Wednesday, October 6, 2010


No doubt, the moment will arrive. The question is when and how badly the manager will cost them.

Figure Sabathia will make Girardi's task easy. Averaging 3.79 pitches per plate appearance, the Twins rate about league in plate discipline. And with his ace receiving a much-need eight day respite, the manager will let C.C go as deep into the game as performance, pluck, endurance, and mettle will carry him.

The pratfall, unfortunately, is apt to occur much later and thus at a moment all the more pivotal. Imagine Game 2 with the still not fully recuperated Pettitte reaching a 100 pitches sometime in the 6th inning or perhaps, in Game 3, while a still young Hughes battles his way into the 7th before his innings totals reach unchartered terrain and his efficacy wanes.

Like most contests between the Yankees and Twins in the postseason, the game will be close at the time. Perhaps, the teams will enter the 6th or 7th tied or with a run separating them. Imagine Pettitte's cunning and guile holding the Twins at bay through six until the aging veteran surpasses the hundred pitch mark and the fatigue sets in. Or perhaps, the fastball and curves Hughes was throwing innings earlier on the corners starts to drift into the zone as he pitches his unprecedented 182nd inning in a season.

The Twins capitalize and within the blink of an eye, mount an incipient rally. A walk, a single, and with runners in scoring position, Joe Mauer waits on deck. And as the momentum suddenly shifts, game and series enter a watershed moment and upon the outcome, the Yankees' post-season fortune suddenly hinges.

The camera, naturally, will pan to the dugout. The shot will frame Joe Girardi frantically flipping through pages in his trusted black binder, searching for the key that will unlock the enigma his decision confronts with him. As usual, the expression on the manager's face will betray everything. The furrows in his forehead will deepen, he'll rock on his haunches, and an unseemly grimace will imply he hasn't had a bowel movement since January.

Having arrived at the answer his homework holds, the diligent student will stride to the mound, signal to the bullpen, and remove his disgruntled starter. Summoning his one and only lefty, Girardi will hand the ball to Boone Logan. But the modest .711 OPS the AL's reigning MVP has compiled against left-handed pitching and the two hits in seven plate appearances he's accumulated against Logan won't matter. Star will abuse novice and double down the line. Still, Girardi made the conventional call. Few can quibble with his decision.

But next ensues the Girardi hallmark-- the decision that defies common sense and eludes cogent reason. It begins with the genuinely perplexing question. Should he stick with Logan to face right-hand hitting Delmon Young because left-hand hitting Thome follows? Young's .927 OPS against lefties certainly excels his .781 against righties, as one might expect, but the disparity in Young's splits pales in comparison to his successor. Thome's OPS is 1.154 against righties and .769 against lefties. Further obscuring the answer, Logan hasn't faced either. Inside the dugout, the spinning wheels accelerate.

Eiland trots out to the mound to stall. Girardi returns to black binder. The camera this time features him riffling its pages frantically for the answer it doesn't contain. "Matchups"-- Girardi's favorite shibboleth for what he may or may not realize are statistically insignificant sample sizes-- won't decide the question. Neutralize Young with Joba or Robertson and lose Logan. Or gamble with Young and neutralize Thome. And the only means the manager has to resolve the dilemma will be to exercise the very faculty in which he has proven time and again he is desperately lacking-- instinctive judgment or if you prefer, intuition. A faculty Girardi's behavior often suggests he doesn't merely distrust but that he, moreover, represses consciously. As such, here is where Girardi, time and again, falters, and the reason why isn't all that opaque or complicated.

So often we hear the cliche about baseball. "Baseball isn't like the other professional team athletics." In baseball, the harder you try, the greater you fail. Batters press. They squeeze the bat. They step in and out of the box as their thoughts overwhelm them. They obsess about the pitcher's repertoire, his situational tendencies, his pitch sequence, prior at-bats against him. On the other end, pitchers, tormented by anxiety or frustration, sabotage their native gifts as well. A starter aims the ball instead of pitching it. He fixates on the umpire or overthrows.

How often, for example, have we observed A-Rod's obsessive conditioning, relentless work ethic, and assiduous study come back to haunt him? How often have his virtues, under pressure, instead of relaxing him, conspired to derail his talent? Or by contrast, how often have we observed the far less talented Jeter marshall his aloof, Olympian coolness and thrive as consequence. So, too, Bernie and his lovable but inscrutably serene abstraction.

Each provides an object lesson in the role the mind plays in baseball. Together, they dramatize the vacant mental state best suited to baseball. The Buddhists call it nirvana-- literally, the extinction of consciousness. For only by extinguishing thought, do we alllow the body's natural instincts, the muscle's ingrained memory, and the athlete's sublimely acute reflexes to assert themselves. Where reason yields, man can react. And in the land of the Diamond, the vacuous mind reigns. (Or in Boston, if you prefer, the Idiot is King.)

No less with managers does this axiom apply. Recall 1995 and the ALDS. Was there ever a more devoted, industrious, intellectually prepared manager than Buck Showalter? Yet in Game 5, after Showalter had exhausted and deflated his closer the two previous nights, he let David Cone nearly destroy his arm by throwing just shy of 150 pitches. Then he removed Mariano Rivera, after he easily retired two batters, only to hand the game to Jack McDowell. I needn't remind how the drama ends. Still, how did Showalter not know he possessed the most dangerous weapon Panama ever created? How could a manager so prepared, so reflective, so knowledgeable about the inner workings of the game possibly blunder? (By the way, it's no accident either that just a year later, the manager whose temperament shared much in common with his captain and his star center-fielder, rehabilitated his closer, discovered the greatest reliever of all-time, and won a World Series with much of the same talent.)

Ah, the fault, dear Brutus, lies deeper within. For high-strung, tightly-wound, smoldering managerial aggression, few but Billy Martin can equal Buck Showalter. Though Girardi certainly belongs in the discussion and therefrom his flaw stems.

Alas, Girardi's temperament less resembles the Yankee manager he once worked for than Joe Torre's predecessor. No one should gainsay Girardi's intellect or fail to applaud his work ethic. But the most innovative and advanced information money can buy are no substitute for receptive instincts and discriminating judgment. In fact, statistics, too often, encourage the fallacy the numbers are clairvoyant. No, like player, like manager, only a mind at ease can intuit the moment and unleash his subconscious to respond accordingly.

The Yankees enter the 2010 post-season, if not necessarily with a less talented team than in '09, than certainly with a older and on paper, less formidable one. As a consequence, Girardi's decisions at critical moments are apt to determine the Yankees' fate more now than before. But in the hours before game time, the manager would better serve his team by spending less time scrutinizing video or studying his opponent's weaknesses or pouring over scouting reports than in a yoga room or with his kids or on the phone with A-Rod's therapist. Whatever it takes to relax him.

Otherwise, when that pivotal moment does arise-- as, no doubt, it will-- Girardi won't use the statistics that crowd his binder. Instead, the statistics inside will use him.

In which case, the only numbers which will matter will inscribe one-way tickets on flights leaving New York.

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