Despite 95 regular season wins and a hard-fought victory over the Orioles in the Division Series, the Yankees have quickly been pushed to the brink of elimination by the Tigers in the American League Championship Series, losing three straight games, including the first two at home. A mighty offense that led the league in home runs (245) and ranked second in scoring (4.96 runs per game) has produced just five runs, all of them coming in the ninth innings of Game 1 and Game 3 — and perhaps not coincidentally, arriving via home runs.
Several key players are simultaneously mired in slumps that date back to the Division Series. Robinson Cano is 3-for-36, including a record-setting 0-for-29 stretch that ended on Tuesday night. Curtis Granderson is 3-for-29 with 15 strikeouts. Nick Swisher is 4-for-26, and sat out Tuesday's game. Alex Rodriguez is 3-for-23 with 12 strikeouts, and has been pinch-hit for in the late innings three times and benched twice. Eric Chavez, who has filled in for Rodriguez at third base, is 0-for-14. As if that's not bad enough, the team has lost Derek Jeter (9-for-27) for the remainder of the season due to a broken ankle.
Manager Joe Girardi was lauded for his willingness to work around the slumping Rodriguez in the opening round, because his moves paid off. Raul Ibanez's pinch-hit homer in Rodriguez's stead tied ALDS Game 3 in the bottom of the ninth, and his 12th inning homer won the game. As Rodriguez sat in Game 5, Ibanez — DHing while Chavez played third — drove in the first run in a game the Yankees never trailed. Dropping Rodriguez lower in the order in the games he has played has pushed Mark Teixiera higher, and he has collected hits in each of the past five games, adding six walks as well.
But Girardi's moves to jolt the Yankee offense to life on Tuesday night fell flat. Brett Gardner, with all of four big league plate appearances since injuring his elbow in mid-April, started in place of Swisher, led off and went 0-for-4 without getting a ball out of the infield. Chavez went 0-for-3 and made an error that led to the run that provided the margin of victory. Ibanez went 0-for-4, and despite hitting just .197/.246/.246 in 65 PA against lefties this year, was allowed to face lefty Phil Coke in the ninth inning; he struck out to end the game, while the switch-hitting Swisher (.270/.380/.389 in 222 PA against lefties) and the righty Rodriguez (.308/.410/.514 in 173 PA against lefties) could only look on. Tigers manager Jim Leyland might have pulled Coke for Joaquin Benoit had Girardi pinch-hit for Ibanez, but the Yankees, who had runners on first and second, almost certainly would have had a better chance to tie the game with such a move.
During his five seasons at the helm of the Yankees, Girardi has become notorious among a certain faction of the local media for his willingness to consult a binder full of statistics as a guide instead of relying on gut instinct; heaven forbid he allow data to enter into his thinking. Unfortunately, a good deal of data that he or any manager might consult doesn't rise to the level of statistical significance; the results of even 20 or 40 plate appearances between a given pitcher and a hitter aren't predictive, and even single-season platoon splits — which I often cite here as a shorthand — fall short of truly significant. But then so does any notion of the "hot hand," that a hitter on a tear is more likely to exceed his capabilities than one who is in a slump. Cano's season-ending streak is a perfect example. He entered the playoffs on a 21-for-39 jag, only to go more than a week between hits, but whaddaya know, his combined 24-for-75 (.320) during those two stretches is a lot closer to his lifetime batting average (.308) than either extreme stretch; he has simply picked a bad time to regress towards his true skill level while the spotlight is at its brightest.
Those things don't happen entirely by accident. To a far greater degree than in the regular season, advance scouts for each team follow potential playoff opponents and search for any weakness that can be exploited, and to the credit of the Oriole and Tiger pitchers, they have found some of huge holes in the biggest Yankee bats; take Rodriguez's 0-for-18 with 12 strikeouts against righties, with a whole lot of high hard stuff. It's on the New York hitters to adjust and find weaknesses themselves or with the aid of their coaches and scouts, and thus far they haven't.
It's also true that there's a whole realm of information to which those who first- or second-guess a manager's lineup choices aren't privy, including a given hitter's physical and mental state. There's always an information asymmetry at work; we don't know the extent to which Rodriguez's mid-season hand injury is affecting his swing, or whether Swisher's treatment by the boo birds in the bleachers for losing a ball in the lights in Game 1 affected his mindset in Game 2; players are human, and while they generally do a very good job of forgetting what happened yesterday, that's not always easy. The bottom line is that it's a manager's job to put his players in the best positions to succeed, to unite the hard data with a knowledge of the soft factors — the inside dope — that those of us beyond the team rarely get, without which we can often only infer the intent of a given lineup's construction.
At the risk of flying in the face of such factors, and trying to squeeze too much from the data that exists, here's one man's take on how Girardi should stack his lineup against righty Max Scherzer in Game 4 to give the Yankees their best chance to stave off elimination. Keep in mind that Scherzer is a righty with a huge platoon split (.292/.366/.465 against lefties, .201/.244/.343 against righties), though the size of it is a relatively recent development; the split was 135 points of OPS last year. Scherzer relies heavily on a 94 mph fastball, which he threw 65 percent of the time this year, with a changeup (19 percent) and slider (16 percent) his secondary pitches.
1. Ichiro Suzuki, LF (LHB): Leads the Yankees in postseason hits (11, en route to a .297/.316/.432 line in 38 PA, not far off the .283/.316/.408 he hit against righties this year) and remains a strong fastball hitter.
2. Nick Swisher, RF (Switch): Slumping, but far stronger against righties (.270/.356/.517 this year) than lefties; perhaps the extra day off and distance from the Bronx will help.
3. Robinson Cano, 2B (LHB): Hit an insane .359/.423/.685 against righties this year. Perhaps his ninth-inning single has taken a bit of pressure off him; he can heat up in a hurry.
4. Mark Teixeira, 1B (Switch): Not his stronger side (.240/.331/.438 against righties this year), but he can punish a fastball, and his approach has been productive — if somewhat lacking in power — this postseason (.310/.444/.345 in 36 PA).
5. Raul Ibanez, DH (LHB): The Yankees' hottest hitter this postseason (.350/.458/.850) and one who's really only suited to hitting righties (.248/.319/.492 this year)
6. Alex Rodriguez, 3B (RHB): Not ideal given his slump, but here he breaks up the lefties. That the Yankees have scored just four runs in the two games he has ridden pine isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of continuing to bench him, particularly given Chavez's 0-fer. The Yankees simply can't exit the postseason without giving Rodriguez another shot, or the controversy will dominate the discussion all winter.
7. Curtis Granderson, CF (LHB): Slumping mightily, but he did hit .239/.328/.511 with a team-high 29 homers against righties during the regular season, and he's well-equipped to handle Scherzer's tendency to work low in the zone.
8. Russell Martin, C (RHB): Struggled against righties this year (.205/.290/.352), just 5-for-29 in October, and now dealing with a thumb injury he sustained on Tuesday night. Even so, Chris Stewart is a non-entity against righties (.203/.264/.274 career), and Martin's work behind the plate still has plenty of value, particularly to Sabathia, with whom he has clicked lately.
Aside from the absence of Jeter and the bumping down of Rodriguez, that's actually a fairly representative Yankee lineup — which is basically the point. It gives them the potential to send six lefties to the plate among the first seven hitters, but also to avoid letting a Tigers lefty reliever face more than two lefties in a row; keep in mind that Coke has become the team's de facto closer given Jose Valverde's blowups, and may not be available for spot duty, leaving only rookie Drew Smyly in that role. The bottom line is that the Yankees are a team of skilled hitters going through a rough stretch at a bad time, but they haven't suddenly forgotten how to hit, and they won't be better off with a panic-driven lineup featuring weaker players like Gardner, Stewart and Nix. Maybe a lineup such as the above won't be enough to keep the Tigers from advancing, but the Yankees' chances of winning remain greater with their best players on the field than without them.