Cervelli has played all but six of his 202 major league games at catcher, spending four games (five innings) at third base and two games (three innings) at second base in odd, emergency situations. In 310 minor league games, Cervelli played 309 games at catcher and one in left field (in 2005).
So when he took the field starting at first base on Tuesday, it was the first time in his professional career he ever started a game anywhere but catcher and the first time he ever played first.
But there’s good reason to run Cervelli out in an unfamiliar situation. The Yankees face lefthanded Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen on Tuesday. Yes, Cervelli is 1-for-2 lifetime against Chen, but that’s too small a sample size to matter.
What really counts is Cervelli’s career splits against lefthanded pitchers. Cervelli is a .258 hitter with a .318 on-base percentage in 432 plate appearances against righthanded pitchers, but he bats .302 with a .398 OBP against southpaws in 199 plate appearances.
For the second consecutive Ivan Nova start, third baseman/first baseman Kelly Johnson is starting the game on the bench. Cervelli’s superior numbers against lefties preclude Johnson from the start at first, where he had been playing since Teixeira's injury, and Johnson’s own inexperience at third base is what likely stops him from getting the start there.
Johnson had played only 16 career games at third base coming into this season – all of which came in 2013 with the Rays.
Ivan Nova, meanwhile, gets ground balls. Lots of them. He had a 53.5 percent ground ball percentage in 2013 and had a 61.1 percentage during his first start of 2014. MLB pitchers averaged a 44.5 groundball percentage in 2013.
With those numbers, the infield is likely to be active, and it’s hard to blame Joe Girardi for favoring a more natural third baseman like Yangervis Solarte at the hot corner.