Of all the moves that a manager makes throughout a game, the one that I think can be attributed most to ‘feel’ rather than pure statistical data is the decision on when to pull the starter. Often, the pitcher’s stuff will give clues that he is losing effectiveness, and it is up to the manager to gauge whether he can count on the pitcher to get a few more outs without losing effectiveness. It is a difficult decision that is ripe for criticism when it backfires, particularly because managers will often ignore the signals from the pitcher due to the favorable nature of a matchup or the reputation of the pitcher. During last night’s playoff game between the Yankees and Twins, both managers were faced with this difficult decision in the 6th inning.
In the top of the inning, Francisco Liriano struggled for the first time in the game, allowing 2 runs to score and putting runners at 1st and 2nd with 2 outs. The batter was Curtis Granderson, a hitter who traditionally struggles against lefties and has particularly bad numbers against Liriano. However, Liriano looked fairly gassed, and has been a 6 inning and 100 pitch pitcher all season. Additionally, lefty Jose Mijares was ready in the bullpen and could have been used to maintain the platoon advantage against Granderson. Ron Gardenhire decided to go with the previously favorable Liriano v. Granderson matchup, and Liriano’s tiredness cost Minnesota the lead. Granderson tripled to right-center to score two runs, knocking Liriano from the game for the lefty Mijares, who retired Brett Gardner.
In the bottom of the inning, Joe Girardi was faced with a similar choice. CC Sabathia had struggled with his command all game, but had been able to limit the damage to 3 runs over 5 innings. Now armed with a one run lead, he started out the inning by retiring Joe Mauer and then Delmon Young, with Young flying out to the wall in left. CC’s command then abandoned him, and he walked Jim Thome, allowed a double to Michael Cuddyer, and then walked lefty Jason Kubel. With rookie righty Danny Valencia coming to the plate and Dave Robertson ready in the pen, Joe Girardi had a tough decision to make. CC had clearly lost the plate, but Valencia had looked lost in two previous at-bats against CC, both strikeouts. Furthermore, CC did not look particularly tired, nor had he lost any movement or velocity. He simply was exhibiting the lack of command that plagued him all game. Girardi decided to stay with his ace, and just as that choice had burned Gardenhire, it cost Joe’s team the lead. Valencia walked on 4 pitches to force in a run, and JJ Hardy came to the plate to face Sabathia. Again Joe chose to leave CC in, and this move worked out as Hardy struck out on a beautiful 2-2 changeup.
As I said in my introduction, these sort of decisions are quite difficult. Managers tend to get lost in the head-to-head matchups of Liriano v. Granderson and Sabathia v. Valencia and ignore the fact that their pitcher has lost effectiveness and is not the same guy who has retired the batter in the past. On the other hand, I can understand why managers might have more faith in their ace pitcher than a reliever. The ace is a known quantity, as you have some feel for how he is pitching that night. Conversely, you never know if a reliever is going to have an off night until he serves up a fat one and costs you the game. Personally, I believe in a quick hook in the postseason and would have removed both pitchers from the game prior to the discussed at-bats. However, I do not think either manager made a particularly egregious decision is staying with their aces, and would not complain much if Girardi made the same “mistake” again later this postseason.
What would you have done?
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