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Joe Morgan, Jerry Manuel and no-brainers

Jun 29, 2009, 4:14 AM EDT

No, I’m not just being redundant.

Certainly according to Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips, it was the
easiest decision of all-time: walk Derek Jeter to get to Mariano
Rivera. Men on first and second, two outs, one of the game’s most
clutchtastic players at the plate or bases loaded and Rivera batting
for the third time in 15 years as a major leaguer. The announcers were
positively stunned when Francisco Rodriguez threw his first pitch to
Jeter a bit off the outside corner for a generous strike one call. Two
balls further outside and finally two intentional balls followed,
setting it up for Rivera to hit with the bases loaded.

Of course, Rivera went on to walk, giving the Yankees a two-run
cushion. Morgan and Phillips had never even mentioned it as a
possibility and perhaps even a reason not to put Jeter on
automatically. I agreed with the idea of walking Jeter, but I’m not
sure it’s quite as clear cut as it was made out to be.

In his major league career, K-Rod has limited hitters to a
.164/.244/.221 line with men on first and second. The typical hitter
has a one-in-six chance of getting a hit against him in that situation.
Now Derek Jeter isn’t the typical hitter. He had five singles and four
walks in 14 career plate appearances against K-Rod. Suffice to say, he
did have a better than one-in-six chance of getting a hit in the
situation. However, K-Rod had an advantage as well, in that he didn’t
have to give Jeter anything to hit. He could have continued working
Jeter very carefully and backed up that fastball off the corner with a
heater up and then a slider low and away. Jeter likely would have
expanded his strike zone, knowing that Rivera was up next. It’s
possible that K-Rod could have retired him without ever having to throw
a strike.

But instead, we had Mariano Rivera up with the bases loaded. The
league has hit .233/.338/.400 against K-Rod with the bases loaded in
his career. Rivera, while an amazing athlete, probably isn’t a league
average hitter. He doesn’t have bad form in the box, but I don’t think
I’d want to count on him batting any better than .050 against K-Rod. If
he was going to reach, it’d be far more likely to come via the walk.

And I think there was always a real possibility that it would happen.

This is just another guess, but I imagine the typical major league
pitcher can, if he’s not trying to do anything else, throw his fastball
for a strike a little better than 90 percent of the time. Maybe not
quite 95 percent — I’ve seen too many 3-0 walks to believe that — but
90-92 seems reasonable. With K-Rod, I’d say it’s a lot closer to 60-70.
He’s just different. Much of the time, he seems to have better command
of his get-me-over slider than his fastball. But he never tried one of
them against Rivera. After all, Rivera might have gotten lucky and
timed one of those. He probably wasn’t going to put a fastball into
play.

My argument is based on this: there are pretty much three base
situations in which you especially don’t want to issue walks, when a
man is on first, when men are on first and second (and Mariano Rivera
isn’t on deck) and when the bases are loaded. K-Rod has unintentionally
walked 54 in 515 plate appearances in those situations (10.5 percent).
The rest of the time, he’s unintentionally walked 141 in 1,469 plate
appearances (9.6 percent). K-Rod simply has no ability to start
throwing strikes when he needs to. He’s an outstanding pitcher anyway,
but it’s still because he’s so difficult to hit. Unfortunately, the
intentional walk to Jeter put him in a situation in which he didn’t
have to give up a hit to allow a run.

I still think it was the right move. Even if we go based on my
theory that K-Rod was just as likely to walk Mariano Rivera there as he
would have been Alex Rodriguez, that 10 percent chance and the maybe
five percent chance of Rivera getting a hit doesn’t top Jeter’s chances
of getting a hit. However, I do think Mets manager Jerry Manuel should
take something from sequence. Asking K-Rod to issue an intentional walk
is typically the wrong strategy, and it’s not a good sign that K-Rod
has already had four this year, matching his total from 2007 and 2008
combined.

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