Trailing the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning, and potentially facing a similar deficit in the American League Division Series, Joe Girardi trusted the process. Girardi may say he acted on a whim or a gut feeling, but I would like to think that the decision to pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez with Raul Ibanez was a data-driven choice, extending beyond names, legacy, and contract status. In his post-game comments, Girardi said he began thinking about the his ninth-inning move during the seventh inning.
Orioles’ closer Jim Johnson is one of the better relief pitchers in baseball. This is the case regardless of the opposition’s hand. Pitching with the platoon split, Johnson held right-handed batters to a .214 batting average with a .526 OPS in 2012. He allowed three extra-base hits to righties in 121 regular-season appearances. Going against the split, left-handed batters hit Johnson slightly better than their right-handed counterparts; however, he still held them to a fantastic .225 average against with a .581 OPS.
Because of Johnson’s effectiveness, there was truly no good option for Girardi. Nevertheless, out of the options he did have, one was better than the other; even if the option involved replacing a potential Hall-of-Famer with a 40-year-old designated hitter off the bench.
This is not breaking news, but Alex Rodriguez is no longer the hitter he once was. This is especially true versus right-handed pitching. This season when facing a right-hander, A-Rod managed a .717 OPS with an ISO – isolated power measures raw power by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage – of .136. His struggles have only been magnified since his late-July return from the disabled list. Since being activated, he has accumulated 97 plate appearances versus right-handers – including postseason – and reached base less than a 25 percent of the time while striking out in over 30 percent of those appearances.
Overall, Raul Ibanez was a league average hitter this season. On the other hand, the left-handed batter can still hit for power against right-handed pitching. Amassing 360 appearances versus righties this season, he posted a .812 OPS, buoyed by a .492 slugging percentage. His .245 ISO versus righties was the 11th highest in the AL (min. 350 PA).
Even if you penalize Ibanez in a pinch-hitting role, he was still the better choice over Rodriguez; especially considering the situation: down one run with two outs remaining. One could argue (and a few did on twitter) that Girardi was wrong for starting Rodriguez over Ibanez to begin the game. While that may indeed be the case considering the numbers above, he atoned for his mistake by choosing the favorable match-up with the game on the line instead of stubbornly sticking with his original decision.
It is easy to say Girardi made the correct choice based on outcome. However, considering the splits of his players, the game situation, the type of pitcher(fastball), and the stadium, Ibanez over Rodriguez was the right move even if the at-bat ended in a strike out or a weak grounder to second base. It just so happened that Ibanez crushed a 94-mph fastball (13 of his 19 regular season home runs came against right-handed fastballs) leading to the ultimate result.
Girardi’s decision provided an even bigger dividend following the walk-off home run by Ibanez in 12th inning. And while I’m willing to give Girardi credit for his button pushing in the ninth inning, Ibanez hitting the game-winner versus left-hander Brian Matusz can be charged to good fortune more than good process.