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Intentional walk leads to big inning vs. Mariners

The Mariners let the Yankees make it interesting, but a 7-2 deficit in the ninth is too big a mountain to climb, even against a bad Mariners club and a tiring Cliff Lee. At the risk of seeming hypercritical (although that’s an official part of my job description, and yours as fans) given that it’s not exactly shameful to lose to Cliff Lee -- some days you’re just not going to get the bear, so just tip your cap and, as Casey Stengel would have said, try to get out gracefully -- but the game might have at least been competitive if not for a Coffee Joe moment in the sixth inning.

Let me say in advance that you can debate this one; it’s not as clear-cut a miss as was the decision to let A.J. Burnett complete his journey to the century of the Earth ("Keep digging, Allan James, you haven’t met your quota yet") last weekend against the Dodgers. This is more a matter of general philosophy. With rare exceptions, intentional walks are nonsensical on their face. Entering Tuesday’s games, the American League leader in on-base percentage, Justin Morneau, reached base about 45 percent of the time, which is to say that gets out about 55 percent of the time, or a little more than once in every two trips to the plate. The average AL hitter has a .332 OBP, failing to reach base two-thirds of the time. Franklin Gutierrez has reached base 35 percent of the time, hit his way on 27 percent of the time. When he does hit, he doesn’t have a lot of power. Despite his home run in the game, he isn’t an impact hitter.

Let’s say he was an impact hitter, though. Let’s say he’s Babe Ruth, or go to the other end of the spectrum and say he was Babe Adam Everett, a terrible hitter. When you intentionally walk a hitter, whatever his ability to reach base, you’re taking his chance of reaching base, be it .290 or .390, and throwing it in the trash in order to replace it with a 1.000 on-base percentage. Even against the worst pitcher in the majors, the odds aren’t totally one-sided for the hitter until the manager holds up four fingers.

Predictably enough, the strategy often backfires. In over 100 years of baseball, managers don’t seem to have realized that it plays into the opposing teams hands to put their runners on base. It’s surprising, I know, but the other team can’t score runs until it gets some runners on base, and when they do, those runners sometimes score. If, on the other hand, you retire their batters, they tend not to score, being, you know, out. Consider the situation in which Coffee Joe issued his intentional walk today, two outs and a runner on second. If you look at Baseball Prospectus’s expected runs matrix, with a runner on second and two outs, teams have scored about .32 runs. With runners on first and second and two outs, they’ve scored about .47 runs. In other words, with more runners on, teams score more runs. Try not to let the shock get to you.

There are situations where the intentional walk might make sense, such as in the National League when the number eight hitter is up with runners on and the pitcher on deck. Even then, though, a judgment must be made as to the quality of that hitter. When not being intentionally walked, NL eighth-place hitters have an OBP of about .319. Pirates number eight hitters are hitting .187/.252/.249, intentional walks and all. Why not go after that guy AND the pitcher and get two outs? The Pirates are an extreme example, but about two-thirds of the NL teams offer lesser variations on the same theme. (There are also a few, like the Dodgers, Padres, and Giants who are getting strangely robust production from the eighth spot while suffering at other positions—Mssrs. Torre, Black, and Bochy: time to rethink the way you’ve ordered things?)

You can see things Girardi’s way. Jack Wilson and Rob Johnson, the batters following Gutierrez are such poor hitters that it must have looked as if there were big glowing THIS WAY TO THE EXIT signs floating above their heads. Better still to look at such players as gifts, go after Gutierrez, hope you get him, and then take on the two apparent freebies next inning, where their occasional random hits are less likely to do damage.

Chances are, the intentional walk to Gutierrez, which helped turn the 4-1 deficit into 7-1, didn’t affect the outcome of the game. We can’t know for sure, because we can’t know what would have happened if Phil Hughes had pitched to Gutierrez, or had Girardi gone to the pen before attacking Gutierrez. Given that the Yankees ultimately lost the game 7-4, it’s not unfair to ask if yet another caffeinated chess move detonated on the launch pad—and no apologies for the mixed metaphor; I like it.

Word has gotten about that the White Sox and Angels are fishing around for slugger Adam Dunn to goose their postseason chances. A natural designated hitter who has been pressed into service at first base this season after spending most of his career at the outfield corners, Dunn is a high-strikeout (as many as 195 in a season), low-average (.251 career), high-OBP (.382 career) power hitter who is having an excellent season for the Nationals at .276/.366/.559. The highest-paid National, Dunn’s contract is up and with the team going nowhere fast he’s apparently on the block.

At 30 years-old, Dunn wouldn’t be too risky an acquisition, even if he has a reputation as being a small-town, big-city-hating kind of guy. He certainly could do some damage to right field in Yankee Stadium. He would probably be a cheaper solution to the open DH slot than the younger Prince Fielder. There are two risks with Dunn, and they apply to Fielder as well: expecting a Senior Circuit player to transition to the AL without leaving a good chunk of his production behind, and, more specific to the Yankees, is whether locking up the DH spot is desirable given issues in the second half of this year and next with players like Jorge Posada and Jesus Montero. We don’t know what Brian Cashman’s position on this matter is as of yet, but we’ll be able to tell by his actions over the next four weeks or so.

I don’t get all the calls right, but I nailed this one. Back on June 4, as the Yankees were getting ready to open a series against the Toronto Blue Jays, I wrote:

In short, everything is stacked in Toronto’s favor for this meeting and they still aren’t going to take more than one out of three unless the Yankees have one of their periodic lost weekends. In fact, with a road trip to Tampa, Colorado, and San Diego followed by a homestand against the Giants, Cardinals and Phillies, this is where the bubble bursts for the Blue Jays. After that difficult stretch, they pause briefly to visit Cleveland, then have nine games against the Yankees, Twins, and Red Sox. By the middle of July, the "surprising Jays" are very likely to be a distant memory.

The Yankees did have one of their "periodic lost weekends" and lost two out of three in Toronto. However, it seems I was correct in saying that the schedule was about to deal the Jays a mortal blow. Since the Yankees left town, the Jays have gone 7-13. Over the last two nights they’ve dropped consecutive one-run decisions to the Indians, which is a difficult thing to do. After three more games with the Tribe, it’s three at Yankee Stadium. The only thing you can say in their favor about their subsequent schedule is that they seem to be catching the slumping Twins and the post-demolition Red Sox at the right time.