Never count these Rays out of a game. Going into the eighth inning, the Rays were trailing the Blue Jays for the second day in a row and I was dearly afraid of what would happen to my laptop if the Rays lost again. The Blue Jays were projected at the beginning of the year to be the worst team in the majors and although they are currently playing better than that projection (while the O's are playing well worse than theirs), these are games we should win.
I shouldn't have bothered worrying, though. After scoring two runs in the bottom of the fifth inning on John Jaso's first career home run, the Rays' offense burst out in the bottom of the eighth inning, scoring seven runs on five hits, two walks, and one hit by pitch. My personal favorite moment from the inning: Willy Aybar catching the defense sleeping and bunting for a single. How often do you see that happen?
Anyway, here are a couple quick thoughts on the game:
The Big Nyquil
Jeff Niemann had his most impressive outing on the season tonight, striking out eight batters over 6.2 innings. After struggling to make batters swing and miss his first few appearances (5.6% SwgSt%, 4.11 K/9), Niemann generated 9.5% swinging strikes last evening, including three swinging strikes out of nine total sliders. His downfall on the evening was the home run; Niemann let up two home runs on fastballs that he grooved over the middle of the plate to Adam Lind and Lyle Overbay. It's unfortunate that he missed with those two pitches because otherwise, Niemann had a very nice outing.
One thing I find interesting is that Niemann worked in a decent number of change-ups last night. In his first full start of the season, Niemann only used one change-up but threw around seven or eight sinkers, but now the sinker has disappeared and the change-up has reappeared. Niemann didn't induce many ground balls tonight, so I hope we see the return of that sinker sometime soon.
It Take Two to Tango: Kapler-Brignac
In the first game of the series, Maddon got blasted on twitter and on this site for not pinch-hitting for Gabe Kapler against a righty in the ninth inning. Last night, Joe Maddon reversed course: he pinch-hit for Kapler late in the game against a righty. These moves bring up two questions in my mind, 1) is this the correct move, and 2) why pinch-hit in one game and not the other?
Viscerally, I want Maddon to pinch-hit for Kapler in this situation. Kapler is a lefty masher and he's not that good against righties, so obviously it feels better to bring a lefty like Reid Brignac to the plate. Rationally, though, I don't know if it matters. Kapler has a .306 expected wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) against righties, so the question becomes if Brignac can perform better than that in this situation. Since Brignac has yet to accrue many major league at bats, we've got to make some educated guesses. Brignac currently has a .315 wOBA and most projection systems believe he's a true talent .310-.330 wOBA batter. Through his minor league career, Brignac has shown a slight platoon advantage (.735 OPS vs. L; .799 OPS vs. R), so let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say he's a .340 wOBA batter against right-handers.
However, we still haven't accounted for the pinch-hitting penalty. People seem to have a tough time believing this, so let me reiterate: hitters have historically performed ~10% worse than their career norm when pinch-hitting. This is not something I'm making up; if you want proof, check out this. Or this. Or this. Not every hitter in every season will perform worse when pinch-hitting, but just like with clutch ability, it is not a skill you can expect a player to repeat year to year. Pinch-hitting is tough.*
*And here's what gets me: I think we know intuitively that pinch-hitting is tough. This player has been sitting on the bench all day, watching the action and twiddling their thumbs. They're paying attention to the game, but as I'm sure anyone that has ever played baseball can attest, there is something different about watching the game and playing the game. These players are entering into high pressure situations at the drop of a hat, and we expect them to be playing at the peak of their ability level? It just doesn't make sense! We've got research to back up this claim, our gut tells us it's true....why don't we believe it?
In other words, banking on Brignac to perform at a .340 wOBA level in this situation is unrealistic. If you adjust his line by 10%, you get an expected wOBA of .306 - exactly what Kapler's expected wOBA is in this situation. And so, the final decision comes down to a wash. Even if you think Brignac is marginally better than Kapler (say, .320 wOBA vs. .306 wOBA), you're getting at most a 5% boost in performance. When the bench is full, it makes sense for Maddon to chase that improvement; Brignac isn't going to do worse than Kapler and he might be better, so he's a worthy pinch-hitter. When the bench is nearly empty, though, and there's a chance you could go into extra innings - like on Friday evening - it makes no sense to empty your bench for maybe a 5% boost.
Call me a Maddon apologist, but I'll stick with him on both these calls.
The Catching Conundrum
I'll let the numbers speak for themselves. So far this season:
Dioner Navarro: 49 plate appearances, -0.4 WAR (Wins Above Replacement)
John Jaso: 12 plate appearances (before last night), 0.2 WAR
It's about as small as a sample as you can get, but a rubber ducky would be better behind the plate than Navarro at this point. Sign me up for the Jaso Fan Club.