April 6, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena (23) hits a grand slam in the first inning against the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
There was some logic behind the decision. Sean Rodriguez entered yesterday's game with a respectable OPS of .782 versus lefthanders, including an .872 OPS in 23 chances against C.C. Sabathia. Meanwhile, Carlos Pena had only four hits in 39 times to the plate against the big lefty. So, why not set up a mismatch by issuing an intentional pass to Rodriguez? Six pitches later, Joe Girardi had his answer. After going all of 2011 without surrendering a grand slam, the Yankees watched Pena clear the bases before the season was one inning old.
When Girardi opted to walk Rodriguez in front of Pena, he was expecting Sabathia to continue his dominance over the Rays' first baseman. However, this wasn't the late innings of a mid-season game. It was the first inning of the first game, and Sabathia had shown early signs of lacking command. Maybe if it had been later in the game, when Sabathia had a feel for all his pitches, the move would have made more sense, but in the opening frame, the big lefty didn't appear to have his entire arsenal at his disposal. So, instead of dominating Pena with breaking balls, as he did later in the game, the Yankees' ace was forced to rely on the fastball (10 of his first 13 pitches leading up to the walk were fastballs), and the Rays' slugger made him pay.
Regardless of context, first inning intentional walks are very rare. Since 1948, the Yankees have only handed out 77 free passes in the opening frame, or about 3% of the total issued over that period. What's more, only 39 of the intentional walks took place with the score tied, and only five of those occurred in April (the four balls to Sean Rodriguez represented the earliest free pass given out by the Yankees since at least 1948). In other words, it was much too early in the game and the season to be pitching around any hitter, much less a marginal one like Rodriguez (in contrast, the recent list of first inning intentional walks reads like an All Star Game roster).
Even before Pena's grand slam left the yard, criticism of Girardi's strategy was rampant on Twitter, with many bemoaning the manager's perceived infatuation with the free pass. Yankees' fans can sometimes be prone to exaggeration, but this time, the consensus seems to be right. Since taking over as Yankees' manager, Girardi has increasingly opted to flash four fingers. In 2011, the 43 free passes handed out by the Yankees not only ranked second in the American League, but represented the team's seventh highest total since the advent of the DH. The abundance of free passes doesn't mean the strategy hasn't worked, and outcomes alone don't determine justification, but with three intentional walks already handed out, this appears to be a trend worth watching.
With a team as talented as the Yankees, sometimes, the best thing a manager can do is simply get out of the way. Although Girardi has many positive qualities as a skipper, that's one lesson he probably still needs to learn. After all, the road to many a loss is paved with good intentions (and, in this case, intentional walks).