Monday 15 October 2012

Now pinch hitting for number 13....

After the end of the regular season, in all major sports, come the playoffs. In the playoffs, we are often given the impression that there is more pressure to perform. Certainly, the eyes of baseball fan everywhere focus more closely on the teams that graduated from the regular season into the exclusive playoff level. Every few days, another team is weeded out, forced to make plans for next year, and there are more baseball watching eyeballs focused on fewer and fewer teams.

Players must know this. They must see the crowds arriving earlier to their seats, filling in every last row in the stadium. More reporters hang around the clubhouse, more cameras and microphones shadow them in their daily routine. Friends and family who may have been indifferent to their occupation, suddenly want tickets. All those kids from AAA teams who were suited up in big league colours for the last month, eager and bright eyed? Those kids are gone, watching at home. Only the real big leaguers remain. They playoffs aren't any more complicated when the umpire shouts 'Play ball!' every night, but the feeling has to be different. There is something at stake every night. There is an awareness of all these little changes, turning up the pressure one more notch.

People remember what you do in October. That's the way of the baseball world. Dave Winfield waited 11 years to shake the label 'Mr. May'. Bill Buckner only exists in the casual fan's mind for one fateful October moment. Joe Carter hit 396 home runs in the regular season. You can only find one picture of him running the bases in your memory bank. Fisk waving one fair in game six, 1975. Bucky effing Dent. October remembers.

Maybe I know why he's having trouble.
This story has a great, and a goat. Both of them know what October can do to you. Alex Rodriguez has seen baseball in October 11 different years. He knows how it feels to be the great, in 2009 he hit 6 home runs in the post-season. He batted .365/.500/.808 for the month of October, and he got his World Series ring. He is 37 years old, and very well paid. This year, in October, he has not been great. He has been beyond bad. Joe Girardi has batted him third four times. His best efforts have resulted in a line of .125/.222/.125 so far. There is to be no twist in his fate. A-Rod is our goat.

Which means Raul Ibanez is our somewhat unlikely great. He's been to the post-season 5 times himself. In fact, he was in the opposite dugout in 2009 when A-Rod had his big coming out party in New York. He has no ring with the World Series logo on it. Yet.

Ibanez is 40 years old, and is well traveled. His stock has been on the decline, his performance has eroded with age, and the Phillies paid him 12 million dollars in 2011 to OPS .707, which is only about 91% of the production they would have received from a league average player. This winter the Yankees picked him up as free agent. He signed for 1.1 million dollars. A lot of Yankee fans didn't see the use in a guy like Ibanez. Thinking he was a waste of a roster spot. The Yankees kept him around. They wanted him because he bats left handed, and if you've seen the new Yankee Stadium, you know that a lefty batter only needs a medium depth fly ball and a favourable breeze to clear the right field fence.Over the course of the season he managed and .812 OPS facing righties, about 12% better than the league average hitter.

In the ninth inning on October 10th 2012, Joe Girardi had a decision to make. In his tenure as a Yankees manager, it's not the kind of thing he's asked himself very often. "Should I pinch hit for Alex Rodriguez?" His team was down by one run. The Orioles had Jim Johnson on the mound, who is right handed. Alex had been abysmal so far in the series, without so much as an extra-base hit in three games. There are egos and minds to manage over the course of 162 games, and letting a player try to prove his skill and worth happens, even when it doesn't help the team. This was about keeping the Yankees from having their backs right against the wall. In that moment, Girardi looked at his number three hitter, and at his bench, and did something nobody had ever done to Alex Rodriguez in a playoff game. He sat him down for a pinch hitter.

In the movies, maybe, there would have been some kind of slow motion pan up and down the dugout while Raul went to get his bat and helmet. Maybe Alex would have thrown a fit and stormed into the clubhouse. In real life, sometimes, the script is better than anything you could write yourself. Ibanez was ready to take his cuts in just a few short moments. We found out post game that Rodriguez didn't plead for his chance, and let his skipper take him out. Then he went to watch with the injured, but in uniform, Mariano Rivera.

After the game, Rivera told the media what he said to Alex “I told Alex not to worry, that Raul was going to hit a home run.”

And after taking a pitch inside, that's exactly what Raul Ibanez did. From the good folks at SBnation.

After watching that, I was honestly sitting there, laptop and TV on in front of me thinking "Really? Did that just happen?" And, of course, it did just happen. Ibanez wasn't really done, however, because that homer tied the game. There were extra innings to play.

Raul watched the rest of the ninth, the tenth, and the 11th while his team batted. He watched all 8 of his teammates make an out. Was he fed up with the whole process by the 12th inning? I don't know. I don't think he came up as the first batter in the 12th looking to 'get something started'. I'm pretty sure he watched 8 guys go down without any hint of progress, and came up looking to hit the snot out of the ball. Now, in confrontations with major league pitchers, batters lose out about seventy percent of the time, on average. When being super aggressive, trying to swing for the fences, it's generally believed that batters are even more vulnerable. Sometimes, though, if you swing hard, you just might hit it. Brian Matusz found that out on the very first pitch he threw to Ibanez to start the 12th.
Yes, home runs on consecutive pitches. The first tied the game and sent it to extra innings. The second one won the game. You can graph the probability of a team winning, given the number of outs, baserunners, and the score. That game graph looks like this.
From Fangraphs, of course.
Ibanez Single-handedly contributed 82.7% of the win for the Yankees in this game. He didn't enter the game until the bottom of the 9th. He only saw three pitches. If that isn't magic, I don't know what is.

Now, that's enough for a Baseball is Magic post. Everything he contributed, in one game alone, while pinch hitting for one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game would be enough. The fact that that superior hitter is three years his junior is probably the subject of a whole different analysis. Shockingly, this isn't the end of the post. Raul Ibanez will not quit with the 9th inning heroics.

On October 13th, the Yankees were down in the 9th inning again. Four runs down, and Raul Ibanez was due to bat 6th against Jose Valverde. The odds of the Yankees winning the game at the start of the 9th were 1.9%.

Now, I'm going to talk about Jose Valverde for a minute here. He's not been very good lately. Specifically, he's been one of the worst arms in the Detroit bullpen, but that's not to take away from what Ibanez is about to do, it merely explains how the game got to the point that he had the opportunity to do anything at all.

You can see there, that 4.9% in the lower right? That was the chance of the Yankees winning the game given all of the possible outcomes of the following at-bats. Even with an Ichiro homer and the ticking time bomb named Valverde out chucking fastballs, the game was still well in hand. If Ibanez makes an out, that number drops to zero, and the game is over. If he reaches base, the number climbs a little bit, as the light at the end of the tunnel gets a little bit brighter.

So, of course, Raul skips the whole 'getting on base' thing and hits another home run. Raising, in one more incredible heartbeat, his team's chances of winning by 48.7%. Right place, right time, right result.

That's a one man wrecking crew. Sadly, he's literally the only man on the crew, and the Yankees would not figure out how to score the last run in that game. The Tigers would silence the magic wand Raul was carrying, and defeat the Yankees.

Three home runs in two nights, all to either tie or win a ballgame. All in the 9th inning or later. Or, as someone on twitter put it much more succinctly.

And that, right there, is why baseball is magic... and always will be.


  1. Great piece Greg, really nice job of putting everything into perspective

    1. Thanks, Matt! Always nice when someone likes it enough to comment.