I often wonder about the common practice of sending righty-heavy lineups against dominant lefties at the expense of starting a team's best players. I'm not saying that Joe Torre was necessarily wrong to use a day game after a night game to give Robinson Cano and Bobby Abreu days off or to give Jorge Posada a spell as the DH while putting Jose Molina behind the plate. Indeed, one of the advantages of the strong Yankee bench is that the lineup doesn't actually suffer that much when such moves are made. I just wonder if the practice artificially inflates the performance of both the lefty pitchers who face these second-rate lineups and the lefty batters who come down with what has been referred to as the 24-hour Randy Johnson flu.
Take for example some of the statistics quoted in the comments early in yesterday's game thread. Erik Bedard entered yesterday's game holding righties to a .208/.261/.335 line, and lefties to .230/.329/.385, but, as reader NJYankee41 pointed out, a lot of that left-handed production is courtesy of Carl Crawford, who is 7 for 12 with two doubles, a triple, and a homer against Bedard on the season. Even without his performance against Bedard, Crawford has a pretty even split this year, but historically he's had a more typical platoon split. Who's to say that some of the other high-profile lefties who have been sitting against Bedard wouldn't find similar success against him (or Johan Santana, or whomever) if given enough exposure? In fact, I can guarantee that some of them would simply because they're good hitters. What's more, while Bedard is undoubtedly one of the elite pitchers in the game this year, would his performance against righties be as strong if it weren't for the fact that a great many of them are reserves rather than his opponents' regular starters?
Yesterday's Yankee lineup had Wilson Betemit batting from his weaker right side in place of lefty Robinson Cano, righty Shelley Duncan in place of lefty Bobby Abreu, and righty Jose Molina pushing switch-hitter Jorge Posada to DH (Jorge's numbers are pretty even from both sides of the plate) and thus starting in place of either Jason Giambi or Johnny Damon, both lefties. For good measure, switch-hitter Melky Cabrera was batting from his weaker side as well. That lineup struck out five times before Alex Rodriguez picked up the first hit off Bedard leading off the fourth and was held scoreless by Bedard over seven full innings with Rodriguez (twice), Hideki Matsui (the only lefty in the starting lineup), and Duncan (who also struck out twice) picking up the only four hits against Bedard.
Just for yucks, here are the splits against left-handers of those various spot-starting righties and the lefties they replaced
Wilson Betemit .258/.324/.419
Robinson Cano .315/.375/.470
Shelley Duncan .308/.400/.769 (in 15 PA)
Bobby Abreu .218/.286/.286
Jose Molina .324/.316/.432
Jason Giambi .277/.320/.511
Johnny Damon .271/.347/.346
First of all, newsflash: Bobby Abreu can't hit lefties. In his career he's hit just .273/.369/.390 against them, this from a career .301/.409/.501 hitter. Last year, Abreu handled lefties pretty well (.293/.403/.437), but that was the fluke. This is the norm. The last time the Yankees faced a lefty starter (Kansas City's Odalis Perez), Shelley Duncan got the start in right field. Expect that to continue, as it should.
Robinson Cano sat because he'd started every game for the last month, all but three games on the season, and had only had one full day off all year. He'd also gone 0 for 8 in the first two games of the series. Betemit struck out three times in Cano's stead and came up short on one ground ball in the hole that Cano might have turned into an out, but the point wasn't playing Betemit, it was resting Cano, who showed his appreciation with a pinch-hit single against righty Joey Hoey Jim Hoey in the eighth.
The Molina situation stemmed from similar logic. Jorge Posada didn't play at all in the Cleveland series, but that was because of a stiff neck, and this was a day game after a night game in the summer heat. No harm done, and Molina's numbers against lefties are damn fine for a backup catcher. Still, Bedard got a break. I'm not saying he wouldn't have pitched well anyway, but that lineup helped rather than hurt his ability to do so.
Phil Hughes, making his first Yankee Stadium start that wasn't a debut of some sort, pitched reasonably well, but betrayed his inexperience. Hughes' biggest problem was that he was inefficient, needing 95 pitches to get through five innings. Hughes got the O's in order in the first on ten pitches, then struck out Miguel Tejada to start the second and got ahead of Kevin Millar 0-2. He then lapsed into an Al Leiter impression, repeatedly targeting the corners with his fastball and trying to get Millar and Aubrey Huff to go fishing after his breaking stuff despite failing to get strikes by either method. The result was seven straight balls, which put Millar on base and set-up a five-pitch walk of Huff. Hughes rallied, however, and struck out Melvin Mora and Paul Bako (the latter on three pitches) to strand his two walks, but the no-contact inning took 25 pitches to complete. In the third, he allowed a pair of two out singles that, with the help of a stolen base by Corey Patterson, made it 1-0 O's. The run was no big deal, but it took him another 21 pitches to get through those five batters. In the fourth, Huff and Mora singled with one out (Huff's hit being the one Cano might have gotten to) and moved up on a curve in the dirt that ricocheted off Jose Molina's chest protector to the backstop. Tike Redman then hit a high hopper deep in the first-base hole that Andy Phillips snagged, but Hughes hesitated before leaving the mound to cover first base. Not only did the speedy Redman beat Hughes to the bag, but Hughes' hesitation threw off the timing of the play. Phillips' delayed throw was low, and Hughes booted it, allowing both runners to score. The error only cost Hughes two more pitches as Brian Roberts lined out to left, but this time the runs hurt. To his credit, Hughes took full blame for the play after the game.
In the fifth, Hughes was both hurt and helped by his defense. Corey Patterson led off with a single and stole second. Nick Markakis then hit a grounder right through Patterson's legs as he lead off second and Derek Jeter, who appeared to be screened on the play, booted what should have been the first out. Hughes got Tejada to fly out to shallow left to hold Patterson at third, then got Millar to fly out to Shelley Duncan in right. Patterson tagged on that one, but Duncan fired home and, though his throw was up the third base line, it hit Molina chest-high on the fly and was in plenty of time to catch the speedy Patterson for a nifty, inning-ending 9-2 double play.
Duncan, whose home-away splits have thus far been the opposite of Hughes' (tremendous small sample warnings, of course), was the big Yankee hero of this game. Though both Sean Henn and especially Edwar Ramirez, both of whom were called up prior to the game, pitched very well in relief of Hughes, keeping O's within range at 3-0, it was Duncan who cashed those performances, as well as singles by Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui, in with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with a game-tying three-run jack off Jamie Walker and into the seats in left. Sadly, it was all for naught as Mariano Rivera gave the lead back by surrendering doubles to the first two batters he faced in the top of the tenth (Tejada and Markakis), then gave up a hope-crushing two-run homer to dead-center by Huff a batter later. Chad Bradford pitched around a two-out infield single by Alex Rodriguez to give the Orioles the 6-3 victory and the series, both of which were brutal losses for the Yankees.
As for Mo, he's 37 and has appeared in 768 games in his career, which is more than Tommy John or Warren Spahn. He's going to have a rough outing now and again, and that's going to happen more frequently than it used to. He's still converted 90 percent of his save opportunities on the season (his career rate is 88 percent), and with yesterday's has just four loses (he's had as many or more in five of the last seven years). There are hard truths to be faced about Mo in the coming years to be sure, and the Yankees don't have a very good track record when it comes to phasing out popular players who don't make things easy by leaving as free agents, retiring early like Paul O'Neill or Don Mattingly, or by having an exceptionally awful year like David Cone. These concerns will be relevant this offseason when Rivera's contract negotiations begin. They're not right now. He had a bad outing. It's happened before. Here's a fun fact, though, the last time Mariano Rivera gave up both a home run and additional runs not driven in by the homer in the same inning was against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium just a few weeks shy of three years ago.
*I figure that'll be the back page of either the Post or the News, you night owls can place your bets in the comments.