Coffee Joe Rides Again! (A Thrilling New York Yankees Sequel Coming to a Ballpark Near You!)

Al Bello

Joe Girardi looks at his offense and foresees scoring in "a different fashion." Might this be an excuse to give his managerial id free rein?

Reflecting on his new-look offense at yesterday's camp-opening presser, Joe Girardi said:

"I anticipate it's going to be different, because we don't quite have the home run hitters we've had in the past. So we're going to have to find different ways to score runs. I think when you look at our club this year, there's more speed. You have one outfielder who has the potential of stealing 50, 60 bases if he stays healthy the whole year. So I think our offense is going to be different, but I believe that we're going to score runs. It's just going to be in a different fashion than it has been in the past."

Managers have a part to play in organizing their rosters and determining player-utilization patterns, but when they start thinking they can manipulate runs into existence, they risk going backwards. When you look at run expectancy tables, all of the common managerial offensive strategies put the team at a disadvantage for the simple reason that they require giving away an out, and that means bringing your inning, and indeed your whole game, closer to its end. As such, one-run strategies are mainly defensible in low-scoring environments, which despite a tailing off of offensive levels over the last few years, we are not presently experiencing, or ninth-inning situations where one run will almost certainly win you the game.*

The Yankees have successfully executed about 30 sacrifice bunts a season this century. Given Girardi's "different fashion" comments and a full season of Brett Gardner (who is poor at bunting), Derek Jeter (who bunts when he shouldn't), and a catching combo that can't hit, it seems certain that we're about to witness the full-season manifestation of Coffee Joe, Girardi's dark, activist alter ego. Coffee Joe normally only emerges during the playoffs, when the stakes compel Girardi to resist the urge to take a bat in his hands and do what needs doing himself the only way he can -- via making a pitching change or calling for a bunt or a hit and run.

In other words, Joe Girardi is a highly intelligent, reasonable manager, a student meticulous enough to earn a degree in industrial engineering. Coffee Joe is a hairy, drooling madman who is well capable of destroying everything he touches. It has been a long time since an American League team executed 100 sacrifice bunts in a single season -- the 1982 California Angels, a division-winner managed by the bunt-happy, and thereby self-defeating, Gene Mauch, was the last team to do so. In this century, the upper limit is 65, or only 24 more than the Yankees' millennial high of 2007. Joe Girardi is not capable of calling for more than double the sacrifice bunts the Yankees had in 2012, but Coffee Joe, he's ready, willing, eager to try. The team's 10 games in National League parks this year will just be the opening act--the entire 162-game schedule will be his stage.


As you can see, there is no broad characterization you can make about the AL teams that have most loved the bunt; one of the worst teams of all time heads the list, but there are a few teams that were quite good as well. Several of them were trying to hide light-hitting middle infielders like Desi Relaford and Angel Berroa (2003 Royals) or Chris Getz and Alcides Escobar (2011 Royals), which is not a problem the Yankees have with Robinson Cano and the potentially immortal Derek Jeter up the middle.

As Jason Cohen pointed out in a column that ran here earlier today, the Yankees have lost quite a few home runs on paper, but they should also get enough back with their new acquisitions that the net loss shouldn't be devastating. With speedy players like Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki, they should as a matter of course steal more bases. Beyond that, there really isn't much that Girardi can or should do to stimulate offense. As Earl Weaver pointed out, although the bunt and the hit and run are termed offensive plays, their basic intention is essentially defensive -- they serve as outlets for managers who are overly paranoid about double play possibilities. Girardi has eased off on the hit and run over time-according the Bill James Handbook, he has gone from leading the AL in times having the runners going with the pitch in 2008 to a below-average 145 in 2012. He could ramp that up a little with Gardner, Ichiro, Curtis Granderson, and perhaps (eventually) Derek Jeter on the bases, but otherwise, to what end would you even attempt this maneuver with Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, or Travis Hafner on the bases? Such a call might make the manager fee like he was doing something to influence the game, but can only lead to embarrassment, injury, or both.

Similarly, Ichiro typically doesn't sacrifice; as a guy whose whole game is beating out ground balls, bunting would be purely redundant. As mentioned earlier, Gardner looks terribly frightened each time he's called upon to bunt, and given his willingness to work the count and walk, taking the bat out of his hands is a counterproductive strategy. Jeter bunts sometimes, but given that he is still (we hope) a .300 hitter capable of double-figure home-run production, even with a GDP habit that now far exceeds Jim Rice's worst nightmares (despite hitting into as many as 36 double plays in a season, Rice never hit into two in more than 20 percent of double-play situations -- Jeter was the subject of a twin killing in 24 percent of such situations last year - see below) making a habit of it seems like self-abuse.


That leaves a great many players who aren't bunting (Cano, Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner), aren't running (most of the same guys, perhaps including Granderson, who has been under 15 steal attempts in two of his three years with the team, and the catchers) or both. Assuming Eduardo Nunez is on the bench, Girardi can indulge himself with some late-inning pinch-bunting or pinch-running, and if Gardner sits for most left-handed pitching, Girardi would have another pinch-running option. Putting such possibilities aside (seeing too much of Nunez would mean something had gone terribly wrong somewhere), the amount of button-pushing Girardi/Coffee Joe can do seems fairly limited.

So, perhaps there is nothing to fear from Coffee Joe after all, but even then, that is no sure thing. History is replete with managers who decided that they had to run with a slow roster, or play small ball with a team of sluggers. At the winter meetings, Ned Yost told me that this year's Royals would hit with more power purely by changing their philosophy at the plate. A motivated manager can be a very dangerous thing. Far better that they set the lineup and mostly stay out of the way. Girardi had that kind of team last year and he probably still has it this year. All that remains is for him to recognize that reality.

*For more of my take on managers, see Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers. I reap no financial benefit should you act on this plug, alas; I just hope you enjoy the book.

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