Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 8, 2017

A Really Bad Time To Have A Really Bad Night

It’s the job of a manager to make decisions in the heat of the moment, and the prerogative of fans and pundits to second guess those calls with the luxury of hindsight. Managerial judgment is exercised in every game, but scrutiny of many of the calls made from April to October gives way to the grind of the longest season. However, once the playoffs start the spotlight burns brighter, and every time a field skipper makes a choice that impacts a game, both the media and the paying patrons are quick to weigh in.

The truth of that statement was accentuated by a New York Times article published as the Division Series round was getting under way. In it the veteran sportswriter Filip Bondy suggests that this year’s playoffs will provide an opportunity for Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon to redeem himself. Bondy criticizes Maddon’s handling of closer Aroldis Chapman in the final two games of last season’s World Series, and suggests that Cubs fans “have a natural fear that Maddon will go slightly bonkers again.” The minor detail that Chicago triumphed in that World Series, ending the Great Game’s longest title drought, is apparently an insufficient accomplishment to absolve Maddon of the need for managerial redemption.

But whatever moves Maddon or any of the other managers still filling out lineup cards make between now and the time Rob Manfred hands the Commissioner’s Trophy to some happy team owner, it seems certain that the field general judged most deficient in the 2017 postseason will be the Yankees Joe Girardi. On Friday night, with his team poised to even their Division Series against Cleveland at a game apiece, a combination of actions and inaction by Girardi paved the way for a crushing loss that left New York’s playoff hopes on life support.

After being stymied by Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer and two relievers in a 4-0 first game loss, the Yankee offense came alive against Corey Kluber. Gary Sanchez launched a two-run homer in the 1st inning, and two innings later, after Sanchez had scored from second on Starlin Castro’s sharp single, Aaron Hicks belted a three-run shot to right field that chased Cleveland’s ace. The Yankees added two more in the 5th and appeared to be cruising, leading 8-3 behind the pitching of CC Sabathia. The veteran left hander had settled in after some early difficulty, retiring eleven in a row heading to the 6th inning. He had also been working efficiently, with a pitch count that stood at just 70 through five frames. So after walking Carlos Santana to start the 6th, then getting Jay Bruce to line out to short, Sabathia must have been surprised to see Girardi come out of the dugout, signaling to the bullpen.

The decision to end Sabathia’s night early was debatable, but the accompanying choice to rely on the same set of relievers Girardi had taxed in the Wild Card play-in game was downright ill-advised. Chad Green threw 41 pitches in that contest, and David Robertson threw a career-high 52. Yet Green and Robertson were the first two relievers Girardi called for Friday night. Ultimately both would surrender critical home runs.

But first the game and very possibly the Yankees season turned on something Girardi didn’t do. After Green got Austin Jackson to fly to right for the second out, he surrendered a double to Yan Gomes, with Santana moving to third. Pinch hitter Lonnie Chisenhall then fouled off six straight pitches, before Green’s seventh offering came in tight on Chisenhall’s hands. Home plate umpire Don Iasoggna ruled that Green had hit the batter, sending Chisenhall to first and loading the bases. Catcher Sanchez immediately signaled to the Yankee dugout to check the replay video, believing the ball had hit not Chisenhall’s hand but the end of his bat. Since it then deflected into Sanchez’s glove, the call should have been a foul tip caught for the third strike, ending the inning. On the bench Chase Headley was also calling for a replay challenge, having seen that the batter never flinched, a natural reaction when one is hit by a 96 mile per hour fastball.

Replays clearly showed that both Sanchez and Headley were correct, and that New York should have been out of the inning, its 8-3 lead intact. But Girardi never signaled for a replay review, because Brett Weber, the assistant coach who reviews replays in the clubhouse, was unable to communicate what had happened to the dugout in time. When Francisco Lindor hit Green’s next pitch over the right field fence for a grand slam, the tide had turned. The overworked Robertson surrendered a solo homer that tied the game in the 8th, and Cleveland eventually walked off 9-8 in 13 innings.

After the game New York’s manager first offered the feeble excuse that he hadn’t wanted to disrupt his pitcher’s rhythm with the delay of a review. By Saturday, amid a barrage of fan and media criticism, Girardi offered a more honest answer. “I screwed up,” he said, adding, “And it’s hard. It’s a hard day for me.”

As screw ups go, this one was catastrophic. A team that knocks out the opponent’s ace in the postseason must win that game, because if a short playoff series goes the distance one can expect to face that ace twice, with long odds of being able to rough him up in back-to-back appearances. Instead of a huge victory the Yankees left Cleveland in the deepest of holes, facing elimination from the postseason.

More than anything, Girardi’s decisions in Friday’s game reflect his over reliance on systems and statistics. For years he had with him in the dugout a thick binder containing information on the opposing team, history of matchups between pitchers and hitters, and charts showing various tendencies of every member of both rosters. While the binder is no longer immediately at hand during games, he’s never denied that it’s still back in the clubhouse. Before the meaningless final game of the regular season Girardi allowed that he prepared a “few less charts.” While the statistics may have indicated that Chad Green was the better matchup than Sabathia for the situation in the 6th inning, being a slave to the binder blinded the manager from seeing that his starter was still effective, or that his favored reliever may have been gassed.

Similarly, the Yankees have the best record in baseball at winning replay reviews, thanks to Weber and the system in place to quickly study the tape and signal the dugout when to challenge. But Girardi’s devotion to that system meant that the failed to trust his players, including Sanchez who was closest to what should have been the inning-ending foul tip.

Sunday evening fans at the Stadium showered Girardi with boos when he was introduced prior to Game 3 of the ALDS. His contract is up at the end of this year, and there are now plenty of folks in both the stands and the press box calling for his head. But as badly as he failed on Friday, Joe Girardi has been very successful since taking over the Yankees helm in 2008. His .562 winning percentage is best in the Great Game over that period. From 2012, the last time New York played a postseason series, through last season, Girardi’s teams met or exceeded their sabermetric expected wins based on runs scored and allowed every year, three times by six wins or more. That is a testament to his ability to coax everything possible out of the roster he’s given.

Whether that will be enough to extend his tenure in the Bronx remains to be seen. Hopefully Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman will consider the full body of Girardi’s work, and not just one abject night. And hopefully Joe Girardi will learn from the disaster at Progressive Field that great managers may rely on systems and statistics, but also know there are times to trust one’s instincts, and one’s players. The only certainty is that like author Judith Viorst’s famous character Alexander, on Friday the Yankees manager had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

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