Monday, October 18, 2010

Maddon to Fans: Some Lecturing Bullshit

I hate to keep belaboring the end of the Rays' season, but between the manager and numerous sportswriters and bloggers, it feels like everyone is determined to commit haruspicy in reverse. They can't stop gutting the animal and sifting through its entrails, only for some reason they're trying to read the past. Manager Joe Maddon, in particular, seems keen to divine a hidden reality from a bunch of facts that, to everyone else, are otherwise self-evident.

Take this initial post-mortem comment he made, regarding the terrible performance of catcher Kelly Shoppach and the skills of the team's nemesis in Games 1 and 5, Texas pitcher Cliff Lee:
"To point fingers at Kelly is absolutely wrong and unfair and it really surprises me that if anyone understands the game of baseball that they would do that."

"To recap this, you win the American League East and you go into a five-game division series against a team that matches up well against you based on their starting pitching and then you lose. So you don't just go crazy and think everything was wrong. From my perspective it's really been a great year. I have no regrets. I woke up really good this morning. I'm very proud about our group. Everything about our group is spectacular this season. We just got beat in a short series by a very good lefthanded pitcher that they could have named Sandy.''
At the risk of repeating some earlier criticisms, let's look at what's questionable or objectionable about the above:


1. Shoppach may look adorably sort of like a penguin whenever he tries to run, but his catching was a definite ugly liability in the last game, allowing the Rangers to score a go-ahead run on his wretched throwing error. Next, he allowed another run to score because the man is chronically incapable of blocking the plate during a play at home. This is a fundamental part of the job description. Refusing to block the plate is a habitual liability like being an oceanographer with crippling aquaphobia; you're basically only good at the academic stuff, at that point. Coupled with the fact that the pitching staff's ERA is highest when he's catching, the question becomes why he's in the game at all.

Once again, Shoppach was in the game because of MATCHUPS. This is a common criticism of Maddon, in that he obsessively plays matchups to the point of absurdity. Shoppach isn't a better hitter than John Jaso; he just bats right-handed, which was ostensibly a boon when facing left-hander Cliff Lee. Unfortunately, his batting average was .072 lower than Jaso's, and he managed to strikeout over 70 times in less than 160 at-bats. The latter is a major league baseball record.

Maybe Maddon looked at this, but I doubt it. He probably looked at the lefty/righty splits and penciled in Shoppach and skipped Jaso. And going off those, it's a defensible decision, but that's also because it's a decision that Maddon's previous decisions help to enforce. To wit, he gets so enamored of matchup play that he likely involuntarily skews the data to confirm that. If you're convinced that a left-handed batter, like Jaso, can't hit against left-handed starting pitching and then reduce his at-bats against it, then he's probably going to have diminished numbers, because he'll get little practice against it. In Jaso's case, he got a total of 47 at-bats against lefties. If you give Shoppach the lion's share of opportunities against lefties, then he'll probably look better against them — even if 46% of his record strikeouts still came against lefties.

But, given his poor defense, numbers that indicate he doesn't handle the pitching staff well and his leaden baserunning, this was the time to start Jaso. When you're in an all-or-nothing game, you need to preserve runs, and that means you need a better catcher in terms of calling the game, stopping wild pitches, preventing passed balls and, finally, blocking the plate when a runner and a throw are coming to it. The fact that Jaso's a faster baserunner and, as rookie, might surprise everyone by rising to the occasion is just gravy.


2. When Maddon refers to Texas' Game 1 and 5 starter as "a very good lefthanded pitcher that they could have named Sandy," he probably means this:
Sandy Koufax, career, postseason:
57 0/3 innings, 32 hits, 10 runs, 2 home runs, 11 walks, 61 strikeouts

Cliff Lee, career, postseason:
56 1/3 innings, 32 hits, 11 runs, 1 home runs, 06 walks, 54 strikeouts
These are some seriously great numbers, and it's likely that Maddon spent an evening on Baseball Prospectus, going through advanced comparative numbers, trying to find that perfect analogue for the kind of pitching he'd just seen. But this winking reference on his part represents at best a disingenuous attempt to make the realization of Cliff Lee's talents seem like a post facto epiphany and at worst another case of Maddon tediously lecturing to reporters and the fanbase that they don't properly appreciate the scope of what happened in the game because they haven't waded through the numbers.

It's probably the latter, because, as you'll recall, it was this sort of patient LaRussa-esque know-it-all-ism that he used to defend his selection of James Shields as the starter in Game 2. Shields led the league in giving up hits, home runs and earned runs, and he hadn't won a start since August. Sure, Shields' xFIP indicated his non-fielding-gauged ERA should be lower, but who takes any assurance from that? I'm sure fielding skewed those numbers, but he still looked like he was throwing fucking batting practice out there. Similarly, it's really neat that Lee's numbers look just like Koufax's, but who gives a shit? This is a distracting novelty, a mathematical gewgaw.

The fact is that before Game 1 even started, anyone could have told you that Cliff Lee is a very, very good pitcher. Second, he is a very, very good postseason pitcher. Third, the Rays' good numbers against him in two starts this year were going to come crashing back to earth at any second. Before any Koufaxian notions entered into it, fans of the Rays and Rangers knew that the one thing the Rays needed to make sure they didn't do was see Cliff Lee a second time in the short playoff series, because the second time would be a deciding game, and he had talent enough to win 66% of the Rangers' games. Thus, even if you conceded a loss to Lee in Game 1, you absolutely had to win Game 2, to make sure that you didn't have to face him again. And if Game 2 was such a priority, maybe you don't start arguably the worst starter in the American League.

Again, I gratefully concede that the Rays probably don't make the postseason without Joe Maddon. But credit flows both ways, and there are doubtless games that they don't lose without Joe Maddon, either. Maddon's tree-scrutinizing and forest-oblivious devotion to the minutiae of numbers surely creates inspired matchups, but it also clearly led to these baffling postseason choices, where a crazy hunch or reliance on probabilistic statistics without any certain predictive ability can take a tiny mistake and leverage it into a season-ending blunder. The limited number of outs between you and the end of the season is too precious to throw away. In a short series, you don't make your #5 hitter in Game 1 a man with fewer than 25 season at-bats and a claim to fame of being "still not dead from mystery illness." You don't start James Shields in Game 2 and increase your chances of watching Cliff Lee beat you again in Game 5.

And, if your moves fail, you don't lay blame on the fanbase for failure to really, like, grok the scope of what was going on, down on the field. There are no sacred mysteries occurring on a plane beyond our ken. Fans had no trouble apprehending the failure of Kelly Shoppach and the questionable leadership process that chose him. It took seconds for fans to grasp the horror and, frankly, the stupidity of starting James Shields. Here Maddon is engaging in almost religious obscurantism, shifting the terms of the debate from the know-betters coming under attack by the know-nothings to say that these know-nothings are unfairly pillorying innocent players. He comes to the aid of Kelly Shoppach and entirely ignores that — while, yeah, he sucked — fans' real objection is why he was put in the game.

He holds up Cliff Lee as a brilliant force of baseball, enlightening critics as to just how supremely talented he was, but he's ignoring that their anger stems not from ignorance of Lee's talent but from knowing it all too well. Nobody is mad at Lee or confused as to how dominant he can be. They're mad at Maddon because he seemed not to recognize it himself, inviting a repeat performance by myopically indulging in questionable sabermetric exercises to back a starting decision that was plainly, elementarily bad.

But this is the story of the Joe Maddon Rays, a six-month season punctuated by six unnecessary and tedious lessons to the press and fans about their incapacity to apprehend an invisible sublimity of the game. Perhaps nothing illustrated this better than when eminently punchable and unquestionably contemptible batting coach Derek Shelton once told fans, "Batting average is an archaic statistic." If my team had only the 27th best batting average out of 30 major league teams, I'd probably make that argument, too. Anything else can be explained away with "Lee. Koufax."

8 comments:

  1. And because of your screw-ups the Yankees have to face them. Yay.

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  2. I can't tell where you're going with this, Angry Sports Guy. Sarcastic? Bitter about Lee? Help me out here.

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  3. This was an absolutely fantastic read. It is the beauty and insanity of Joe Maddon in one post...

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  4. this is a great post. i agree that the two big mistakes made by maddon in the series were (1) starting james shields and (2) starting kelly shoppach.

    that said, i have a couple of concerns. first, i'm not sure jaso is a significant defensive improvement over shoppach. i'm not sure it matters all that much given his much better base-running (and his probably better game-calling), but jaso's ops for the season against lefties (in 47 ab's) was .610 while shoppach's (in 88 ab's) was .830. i know that the two games the rays won were games that jaso started, but i'm not sure that's what made the difference. second, doesn't the decision to start baldelli provide a counter-example to maddon's sabr-centric decision-making? doesn't that seem like a straightforward, gut-level hunch-based choice? third, isn't it more reasonable to blame the poor offensive performances of the hitters at the heart of the rays' order--crawford and longoria in particular--than the manager?

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  5. Thanks, Futonreformer.

    Thanks, Dustin.

    Re: Shoppach/Jaso
    Yeah, the numbers are definitely awkward to argue with. On the one hand, Shoppach should be better. On the other hand, he strikes out a ton. Then, on top of that, you're looking at two relatively small samples. Basically, I think that, with such a vague bunch of numbers, which may not be convincing one way or the other, it seems like a better plan in a deciding game to go with speed, defense and better game-calling. Because those are probably more reliable than, say, trusting that Jaso is going to break out or that Shoppach's power will take precedence over his whiffiness.

    Re: Baldelli
    I just spent about ten minutes trying to find it, but some smart saber cookies — I thought it was D Rays Bay, but I was wrong — actually dug up a bunch of really specific numbers on Baldelli to suggest that this actually was a sabermetric decision from Maddon. If I remember correctly, there was some swing-style analysis in there.

    Re: Crawford/Longo
    Yeah, you're right, laying some blame on those guys is definitely reasonable. I'm not sure if it's more reasonable, but I'm not a crank. I'm definitely not looking at Maddon in a vacuum. That said, I think with Longo the bigger factor was that he wasn't 100% on his quad yet, which was going to impact his hitting. With Crawford, well, you know, every hitter goes through streaks. You can't account for them, and because of that, I think there's some onus on the manager to do as much as he can to reduce risks for the team, reduce errors and disadvantages. Because Maddon knows he can't control for when a bat's going to get iced or when a guy's going to get "toasty," as he likes to call it, what he can do is try to control for all the peripheral issues that his decisions can head off. Here, defensively he can pick a better catcher who blocks the plate better and maybe calls a better game. Or he can pick a starting pitcher who's less of a basket case. Because in the end, God only knows if somebody's going to start feeling it or losing it at the plate.

    Of course, I think you can also make the argument about the poor offensive performance of the hitters also falling on Maddon to some extent, if you want to say that the performance of the hitting coach falls on him, too.

    Thanks again.

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  6. This is the first post of yours I've read, and it certainly will not be the last. Excellent job.

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  7. Thanks, Rytor. I'm a Rays fan, but I don't do a lot of baseball stuff except in the postseason. Most of the readers are here for the books/politics/humor, so I try to keep the sports posts for big events or the postseason. Hopefully there's enough lying around to interest you.

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  8. I don't know if anyone will read this - but it's addressed to the writer who posted the rants about the Rays and Joe Maddon.

    Your writing is right on and we in the Tampa Bay Area are suffering through another year of Alfred E. Neuman-like management panache that sucks the living crap out of Rays fans.

    I found your posts because I'm looking for the quote from (probably) Maddon or pitching coach Hickey after the Rays lost the first two games in the ALDS last year to Texas. The quote goes something like: "We made the mistake of throwing mostly fast balls to a fast-ball-hitting team." Ya think? Like, after an entire season, the Rays had no idea Ranger hitters hunt fast balls.

    I know I should have recorded the quote at the time because it was one of the most amazing - and dumbest - things I'd ever seen/heard in my years as a fan - and they're getting to be quite a few.

    So I guess I'm asking if you know the quote, who said it, etc. I will keep searching the Web.

    Also because the Rays - surprise, surprise - are reliving the nightmares of last year - although they aren't as likely to take thousands of pitches every game, leading to endless walks and bases-loaded situations where, sadly, someone finally makes the third out without scoring. Oh, and every game takes at least 3 1/2 hours.

    A note: We don't have the guy I used to call Dan "Home Run" Wheeler when he was with the Rays. For some inexplicable reason, the Red Sox signed him. Go figure.

    I attempt to write a blog about being a Rays fan - that's what it's sort of about, anyway. No one reads it. I started it because I was ready to explode after some games where Maddon futzed away a lead or three.

    And, seriously, what is the matter with B.J. Upton? In the last game before the recent All-Star break, Upton was picked off; kept running on a hit-and-run play when it was clear the ball was going to be caught by the Yankee right fielder (Upton was doubled up at first and he never turned around and tried to make it back to the bag); then, in a 0-0 game between Shields and CC Sabathia, with Robinson Cano on first, Upton caught a short fly to center and Cano was caught off first - by a good 30 feet - except Upton threw the ball, on the fly, into the Yankee dugout. Cano was awarded second . . . and third. Then Shields tried to pick off Cano - and threw the ball away. Cano, who again was caught off base, scored the only run of the game.

    That was just one game. Upton does this crap all the time.

    http://exraytrain.blogspot.com/

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