Alex Rodriguez has struck out in half his plate appearances so far in the ALDS. (AP)
As the Yankees return to the Bronx for the remainder of their Division Series against the Orioles, much talk centers around Alex Rodriguez's placement in the batting order. Rodriguez is just 1-for-9 with a walk and five strikeouts in the series while batting third in both games, and he struck out to end Monday night's game. While he he has gotten on base once in each game, it's increasingly clear that despite his 647 career home runs, the 37-year-old third baseman isn't the power threat he used to be, not after battling a variety of leg and hip ailments in recent years, as well as a broken metacarpal in his left hand this year. Yankees manager Joe Girardi says he has no plans to move Rodriguez down in the order at the moment, but it appears that the Yankees would be better served if he did, at least against a right-handed starter.
Rodriguez hit just .272/.353/.430 with 18 homers in 529 plate appearances this year, numbers that would pass muster for most third basemen, or most 37-year-olds, but fall short of the sky-high expectations that come with being a pinstriped superstar making $29 million this year. Even before the Felix Hernandez pitch that sidelined him on July 24 and cost him 36 games, he was hitting just .276/.358/.449 with 15 home runs. Upon returning on Sept. 3, he hit just .261/.341/.369 in 129 PA the rest of the way, with three doubles and three home runs, the last of them on Sept. 14 — a performance hardly befitting the No. 3 hitter in any lineup, let alone one in a postseason series.
Yet Rodriguez has persisted there, typically batting behind Derek Jeter and either Ichiro Suzuki or Nick Swisher, and ahead of Robinson Cano. It didn't appear to cost the Yankees much once he returned; they scored 5.68 runs per game down the stretch as players such as Suzuki and Russell Martin heated up. But on Monday night, the cost was glaringly apparent as Rodriguez came to bat with two outs and the Yankees down one run against righty closer Jim Johnson. Though he battled Johnson for seven pitches in what might have been his best plate appearance of the night, in the end he struck out, while the lefty Cano, the team's best hitter all season and their the hottest over the last few weeks, could only watch in the on-deck circle.
In the grand scheme of things, it's important to remember that at the heart of it, batting order is a manager's means of distributing offensive playing time; ideally, the best players should bat the most often. Over the course of the year, the average big league team draws roughly 18 fewer plate appearances for every spot they move down the order. Speed, power, and handedness do come into play, but as secondary principles; the sluggers should hit with more men on base, the slowest hitters should be kept apart to cut down on double plays, and a manager shouldn't cluster too many same-handed hitters together, creating a very real cost when opponents try to gain the platoon advantage by switching pitchers.
For all of that, sabermetric studies on batting order have shown that the difference between the best and the worst orders given the same combination of players only amount to a handful of runs per year, probably around 20. As Tom Tango, co-author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, noted, "Even doing something drastically incompetent, like putting the pitcher in the cleanup slot, costs you only 0.1 runs per game," which would translate to 16 runs over the course of a full season. Because hitters aren't stat-generating robots, egos can come into play, and Tango gave one example of just how small the gains might be in a typical switch (emphasis in original):
"If you swap your number-two and your number-six hitters, what happens? Well, that's a difference of 72 plate appearances. If your number-six hitter creates 90 runs per 700 PA and your number-two hitter creates 70 per 700 PA, the net effect is that you can gain 20 runs per 700 PA. And 20 divided by 700 times 72 is two runs. The best way to set up your batting order is to put it in the optimal order (which means you have to have different batting lineups based on pitcher handedness), and then tweak it based on the ego of the players, because human impact is more important than leveraging two runs."
The PITCHf/x data shows Rodriguez's increasing vulnerability to pitches high in the strike zone from righties, especially on the inside part of the plate. (Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net and Baseball Prospectus)
As for that aside about handedness, it's worth noting that Rodriguez's performance against lefties (.308/.410/.514 in 173 PA) remained strong during the regular season, and he was 14-for-34 with three extra-base hits against them in September. It's against righties where he was a shadow of his former self (.256/.326/.391 in 356 PA). In the larger sample, his three-year trend actually tilts slightly towards righties (.275/.346/.473 in 1,098 PA, compared to .266/.363/.454 in 454 PA against lefties), and his career numbers are basically even, but a closer look at his PITCHf/x hitter profile at Baseball Prospectus shows a clear trend. Rodriguez has become increasingly vulnerable to the high hard stuff up and in, particularly against righties. In the upper inside quadrant of the strike zone, where his swing-and-miss rate was at 26 percent from 2007-2011 — under 30 percent in every year but 2010, when it was at 34 percent — it jumped 50 percent this year, and his whiff rates across the top third of the strike zone were all above 34 percent, well above his career rates. The sample sizes aren't huge (28 pitches in that up-and-in quadrant this year, 148 from 2007-2011) but the trend is clear enough for a pitcher to take advantage (see table at right).
It's possible that Girardi is deferring to Rodriguez's ego in keeping him third in the lineup, but he did bat him fourth 50 times this season, not to mention in 94 of his 97 starts last year. Girardi hasn't been afraid to juggle other players around the lineup based upon streaks and slumps, or the handedness of the opposing pitcher. Curtis Granderson, who hit second 90 times and sixth another 32 times, has been in the midst of a second-half slump in which he's hit .212/.278/.480, and even though he went 7-for-17 with three home runs over the final four games of the regular season, he was slotted seventh against righty Jason Hammel in Game 1, and eighth against lefty Wei-Yin Chen in Game 2. Nick Swisher hit sixth 56 times during the regular season, second 52 times, and fifth just 10 times, but has batted fifth in both Division Series games.
Of course, it's not necessary for Girardi to resort to the desperate and seemingly punitive placement that predecessor Joe Torre occasionally resorted to during his tenure. In the 2003 World Series, Torre reacted to leadoff hitter (and 38-homer thumper) Alfonso Soriano's 7-for-49 slump by batting him ninth in the sixth and final game of the World Series. In the 2006 Division Series, Torre stuck Rodriguez — who had hit .358/.465/.691 in September but was 1-for-11 in the series' first three games — into the eighth spot for the fourth and final game, a move that surely embarrassed a player who had won two MVP awards on his watch, and one that still resonates today.
Against a lefty, leaving Rodriguez in the third spot may not be Girardi’s worst option, particularly given Cano’s uncharacteristic struggles against southpaws this season (.239/.309/.337 in 269 PA) after years of mashing them; arguably, the latter should be moved out of the four spot, with Mark Teixeira and Swisher moving up. But with righty Miguel Gonzalez going in Game 3, and a choice between righty Chris Tillman and lefty Joe Saunders for Game 4 (manager Buck Showalter hasn't tipped his hand), Girardi would do well to adjust accordingly to give his team its best chance to win even if that means batting Rodriguez in the bottom third of the lineup. The slight won't hurt nearly as much as another early exit from the playoffs.