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Game 1: Letting the Piper Call the Tune in Minnesota

Ron Gardenhire and Joe Giardi before Game 1: He who hesitates is lost. (AP)

My Baseball Prospectus colleagues and I spent about 11 hours chatting through three baseball games. As the top of the sixth inning began to turn for the Yankees, we noted Francisco Liriano’s sudden loss of command after he had baffled the Yankees for five innings. The question soon became, "When will Ron Gardenhire pull him?"

As we now know, Gardenhire waited at least one batter too long, hanging fire until Curtis Granderson hit a long blast to right field that probably would have been about 10 rows deep at Yankee Stadium. It was only then that he yanked Liriano’s chord out of the socket and dragged Jose Mijares in from the bullpen. I asked Kevin Goldstein if he faulted Gardenhire for not being quicker to make a move.

Goldstein replied, "Personally, I think it was one batter too long, but leaving him in against Granderson at least had matchup logic." My response, informed by years of having Casey Stengel living in my brain, was to deny that Gardenhire had thought the matter through properly. Sure, he had left Liriano in the game to get the lefty-on-lefty advantage against Granderson, normally a good idea, but Liriano was done. "You'd rather have a live righty face Granderson," I said, "than a dying lefty, whatever the platoon stats."

Goldstein agreed, but said that that isn’t how managers think: "Managers have an ideal bullpen flow in mind before each game (see Padres), and they can get caught up in not straying from it. No flow for the Twins has fat lefty [Mijares] being first [out of the pen] when non-fat lefty [Liriano] is starting."

Goldstein was probably correct. The problem is, for the manager, that’s not being a thinking, flexible, creative coach, it’s being an automaton, a slave to a battle plan. As Helmuth Von Moltke famously said, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. It’s great to have plans, but the battle, the game itself, presents problems you could not have anticipated. At that point, you have to improvise. In this case, it meant fetching a lefty who wasn’t gassed out of the bullpen even though another lefty was already in the game.

Casey Stengel: As George Harrison sang, "You said it all, though not many had ears." (Author's Collection)

Casey Stengel talked about this. He loved to platoon, but he also knew, as he said, that "People alter percentages." Sometimes a manager has to stop worrying about matchups and just do what he has to do to get out of an inning. "If [the opposition has] a right-handed hitter who can’t hit an overhanded curve ball [at bat], and you’ve got a right-handed pitcher in there who hasn’t got an overhand curve," he said, "Don’t you think you might be better off with a left-hander who has?"

This is what Gardenhire didn’t think of in the sixth inning. The Yankees showed they couldn’t hit Liriano at his best, but now he was laboring and they were hitting him just fine. Paraphrasing Casey, wouldn’t the Twins have been better off with a lefty who wasn’t tired? Gardenhire wasn’t thinking in that direction. Here’s what he said: "I think Liriano deserved the chance to get Granderson out. He hits like .180 off him. You take your starter out in a situation like that, it’s not the right thing to do."

First, if the pitcher is done, he’s done. Liriano was pretty obviously done. Second, Gardenhire’s scouting reports should have told him that Granderson’s .180 (it was actually .182) was compiled using his old-school batting stance, not his new, lefty-hurting stance. He might have also considered that after 105 pitches, Liriano might not have been the same pitcher that had so dominated Granderson.

Christina Kahrl made a very good observation about the reasoning through which Gardenhire had failed his team: "There are times when it seems as if data overload is getting in the way of watching what's going wrong in individual batter/pitch sequences. The batters let you know when a pitcher's done, in essence." In other words, you don’t pull a pitcher when the pitcher is done, and you don’t leave him in when he’s still good to go. Instead, you look at who is coming up and you desperately, desperately try to shave 10 points off of his batting average by controlling for the platoon matchup. It is an idiotic way of doing things, it doesn’t work, as it didn’t work tonight, it brings a succession of ever-weaker pitchers into the game, clogs rosters, extends game times, and, thankfully for the Yankees, is the undoing of teams like the Twins.

A few other observations:

  • Watching Roy Halladay’s classic performance earlier in the day, I was desperately afraid that the umpires would snatch history away from him with a botched call. Instead, they nearly did the same to the Yankees by blowing the call on Greg Golson’s catch at the end of the game. Fortunately, no harm was done, but this is just another example of the desperate need for an eye-in-the-sky ump who can take a quick look at the replays and overturn the clowns on the field. Baseball officiating is at its all-time nadir and no one in the game seems to care.
  • Joe Girardi kept Coffee Joe in check. The pitching changes were sensible; he went to Mariano Rivera when he needed to instead of holding to his pregame pledge to hold him out until the ninth. There was no crazy pinch-running, the only substitution being the insertion of Golson for Swisher. This paid off in a big way, but of course the umpires didn’t see it.
  • I do wonder how Girardi will use the bullpen in Game 2 given his reluctance to use his fragile pitchers on consecutive days. Yankees relievers pitched two days in a row just 76 times this year; the league average was 85 times. With Andy Pettitte’s various frailties, he’s not going to pitch seven or eight innings. He might not pitch five. The bullpen will be needed, so reliever availability will be a factor.
  • It was easy to overreact to the Jorge Posada passed ball that allowed Orlando Hudson to score the Twins’ third run, but at the time it seemed like a crucial blow. Whatever happens this postseason, the Yankees have some truly difficult evaluations to make about next year’s catching.
  • As much as we who follow the Yankees like to mock Carl Pavano, he’s a tough opponent, with excellent control. That said, he’s not dominant and some rough starts in August and September. The Yankees can put the ball in play against him, and when they do, good things might happen. Consider that the power-hitting Blue Jays faced him three times and punished him in two of the games. Overall, he allowed 27 hits and 14 runs to them in 17.1 innings, including five homers. It’s not an automatic, but Thursday could be a good day for the Yankees.