Rays Win 4-3 in Dramatic Fashion; Carl Crawford with Walk-Off Double

What. A. Game. Strap in everyone; it's going to be one heck of a season and we've only just begun.

Going into the bottom of the ninth inning, the Rays were down 3-2 and hadn't held a lead at any point during the game. James Shields had pitched an okay game, going six innings while striking six, walking two, and allowing nine hits. His downfall was that of those nine hits, three of them were home runs (more on that later).  The Rays had hit well at the plate all day long - everyone in the Rays' line-up finished with a hit by the end of the game - but they hadn't managed to translate those hits into many runs. The Orioles shiny new $12M closer, Mike Gonzalez, was on the mound and things looked rather bleak.

However, even the best relievers can have their bad outings. Sean Rodriguez singled, Kelly Shoppach (pinch-hitting for Dioner Navarro) smacked a double off the top of the left field wall, Bartlett was intentionally walked, and Carl Crawford came through with a game-winning hit to right field. Ah, sweet joy.

After the jump, I've got a couple quick thoughts on the game, specifically relating to James Shields and Joe Maddon.

James Shields

On the surface, James Shields' start looks quite good. He only allowed 3 ER over 6 innings and his K:BB ratio was very respectable (6:2). If we dig a bit deeper, though, we can see some evidence of a pitcher that was still getting his feet under him after spring training. Shields threw 106 pitches in his six innings of work, but only managed to generate a swinging strike on six of them. (For those new to DRaysBay, swinging strikes are a good sign of a pitcher's effectiveness since it means they're fooling hitters instead of just relying on fickle umpires for strike calls.) Shields has sometimes generated six swinging strikes in a start on his change-up alone, but yesterday he only got one swinging strike on his change. Also, Shields tired noticeably as the game went along, losing velocity quickly after hitting pitch 50.  He started off the game throwing fastballs that touched 93-94 MPH, but after he'd thrown 60 pitches Shields never touched 90 MPH again.

Shields also allowed three home runs in the game - all solo-shots, at least. My initial judgment from watching the game was that Shields didn't have as much control as he normally does and was compensating by leaving more pitches over the plate, but the Pitch f/x data isn't backing up my observation on this one. When comparing his strike-zone plots to other games, it doesn't appear that he was leaving more or less pitches over the middle than normal. Instead, it seems the most likely answer is that Shields' stamina wasn't entirely there and as a result, his pitches weren't as sharp or deceiving as normal. Two of the home runs came off his fastball, one of which was clocked at 89.9 MPH and was left middle-up over the outside part of the plate. The other one - well, Adam Jones had an epic at-bat (10 pitches) and hit a good pitch (93 MPH fastball, just catching the high, outside corner of the zone). And the third home run came off his change-up late in the game; Shields let it catch the plate a little too much and his change-up was closer in speed to his fastball at that point (81 MPH to 88 MPH), making it easier to hit.

For a first start of the year, this was a fine outing and I anticipate Shields continuing to be his dominant self as he gains more and more stamina. 

Joe Maddon
After going over the "Moments with Maddon" series these past couple months, I was really excited to see how Maddon managed the bullpen and used pinch-hitters. As for the bullpen management, Maddon continued his habit of letting starters pitch to the first batter of an inning before pulling them, letting Shields give up a single to Adam Jones to start the seventh inning before bringing in Randy Choate. Shields was obviously toast at this point - he'd been losing velocity and had nearly cracked 100 pitches - but it seems that Maddon wanted to bring in Choate to face the lefty Nick Markakis and didn't want to waste another reliever for just one batter. That's fine logic and understandable, but here's what I'm hung up on: who would you rather have in during this situation - a tired James Shields with a platoon advantage or a fresh Randy Choate without the advantage? Here are some numbers for consideration:

vs. R

vs. L

Shields FIP

3.95

4.01

Choate FIP

4.87

2.57

Jones wOBA

0.328

0.303

These are career splits numbers and aren't regressed, so keep that in mind; Jones will project to be better against lefties than a .303 wOBA because he's only had 371 PA against them. I feel like the decision hinges upon how much you think Shields has left in the tank. It doesn't matter what hand you throw at Adam Jones since the stats suggest he performs comparably against both, so it just depends if you think Shields is so tired that he's worse than a 4.87 FIP pitcher.

Also, who wanted to pinch-hit for Carl Crawford in the bottom of the ninth inning? Hands, anyone? I know there were a couple people that expressed this opinion in the Game Day Thread and I heard similar murmurs floating around the twitter-sphere, but Maddon made the correct move - you don't pinch-hit for Crawford in that situation. Most people threw out Gabe Kapler as his potential pinch-hitter, so here are their numbers against lefties: Crawford, .333 wOBA; Kapler, .340 wOBA. Toss in the 10% pinch-hitting penalty and you're looking at pinch-hitting for a .333 wOBA batter with a .306 wOBA hitter. It just doesn't make sense.

Pinch-hitting for Navarro (.327 wOBA vLefties) with Shoppach (.317 wOBA vLefties, including the pinch-hitting penalty) is at least close enough to make sense. Shoppach has destroyed lefties in the past, so he was a great play in that situation.

Other thoughts that ran through my mind:
  • Is it just me or did Pat Burrell look better at the plate last night? The final result was unimpressive (1-4 with a GIDP and 2 K), but something just made me feel more confident in him. Did his hit in his first at-bat just prejudice my thoughts? Am I deluding myself because I really, really want him to turn it around? When looking at Pat's final line from last night, I can't help but think I was being gripped by some momentary insanity. Please hit, Pat - I want to like you.
  • Also, Pat Burrell, learn how to run the bases! You're lucky Wieters didn't catch the throw because you would have been dead at home plate otherwise. Carl Crawford can run through a red light, but you? Goodness gracious. If you're going to try and do it, at least make a good turn around third base so that you don't almost knock over the person you're ignoring.
  • Bullpens have got to be one of the top areas that cause General Managers the most amount of grief and stress. You can sink all sorts of money into a dominant closer like Rafael Soriano ($9M $7.25M) or Mike Gonzalez ($12M), but at the end of Opening Day, Randy Choate and Matt Albers pitched the best of anyone out of the bullpen. Go figure.
  • I love Evan Longoria. Every time a ball was hit to him, I ended up smiling to myself. There was at least one time when I thought an Oriole had just ripped a double down the line, but Longoria was right there and made the play like it was a piece of cake. Who says defense can't be sexy?
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