Going into this game, the Rays had two major advantages on paper:
- David Price is a former Cy Young award winner, and one of the best pitchers in baseball. As a tough lefty, he's hypothetically a difficult matchup for Texas, whose two best hitters are lefties Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder.
- Nick Martinez is a mostly-unheralded pitching prospect, who just a few years ago was a shortstop at Fordham, and who wasn't even invited to Texas's major league spring training.
For the series preview, I made a few gleeful assumptions and generated this graph:
It's as big a mismatch, on paper, as you'll ever see in a major-league game. Of course, that's not really how major-league games work.
Price seemed to be having problems with his fastball today, both in terms of velocity (he lived in the low 90s and even dipped to 89 with it at times) and in terms of command. The reason he's so difficult for lefties to handle is that his two-seam fastball is remarkable, and he pounds them with it mercilessly. Without that clicking for him, the top of the Rangers order Chooed him up (and Andrused him up). And while those high-quality Rangers hitters were taking advantage of Price's struggles, Josh Wilson, a light-hitting former Ray also got three hits off him, none of which were deserved. That's baseball.
Meanwhile, Ron Washington gave Martinez plenty of opportunity to come apart at the seams, and through a combination of mental toughness, smarts, and luck, he did not. The Rays won today, but Martinez can hold his head high as he returns to his minor league home.
The game didn’t start off the way David Price would have liked. Choo, the new Texas leadoff hitter worked the count full before connecting for a line drive single. Elvis Andrus followed that up by rolling over a pitch and bouncing it slowly toward the left side of the infield, but rather than being a double play ball, it found the hole between third base and shortstop. Two outs later, the runners were at second and third. Price threw Alex Rios a backdoor cutter that caught too much of the plate. Rios extended his hands and pulled a liner into the alley to score two runs.
For Martinez, on the other hand, the first inning went well, as he produced two groundballs and watched Leonys Martin, his rangy center fielder, track down a flyball in the gap for the third out.
Although the second inning began auspiciously enough, Price wasn’t able to close the door there, either. Robinsin Chirinos lead off the inning, and his groundball sent the newly extended Yunel Escobar deep into the hole. Escobar fielded, spun, reset his feet, and fired a rocket to first base but the umpire and I both thought live that Chirinos had beaten the throw. Replays showed that not to be the case, Dave Martinez flashed the thumbs up for a challenge, and the call was reversed.
Next, Price struck out Martin looking, but an inning can turn on a dime. Josh Wilson dribbled a soft groundball toward third, and Evan Longoria couldn’t make the bare-handed pickup. A runner was aboard. With the lineup turning over, Price now struggled to locate his fastball, and after working himself ahead in the count, Choo lined the ball into left field. Price failed to fool the next batter, Andrus, who followed a changeup down to the bottom of the zone and flipped it into left to bring Wilson home.
The bottom of the second inning was the first time Martinez began to feel the heat. Evan Longoria lead off and blasted a line drive back up the middle. It lost some of its velocity when it glanced off Martin's glove, but it still had enough to stagger the diminutive Wilson as he made the play at second base. Seriously, there was some weird cartoon superhero stuff going on during the play. James Loney, who had a fantastic day with two walks and two doubles (including the game-winning RBI), jumped on the first pitch he saw and pulled it into the corner for a double. Next, Desmond Jennings found a hole in the infield to set the table for lefty slugger Matt Joyce. Joyce got ahead in the count, but unfortunately for the Rays his at bat was cut short when he flew out in foul territory, which left the inning up to Jose Molina with two outs. The dropoff in quality from seventh-hitter Matt Joyce to eighth-hitter Jose Molina is pretty insane. I'm sure Martinez felt like he could exhale, and sure enough, he dominated Molina, who turned in perhaps the worst at bat I've ever seen from a major league hitter. (A description can be found in the notes. Only read it if you're feeling brave.)
Yunel Escobar lead off the third inning for the Rays, and he immediately turned the Rays lineup over with a home run to left-center field. Now remember that the Rays likely knew very little about Nick Martinez going into this game, so some adjustment period was to be expected. Rays fans were cheered, then, by David DeJesus drawing a four-pitch walk the second time through the lineup. The next two pitches to Wil Myers were also balls, and that brought Mike Maddox scurrying out to the the mound to talk to his young starter. Whatever he said was golden, since he got Martinez to throw strikes, and to produce a double-play grounder.
Eventually David Price settled into the game and shut the Rangers down, but that didn't come till after the fourth inning. Robinson Chirinos lead off the fourth, and Price hit him. Martin bunted Cheerios to second, which brought up the blessed Wilson, who was able to plop a bloop single between Zobrist, Myers, and Loney in shallow right field. Choo brought the runner at third home with a sac fly.
The Rays offense did get to their young opponent in the bottom of the fourth though. Loney took his walk (after seeing a bid for another double fall just foul). With two outs, Matt Joyce was given a chance to drives in runs once more, and this time he did not miss his pitch. It was a changeup that hung in the zone, and even though he was a bit out in front, he was able to keep it fair (the distance was never in question). Jose Molina ended the inning once more.
When Martinez completed the fifth inning, I expected his night to be over, but Washington left him in to face Zobrist, Longoria, and Loney for a third time. It was a stupid move with the Rangers ahead, in my opinion, but this is where we need to give the youngster props. He pitched like a veteran, shifting more heavily to his curve and posting another clean frame, including a strikeout of Longo. Both pitchers left after the sixth inning, turning the game over to their bullpens. Immediately, the Texas 'pen got into trouble.
Jason Frasor came on to face Matt Joyce in the top of the seventh, and while he shattered Joyce's bat, the soft grounder found a hole in the infield. Maddon lifted Molina for Logan Forsythe, who plopped a fastball into the left-field alley. Joyce ran hard and made it to third base, but Forsythe paused momentarily before deciding to go for second, and when Choo hit the cutoff man, he was gunned down trying to advance. Still, the infield was drawn in and Yunel Escobar did manage to put the ball in play -- just straight to the shortstop. The Rangers appeared to have the last out of the inning all locked up when DeJesus sent a high fly ball to the right-field foul territory, but Michael Choice lost it in the roof and overran the play, giving DeJesus one more chance. David took it well, chopping the ball back over the mound, but Elvis Andrus got a great jump and made a barehanded grab and throw to get DDJ by a step.
After Brandon Gomes shut them down in the top of the eighth, the Rangers brought in the lefty Neal Cotts to face the Rays in the bottom of the frame. Myers lead off and quickly found himself behind in the count, but he fought off several cutters in on his hands before taking a walk. The strategy of the inning got interesting as Zobrist proceeded to lay down a perfect sacrifice bunt down the left field line. Longoria took the first pitch inside, and then was given an intentional walk to put men on first and second with one out for James Loney.
The Cotts-Loney matchup prompted Dewayne Staats to point out that both players had reverse (batting average) splits in 2014, which should mean, if you go by last year, that the lefty-lefty matchup was advantage Loney. Now, Staats may say that you should go by one year of data, but that's generally not what statisticians will say. There's a legitimate question over whether or not Neal Cotts is a reverse-split guy (wOBA-based regression sees him as pretty neutral, but DIPS measures think he's a normal lefty), but over the course of his career, Loney has hit righties far better than he has lefties. My projection for the matchup was a .270 wOBA.
Projection? Proschmection! The red-hot Loney let a cutter moving away from him on the outer half of the plate travel in the zone, and then went with the pitch, sending it the other way and over Shin-Soo Choo's head for a double that scored both Myers and Longoria, and gave the Rays a lead that Grant Balfour would not relinquish.
I'm pretty sure this is why baseball is special. It gives us reams of data with which to create high-quality predictions, and then, over a sample size of one, it turns those predictions on their heads. Sometimes, for one day at least, the youngster isn't out of his league. Sometimes, for the day, the Cy Young award winner is merely okay. Sometimes you walk the righty to face the lefty, and that lefty wins the game. It's days like this that turn baseball into something worth watching, and by extension, something worth predicting.
- Why does Jose Molina get hit in the face by foul tips so often? Ryan Hanigan hasn't gotten hit -- as far as I remember -- yet this season, but my count is three for Molina.
- I really enjoy the fact that BA is completely comfortable making fun of opposing players' facial hair.
- Shin-Soo Choo wears bright red batting gloves. Are there any other players with as-noticeable gloves? Is it a statement about your skill, the way brightly colored soccer cleats is a statement?
- Here's the sequence in Molina's at bat in the second inning. Keep in mind that Martinez had been hit hard in the inning already and had fallen behind the previous batter before getting a foul out. 1. Swing and miss at a breaking ball below the strike zone. 2. Take a breaking ball in the dirt. 3. Try to check the swing but go around on another breaking ball that was nearly in the dirt. 4. Swing and miss once more at a fourth breaking ball perhaps a foot away and out of the strikezone. Sometimes I wish Molina would take a page out of Hanigan's book and just leave the bat on his shoulder.
- Loney said in his victorious postgame interview that Cotts struck him out for his last at bat of game 163 last season to move his average from .300 to .299, and that this game was payback. Lovely job today, Loney.
- Balfour didn't pitch amazingly (missed that outside corner to lefties a bunch), but man did he look pumped for his first save opportunity.