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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):

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

Nava
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.