The last thing the New York Yankees need right now is controversy. While other teams like the Tigers, Twins, Rockies and Dodgers have been brawling for their respective slots in the playoffs right down to the very end (and for the Twins and Tigers, even longer than that), the Yankees cruised to the American League East title (103-59), finishing a shocking eight games ahead of the Boston Red Sox of whom they humiliated constantly after starting 0-8 against their East coast rivals.
The entire team is hitting, the rotation — while inconsistent at times — is still better than any of the other three American League Playoff teams, and their bullpen has been, by far, the best in baseball. Put simply, the Yankees are healthy, their rotation is in-line, and they are in perhaps their best position to win a World Series since 1998. But in the Bronx Zoom, even when the team is winning, something inevitably goes wrong, controversy is always lurking right around the corner. And like clockwork the Yankees got exactly what they needed the least this week, and from their very own manager none-the-less.
Jorge Posada is a cornerstone of the Yankees ballclub, on the field and in the club house. He is a leader in words and a leader by example, continuing to excel offensively and defensively at an age when many catchers begin to break down completely. Since 1997 Posada led championship pitching staffs, and helped the Yankees slug their way to more than a few dramatic wins.
His back-up Jose' Molina, while very proficient defensively (as most Molina's tend to be), leaves much to be desired at the plate. In a head-to-head comparison between the starter and his backup this concept is vividly illustrated.
Posada: .285/22/81 .363/.522/.855 130 OPS+
Molina: .217/01/11 .292/.268/.560 49 OPS+
Where as Posada is an integral part of the Yankees' lineup, Molina is a black hole that rarely gets on a base is responsible for a minuscule amount of run production, registering an OPS that is 51 points below the league average fot a hitter. Posada conversely, is still an All-Star catcher at 37, second only to Joe Mauer (this year's only deserving MVP) as the top offensive catcher in baseball.
By age 35 Johnny Bench was retired, besting 20 home runs for the last time at age 32. In another logical comparison, Mike Piazza was one year away from retirement at 37, having bested 20 home runs for the last time at age 36. When two catchers widely considered to be the greatest offensive players at the position in history were either retired or almost there, nearly completely eroded, Jorge was continuing to put up career numbers.
So why is this even a question, you ask? Who in their right mind would start Molina over Posada in a playoff game in a short five-game series? Maybe a regular season game against a less-dangerous opponent to give Posada a rest. Girardi did this on occasion during the season, sometimes even inserting Jorge into the DH role, depending on who was healthy and hot at the time. But what could possibly possess Joe Girardi — a manager who has once again shown his immense acumen this season — start such a feeble offensive player over one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time? Apparently the answer is one name; A.J. Burnett.
Joe Girardi announced on Tuesday that while Jorge Posada is still the teams #1 catcher, Jose Molina will in fact start Game 2 of the Yankees upcoming ALDS showdown with the Twins, serving as battery-mate to the aforementioned Burnett. The NY Press has documented some animosity between the Yankees' star catcher and AJ several times this year (while AJ has consistently denied any problem). With no personal issues addressed, AJ simply expressed that he did not feel in tune with Posada on the mound, struggling in many of his starts. And the statistics do seem to back up his assertion.
While these numbers show an obvious connection between success and the battery of Burnett and Molina, it must be taken into account that AJ faced only 288 batters working with Molina while nearly doubling that total with Posada (434). And while much of the season AJ struggled (compared to his usual level of production), he was excellent in his last four starts (all handled by Molina), posting a 1.88 ERA a striking out 28 in 24 innings while walking 10. From these base statistics one might derive a solid argument to match Burnett and Molina every time.
And yet the situation is not that cut and dry. We've determined the massive loss to the Yankees offensively with the head-to-head comparison of both men's work at the plate. So logically to justify starting Molina over Posada in a playoff series, the defensive benefits and benefit to the starting pitcher must be greater than or equal to the offensive loss (did that sound like an elementary school story problem?). When the gains and losses of the situation are measured Burnett’s statistics pitching to Molina (especially considering the sample size is smaller and the opponents' were less offensively inclined) are far less lopsided than his counterpart Posada's numbers at the plate compared to his own.
So the Yankees have two basic options:
1. Start Molina in Game 2 of the ALDS (as planned) ignoring the loss of Posada's bat (Matsui will hit DH) and hope AJ pitches well enough to justify whining his way into getting his own personal catcher.
2. Girardi could sit AJ and Jorge down and come up with a gameplan to follow. If, at any point in the game AJ felt that the plan has been deviated from or that said plan needs amending, he could then communicate this to his battery-mate, adjusting to the situation while exercising his anatomical ability to simply shake his head. Jorge Posada has never been observed or reported holding a gun to AJ's temple making him throw pitches he doesn't want to throw so I think the "shake-off" would work here.
Shake his head. Now there is an astounding thought. If AJ Burnett doesn't like the pitches being called by Jorge Posada he can simply shake his head thus changing the pitch. As Posada himself said, the signs he puts down are his suggestions, his best assessments of the situation at hand. It is the pitcher who must throw the pitch and it is his statistics to which his accomplishments and failures will be attached. It seems so simple. Why give up 68 points of batting average, 21 home runs, and 71 RBIs instead of simply teaching the starting pitcher that he can shake his head and shift the situation entirely into his control?
Jorge Posada has somehow become the scapegoat in the New York media for the various pitching struggles of the Yankees this season. And yet CC Sabathia has righted himself into near-Cy Young Award form, Joba Chamberlain has improved consistently, Andy Pettitte has nearly re-invented himself, likely prolonging his career and making him a once again reliable and vital piece of the Yankee rotation, and Phil Hughes has transformed himself into the best setup man in baseball. Yet AJ Burnett simply can't pitch to Jorge Posada and is so disrupted by his presence that he is willing to sacrifice Jorge's bat in the lineup for a player that will likely be an automatic out every time at the plate.
I like Jose Molina. He is a very good defensive catcher who provides an excellent backup option to keep Posada fresh throughout the season. He is fundamentally sound, works well with the young pitchers, and is an important piece of constructing a team that is rich in depth, character, and heart.
And I like AJ Burnett. Despite his less-than-stellar season he is a pitcher of immense skill who likely will prove to be a long-term Yankee stalwart in their rotation with some slight shifting of his priorities. He is comfortable in the AL East and seems to be generally a good teammate and person. But this idea of him having his very own, offensively deficient catcher, despite what is obviously good for the team, is disgustingly selfish, narrow minded, and absurd. Burnett should be ashamed of himself for requesting this action from his manager (or accepting it if it was suggested) and Joe Girardi should be ashamed for executing on the action to satisfy the whims of his pitcher (or suggesting it if that was the case).
Jorge, when asked about his feelings on the benching, said simply and succinctly, "I just hope we win that game. That's all I've got to say."
Posada hopes the team wins because he is a team-first player. Undoubtedly frustrated by this decision, the Yankee veteran will always stand behind his franchise and his manager/mentor Girardi. But Jorge is dead on with his remarks. In a five game series, when every game is so crucial and upsets so historically rampant (especially against the Yankees themselves), New York better "win that game," or the responsibility will be solely on Burnett and Girardi. Girardi may be making the right move to keep Burnett mentally sound. But if it takes abandoning such a large amount of offense to achieve that either Burnett needs to improve his mental fortitude or he may need to find a different club to pitch for next season.