After Game 3 Tuesday night, the Yankees find themselves behind three games to zero games in the ALCS, one game away from there being no games anymore. What a 3-0 series suggests is domination, and that hasn’t been the case — all three games have been close, with the Tigers just squeaking by. Yet the Yankees have without question been outplayed, and now they can’t lose again. It’s not a surprise they wound up here, since they were behind two games to none before facing Justin Verlander, but one doesn’t typically associate the Yankees with desperation, and this situation is desperate.
What’s interesting is that, while the Yankees faced long odds going up against Verlander on Tuesday, one could argue that plenty of things broke in their favor. It was a cold night, with the wind blowing in, and that helped to even the playing field, since the Verlander run environment couldn’t be reduced by as much as the Yankees pitchers’ run environment. The Yankees pitchers themselves allowed just two runs in eight innings, giving the offense a real chance. Verlander didn’t look like his overpowering self, single run and three hits aside; he tied a season-low for strikeouts with three, and on a handful or two of occasions Verlander left a hittable pitch over the plate that the Yankees didn’t drill. And then at the very end, the Yankees made their final out with the tying run on second and the go-ahead run on first.
About that at-bat. You knew this was going to be about that at-bat. It was the highest-leverage at-bat of the game, and prior to the top of the ninth, new storylines hadn’t really emerged. The Yankees were having trouble with offense, but the Yankees have been having trouble with offense all playoffs. The Yankees’ bullpen did a pretty good job after Phil Hughes had to leave early. There was a neat double play off the bat of Miguel Cabrera that kept the game within reach. For a while, this was a close playoff game, but I wouldn’t say it was an intense playoff game. We’ve seen more intense playoff games over the past week and a half.
But that at-bat, that final at-bat. Something that was allowed to happen was Phil Coke pitching to Raul Ibanez in a one-run game with two on and two out. Available on the Yankees’ bench was Alex Rodriguez, and with planning, available on the Yankees’ bench would’ve been Nick Swisher. Available in the Tigers’ bullpen was Joaquin Benoit. Coke had already been on the mound, and Ibanez had already been in the game. No changes were made, and Coke ultimately put Ibanez away with a slider.
Girardi later explained that he didn’t pinch-hit with Rodriguez because Jim Leyland would’ve countered with Benoit. He felt better about lefty-on-lefty. Swisher was swinging in the on-deck circle for Russell Martin, but he didn’t have to be there. It seems to me this at-bat should’ve been Swisher vs. Benoit. It seems strongly to me this at-bat should’ve been Swisher vs. Benoit.
This is where we have no choice but to issue all the caveats. One, Joe Girardi was in the position of greater knowledge. Two, one must account for the pinch-hitting penalty whenever talking about something like this. Three, any differences are going to be pretty small — Ibanez vs. Coke was not an automatic out, and Swisher vs. Benoit wouldn’t have been an automatic hit. It’s a matter of percentages. But to me, a manager has two responsibilities: he should be a good leader of men, and he should be able to identify and seize opportunities to increase his team’s odds of winning a game. By leaving Ibanez in to face Coke, Girardi left some percentage points on the table when the Yankees needed a base hit the most.
We don’t even have to get that complicated to talk about this. Phil Coke, for his career, has allowed a .276 wOBA to lefties over several hundred plate appearances. Raul Ibanez, since 2002, has posted a .320 wOBA against lefties, and a .350 wOBA overall. Ibanez isn’t a .350 wOBA hitter anymore — he’s more like a .320 wOBA hitter — meaning you’d probably expect him to post a wOBA in the .290-.300 neighborhood against lefties.
Nick Swisher is a switch-hitter, and Joaquin Benoit is a righty. Benoit’s allowed a career .300 wOBA to lefties, although since he moved permanently to the bullpen it’s been a good deal lower than that. Swisher owns a career .353 wOBA against righties, and he was as good a hitter in 2012 as he’s ever been. As a pinch-hitter, you’d subtract from Swisher’s projection, but he’d still come away looking better than Ibanez. It feels silly to run all this math around one single plate appearance, but everything’s about probability and it really seems like Swisher would’ve given the Yankees the best chance.
Naturally, there are complicating factors. Nobody could forget about Ibanez’s recent late-inning heroics. Surely, that played some role in Girardi’s decision-making, and surely, had Ibanez been removed and had the pinch-hitter made an out, the media wouldn’t be able to shut up about it. Swisher also hasn’t been hitting these playoffs, and his overall October track record is pretty poor over nearly 200 plate appearances. That’s a consideration — Swisher’s been one of many Yankees not taking good swings.
But that’s putting too much weight on recent events. And if you insist on putting too much weight on recent events, what of Benoit’s ten second-half home runs allowed? What of his struggles against Oakland in the ALDS, and what of his appearance against the Yankees in Game 1, where he allowed a long fly out and a long double? In theory, Ibanez was a hot bat and Swisher was a cold bat, but in theory, Coke was a hot pitcher and Benoit was a cold pitcher. With Benoit and Swisher, the Yankees could’ve had the platoon advantage with the tying run in scoring position.
I’m going to be perfectly honest with you: after looking at all of the numbers, and after considering how good Benoit has been against left-handed hitters in the past, Girardi’s decision to stick with Ibanez doesn’t seem absolutely, completely unforgivable. I expected it to, and my impression at the time as the game was going on was that Girardi had really screwed up. It’s closer than I thought. Benoit’s changeup is outstanding, and the pinch-hitter penalty is significant.
But even if the probability difference was small, seems to me the probability difference still existed, and seems to me the Yankees would’ve been better off going with Swisher instead of sticking with the recent hero. If you replace Ibanez with another guy, and the other guy makes the final out, you’re going to catch a lot of crap for it. That’s just the way that sports work. But you can’t manage according to what people are going to think — you have to manage according to what’s right and wrong, and if you replace Ibanez with another guy, and the other guy comes through, well, that was the whole idea. Not every managerial decision will work out, but the best managers will have more decisions work out than the others.
There were plenty of opportunities Tuesday night of which the Yankees failed to take advantage. Among them was the opportunity presented by the final at-bat of the game, and as a consequence of all of that, the Yankees now need to win four games in a row. Thankfully for them, CC Sabathia could start two of those games. Unthankfully for them, the Tigers are good. Playoff situations don’t get much worse than this one.