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Questioning the logic behind the Yankees’ pinch-hitting decisions

Why would Boone send his weakest hitter to the plate with the season on the line?

Detroit Tigers vs New York Yankees Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Yankees manager Aaron Boone has received his share of criticism following the team’s 2-1 loss to the Rays on Friday night. While some of the negative judgements are unwarranted—Boone simply provides a convenient outlet for fans to project their frustration—he fully deserves a lot of the criticism he’s received after making several questionable managerial decisions in Game Five of the ALDS.

Fans don’t merely disagree with Boone’s decision to pinch hit Mike Ford for Kyle Higashioka in the bottom of the eighth on Friday; they are puzzled and cannot understand the logic behind the decision.

Historically, MLB managers had more autonomy when it came to making lineup substitutions and overseeing overall game strategy, but in 2020 it’s generally accepted that most managers function as extensions of their organization’s front office. As a result, it’s hard to know who ultimately gave the go-ahead for Ford to pinch hit on Friday. Who thought this was a good idea? Was it the Yankees’ analytics team? General manager Brian Cashman? Boone himself? As manager, Boone may not have conceived of the idea, but he must have been on board with the strategy.

That Aaron Boone, a third-generation player and baseball lifer, would be on board with pinch-hitting Ford confounds me. Ford’s inclusion on the Yankees’ 28-man playoff roster surprised people who thought the Yankees were planning to carry an additional pitcher. Ford last recorded a hit on August 31, nearly two months prior, and had hit poorly all season. The idea that Ford would pinch hit for Higashioka in a tied, do-or-die playoff game is preposterous. Why would Boone send his weakest hitter to the plate with the game on the line? His poor judgement prompted many people to scratch their heads.

In a way, opting to pinch hit Ford was the culmination of a number of foolish pinch-hitting moves that the Yankees made this season.

Yankees pinch hitters batted .233/.233/.367 in 30 at-bats this year. Pinch hitters represent a small sample size, but considering the Yankees’ lineup hit .247/.342/.447 this year, how much of an advantage can the Yankees’ right-lefty platoon matchups really provide? The Yankees’ missteps are rather mind-boggling, assuming they have access to top-notch information and resources.

Consider these pinch hit at-bats from the 2020 season. See for yourself how bad they are:

10/9/2020 - ALDS Game 5 vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Pitcher: Diego Castillo

Pinch hitter: Mike Ford

Context: Mike Ford, who hadn’t recorded a hit in nearly two months, pinch hits for Higgy in the bottom of the 8th inning, with the Yankees’ season on the line. If the Yankees wanted to pinch hit for Higgy, they could have used Clint Frazier, who has power and plate discipline —and was probably itching to get in the game. They could have even pinch hit Gary Sánchez, especially if he was already slated to enter the game as catcher.

The birdbrained decision to use Ford—while also sacrificing Higgy’s critical defense in a tie game—cannot be substantiated with any reasonable explanation. How a sane person could bet on Ford, over Frazier, or Sánchez in this situation is beyond me.

In theory, Ford benefits from the platoon advantage as a lefty facing Diego Castillo, a right-handed reliever. In reality, Ford is the Yankees’ worst player. Entering the game, he was 0-for-19, a hitless streak that discounts any advantage he’d gain from the matchup.

08/19/2020 - NYY vs. TBR

Pitcher: Jalen Beeks

Pinch hitter: Miguel Andújar

Context: By pinch hitting him in this situation, Boone didn’t exactly put Andújar in a position to succeed. Andújar had only recently joined the team from the Yankees’ alternate site and he hadn’t seen live pitching in a really long time. Boone’s decision to go with Miggy makes even less sense in a close game against the Yankees’ division rival.

08/19/2020 - NYY vs. TBR

Pitcher: Ryan Thompson

Pinch hitter: Mike Tauchman

Context: Pinch-hitting for Clint Frazier with Mike Tauchman in this situation didn’t make any sense. Frazier’s bat was hot, not to mention he had better numbers against righties at that point in the season. It didn’t seem like there was much purpose in this decision.

One thing’s for sure: the Yankees need to change whatever formula or information they take into account in determining whether it is worth it to pinch hit for a batter already in the lineup. By pinch-hitting Ford, Boone was literally attempting to win the game with his worst batter, when there were more capable options available.