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."At the risk of repeating some earlier criticisms, let's look at what's questionable or objectionable about the above:
"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.''
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: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.
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
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."