Since Alex Rodriguez went on the disabled list, the Yankees have gone 5-7, ceding three games off their division lead in the process. After last night’s game, Eric Chavez, who has mostly filled in at third, placed the blame for the Yankees’ slide squarely on Arod’s injury. Considering how often Rodriguez was maligned during the season, I guess absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
I think the injury bug is starting to catch up to us where I think we got away with it early. This all seems to be when we lost Alex. He’s just a huge part of our lineup, and I think we’re really showing how important he is to this team.” – Eric Chavez, quoted by the LoHud Yankees Blog, August 7, 2012.
Chavez’ comments were a little ironic for two reasons. The first is that over the past 12 games, the veteran third baseman has been the best hitter on the team, so the Yankees’ production from the hot corner has actually gone up in Arod’s absence. Secondly, the Bronx Bombers’ have averaged 5.25 runs per game without Rodriguez, which is more than three-tenths of a run higher than their season rate. At face value, it seems as if the Yankees really haven’t missed Arod at all…that is, however, until you dig a little deeper.
When Arod first went on the DL, the potential problem confronting the team was not who would play third, but rather who would take his place in the lineup. For most of the year, Chavez and Rodriguez had occupied the roles of third base and DH against right handers, so the Yankees’ haven’t benefited from having the former’s bat in the lineup. On the contrary, with Arod starting to heat up (.315/.367/.493 in July and .333./.381/.564 in his previous 10 games), the combination of both players’ production might have been enough to help the Yankees push a few extra runs across the plate, which isn’t insignificant when you consider that four of the team’s losses since Arod went on the DL have been of the one-run variety.
The real replacement for Arod hasn’t been Chavez, but rather Ichiro Suzuki, and that drop off has been dramatic. In addition, because Arod’s injury has thinned the bench, Girardi has essentially been left without a left handed pinch hitter in games started by a right hander (i.e., all the lefties are already in the lineup). Once again, that might only represent a marginal downgrade, but in a one-run game, it could be the difference between winning and losing.
Note: Each unit represents a hitter with a wOBA at least as high as the relevant parameter against both right handers and left handers. Based on a minimum of 40 plate appearances in each split.
Source: fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com
Even when Arod was healthy, the Yankees did not have the same balanced, circular lineup that has become a hallmark of the team during the new dynasty era. At the time he went down, Rodriguez was one of only three Yankees hitters with a wOBA above .330 against both righties and lefties (last year, the team has six), so without him, the Yankees are down to two hitters with well above average production (major league hitters have posted a wOBA of .313 and .316 versus left handers and right handers, respectively) regardless of what hand the pitcher is using.
In an attempt to counteract this imbalance, Joe Girardi has recently adopted a strategy of alternating batters to combat late inning bullpen maneuvering by his counterpart. However, in an effort to get the upper hand in one late-inning matchup, that strategy has provided an easier path for the starting pitcher to navigate through the first six or seven innings. In addition, the lineup’s split vulnerability has induced Girardi to move Curtis Granderson to lead off because of what the manager has cited is his relatively higher on-base percentage from each side of the plate. However, Granderon’s on-base percentage isn’t particularly strong against lefties or righties. Instead, his value is based on power, an attribute that is mitigated by limiting the potential runners on base in front of him.
Source: fangraphs.com (2012 season stats)
Even when he wasn’t performing up to his past standards, Arod’s stable presence in the middle helped lengthen the lineup and strengthen the bench. In order to compensate for that loss, the Yankees might be better off concentrating their best hitters based on splits instead of spreading them out. This way, starters would be forced to run a gauntlet before getting a breather instead of finding landing spots sprinkled throughout the lineup.
The Yankees still have a potent lineup, but it isn’t as efficient as it should be. With some early cracks starting to emerge in the pitching staff, the team may need to score more runs in order to stave off a late-season collapse. Without reinforcements, that extra production will have to come from within, and, perhaps for the first time during his tenure, Joe Girardi may not be able to simply pencil in the same names and expect the runs to follow. On the other hand, too much tinkering could be detrimental. Over the next few weeks, Girardi will have to walk the fine line between being pro-active and staying the course, but if he is going to deal with the lineup via a shuffle, he might as well go all in.