There’s been a lot of attention focused on Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo’s decision not to start his ace, Hyun Jin Ryu, in game one of the three game wildcard series. Ryu would pitch game two, which is probably worth about as much as game one, so it’s hard to say just how much that decision matters.
But Montoyo also made an in-game decision in game one that definitely hurt the Blue Jays chances, in a concrete way.
In the seventh inning, trailing by a run with two outs and runners on first and second against Rays relief ace Nick Anderson, Montoyo pinch hit Joe Panik for Jonathan Villar.
In a vacuum this is a fine move. Panik is a lefty and Villar is a switch hitter, and while these hitters have hit righties at similar rates over their careers, given what we know about players and splits and projections, it’s reasonable to assume that Panik is a marginal upgrade on Villar in this situation.
I like to calculate matchup projections based on regressed handedness platoon splits using the methodology outlined by Bojan Koprivica. It’s definitely not the only way to look at splits and matchups, but it’s one of the more reasonably valid ones, and given each player’s track record, I get a matchup projection of a .294 wOBA for Villar against Anderson, and .313 wOBA for Panik vs Anderson, with no pinch-hit penalty factored in.*
*It’s often customary to apply a 10% pinch-hit penalty. I think it’s probably worth revisiting that research, based on what we now know about the times-through-the-order penalty. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to ignore the difficulty hitters have when pinch-hitting. Including a pinch-hit penalty would not move this calculation in Montoyo’s favor.
The problem is that this move wasn’t made in a vacuum. The Blue Jays had another, significantly better option on the bench in the form of lefty slugger Rowdy Tellez. The matchup projection I have for Tellez vs. Anderson is a .332 wOBA.
Of course Montoyo knew this. In fact, he used Tellez against Anderson just an inning later, pinch-hitting for catcher Danny Jansen (Anderson vs. Jansen has a matchup projection of .262), and Tellez lined a single into center field, but unfortunately for the Blue Jays that came with one out and no-one on base.
Outlining the Binary Choice
To give us something to calculate, let’s lay it out as a clear binary choice.
Option 1: Pinch-hit Tellez for Villar. Then replace Tellez with Panik to play second base. Allow Jansen to bat against Anderson.
Option 2: Pinch-hit Panik for Villar. Then pinch hit Tellez for Jansen.
Transforming those wOBAs into wRAA (weighted runs above average), here’s the value of a single PA from each of the players in question against Nick Anderson.
Run Values against Nick Anderson
Option 1 comes out to a run value of -.039, while option 2 gives a run value of .004, so yes, without context Montoyo maximized his lineup.
But the very significant context is that the first PA in question had a leverage of 3.24, while the second one had a leverage of 0.55.
Breaking the decisions down by PA, in the first one, Montoyo’s decision to go with Panik over Tellez lowered the wRAA by 0.016. That multiplied by 3.24 gives a value of 0.052. His decision to give himself the option of pinch-hitting for Jansen raised the wRAA of the second PA by 0.059. That multiplied by 0.55 us a value if 0.032.
0.052 > 0.032
By factoring in the game leverage index, Montoyo lost his bet.
Escaping the Binary
Okay, so there’s a very valid criticism to make of my analysis above, which is that the leverage index of the the Jansen-Tellez PA didn’t have to be 0.55.
If Panik got a hit to tie the game and then Kirk walked, Tellez would be up pinch-hitting in a more leveraged spot. It could also have been higher had Kirk managed to get on base to start the eighth.
Calculating out all the possible leverage trees and their relative probabilities is hard, and it’s possible that Charlie Montoyo and the Blue Jays front office have done so where I haven’t, and the decision is closer than I’ve presented.
But there was also a third option.
Montoyo could have hit Tellez in the seventh, and then had Tellez play first base, moved Vladimir Guerroro Jr. to third base, and moved Cavan Biggio to second. This definitely gives up something significant on defense, but it means that Montoyo gets to use his best option in the highest leverage spot, while still being able to pinch hit a lefty for his worst-hitting righty.
Guerrero Jr. has played first base exclusively this season, but he played third base exclusively last season. This is where the Blue Jays contrast with the Tampa Bay Rays, who have done their best to emphasize defensive and multi-positional capabilities for nearly every position player on the roster, even when it sometimes means making the defense on the field worse for a few innings. Think about this game the next time you see Nate Lowe or Yoshitomo Tsutsugo playing third base.
The kicker came in the ninth inning of last night’s game, where Joe Panik made the final out of the game, as the tying run, against Pete Fairbanks. That position had a leverage index of 1.37, and, had Montoyo gone with Tellez in the seventh and then kept him on the field, it would once again have been Tellez in that spot.
In the end, his choice of how to sequence his pinch hitters gave the Blue Jays two high-leverage plate appearances of the worse option (Panik), and one low-leverage plate appearance of the better option (Tellez).
Sequencing pinch-hitters is one of the rare things in baseball that a manager can control, and last night Montoyo got the sequence backwards.