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Joe Morgan, Jerry Manuel and no-brainers

No, I’m not just being redundant.

Certainly according to Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips, it was the easiest decision of all-time: walk Derek Jeter to get to Mariano Rivera. Men on first and second, two outs, one of the game’s most clutchtastic players at the plate or bases loaded and Rivera batting for the third time in 15 years as a major leaguer. The announcers were positively stunned when Francisco Rodriguez threw his first pitch to Jeter a bit off the outside corner for a generous strike one call. Two balls further outside and finally two intentional balls followed, setting it up for Rivera to hit with the bases loaded.

Of course, Rivera went on to walk, giving the Yankees a two-run cushion. Morgan and Phillips had never even mentioned it as a possibility and perhaps even a reason not to put Jeter on automatically. I agreed with the idea of walking Jeter, but I’m not sure it’s quite as clear cut as it was made out to be.

In his major league career, K-Rod has limited hitters to a .164/.244/.221 line with men on first and second. The typical hitter has a one-in-six chance of getting a hit against him in that situation. Now Derek Jeter isn’t the typical hitter. He had five singles and four walks in 14 career plate appearances against K-Rod. Suffice to say, he did have a better than one-in-six chance of getting a hit in the situation. However, K-Rod had an advantage as well, in that he didn’t have to give Jeter anything to hit. He could have continued working Jeter very carefully and backed up that fastball off the corner with a heater up and then a slider low and away. Jeter likely would have expanded his strike zone, knowing that Rivera was up next. It’s possible that K-Rod could have retired him without ever having to throw a strike.

But instead, we had Mariano Rivera up with the bases loaded. The league has hit .233/.338/.400 against K-Rod with the bases loaded in his career. Rivera, while an amazing athlete, probably isn’t a league average hitter. He doesn’t have bad form in the box, but I don’t think I’d want to count on him batting any better than .050 against K-Rod. If he was going to reach, it’d be far more likely to come via the walk.

And I think there was always a real possibility that it would happen.

This is just another guess, but I imagine the typical major league pitcher can, if he’s not trying to do anything else, throw his fastball for a strike a little better than 90 percent of the time. Maybe not quite 95 percent -- I’ve seen too many 3-0 walks to believe that -- but 90-92 seems reasonable. With K-Rod, I’d say it’s a lot closer to 60-70. He’s just different. Much of the time, he seems to have better command of his get-me-over slider than his fastball. But he never tried one of them against Rivera. After all, Rivera might have gotten lucky and timed one of those. He probably wasn’t going to put a fastball into play.

My argument is based on this: there are pretty much three base situations in which you especially don’t want to issue walks, when a man is on first, when men are on first and second (and Mariano Rivera isn’t on deck) and when the bases are loaded. K-Rod has unintentionally walked 54 in 515 plate appearances in those situations (10.5 percent). The rest of the time, he’s unintentionally walked 141 in 1,469 plate appearances (9.6 percent). K-Rod simply has no ability to start throwing strikes when he needs to. He’s an outstanding pitcher anyway, but it’s still because he’s so difficult to hit. Unfortunately, the intentional walk to Jeter put him in a situation in which he didn’t have to give up a hit to allow a run.

I still think it was the right move. Even if we go based on my theory that K-Rod was just as likely to walk Mariano Rivera there as he would have been Alex Rodriguez, that 10 percent chance and the maybe five percent chance of Rivera getting a hit doesn’t top Jeter’s chances of getting a hit. However, I do think Mets manager Jerry Manuel should take something from sequence. Asking K-Rod to issue an intentional walk is typically the wrong strategy, and it’s not a good sign that K-Rod has already had four this year, matching his total from 2007 and 2008 combined.