Down by a run in the top of the ninth inning, with two out, and base runners on first and second, left-handed batter Raul Ibanez was due up for the New York Yankees. Waiting on the pitching mound for Ibanez was left-handed pitcher Phil Coke of the Detroit Tigers. In the history of baseball, this specific pitcher-batter match up had occurred four times previously, with Coke getting the upper hand in all but one occasion, which was a home run in 2009.

During the first two games of this American League Championship Series, these two player faced each other twice. The first occasion resulted in a ground out; the second, a strike out. At the time, both of these plate appearances were thought to be high leverage situations, but they pale in comparison to Tuesday night’s confrontation which would only be slightly hyperbolic to suggest was the most important at-bat of the Yankees season. The outcome of the Coke vs. Ibanez battle would decide the difference between a likely insurmountable 3-0 ALCS lead for the Tigers, and a tight 2-1 ALCS deficit for the Yankees.

Over the course of his career, Ibanez has made 1873 plate appearances against left-handed pitching, and from this sample which started being collected in 1996, we can safely say that he is a below average batter against southpaws. Over the last four years, his numbers have declined steadily, likely due to his own aging, and the fact that managers handling him have reduced his opportunities to hit against left-handers.

We consider Ibanez to be a poor hitter against the average left-handed pitcher. Phil Coke is not your average left-handed pitcher. He specializes at getting left-handed batters out. Over the course of his career, he’s faced 584 batters on the left side. Only 170 times has a lefty been able to avoid getting out. If we were to take the numbers of the left-handed batters that Coke has faced and add up their totals to pretend as though it was one player, he would be the third worst offensive player in baseball this past season.

So, we can safely say that Ibanez vs. Coke is not the best of match ups for the New York Yankees, to whom the outcome of this plate appearance is critical. We might even go a bit further and suggest that the manager of the team, Joe Girardi, should consider the other options at his disposal, which, looking at his bench, include Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher, both excellent hitters against left-handed pitching. So excellent in fact, that the match up would go from favoring Coke, to favoring either of these batters.

However, we can’t look only at Girardi’s bench because it’s not realistic to assume that him bringing in either Rodriguez or Swisher wouldn’t result in a counter move by Tigers manager Jim Leyland. At the time, right-handed reliever Joaquin Benoit was up working in the Detroit bullpen, and he was the most likely response to Girardi pinch-hitting with either of his two best options.

Benoit has fairly even splits. In fact, despite being right-handed, he’s been slightly worse against right-handed batters than left-handed batters over his career. During the 2012 regular season, batters performed exactly the same against him in terms of weighted on base average whether they faced the reliever from the right or left side of the plate.

Meanwhile, both Rodriguez and Swisher remain above average bats against right-handed pitching. While A-Rod has actually performed better against righties over his entire career, the switch-hitting Swisher has been only slightly worse than his average performance against lefties. More recently, Rodriguez had a below average performance against right-handers this season, while Swisher had the best year of his career against right-handed pitching.

So, again, we find that even with this counter move, going by both recent and career numbers, there’s a far superior option in Nick Swisher (and maybe Alex Rodriguez) available to Joe Girardi. However, the manager stuck with Ibanez, and he struck out on the seventh pitch from Coke.

Game over.

Now, the defense for Girardi is that Ibanez had been playing well extremely recently, while Rodriguez and Swisher had been playing poorly extremely recently. The predictive nature of hot/cold streaks was studied in The Book, and the conclusion drawn was that it’s always better to assume that a player will hit at his projected norm regardless of how he’s hit in the very recent past.

Now, there is the additional possibility that an injury or bout of tiredness that we might not know about has emerged for Rodriguez or Swisher, but if such a thing has affected them to the degree that Girardi considers Ibanez the better option in this situation, then they probably shouldn’t be on the team’s roster at all.

Further to the idea of playing the hot hand, if you’re going to argue that this is the right move, then you also have to consider that Coke, too, has been “hot.” In fact, over six appearances, pitching five and a third innings, he has yet to allow a run this postseason. So, if you’re going to place so much of an emphasis on recent performances, shouldn’t you maybe give more consideration to the strategy that would force the opposing manager’s hand into playing the less “hot” pitcher? Benoit, has made four appearances this postseason, pitching three and two thirds innings, and allowing two runs in that time. Surely, if recent performances is so important, this is the preferable pitcher to face.

What we’re left with is absolutely no reasonable justification for what Girardi decided to do last night, in letting Ibanez bat against Coke. It’s like sending in a cockroach to fight an exterminator, when you have a lion. Yes, as soon as you unleash the lion, the other combatant will up the ante with a Rhodesian Ridgeback, but I like the odds of winning that battle a heck of a lot more than the alternative. I’m not sure why the same wasn’t true for Joe Girardi on Tuesday night.

And now, the Detroit Tigers are a win away from the World Series, and the New York Yankees are a loss away from their season being finished.

Comments (19)

  1. Girardi took the path of least resistance. Imagine if he took out Ibanez and hit A-Rod? Any failure and he is crucified in the press and might lose his job. I don’t agree with his decision but I can sure as shit see why he did it and I might have done the same

    • As pointed out in the broadcast, A-rod was just sitting there and was not warmed up. So it becomes a choice between Ibanez and Swisher:
      If Raul gets a hit and ties it up he has truly done something special in yankee lore.
      if swisher comes in and gets out, Girardi is still crucifed.

  2. I’m all for playing the matchups, but I think you (and everyone else who argued that Girardi should have pinch-hit for Ibanez) are completely wrong here.

    In the last week, Ibanez has three of the most clutch hits we’ve ever seen in the postseason. One of those was against a left-hander. Sure, Matusz isn’t the lefty-killer that Coke is, but the point is that it’s not like Ibanez cannot, under any circumstances, hit lefties.

    Swisher and A-Rod have been garbage in the postseason. Ibanez has been the team’s best (only?) hitter. It would have been asinine to look at career numbers as an indication of what might happen in this one at bat. It is very convenient to write a post killing Girardi ex post facto, and sure there are numbers to back it up, but I think the premise is misguided.

    • What’s misguided about the premise? Also, this isn’t retroactive thinking. I was saying this at the time as well.

      You easily cite one HR, the week before off of a LHP, but ignore a ground out and a strike out off the very same pitcher even more recently. Why does one sway your judgment more than the other?

      Also, The Book actually considers all streaks, over a huge sample, and comes to the conclusion that there’s no predictive value that can be gleaned from them, meaning its better to go with results on a bigger sample.

      You’re also not offering an answer to the idea that if you’re going to cite what’s happened over the last five games, why it isn’t equally important to get the recently better pitcher out of the game in favor of the recently worse.

      • My point is that Ibanez has been the only Yankee to do anything offensively. I’m not saying he was 100% guaranteed to get a hit.

        Sometimes, managers should disregard what the right thing, according to the stats, is. Last night was one of those times.

        I know people, like Matt above, are saying that Girardi took the path of least resistance by not pinch-hitting. I disagree. Can you imagine the amount of criticism he would have received had he subbed in Swisher or, gasp, A-Rod, for Raaauuulllll and the move was not successful?

        Again, to reiterate my point: Ibanez has three of the most clutch postseason hits ever, in the last week alone. There may be no predictive value, there may be no such thing as a hot hand/bat, etc. However, if I was a Yankees fan (heaven forbid), I could not have supported Girardi taking out the only Yankees hitter who has done anything in these playoffs for Swisher or A-Rod.

        • Wait. Why should managers disregard what is the right thing to do? The thing that they have most reason to think will lead to success?

          • Right according to the stats. Point is, stats are not the be all and end all. There are other considerations.

          • The stats prove that the stats are the be all and end all. There are other considerations, but there shouldn’t be.

        • OK, so you’re not listening: “The Book actually considers all streaks, over a huge sample, and comes to the conclusion that there’s no predictive value that can be gleaned from them.”

          That completely annihilates your clutch argument. Hot streaks have no predictive value, or, in other words, just because you’ve been hitting well for the last little while doesn’t mean you will CONTINUE to hit well your next time up.

          Hot streaks can end as abruptly as they begin. This isn’t a case where “stats are not the be all and end all.” The stats say that a hot bat for the last week tells you NOTHING about whether or not you’ll have a hot bat tomorrow.

          Keeping Ibanez in was political, not strategic.

        • You’re just issuing platitudes. Give me evidence of this. It doesn’t have to be statistical, but provide reason for a decision. This is pretty much the basis for good and bad decision processes.

  3. Girardi believes in the imaginary “clutch” rating.
    He doesn’t believe in the “due” theory since A-Rod has never had a clutch hit with men on base.

  4. So you’re saying Ibamez had a career 1.250 OPS against Coke?

    Joking aside, I think it’s a bit trite to blame the manager, right or wrong in this case, when you have a team full of superstars all underperforming.

  5. I wonder whether if it had been some other hitter besides Ibanez in the same situation, would Girardi have pinch hit for him… Ibanez has become a bit of a hero to NYY fans in the past week with three clutch late-inning HR’s. Had Girardi made the percentages move by pinch hitting Swisher or ARod for Ibanez it would have no doubt pleased the stat-head crowd, but it would have infuriated the the mainstream media and the mouth-breathers who call in to radio talkshows… I can just imagine what the headlines would have been this morning if he had pinch hit for the team’s playoff hero thus far and the end result was still an out made by the pinch-hitter. At that point, blame for the Yankees demise would start shifting (rightly or wrongly) towards Girardi. This non-move was probably best for his self-preservation.


  6. WORLD SERIES HERE WE COME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. The thing I don’t get is how an ovemanaging skipper like Girardi would just sit on his hands and let Ibanez face Coke. Playing matchups is his thing to do, and yet he let the Tigers have the advantage. Frankly after that mess, the Yankees deserve to lose the series.

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