Thoughts Before ALDS Game 4
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Jae C. Hong – AP
It’s been a really tough couple of days to be a Yankee fan. I had almost willed myself into believing that the Yankees would continue to ride a powerful offense and adequate pitching to get the upper hand in this series by Game 4 after the Yankees looked so good in Game 1. Well…I guess that point’s moot. We have a lot to talk about. I’m not in any kind of shape to craft a singularly focused post about any topics in the Yankee Universe right now, so below are some of the strands I’ve plucked from my brain prior to tonight’s pivotal game:
I’ve really been thinking about the pitching decisions in Game 2, trying my best to allow the dust to settle, hoping that I’d have a different, more measured opinion after I calmed down. I’m here to tell you that sitting and thinking about it over the last couple of days hasn’t made it any better. I understand the logic behind giving Tanaka an extra day of rest. I was really okay with starting Deivi Garcia, even if he was going to be on a very tight leash. From there, the logic used in Tuesday night’s game ends. The Yankees had a pitcher in JA Happ who clearly did not buy into the concept that the front office and Aaron Boone wanted to execute on the mound. It is possible that there is some analytical justification for the plan of attack. However, executing out-of-the-box ideas that take players out of their normal routines requires 100% buy-in from the players involved. That obviously didn’t happen. For once, I’m not even picking on Happ – I really believe that he gave 100% on the mound in Game 2, but he was obviously uncomfortable with the plan of attack, and supposedly made his feelings known to the Yankees. The Yanks didn’t put Happ in the best situation for success. Period.
That’s bad enough. Even more confusing is why Happ was scheduled to be the bulk guy in the first place. If the Yankees were looking to take advantage of a match-up advantage by pivoting to a LH starter after a short outing by Deivi Garcia, Happ is not the ideal guy. For his career, Happ has a wOBA against of .294 against LHB and .324 against RHB. That shows that there is some platoon split, but not massive. Jordan Montgomery, on the other hand, has a wOBA against of .261 against LHB versus .313 against RHB. Not only does Monty have more significant splits, he is also significantly better against LHB than Happ. This makes sense on an even deeper level. Happ has a fastball…and another fastball. This isn’t the kind of stuff that would typically lend itself to significant platoon advantages. Monty, on the other hand, throws the kitchen sink with a variety of well-located breaking and off-speed stuff. If the Yankees were going to pitch two guys in tandem, it made far more sense to make Monty the 2nd guy, which would leave Happ to start Game 4.
Yes, I also believe that the Yankees should have let Garcia pitch longer, though I do think that a short leash was appropriate. I’m not sure I would have let Garcia pitch much longer than once through the order, just to let him get his feet wet. Garcia ran up a high pitch count in the first inning, but he should have been given a chance to settle down, as he really looked okay besides the solo shot. Even 2-3 innings of work would have likely meant that Garcia would be available on some limited basis in Games 4 or 5, as needed.
Now that I’m done venting about the pitching situation in Game 2, I need to be clear about something: this is some of the worst umpiring behind the plate I’ve ever seen in the playoffs. I generally think it’s lazy to blame poor umpiring for negative game outcomes, but the strike zone has been so verifiably variable that it needs to be mentioned. Anyone who looked at the pitch charts with called strikes from Game 2 knows that CB Bucknor had a typically awful game. There have been bad calls behind the plate that have altered these games in significant ways. Before I get to one such call in Game 3, here’s Bucknor’s calls from Game 2 as an example of the quality of calls the crew has made behind the plate, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
Click to Enlarge
So obviously, Bucknor was bad in Game 2, but Game 3 was even worse in a more defined way. Masahiro Tanaka was on the mound in the top of the 4th inning, trying to right the ship. With Joey Wendle on 1st base with no outs, Adames had worked the count full against Tanaka. On the 7th pitch of the at-bat, Tanaka froze Adames on what looked like a perfectly spotted slider at the bottom of the zone, and Higgy looked like he had thrown out Wendle attempting to steal 2nd. Just like that, it looked like Tanaka was on his way to getting out of the inning. The problem? The pitch was inexplicably called a ball. This was inexcusable, particularly since the ump had given Tanaka a called strike on a nearly identical ball earlier in the at-bat. See the below pitch map of the at-bat from Baseball Savant (my emphasis circled over two pitches):
Just ridiculous. Maybe Tanaka would have allowed the HR to Kiermaier anyway, but then it’s a manageable solo shot, not a 3-run blast to put the game nearly out of reach. I really think this single pitch may have been the turning point of the series, and it had nothing to do with the play of either team. MLB should be ashamed that it allowed this crew, which has been publicly criticized over and over for this exact offense, to work a playoff series.
OK, onto Game 4. I need to find some positivity, and I actually think there’s some to be found. Giancarlo Stanton is raking at a level that even the most biased Yankee fan didn’t predict prior to the playoffs. But there’s another piece that I think some fans are missing. Many people are unhappy to see Monty on the hill for Game 4. While all of us would prefer a traditional shutdown starter in this spot, I think Monty is better than people realize. Yes, I am aware that Montgomery had a 5.11 ERA in 2020, but that’s really misleading. The short season unfairly weights bad outings for pitchers given that they don’t have any time for their cumulative statistics to make up for the bad outings that are typical over a long season. Obviously, a 5.11 ERA looks really bad, but if we remove Monty’s 2 worst outings, we are left with 39.1/44 total innings with a 3.66 ERA. In reality, Monty had a bad 4.2 innings all season. When you consider the fact that Monty’s strikeout rate is up by a lot this season (9.6 K/9), his walk rate has remained stable at typically low norms, and has proven to be a master at limiting hard contact (95th percentile in Exit Velocity allowed at 84.6 MPH and 88th percentile in Hard Hit% at just 29.6), maybe Monty is the best we could ask for in Game 4 other than Gerrit Cole. At least when we consider who is currently on the roster.
And yes, I am aware that one of the two outings I excluded in my analysis in the previous bullet point was against the Rays. Monty couldn’t get out of the first inning. I really want to believe that was a fluke. That outing wasn’t anything the Rays did – Monty just didn’t have his stuff that night.
So, Monty’s on the hill. I expect to see Deivi Garcia tonight for anywhere from 1-3 innings of work. We know that the Yankee bullpen is suspect until you get to Britton and Chapman. The combination of Monty and Garcia are capable of shutting down the Rays lineup with quality breaking stuff. The Rays hunt fastballs, as we’ve seen watching Arozarena hit high fastballs over the fence all series, so good quality, well-located breaking balls and off-speed stuff are just what the doctor ordered.
If the Yankees can get through Game 4, there is no reason why the Yankees shouldn’t be considered the favorites in Game 5 with Gerrit Cole on the hill, even on short rest. The Yankees were able to pound Snell, and frankly, the Yankees offense can hit anyone the Rays throw up there. Cole can be trusted to keep the run count at 3 or less over 6+ innings.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself – right now, the Yanks just need to win Game 4. As much as they need Monty (and likely Deivi) to throw well tonight, it would also be really nice if some combination of Voit, LeMahieu, and Judge woke up. That would make things a lot easier on the pitching staff.
The Yankees have two lineup changes that need to be made, effective immediately. Firstly, Frazier needs to start in Left Field. He can change the game with one swing of the bat, and the Yankees need all of the offense they can get. It’s also not as if there is a huge drop-off defensively from Gardner to Frazier at this point either. It makes too much sense. Secondly, as much as it pains me to say this, Higashioka needs to be the starting catcher moving forward. The Yankees need defense behind the plate right now, and I’m not sure Higgy is a downgrade from Sanchez offensively at the moment.
Forgot to mention: Stanton hit a ball 118 MPH last night. More please in Game 4?!?!
I really hope the Yankees make it to Game 5. I haven’t seen enough baseball yet this year, and while I’m thankful to have seen as much Yankees baseball as I have in this trying year, I’m not ready for the Yankee season to be over. I just hope the Yankees aren’t ready to go home for the winter yet either.
As a quick note, the Weekly Mailbag is cancelled for this Friday. We want to continue running the daily discussions in the 10:00 time slot throughout the playoffs, so the Mailbag will be shelved for at least this week. By all means, keep the questions coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com – I may use any questions received in a future Mailbag.