Last night, Elliot Johnson committed his 14th error of the season in rushing a throw home allowing the game-winning run to score in the 7th inning on what should have been a rather routine play. To his credit, Johnson did not shy away from his mistake, or the dropped pop-up earlier in the game, and owned up to it to the media after the game:
"I knew Ichiro was running and the ball wasn’t hit particularly hard. I heard Luke [Scott] yelling [to throw home] and I saw him coming down and did my best to get rid of it as quickly as I could and get it there as fast as I could. It was one of those plays where you don’t want to throw it to the first base side of the plate because that just gives them an open lane to throw to, so I went to the third base side and went too far. It wasn’t a good throw and two runs came in…It was the play that cost us the game. You never want to be in one of these situations and you never want to be that guy, but I’m a grown man, I can handle this sort of stuff. It’s not something you ever want to do but you prepare for. I’ve done this sort of thing in the minor leagues and it’s nothing in comparison to this type of stage and this type of situation playing in September against the Yankees, who we are chasing."
Many a player has hid in the trainer's room to duck the media after an event like that, so Johnson deserves kudos for owning up to his mistake. The problem is, a mistake of this magnitude has been building up for quite some time for those that watch each game closely.
Earlier in this series, Johnson did not cleanly field a ground ball off the bat of Eric Chavez and compounded the mistake by rushing a throw that sailed high and wide of first base and nearly went into the seats. Before that, Johnson's throws have become a frequent topic of discussion during game day threads and only some deft scoop work by Carlos Pena and Jeff Keppinger have kept Johnson's error total in the low teens.
What is happening with Johnson appears to be a mental issue because we did not see these types of struggles for him last season or hear about them from all of his time in Durham. What is surprising is that Johnson continues to get playing time during a time in which he has not been able to turn routine plays into outs and every thrown he makes is one fans watch with baited breath.
After all, there are still other options.
The decision to play Johnson on Monday was based mainly on the fact the Rays have had their most success against CC Sabathia when the lineup has been stacked with right-handed hitters. Since Evan Longoria was able to play the field that day, Maddon decided to give Zobrist a half-day off and play him at DH and put Johnson in at shortstop. Last night, the decision was again determined by matchup as Kuroda is much more effective against right-handed hitters where he gets most of his punchouts and Johnson was a better fit than the strikeout-prone Ryan Roberts.
That part of the decision making process is transparent and easy to comprehend. What is confusing is why Reid Brignac was not utilized last night.
On April 7th, the Yankees and Rays played the second game of the 2012 season and Hiroki Kuroda was the opposing pitcher. In the pre-game chat with the media that day, Maddon told us that Brignac was starting and gave the following reason for the decision:
"....Briggy's swing tends to fare better against groundball pitchers and Kuroda is more groundball proficient than Hughes who goes tomorrow."
The mention of Brignac's swing is not new, it is something FreeZorilla covered in late September 2010 when he looked at how Brignac and Jason Bartlett could be effectively platooned. In that piece, he did an effective job in showing how Brignac had his most success against ground ball pitchers, albeit in a limited sample size. Sky Kalkman pointed out the fuzzy area in looking at power/finesse splits for pitchers, so let's compare the career wOBA's for Johnson and Brignac against right-handed pitchers as well as ground ball pitchers.
|wOBA vs GB pitchers||.303||.273|
|wOBA vs RH pitchers||.279||.271|
While the difference between the two players is rather small in terms of pitcher handedness, there is a noticeable gap in weighted on base average of 30 points. Maxing out margins such as this one would seemingly be something Maddon would want to do in a tight race. After all, Brignac is available now that rosters are expanded and the last time this situation presented itself, Maddon used him. Defensively, Brignac is the more skilled player and while not perfect, he is not going through the mental struggles Johnson is going through on making even the most routine of throws from various spots on the infield.
Sean Rodriguez's choice to take out his frustrations with a teammate's comments that led to breaking his hand have impacted what Maddon may have done with lineups in this month with expanded rosters. Given the process behind using lefties last night against Kuroda, the Rodriguez injury is a non-factor here because he of all hitters is the most prone to the slider that Kuroda uses as his out pitch to righties.
Brignac's offensive implementations are limited by his long uppercut swing that makes him quite susceptible to most pitching types while allowing him to find his most success against ground ball pitchers. Kuroda came into last night with the sixth-highest ground ball rate of all starting pitchers in the American League and yet Brignac still was not given the start. If last night is not the right opportunity to start Brignac, when is? Brignac played 21 games at second base in Durham during his demotion so it is not as if it were a matter of playing the player out of position. If Maddon is uncomfortable using Roberts against certain types of right-handed pitchers, he has two choices: two players with limited offensive capabilities, one of which has a major case of the yips.
When a basketball shooter is going through slumps, the common advice given to that player is to shoot your way through the slump. Johnson is trying to throw his way through his defensive slump and the timing could not be worse. The Rays had a chance to move within half a game of the division lead last night but failed to do so, mainly due to two rather routine plays that were not converted and gave the Yankees extra opportunities and extra runs.
Johnson absolutely shares the blame for that, but Maddon's decision making should as well. If not for failing to maximizing the margins, then for calling for Johnson to bunt with men on second and third and just one out with the infield in and slow-footed Jeff Keppinger on third. If you look closely enough at the post-game quote, you can almost envision Maddon laying down cover fire for his beleaguered infielder but if you have the confidence to ignore the margins and play the struggling player, you should have enough confidence in him to avoid calling for a bunt in a very ill-advised situation.