NEW YORK — Good morning, folks.
In today’s Star-Ledger, we look at what was arguably CC Sabathia’s best outing of the season in a 5-3 victory over the Rays. The suddenly surging Robinson Cano hit a two-run homer to help the Yankees take the series against their division rivals.
In the notebook, we look at the jolt of bad news the Yankees received last night, when an MRI revealed that Brett Gardner has re-injured his right elbow. Joe Girardi said he will likely be out for at least two weeks, though that could also stretch to a month. It’s a tough blow considering that Gardner was on the brink of being activated yesterday.
And now for an interesting question…
Yankees manager Joe Girardi admits that he’s intentionally “vanilla” when it comes to conducting press conferences. Indeed, he’s never been Mr. Controversy. But the manager spiced it up a bit yesterday when discussing his philosophy on personal catchers. In short, he doesn’t believe in the concept.
Girardi insists that Chris Stewart is not CC Sabathia’s personal catcher. He maintains this assertion despite the fact that Stewart has caught each of Sabathia’s last five starts — which have been far better when compared to Sabathia’s two outings with the starting catcher, Russell Martin. Girardi, himself a former catcher, acknowledges that the tandem has worked very well. But as far pairing the two, Girardi said, “it’s just kind of worked out that way.”
Girardi refused to commit to keeping the Sabathia-Stewart battery intact.
“Yeah, he’s caught him three or four starts, but I’m not saying it’s going to be that way the whole year,” Girardi said. “Everyone is going to want to make something of it right now, but it’s not going to be that way the whole year.”
So, why the resistance to simply assigning Stewart as Sabathia’s personal catcher? This is where Girardi broke from his typical protocol.
“There’s egos that I have to manage in that room,” he said. “You don’t. I do. (Stewart) is not his personal catcher.”
The manager took things a step further. Said Girardi: “Russell is our No. 1 catcher. If the playoffs were today, I’m probably sending Russell out there with CC because he’s going to be rested, you’re going to have a day off before, you’re not going to be in the midst of 16 games. Sometimes it works for that second catcher; he knows when he’s playing, the starting catcher has an idea of when he’s not playing, and they can work their weeks around it. That’s why I don’t believe in personal catchers a lot of times, in a sense, because I believe Russell is going to do a good job with him, as well.”
Of course, Girardi has some precedent for going against his aversion toward personal catchers. Remember back to the Yankees’ championship team in 2009, when A.J. Burnett and weak-hitting backup catcher Jose Molina hit it off. The Yankees suffered a huge offensive drop-off at the plate. But come playoff time, Molina’s rapport with Burnett took precedence over Jorge Posada’s superior bat. The backup started five games in the postseason.
When Burnett won the critical second game of that World Series — easily his greatest triumph in his mostly turbulent time in the Bronx — it was the journeyman Molina who called the pitches even though Posada is the one possibly bound for Cooperstown. Posada wasn’t happy about it at the time, and understandably so.
Girardi played Molina anyway.
So, here’s the question. Let’s say the Yankees are the dreaded second wild card and must play a one-game playoff to advance? And let’s say that by some cosmic fluke, Sabathia was available to start that game. Would Girardi really look past the success Sabathia and Stewart have had together and start Martin?
I’m not so sure it’s as easy an answer as Girardi is making it out to be.
With Martin and Stewart, the Yankees have two catchers whose primary value rests with defense, which alone makes it a different decision than the old Posada-Molina debate. In Martin’s case, he has increasingly become more of a defensive player. Though he’s nowhere near as bad as his current numbers would suggest — Martin is hitting just .188 through his first 26 games — he also hasn’t replicated his earlier success at the plate during his days with the Dodgers.
Stewart, meanwhile, to his credit has overachieved at the plate. He’s hitting .240 in eight games. Said Girardi: “Stew has also had some big at-bats for us in some of the games. He’s found a way to be productive for us.”
Stewart’s production is likely to taper off while Martin’s track record indicates he’ll eventually hit. Despite the early numbers, it’s hard to quibble with Girardi’s desire to keep Martin’s bat in the lineup, even if it’s not what it used to be.
The biggest problem with making a definitive call might be the lack of a reliable way to determine exactly how much credit to assign a catcher for a pitcher’s performance. Even the oft-cited catcher’s ERA can be misleading considering the many variables (ballparks, strength of opponent, etc.) that can inflate or deflate that number. Also, over time, catcher’s ERAs fluctuated wildly enough to create reasonable doubt about their reliability. Recently, studies on pitch-framing and other aspects of catching have started assigning values to certain skills behind the plate, but these methods are new.
Parsing out a catcher’s true effect on a pitcher is a messy process.
However, simply watching the games offers hints that there might be something meaningful in the Sabathia-Stewart relationship. Here’s one tip-off: Sabathia worked at a slower pace with Martin behind the plate because the pitcher seemed to shake off more signs. It happens rarely, if at all, with Stewart doing the game-calling. His rapport with Sabathia seems to get stronger with every start. The small-sample caveat applies here. nevertheless, the results so far:
April 17 vs. MIN 7 1/3 innings, 3 earned runs, 1 walk, 7 strikeouts
April 23 at TEX 8 innings, 4 earned runs, 1 walk, 8 strikeouts
April 29 vs. DET 8 innings, 2 earned runs, 2 walks, 8 strikeouts
May 4 at KC 8 innings, 2 earned runs, 0 walks, 5 strikeouts
Last night vs. TB 10 vs. TB 8 innings, 0 earned runs, 1 walk, 10 strikeouts
So, is this just a happy coincidence? Or is this an indication that the partnership is working? Or is this a futile exercise since Sabathia is an ace pitcher, after all, and he’s probably good enough throw a gem regardless of whose calling pitches?
Well, after listening to Sabathia after last night’s start, it would seem that there is something to this collaboration. If that’s truly the case — and Stewart can keep consistently get these results out of the Yankees’ ace — Girardi could be facing a difficult decision if the Yankees qualify for the playoffs. On this subject, let’s give Sabathia the final word: “He’s been calling great games. He studies a lot, and we go into the meetings and he knows exactly what we should be doing. He watches a lot of video and gives me the confidence to go out and throw the pitch.”
For more Yankees coverage, follow Marc Carig on twitter at twitter.com/MarcCarig
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