Free Pass

Just put him on...

Alas, the Yankees have lost the ALCS. There are many things you can blame for this sad reality, most notably the fact that the Rangers pitched and hit better than the Yankees throughout the series. But one thing that certainly didn’t help matters was the absurd number of intentional walks issued at the behest of Joe Girardi.

Two of the series’ key turning points were centered on intentional walks. First, in Game 4, with A.J. Burnett pitching as well as anyone could have expected and the Yankees leading 3-2, Vlad Guerrero led off the sixth with a single. Nelson Cruz replaced him at first on a fielder’s choice, and then, in a smart baserunning play, went to second on a deep fly ball to center. This move was so smart because it left Girardi with something that, apparently, managers do not know what to do with: a base open.

You hear things like this all the time in baseball: “Well, you have a base open here, so you can pitch around him,” or “You may as well walk him with a base open.” Here is a quick note for managers: YOU WANT YOUR BASES TO BE OPEN. That is a good thing. It means you have fewer runners on base and, thus, fewer runners at risk of scoring. And yet having a runner a second base and not first for some reason makes managers think about this differently, as if there were no substantive difference between having two runners on and having only one.

Because I’m sure that, had Cruz not taken second, Girardi would not have done what he did,* which is intentionally walk David Murphy.** Now, I understand that there are some hitters who deserve to be intentionally walked—guys like Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth. David Murphy is not one of them. Murphy is a career .282 hitter. He has 47 home runs in five seasons. Yes, Murphy is a better hitter than Bengie Molina, the next hitter due up, but that does not make up for the fact you are extending the inning and putting the go-ahead run on base.

*In fact, this is actually a probably good rule of thumb: If the idea of IBBing someone without a base open would never occur to you, then the mere fact that the base happens to be open shouldn’t make you do it. Because, again, HAVING BASES OPEN IS GOOD.

**Some people apparently thought Girardi’s move was intended to set up the force. This is absolutely moronic, but it would at least explain why intentional walks are so much more frequent with “bases open.” The problem with this logic is that outs that result from force plays at second, third, and home are incredibly infrequent. Even when they do occur, it is often on a play that can be made at first almost as easily. There are certainly examples of plays where balls hit to certain parts of the infield make getting the runner at first impossible, but these are too rare to base decisions off of—not to mention that, in this particular case, we are talking about a Molina, one of the slowest players in baseball.

It’s true that pitching to Murphy might result in a hit, causing the tying run to score, but that would likely be the extent of the damage. The situation then would be a runner on first with two outs and the bottom of the order coming up—not exactly a huge rally. If you walk Murphy, though, and Molina gets a hit, then the trying run scores, and you have first and second with two outs and the lineup about to turn over. Murphy could double, in which case not only would the tying run score, but Murphy himself—the go-ahead run—would be in scoring position for Molina. But if you walk Murphy and Molina doubles, then you are either losing, or in a tie game with second and third and two out. Even if Murphy does the absolute worst thing he could do, homer, then you are still in a one-run game. But if you walk Murphy to face Molina and then Molina homers (which, of course, is exactly what ended up happening), then you’re down 5-3. In other words, in every conceivable outcome for Molina’s at-bat other than an out, you have made the inning much worse than it would have been had Murphy done the same thing. And it’s not like it’s inconceivable that Burnett could have retired Murphy given the chance—Murphy was 0-for-1 at that point in the game.

You may point out that the odds of getting Molina out are better than getting Murphy out, but it’s not worth dramatically increasing the odds of a big inning in order to marginally increase the odds of an out.* Especially not in the middle innings of a close game between two very good offensive teams.

*Helpfully, Joe Posnanski ran the numbers on his blog and, over 500 plate appearances, the Rangers score 14 more runs thanks to the walk.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Murphy walk was that Girardi did get criticism for how he managed the inning, but mostly for the wrong part. People generally criticized him for leaving Burnett in too long, and not for walking Murphy. This, really, is unfair to Burnett. Burnett had a terrible year and he wasn’t exactly Roy Halladay in Game 4, but there was no real reason to think he was about to lose it. He had given up one single in the inning and it wasn’t exactly a scorcher. His pitch to Molina was awful, but it was his first major mistake of the night. There was no real reason to have any more confidence in David Robertson, whose postseason ERA at that point was 19.59 in four appearances, than in Burnett.

At least, however, people were somewhat critical of Girardi’s move. Joe Posnanski wrote his objection (the intentional walk being a bete noir of his as well), and Will Leitch called it “strange.” People were not nearly as critical of Girardi’s respect for Josh Hamilton, the ALCS MVP.

Girardi set an ALCS record by intentionally walking Hamilton five times in the series, including three times in last night’s final game. Although the first one ended up working* and the last only resulted in one run, the middle one, occurring in the Rangers’ big fifth inning, helped Texas break the game open. With Mitch Moreland on third and two outs, Hamilton was walked, setting up a two-RBI double by Guerrero and, later, a two-run home run by Cruz to break the game open.

*A note to announcers and, really, anyone who ever watches a sporting event: Just because a strategy somehow leads to a positive outcome, it does not mean the strategy “worked.” When Les Miles bungles clock management but LSU still wins on the final play (how ridiculous is it that I can give you TWO links for that?), that doesn’t mean his plan “worked”—it just didn’t go as poorly as it could have.

In some ways, the walk of Hamilton is more understandable than the walk of Murphy. Hamilton, after all, had four homers in the series and hit .350 when he was pitched to. He is far more intimidating than David Murphy. That is, presumably, why so many people agreed with it. The TBS announcing crew said Girardi “had to” do it with such conviction that you’d think MLB had amended the rules; Chad Jennings, on his blog, called it “the obvious call”; even fellow NPIer Tim tweeted that he wouldn’t have done anything differently.

And yet this makes me hate the walk even more, because it was the conventional move. After the game, Phil Hughes said, “That’s arguably the MVP of this league. You can’t let a player like that beat you.” Yes, you can, Phil: You make a pitch, he tries to hit it, and we see what happens. That’s called baseball.

What infuriates me so much about Hughes’ quote and the walk to Hamilton in general is that this type of fear is so unjustified when you actually look at the facts. Even someone hitting .350 like Hamilton makes an out 65% of the time you pitch to him, and yet Hughes’ quote essentially implies that pitching to Hamilton would have caused a run with near metaphysical certainty.

It’s not like Hughes had any reason to doubt his own stuff. The only hit he had surrendered in the inning was an infield single to Moreland, who only reached because Hughes failed to cover first in time. In fact, Moreland’s grounder was the first hit off Hughes since the first inning.* He had allowed only one particularly well-hit ball all night: a double from Elvis Andrus to lead off the game. There was no real reason to fear a big inning.

*Yes, the last hit had come from Hamilton, but it was an opposite field single—not exactly the stuff of pitchers’ nightmares.

There would, however, be reason to fear a big inning by walking Hamilton to face Guerrero. Because while Hamilton is no Murphy, Guerrero is no Molina. You are not putting a guy on base to face a .250 hitter who hit five home runs all season—you are putting a runner on in order to face arguably the second-best hitter of the last decade (behind Pujols, of course). Guerrero led the Rangers in RBIs with 115 this season, his tenth year with over 100 RBIs. His plate appearances result in extra-base hits 11% of the time.

Do you really want to face him with runners at the corners in a close game?

Of course, Girardi chose this option and Guerrero made him pay. Then Girardi pulled Hughes and Cruz went deep, giving the Rangers a lead they would never relinquish.

The Yankees didn’t deserve to win those games anyway. The bullpen turned Game 4 into a 10-3 blowout, and Colby Lewis dominated the Yankees lineup so thoroughly that a one-run lead probably would have been enough in Game 6.

But that’s not the point. The point is that A) the big things that happen in games are not the Big Things, but the little things that happen before the Big Things. Guys like Josh Hamilton and Vlad Guerrero are going to get big hits and big home runs sometimes. You are even going to surrender home runs to the Molinas of the world on occasion (just ask Mets fans). But when you intentionally put guys on base, you make those big hits matter more. Both the Murphy walk and the Hamilton walk led to dramatic moments that shifted the tide of the game in a way RBI singles and solo home runs can’t do.

The other point, B), is that PEOPLE STILL THINK INTENTIONAL WALKS ARE A GOOD IDEA. Even after these two catastrophic outcomes, Girardi still walked Hamilton in seventh, and then, as if he were managing just to spite me, he walked Cruz two batters later. I don’t really think any one thing should cause a manager to get fired, but if anything is a fireable offense, it’s that.

 

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One response to this post.

  1. […] me in years passed. He seems to overthink things when he gets to the postseason, whether it’s intentionally walking Josh Hamilton five times in the 2010 ALCS or using CC Sabathia in relief in Game 5 of last year’s Division […]

    Reply

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