Look, I’m not here to pile on Joe Girardi. My thoughts on him as a manager were succinctly put by Andrew Gargano in his article on the infamous non-challenge. Throughout his tenure in pinstripes, he’s been well above average in terms of win-loss results, and he’s been (seemingly) above average in terms of maintaining clubhouse chemistry.
But he’s apparently compounding poor decisions on each other in this series by electing to start CC Sabathia over Sonny Gray in the do-or-die Game 5. Forget the fact that the Yankees dealt away three prized prospects to acquire Gray in July, because that isn’t part of the calculus here. But there are real, tangible reasons why Gray should be the clear choice.
In fact, Gray is so obviously the better choice that it makes more sense for me to come up with possible reasons why Girardi would even consider choosing Sabathia.
#1 – Sabathia has more playoff experience.
This was the actual reason that Girardi stated to the media when he announced Sabathia as the Game 5 starter. I’m hoping, though, that this was just something that managers say to the media, and Girardi didn’t actually base the fate of the entire season on a silly narrative like this. Ample studies have been done on how “clutch” and “choking” aren’t legitimate phenomena. Good players are usually good and bad players aren’t. When it comes to high-leverage playoff situations, the sample sizes get extremely small, and some results tend to become outliers in these small samples. Sabathia has also had playoff success in the past because he used to be an excellent pitcher.
However, let’s not forget that Gray was excellent in his only taste of playoff baseball with the A’s back in 2013. Besides, even if he were terrible in that series, it would still be a poor reason to decide the Game 5 starter.
#2 – Sabathia is a better pitcher.
Being better at pitching would be, you know, a good reason why a manager would start Pitcher A over Pitcher B. Unfortunately, Sabathia is not in fact better than Gray at the current stages in their respective careers. Girardi might have looked at Sabathia’s 3.69 ERA and noticed that it was lower than Gray’s, which was 3.72 with the Yankees. But of course, ERA never tells the whole story. Gray generates more strikeouts, induces more grounders, allows fewer gopherballs, all while walking a similar number of batters. Sabathia had a 106 cFIP and 4.52 DRA in 2017. Gray’s was 88 and 3.27 on the season, and his numbers were even better (84 cFIP, 2.95 DRA) with the Yankees.
Gray is something like a top-30 starter in the Majors, while Sabathia is probably something representing league average.
#3 – You can use Gray in a multitude of ways out of the bullpen.
This is true, but it doesn’t matter if Sabathia buries the Yankees before it ever gets to the bullpen. Also, the Yankees have an excellent bullpen, one that may not need even need the likes of Sonny Gray. With the off day on Tuesday, the bullpen will be more than rested. Game 5 is do-or-die, which means that every out matters, and every batter that Sabathia faces is a batter that the superior Gray does not.
#4 – Girardi would rather go with a lefty against the Indians’ lineup.
This is probably the only defensible argument here. Other than Aroldis Chapman, and Sabathia himself, the Indians have pretty much seen all righties in this series, including the starting pitchers.
Also, consider the lineup — all of Cleveland’s best hitters are either left-handed (Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Jay Bruce) or hit from both sides of the plate (Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana). Either way, a southpaw on the mound would present them with a different angle. The one big right-handed bat with the Indians, Edwin Encarnacion, is dealing with a sprained ankle.
However, unexpectedly enough, the Indians actually hit better against lefties (.794 OPS) in the regular season than versus righties (.785). The difference isn’t much, but it’s surprising that the number versus lefties is higher even to begin with. Also, the latest reports as of this writing are that Encarnacion is expected to return to the lineup for Game 5.
In a one-game simulation where you get to see the results of how either starter would do, it’s easily possible that Sabathia outperforms Gray. But it’s similar to playing a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em. There are scenarios in which a 3 and 10 off-suit beat pocket kings. But the best play is to go into the hand with the best odds possible. And unlike poker, you don’t have to play the hand that you’re dealt. Albeit with limited options, you can choose your hand, and Girardi is taking the 3/10 off-suit over the pocket kings. That’s just asking for trouble.
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