- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Ibanez Starts, A-Rod Finishes

As expected, Alex Rodriguez finds himself on the bench to start game five, with Eric Chavez playing third base and Raul Ibanez filling in at DH. We talked about this possibility yesterday, with both having better numbers against right-handers this year and A-Rod obviously not having a very good postseason thus far. With their backs against the wall, the Yankees are going with the platoon advantage and guys who have performed better versus right-handed pitching this year. It’s hard to blame them, even if swapping out Rodriguez for Ibanez probably doesn’t make a huge difference one way or another.

But, there’s a pretty interesting subplot that develops because of this decision – by starting two LHBs who have huge platoon splits in Chavez and Ibanez, there is almost certainly going to be a situation where Buck Showalter goes to a left-handed reliever to get one of them out late in the game. If the score is even remotely close, Girardi will have to strongly consider pinch-hitting for either one, as they simply aren’t effective big league hitters against lefties at this point in their career. And A-Rod is going to be Girardi’s best right-handed batter on the bench.

So, starting Ibanez and Chavez sets up the very real chance that Rodriguez is going to be sent up to pinch-hit in a high leverage “clutch” situation – the very role that the narrative claims he performs the worst in. At least throughout his postseason history, the narrative is wrong, but this line-up choice sets up a situation where Girardi is going to have to publicly decide whether he buys into that narrative or not.

If you really buy into the “A-Rod is not clutch” idea, you should probably be against this decision, as it requires the game’s most renowned choke artist to be called upon to come off the bench in a clutch situation in a game that the team can’t afford to lose. If clutch hitting was a thing that we could identify ahead of time, and A-Rod lacked that specific skill, starting Ibanez is exactly the wrong thing to do, because you’d be trading A-Rod at-bats earlier in the game for an A-Rod bat late in the game, when he’s supposedly at his worst.

If you don’t buy into the “A-Rod is not clutch” idea, than starting Ibanez makes sense, as you get the platoon advantage early in the game against Jason Hammel and can ensure Ibanez gets multiple at-bats against a righty, which you don’t get if you save him for pinch-hitting duty. While benching A-Rod is being hailed in some circles as an admission of The Human Element and managing people rather than the numbers, it can actually be seen as a refutation of The Human Element’s description of Rodriguez as a late game choker. If Girardi is actually planning on pinch-hitting Rodriguez for Ibanez or Chavez late in the game, then he’s basically telling the world that he doesn’t buy into the idea that Rodriguez can’t handle big pressure situations.

I don’t know what Girardi thinks about all this. Maybe he’s not planning on using Rodriguez at all, and he’ll let Chavez and Ibanez face lefties instead of asking A-Rod to pinch-hit. If that’s the case, then that would be about the biggest “human element” decision I can ever remember a manager making.

But if he sends A-Rod up to hit for either Chavez or Ibanez in a high leverage situation in an elimination game, then it seems to me that this decision may be more about playing the numbers than it is about playing the people.