Chris Stewart is back in the lineup tonight, one day after Francisco Cervelli had his second consecutive 2-for-4 game. Joe Girardi is as stubborn as they come, and he's sticking with his plan to rotate the two catchers without regard to playing the hot hand. That may seem counterproductive, and in fact it might be -- but Girardi might also be right.
Causality is a hard thing to identify in baseball. Cervelli has gone 6-for-17 on the season. We know a few things about ol' Cervie: (1) He's streaky; (2) He's not really a .353 hitter; (3) He doesn't have the kind of power he's shown so far. Putting aside the possibility that Cervelli has completely reinvented himself -- that kind of thing doesn't happen often -- this little hot streak will come to a hard end.
For the manager, the challenge becomes, "How do I help Cervelli maintain his momentum for as long as possible?" One point of view, call it the pretend-he's-Joe-DiMaggio school of management, says that Girardi should write Cervelli's name on the lineup card every day until he stops hitting. Proponents of this school would say that sitting a player every other day risks him going cold and stale on the bench, and there might be something to that.
The opposite school, call it, the school of Joe-DiMaggio-is-dead-stupid, would say that notions of hot and cold don't apply, that there is no way to bottle what is happening, and trying to squeeze everything you can out of Cervelli is only going to speed up the moment he's exposed. Controlling how often he plays protects him from his own weaknesses, from exploitation by pitchers he can't hit, from fatigue, from whatever negative tendencies have stopped his hot streaks in the past.
There isn't a right answer -- if there was, managers really could push buttons and get the results they wanted. In the absence of a definitive way to nurture a hot streak, as with his current batting order, Girardi deserves the benefit of the doubt. It would be different if we were talking about a player who was of proven starting quality, who had a track record of hitting, even if it was in the minors and not the majors, but that's not Cervelli.
Now, having said that, it's possible that he might do this all season. Part-time catchers have had fluke seasons many, many times, just by running into 250 or 300 plate appearances of good luck. The Yankees' Rick Cerone wrung an extra 10 years out of his career based on a hot second half in 1980. I also like to think of Chris Bando in 1984 (.291/.377/.505 in 260 PAs), future Yankee Mark Salas in 1985 (.300/.332/.458 in 382 PAs), Josh Bard in 2006 (.333/.404/.522 in 284 PAs) and even Erik Kratz last year (.248/.306/.504 in 157 PAs). Did those guys have their big years because they played every day, or because their manager was judicious in spotting them? Yes. No. Maybe.
I'll give you one more potential counterargument to Girardi's doing the Cervelli hokey-pokey: Chris Stewart can't hit. He's had 404 plate appearances in the majors and has averaged .216/.278/.299. Even as a minor leaguer, he was just a .256/.328/.360 hitter. To borrow from Gertrude Stein, there's no there there. By this line of reasoning, even a slumping Cervelli might be a little more productive than Stewart will be. Add together Cervelli's 2010 and 2011 seasons and you get .269/.348/.354, and while that's not going to get any MVP votes, it's something you can survive if that's the worst hitter in your order. The rejoinder is that Cervelli has never played anything like a full season, so maintaining him physically is yet another thing Girardi has to keep in mind -- and heck, Stewart could run into a random catcher hot streak of his own.
In short, it seems like Girardi's evaluation of Cervelli is that he's best taken in small doses. Other than six hits, we really have no reason to second-guess that decision. This is still Francisco Cervelli, not Mickey Cochrane. If Girardi thinks that resting him is the best way to stave off the 0-fers that are inevitably coming, that should be good enough. After all, who is to say that Cervelli has done as well as he has so far not in spite of Girardi's handling of him, but because of it?