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Cash Considerations: Kevin Cash bests Alex Cora in first meeting of the minds

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What Kevin Cash’s roster management told us about Brad Miller and C.J. Cron

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It was a busy opening day, and a fun one for Rays fans.

It’s hard to analyze most of it, as a single game is the definition of a small sample size, but there was one moment during the Rays eighth-inning comeback against the Red Sox that definitely deserves a closer look, because it may have given direct information about what managers Kevin Cash and Alex Cora think about the evaluations of their own players.

Let’s recap the bottom of the eigth inning, which began with the Rays down by four runs:

  1. Right-handed reliever Joe Kelly replaced Matt Barnes.
  2. Daniel Robertson (RHB) walked.
  3. The Mighty Rob Refsnyder (RHB) was called out on strikes.
  4. Matt Duffy (RHB) doubled, scoring Robertson and bringing the score to 4-1.
  5. Kevin Kiermaier (LHB) walked.
  6. Carlos Gomez (RHB) walked to load the bases.

The game hung in the balance, with a sky-high leverage-index of 4.58 (1 is average).

Next up was Rays first-baseman C.J. Cron, a right-handed batter with a revese split over his career. Instead, Cash sent Brad Miller, a left-handed batter with a wide platoon split, to the on-deck circle.

Earlier in the inning, Cora had gotten both a righty and a lefty up in the bullpen and they were both warm by this point. The righty was Carson Smith, a side-arming groundball producer who before going down for Tommy John surgery was one of the best relievers in baseball. The lefty was Bobby Poyner, who has never pitched above Double-A.

As Danny has pointed out, Poyner was a bluff, and Kevin Cash called it, pinch-hitting Miller for Cron anyway.

The matchup Cora wanted was Smith vs. Cron. He settled for Smith vs. Miller. Smith was not sharp and Miller worked a five-pitch walk.

What does this sequence tell us about how Cash and the Rays (and Cora and the Red Sox) view C.J. Cron and Brad Miller?

Projecting Match-ups with Handedness Splits

Let’s back up.

If you’re a regular reader of the site, you’ll already understand the concept of regressed platoon splits. You can skip to the next section.

Basically, it’s easier to hit opposite-handed pitching than it is to hit same-handed pitching, but the width of a the split (the degree to which a batter is better against the opposite hand) varies. Moreover, you can’t know a player’s true split just by looking at what he’s done in the past. Sample size matters, lefties tend to have wider splits than righties, and, as with most projections in baseball, you have to regress.

The proper regression amounts were first presented (to my knowledge) in The Book, the foundational work by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin. Those numbers were updated by Bojan Koprivica.

Jason Hanselman (The Process Report) and I have kicked back and forth a spreadsheet that now uses Koprivica’s methodology and combines it with projections. My current version uses the FanGraphs Depth Charts projections (Steamer and ZiPs combined for hitters), and a rougher homespun regression for pitchers (there’s a reason we don’t use the fancy systems for pitchers, and that reason is that it’s easier not to, and also that a simple wOBA regression is good enough most of the time, and if disagree you can do it yourself).

Okay, on to the numbers already.

Analyzing the Eighth Inning

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
Carson Smith was about to be left in the game
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Why was Brad Miller on the Bench?

This one’s easy.

While Brad Miller is projected to be the Rays best hitter overall, he’s a batter with a very wide split. What’s more, Chris Sale is extraordinarily tough on left-handed hitters: he’s a full 22% more difficult for lefties to face than is the average left-handed pitcher, while being 10% harder than average for righties.

Miller is here to mash righties. As the long side of a platoon, a healthy Brad Miller will be very valuable, but as you can see, there were better Opening Day options:

Select Rays wOBA projections against Chris Sale

Hitter Overall Projection Against Average Righty Against Average Lefty Against Chris Sale
Hitter Overall Projection Against Average Righty Against Average Lefty Against Chris Sale
C.J. Cron 0.318 0.315 0.325 0.288
Rob Refsnyder 0.308 0.300 0.318 0.281
Daniel Robertson 0.295 0.284 0.304 0.268
Brad Miller 0.322 0.332 0.292 0.221

Why did Cash pinch-hit Miller for C.J. Cron, Part One?

The simple interpretation of this question is really simple.

Both Carson Smith and Joe Kelly are right-handed relievers with a pretty normal split. Smith is better overall, depressing RHB results by 10% compared to average, and lefties by 6%. By comparison, I expect Kelly to limit righties by 4% and to boost lefties by 2%. Kelly may be a little bit better than that overall, and Smith might have a slightly bigger split (low arm slots generally lead to wider splits), but let’s say that it’s close to right.

One thing to remember about pinch hitting, then, is that pinch hitting is hard.

Players who pinch hit do worse coming in cold than they would if they had started. It may be that pinch hitting is a skill, and that some players do it better than others, but I have no idea if Miller is one of those players.

It’s pretty standard to apply a 10% pinch hit “penalty” for hitters, which is what I’ve done here.

Cron vs. Miller, wOBA Projections

Hitter Against Joe Kelly Against Carson Smith
Hitter Against Joe Kelly Against Carson Smith
C.J. Cron 0.294 0.276
Brad Miller 0.331 0.307
Brad Miller w/ PH Penalty 0.298 0.276

The match-up that Cora wanted, and that he was trying to bluff his way into with the young lefty warming up in the ‘pen, was Cron vs. Kelly, with a matchup expectation of a .294 wOBA. Cash was having none of it, substituting Miller, who has a whopping .331 wOBA projection against Kelly (had he started the game), and a more modest .298 wOBA projection as a pinch hitter.

At that point, Cora, not trusting his lefty, made the swap for the better overall pitcher in Carson. That little dance settled the projection in the middle of the extremes, at a .276 wOBA for Miller’s pinch hitting, which you may note is exactly what Cron’s projection against Carson would have been.

Does this transaction tell us something? Does it mean that Kevin Cash sees C.J. Cron as the short part of a platoon rather than as an every-day player (something Danny also suggested)?

Not really. In the simplest form, the odds were even.

But here’s something I do observe: the Rays front office regresses their splits.

C.J. Cron has a reverse career split (meaning he’s hit better overall against pitchers of the same hand), but he hasn’t actually faced a ton of lefties. If the Rays were gullible fools, they’d take that split observation as gospel and would have Cron as an untouchable batter against righties—but they’re not, so they’ve regressed it and they believe Cron to be a righty with a somewhat-smaller-than-average split, as opposed to one with a reverse split. Good for them.

By these numbers it looks like a neutral choice to pinch-hit Miller for Cron, and one that at the very least got the Red Sox to use another pitcher that they might not have needed to otherwise (Smith).

Why did Cash pinch-hit Miller for C.J. Cron, Part Two?

There’s a different way to frame this question that makes it a little bit more complex.

We know why Miller pinch hit for Cron. But why did he pinch hit for Cron, rather than for Robertson, Refsnyder, or Gomez? All of those players faced Kelly in a righty-on-righty matchup, and Brad Miller would have been an upgrade on any of them.

Eigth Inning wOBA Projections against Joe Kelly

Hitter Against Joe Kelly
Hitter Against Joe Kelly
Daniel Robertson 0.265
Rob Refsnyder 0.280
Matt Duffy 0.284
Carlos Gomez 0.287
C.J. Cron 0.294
Brad Miller w/ PH Penalty 0.298
Brad Miller 0.331

Does this mean that Cash especially doesn’t trust C.J. Cron?

Probably not. The easiest explanation is about position and leverage. Stepping through the inning again:

  1. Brad Miller can play second base, but when Robertson led off, the leverage was below average, at .59.
  2. Miller could have slotted in at DH, but when Refsnyder hit, the leverage was only slightly above average at 1.16.
  3. Hitting Miller for Duffy would probably have meant other switches as well, and anyway the leverage was back down to .74 after Refsnyder had made an out.
  4. Kiermaier, a lefty and a center fielder, was always going to hit.
  5. With two men on and Carlos Gomez up, the leverage was climbing. At this point, I think manager Kevin Cash knew he wanted Miller to hit. But it was simpler to swap Miller for a position he can play. Still, this may tell you something about how the Rays evaluate their players—they may either have Gomez higher than the FanGraphs Depth Charts projections, particularly against righties, or have Cron lower. But on the other hand, with only one out, Cash could have been confident that his team would get two more at bats in the inning, and he could have predicted that a successful one would raise the leverage even higher.
  6. Which it did. With Cron up the leverage soard to 4.58, and the managers started their dance.

Conclusion

I don’t think this sequence tells us much about Rays’ player evaulations other than the fact that Kevin Cash knows Brad Miller is his best hitter against righties and also that Miller comes with a wide split.

It does tell us that Cash was with it enough not to be taken in by Cora’s bluff. It also tells us that Cash is aware of the game leverage (duh), and wanted to make his lineup moves at a time they would count.

I wouldn’t have faulted Cash for getting Miller into the game earlier, possibly before Carson Smith was warmed and ready, angling to get the payoff from the lefty-on-righty matchup against a weaker righty pitcher, but in hindsight the move he made sure looks like the right one.

As far as C.J. Cron’s roster spot goes, as long as Rob Refsnyder gets playing time at designated hitter against lefties, Cron should be an every-day player.

Cron and Refsnyder were better plays against Chris Sale specifically, but by the publicly available projections Cron and Miller are the better plays against a right-handed pitcher, and I don’t believe the Rays would have shipped off Corey Dickerson to make room for Cron if their internal evaluations were much lower.