voice incarnate Girardi's managerial opposite in many ways. The dialectical formed by their thesis and antithesis might even embody something close to an Hegelian enlightenment and Platonic ideal.

The quote, excerpted from his book The Yankee Years, reads, "I don't know how long we're going to be together. But do yourself a favor: never forget there is heartbeat in this game." Rarely has a manager left his successor advice more resonant or true.


Rob Abruzzese said...

Good article. You should keep in mind this is a blog and not a magazine though.

I agree with most of what you've said. You seem to be nitpicking to the extreme though, but it's hard to blame you. Girardi left himself open for that.

I would have to say though, after reading that, you seem to be falling into the idea that this is 2007 when it comes to Joba Chamberlain. He's hit a wall as far as this season goes, be very wary when he's on the mound. He goes from great to terrible faster than any other pitcher I can recall.


Forstadt said...

You've convinced me that Girardi has cracked under the pressure of managing in the playoffs.