Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, and Throwing Out the Platoon

After several years of trying to fill the post-Manny hole in left field with the likes of Carl Crawford, Bill Hall (!), Scott Podsednik, & Jeremy Hermida, the Red Sox actually managed to put together a cost-effective and productive platoon situation in 2013.

Returnee Daniel Nava would hit the righties (and he did, with a .392 wOBA), and free agent acquisition Jonny Gomes would hit the lefties, which he did as well, putting up a .346 wOBA split. Including the surprising Mike Carp, who was acquired in February when the Mariners couldn’t find room for him and who shockingly hit everyone (.382 wOBA), the Red Sox left fielders put up the team’s most valuable season for the position since 2009, also known as “the last year Jason Bay was any good”.

Nava was especially something of a revelation this season, because 2010’s out-of-nowhere debut story turned 2011’s minor leaguer wasn’t even guaranteed to make the roster this year. Not only did he stick with the team, he ended up getting the majority of playing time in left, even finishing 14th in wOBA against righties and seventh in OBP, behind only the game’s truly elite, like Chris Davis, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, & Mike Trout.

So when the Red Sox reached the ALCS against Detroit and its all-righty starting rotation, one might have expected to see Nava playing constantly. And when the Red Sox face St. Louis in the World Series and their all-righty starting rotation, Nava’s presence should reasonably be expected to be a given.

But that’s not what happened, nor what is likely to happen. Gomes started four of the six ALCS games over Nava against all the righties, equal to the four times all season Gomes had started over Nava against a righty. When the lineups for the first game of the World Series come out, Gomes is expected to be in there again instead of Nava, despite the presence of righty Adam Wainwright for St. Louis.

Gomes struggled in the ALCS — .188/.188/.250 in 16 plate appearances — while Nava reached base three times in seven plate appearances, breaking up Detroit’s Game 1 no-hitter in the ninth inning. Yet despite a full season plus one series worth of evidence to the contrary, manager John Farrell seems set on going against the platoon that worked for him so well all year long, and it’s not immediately apparent why.

When asked during the ALCS and in a Monday press conference, Farrell offered the kind of answers that are likely to make a sabermetrician’s skin crawl. During the ALCS, he said, “We have a different feel and a different personality on the field when Jonny is in the lineup,” and used the dreaded words “gut feel”. In Monday’s presser, broadcast live on MLB Network, he indicated that “Nava is not forgotten, but we can’t get away from any momentum that a certain lineup has provided us,” and indeed the Sox did win the four games Gomes started while dropping the two that Nava did, though of course it’s not like it was Gomes rather than David Ortiz who hit that huge grand slam, for example.

One report also surfaced that said it was partially due to Gomes’ “superiority as a baserunner and on defense,” but that doesn’t really pass the sniff test. Even when Gomes threw out Miguel Cabrera at the plate in Game 5, it was when the hobbled Cabrera ran through a stop sign, making it a play that just about any outfielder should have made. Nava’s probably not a good outfielder, but certainly neither is Gomes.

So on the surface, this decision makes no sense. But this is the Red Sox, not the Phillies. This is Farrell, not Dusty Baker. We should know pretty conclusively by now that Boston’s decisions are not being made on  “gut” or “momentum,” or even simple matters of handedness. No matter how lacking this explanation seems, it’s almost certainly a mere public-facing reason for what’s just about absolutely an analytical decision that they’d prefer not to share — or an injury they’d rather not disclose. (As David Laurila shared with us, knowing that Cabrera was limited directly impacted how the Red Sox went after him.)

Unfortunately, without access to the proprietary metrics that the Sox use, we can’t know their thought process for sure. But we can get a little deeper into their thinking from this piece of a report from the Providence Journal‘s Brian MacPherson from before ALCS Game 3, which is worth reading in its entirety:

Nava slugged .452 on sliders from righties — but Verlander doesn’t throw his slider to lefthanded hitters, which is what Nava would be with Verlander on the mound. Nava slugged .500 on changeups but just .348 on curveballs.

“Given what we anticipate what Verlander is going to throw, I like this matchup,” Farrell said.

Which makes plenty of sense, really, even if it didn’t end up doing much against the fantastic Detroit rotation. No professional baseball organization is going to merely open up the lefty/righty splits on one of the numerous sites that provide them and think they’ve done their due diligence when identifying lineup choices. They go deeper, much deeper. They have to.

But even that’s hard to come to terms with at times. Wainwright, for example, threw mostly cutters (31.4%) and curves (25.9%) against righty hitters this year. Though reversed against lefties (cutters 25.8%, curves 30.1%) the total is similar and are still his two most highly used pitches. Now, take that and look at how Nava & Gomes fared this year against those two pitches from righties only (BA/SLG):

Cutter: .200/.240
Curve: .167/.233

Cutter: .333/.444
Curve: .319/.447

Obviously there’s some sample size concerns there, but you get the point. From a statistical point of view, it’s incredibly hard to see why Gomes is going to be the choice in Game 1 against Wainwright. (It shouldn’t be Wainwright-specific either; Gomes has a double and a homer in 11 plate appearances, but even if you did put stock into that, that was all back in 2010. Nava has never faced him.)

Maybe we are giving Farrell too much credit. Maybe it is as simple as Gomes being one of “his guys,” or not wanting to interrupt the the feeling that the team won with Gomes and not Nava in the ALCS, even if Gomes didn’t necessarily do much to contribute towards that. Or maybe it’s just because Gomes has a beard and Nava doesn’t, though as a bearded man who spent years living blocks from Fenway Park I can’t really say that with as much snark as it probably requires.

But really, there’s one point here that sticks with me, one that makes me think that Nava must be dealing with an injury or some other personal situation that’s not public. If Farrell wants to start Gomes over Nava for what we perceive to be foolish reasons, that might be hard to swallow, but it’s the manager’s discretion. However, in the two ALDS and four ALCS games that Nava didn’t start, he received precisely zero pinch-hitting appearances. Not one, not when Jim Leyland was bringing out righties Al Alburquerque or Joaquin Benoit or Jose Veras, not when guys like Stephen Drew (who struck out 10 times in 21 plate appearances, with just one hit in the ALCS) were struggling terribly. To leave a .411 OBP on the bench in games that were consistently close, well, that’s just impossible to reconcile.

Whatever Farrell’s reasoning is, it’s not something that’s going to easily make sense to us. That’s frustrating, but it’s also part of what makes baseball great. The manager has his reasons. We don’t always know what they are. It wouldn’t be as much fun if everything was so cut-and-dry without any room for argument.

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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

29 Responses to “Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, and Throwing Out the Platoon”

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  1. GilaMonster says:

    “They win with him in there.” Well, that could because you have 8 other hitters on the team and great relief pitching. Actually the other hitters haven’t been better than Gomes.

    It isn’t like the Red Sox aren’t struggling offensive. They are. And Nava can help.

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  2. PWR says:

    Any reason why this year, Gomes hasn’t had the big platoon splits that he had in the past?

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  3. Mr Punch says:

    Agree that Nava must be injured – could be just a little muscle pull affecting his swing. On the other hand, while I don’t think Gomes is a better fielder, or a noticeably better base runner, he does convey a sense of headlong play (albeit in slow motion). Farrell may feel he “energizes” the team, in the Tejada-Beltre sense, which is a not entirely intangible factor. Also, of course, when Gomes hits the ball, he hits it very hard – and homers were pretty important in this ALCS.

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  4. Tim says:

    The potential injury factor made some sense in the ALCS (if he was injured there) but I have a hard time figuring out what sort of injury is bad enough to play Gomes instead but not bad enough to justify taking Nava off of the roster.

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  5. Lipson says:

    Yea if he’s hurt, then why is he on the roster. Doesn’t make sense at all.

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  6. Chief Keef says:

    Nava started the Game 4 ALDS clincher, then Game 1 of the ALCS (the game he broke up the no hitter). Then Farrell completely moved away from him. Something had to have happened in that time frame. RIGHT?!?!?!?!

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  7. Anon says:

    The Cardinals have an analytically inclined front office as well, but I’m not going to say that Mujica is on the roster by some secret decision. Some decisions are bad. All the statistics in the article lead me to the conclusion of this decision being in that category.

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    • Mister says:

      I agree with your conclusion, but why’d you pick Mujica as the posterboy for bad decisions? His numbers look solid to me. That excellent batted ball profile gives him a 3.25 SIERA this year, and 3.26 career.

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      • Anon says:

        He was excellent for most of the year (much better than his career numbers), but his last month or so he has looked awful and had poor results. Either fatigue or injury.

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  8. Johnston says:

    It seems logical that Nava must be injured, but like everyone else I can’t help but wonder why he is on the playoff roster if he is. I suspect that we’re all missing something.

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  9. payroll says:

    Managers defer to veterans in the playoffs, this is known. Even Maddon deviated from his normal gameplan on a couple occasions.

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  10. Joel says:

    Gomes over Nava doesn’t bother me nearly as much as Franklin Morales’ presence on the roster.

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  11. Spooky says:

    Not to nitpick, but in the ProJo article, it mentions Nava only slugged .348 against curves from right-handed pitching, yet later on you reference that he slugged .447 against curves from right-handed pitching. Still a fascinating topic of discourse (given the Red Sox decade long adherence to stats), and one we’ll probably never know the answer to.

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  12. RC says:

    “One report also surfaced that said it was partially due to Gomes’ “superiority as a baserunner and on defense,” but that doesn’t really pass the sniff test.”

    Gomes most certainly is a better defender, and probably is a better baserunner, as Nava is really bad at both of those things.

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    • Dave says:

      There is no evidence that Gomes is a better defender, and even less to suggest that this overcomes Nava’s superior hitting.

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      • RC says:

        There’s plenty of evidence that Gomes is a better defender.

        The Red Sox coaching staff says he is. He has a better arm. The fan scouting reports say he is. And pretty much everyone who has watched a lot of the Red Sox play say he is.

        Nava is terrible defensively. He has poor range, and poor arm.

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  13. Dave says:

    Mr. Petriello,

    Your analysis here seems airtight in all aspects. As a long time Sox fan, I, and I think anyone who cares about such things, am also of the observation that the Red Sox are one of the more Sabermetric inclined teams.

    That said, I think it’s inappropriate, or at least inconsistent, to give the Red Sox the benefit of the doubt, or even proffer that they potentially should be given the benefit of the doubt, in this instance of blatantly ignoring the stats just because of a past history of statistical competence. Fangraphs does not seem to usually extend, in similar critiques involving other teams, this kind of deference, so I am confused as to why this article’s conclusion is not more damning.

    “Give me the facts, and I will give you the law.”

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    • RC says:

      Its not more damning because we have nowhere near the information that the Red Sox do.

      Farrel talked about Gomes swing plane matching up better with the Tigers starters than Nava’s. He talked about Gomes power being more important in games where they weren’t going to score a lot of runs. He also talked about Gomes being a better hitter against the types of pitchers the tigers have.

      Which basically comes down to Nava can’t hit a good fastball. Gomes can, as long as he guesses right.

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      • GK says:

        Nava can’t hit a good fastball eh? So what do we do, let’s put him in to pinch hit against one of the Cardinal’s hardest throwing relievers. Really? This is supposed to be logical?

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        • RC says:

          According to baseball-reference, Daniel Nava put up a 200/284/353 line against “Power” pitchers in 2013. Jhonny Gomes put up a 200/364/350 line against Power pitchers.

          So no, Nava can’t hit a good fastball.

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        • Mike Petriello says:

          You can’t put any stock into that, because the B-ref stat is not about velocity in any way, it’s just about strikeouts and walks.

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  14. Nick says:

    If Nava is too hurt to play, there’s no reason they would put him on the WS roster over Bradley Jr. Although I guess JBJ may have already “shut it down” for the year.

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  15. MGL says:

    If Nava has an undisclosed injury which is not bad enough to keep him off the roster, then fine, they may be making the right decision. If not, and he is a much better defender than Nava (and base runner), then that makes the decision closer than “we” think.

    Other than that, yeah, I think you are giving Farrell and the Sox WAY too much credit for knowing things that we don’t know. Most analytical front offices, especially the Sox, leave these decisions to the manager – they don’t like to tell him whom to play or not, especially in important games. Whether that is a good strategy or not, I can’t say (and it depends on the manager and the players I guess).

    Given that this decision is likely left up to Farrell, regardless of what the front office might think, to assume that he does not ascribe to the usual, “We love veterans in the post season, player X energizes our team, yada, yada, yada,” managerial philosophy (and maybe there is merit to that philosophy – again, I am silent on that) is to be naive.

    All that being said, these decisions, if they are close at all, are worth maybe 1 or 2% in win probability. While that is not trivial, it is not going to make or break a series, regardless of how it turns out.

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  16. bcp33bosox says:

    Jonny Gomes had 176 PA vs RHP and 190 vs LHP, so it is not like this is a far change from what Farrell did in the regular season. In my opinion it might not be as simple as platoon splits. To me it goes back to Billy Beane’s infamous “Playoffs are a crapshoot…” quote, in that the idea of a lot of metrics need a full seasons worth of data, sometimes more. Wouldn’t a playoff series usually be SSS for most batter stats?

    .144 (0) .307 (1)
    .323 (6) .326 (5)
    .170 (1) .209 (0)
    .340 (3) .359 (7)
    .313 (4) .322 (3)
    .312 (5) .255 (2)

    .267 (19) .296 (18)

    Looking at wOBA for each game of the series, along with runs scored (R), the outcome of 4 games to 2 shows what a few timely hits, actually a couple timely grandslams can do in a 7 game series. At the end of the day maybe Farrell was looking at HR pop and Nava’s 2 HR in the second half and felt a timely HR might be the best way to attack Detroit’s pitching.

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    • RC says:

      According to baseball-reference, Daniel Nava put up a 200/284/353 line against “Power” pitchers in 2013. Jhonny Gomes put up a 200/364/350 line against Power pitchers.

      Nava can’t hit guys who throw 95+

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      • JP says:

        That’s a sample size of 95 PA. And it’s not like Gomes has “hit” power pitching better than Nava. If you put much stock in this metric, you may conclude that Gomes has been better at getting walks in those circumstances.

        Additionally – bbref designation of a power pitcher corresponds to the pitchers strikeout and walk rate – not velocity. I’m sure there is a decent amount of overlap between these two.

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