has been lifted for a pinch-hitter by Joe Girardi each of the past two games. (AP)
Even with the questions surrounding Alex Rodriguez's spot in the batting order encircling the Yankees prior to Wednesday's Game 3, it still rated as a shock to see manager Joe Girardi pull the trigger by pinch-hitting for him in the ninth inning. Girardi called upon lefty Raul Ibanez to face righty Jim Johnson, and of course he smashed a game-tying homer (he would hit a game-winner off lefty Brian Matusz in the 12th). The Yankees' manager couldn't bring himself to act quite so aggressively on Thursday night. With runners on second and third and one out in the bottom of the eighth, he passed up the opportunity to counter righty Darren O'Day with lefty Eric Chavez. Rodriguez struck out, and the run never scored. Girardi finally did pinch-hit for Rodriguez with two outs and the Yankees down by a run in the bottom of the 13th, again facing Johnson, but Chavez lined out to third base to end the game.
Having now shown his willingness to pull the team's highest paid player at a time when in the throes of a slump, Girardi has gone even further in setting the lineup for Friday's decisive Game 5, electing to start Chavez against righty Jason Hammel while Rodriguez sits. It still rates as a surprising move — $275 million bench players aren't exactly a dime a dozen — but it's the right one. Rodriguez is just 2-for-16 with two singles and nine strikeouts in the series; several times, he has checked swings that have been ruled strikes, suggesting that he's starting his swing early in order to catch up with fastballs, and being caught off balance.
Garden variety slumps are one thing even in October, and in that, Rodriguez is surely not alone among the Yankees. New York has scored just 13 runs in its first four games of the Division Series, with five of those coming in the ninth inning of Game 1. Curtis Granderson is an even more futile 1-for-16 with one walk and nine strikeouts, Robinson Cano is 2-for-18 and Nick Swisher is 2-for-15. The team as a whole is hitting .216/.280/.333 — which at least outdoes the nine runs and .197/.238/.296 from the Orioles' offense.
No, the bigger issue is that Rodriguez has struggled against righties all season long, hitting just .256/.326/.391 in 356 plate appearances against them this year, compared to a robust .308/.410/.514 in 173 PA against lefties; he's 0-for-12 with a walk against righties in this series. As I showed via this PITCHf/x-driven graphic, he has become increasingly vulnerable to pitches in the upper third of the strike zone against them, swinging and missing at career-high rates. Furthermore, since returning in early September from a six-week absence due to a broken metacarpal in his left hand, he has hit .244/.322/.339 in 149 PA overall, including this series. Given Chavez's track record against righties (.280/.358/.511 career, including .298/.365/.543 with 16 homers in 274 PA this year) and his own ability at the hot corner, it's a no-brainer of a decision to play him under the circumstances.
Which doesn't mean that Rodriguez won't get his shot on Friday night. Girardi's batting order features lefties Ichiro Suzuki and Cano batting second and third, Ibanez fifth, Granderson seventh, and Chavez ninth; all have struggled against lefties this year:
Cano's southpaw problem comes in spite of a .277/.334/.452 line against lefties from 2009-2011, while Granderson is on the heels of a .272/.347/.597 showing in 219 PA against them last year. Girardi isn't likely to resort to pinch-hitting for the former barring a major injury, but at this stage, any of the other four might be switched out at a pivotal moment against one of the Orioles' two lefty relievers, Troy Patton and Matusz. That's particularly true of Matusz, who has a much larger platoon split. With switch-hitters Mark Teixeira fourth and Swisher sixth, there's only so much mileage Buck Showalter will be able to get out of his lefty relievers, and if Rodriguez is something less than whole right now, he can at least be deployed to tactical advantage.
Rodriguez doesn't deserve to be scapegoated for his struggles; he's not the sole reason the Yankees are in an elimination game. But he shouldn't be in the lineup simply on the strength of a resumé that may be overridden by his current physical (or mental) concerns. That's particularly so when Girardi has an obvious alternative, whereas he lacks one in the case of Granderson given Brett Gardner
's pinch-running/defensive replacement limitations and Ibanez's shortcomings in the field. In this case, benching Rodriguez against the righty starter is the right call.