On Questioning Joe Maddon: Joyce vs Young

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Spo

One home run does not a good process make.

Yesterday when the lineups were announced, I freaked. As I told Daniel over gchat at the time, Joe Maddon had clearly lost his mind while filling out his lineup against the young righty Danny Salazar. Delmon Young, a right-handed batter on a hot streak was starting at designated hitter over left-handed righty-masher Matt Joyce. The regressed platoon split projections that I calculated forecasted Yong for a .279 wOBA and Joyce for a .349 wOBA. For anyone unfamiliar with the wOBA scale, that's not even remotely close.

While thrashing around for a justification, or at least an explanation, I settled on Salazar's highly-regarded splitter (a pitch similar to a changeup but that has less horizontal run and more vertical drop—featured on the Rays by Alex Cobb, Joel Peralta, and Brandon Gomes). We already know that Joe Maddon will occasionally stack his lineup with same-handed bats when the opposing pitcher's best pitch is a changeup (which is traditionally thought to be most effective against an opposite-handed batter), a practice identified as "The Danks Theory" by former DRaysBay and current The Process Report editor Tommy Rancel. Maddon had done that against Salazar except for the inclusion of left-fielder David DeJesus and first baseman James Loney. While Loney was always going to play for defensive purposes, if Maddon were going with a straight Danks Theory lineup, he would have started Sean Rodriguez instead of DeJesus.

This lead me onto shakier ground, both in terms of pitching theory and in terms of sample size. Over his career (using Brooks Baseball numbers and classifications), Matt Joyce has struggled mightily against splitters from right-handed pitchers, missing on 50% of his swings. Sean Rodriguez has not been much better, missing on 40%. DeJesus has missed only 21% of the time.

I dumped my theory on Dan, asked him to write it up, and ran out the door of my work. Long-time community member Barnacles was not buying it.

He throws [his fastball] 2/3s of the time. He only throws his changeup 20% of the time. It’s not like there’s some great mystery to this. Leaving Joyce on the bench because he might see a changeup is stupid.

We’ve moved beyond questioning management and into some speculative reasoning that doesn’t make any damn sense.

When Dan tried to defend me by claiming that I wasn't defending Maddon's lineup, just explaining it, Barnacles countered:

Yes, you are defending it by trying to explain it

just say it’s wrong if you know it’s wrong. That’s what Sabermetrics are about – not kowtowing to established baseball thought.

Rounding out the critique:

So we can't make decisions with imperfect information?

There are always going to be unknowns (even for the Rays FO), but the most reliable information screams Matt Joyce. There is no need to go down the wormhole of outsmarting yourself into believing tiny, unreliable samples or speculative reasoning.

And:

No we can’t say absolutely that Joe is wrong, but we can say with a lot of confidence that he is. He’s prone to make odd choices, no matter how intelligent he is or how good of a manager he is.

Now of course we all know that Delmon Young went out and hit a home run off the very first pitch Danny Salazar threw him (a fastball), but that shouldn't change our evaluation of Maddon's move all that much. Everyone here knows not to draw conclusions from a sample size of one. Because the rationalization that Barnacles so disliked was mine, not Dan's, because I was unable to respond at the time, and because Barnacles was not necessarily wrong, I wanted to go through my thought process more fully.

Facts

A: The decision to include Joyce in the lineup was obvious. The decision not to was stupefying. This was not a situation where the numbers are close and a hunch should come into play. Based on what we know about handedness matchups, Joyce should have been one of the first names written into the lineup card, somewhere next to Evan Longoria and Wil Myers.

B: Maddon, despite all the attention he gets in traditional media for "going with his gut," is a savvy manager. He was hired, in part, for his willingness and ability to use the numbers. And he's not acting alone. He's the public-facing head of a crack team of analysts, some of whom were directly responsible for convincing pipsqueaks like me that sabermetrics is a cool and worthwhile pursuit. If we knew that by L/R splits Joyce was the obvious choice, so did they.

So how do we reconcile the two facts?

Option one: Fact B is incorrect.

  1. Maddon really does play hunches to an extreme extent. I reject this, as it will keep me from sleeping at night. Also, when previously questioned about a matchup decision, I've seeen him smile and say, "Oh, you know. There's some arcane stuff [we look at]." I'm pretty sure the "gut" line often has as much to do with protecting trade secrets as anything.
  2. James Click and Co. took the day off. They've been working hard. They needed it. Or maybe their spreadsheets had an error. They thought Salazar was left-handed. I can see how that might happen.
Option two: Fact A is incorrect.
  1. What we think we know about handedness splits is bollocks (this is objectively provable as not the case).
  2. There are other ways to play the matchups, which may or may not be the correct decision. If this is the case, and I think it most probably is, then the logical, sabermetric approach is to scramble in an attempt to come up with an alternative way of thinking. That's what Rancel did when he noticed the Danks Theory, and it's what I did while musing aloud about splitters. It is never incorrect to try to explain something. Of course we can come to a conclusion with incomplete information, but part of that conclusion should always be that our information is incomplete. We know that the Rays are smart. When they do something "stupid," look for a reason. There may be something to learn.

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