Playing the Matchups By Not Playing the Matchups

In a close game Tuesday night, the Angels faced Robinson Cano with two on, two outs, and a base open. Standing on deck, instead of actual protection, was Justin Smoak, and in the clearest demonstration of protection theory, or lack thereof, the Angels put Cano on to take their chances with the next guy. If all you knew were those sentences, this wouldn’t seem worthy of a blog post. Smoak might one day turn into a good hitter, but so far it’s been all hype and lousy results. Cano is one of the very best players in the world, still hanging out in his prime. Yeah, you’d rather face Smoak than Cano, and while doing so requires you put another runner on base, the intentional walk is a low win-expectancy swing. Nothing seems strange, except for one thing.

Cano wasn’t simply intentionally walked by an Angels pitcher. Cano was intentionally walked by Angels starting pitcher C.J. Wilson. Left-handed Angels starting pitcher C.J. Wilson, who’s always run a big lefty-killing platoon split. Wilson put the lefty on to load the bases to face a switch-hitter, and as such, Mike Scioscia both played the matchups and didn’t play the matchups. It became a story because Smoak cleared the bases with a double, but even had Smoak gotten out, as was the likelihood, this decision would still be of interest. It isn’t often you see strategy that seems to run counter to the ordinary strategy. If there’s one thing a manager usually likes, it’s having his lefty pitcher get to face a lefty hitter.

Let’s add some visuals to spice this up and drive the point home about how weird this was:



There were words, later on. Here are C.J. Wilson’s words:

Asked if it was strange to walk a left-handed hitter to pitch to a switch-hitter who would bat from the right side, Wilson said, “Yes … no more questions on that one.”

Here are Scioscia’s words:

“Right now, if you look at their lineup, Cano is a guy you want to try to minimize as much as you can,” Scioscia said. “Smoak, give him credit, he got some big hits [Monday] night, some big hits [Tuesday] night, and if that continues, Cano will get some pitches to hit. But right now, you want to make Smoak swing the bat instead of Cano.”

Here are Smoak’s words:

I’ll take my chances with Smoak over Cano, every single time.

And Smoak would, too.

“No doubt,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you? I don’t care if it’s lefty-on-lefty or what. There’s a reason why they do that.”

It was Wilson’s second career intentional walk of a lefty, and his first since 2008. That first intentional walk in 2008 began with three unintentional balls, so it doesn’t even really count. For Wilson, this was essentially a first. Cano has now been intentionally walked by lefties eight times, all since 2010. What happened isn’t literally unprecedented, but it is extraordinarily rare.

I was able to find five instances in 2013 in which a lefty intentionally walked a lefty to stay in and face a righty who wasn’t the opposing pitcher. On April 20, in the fifth inning, Mark Buehrle put Cano on to face Kevin Youkilis. Buehrle has basically an even career platoon split. On June 10, in the 14th inning, Cesar Ramos put David Ortiz on to face Daniel Nava. On June 13, in the 11th inning, Jerry Blevins put Cano on to face Mark Teixeira. On June 19, in the fifth inning, Hyun-Jin Ryu put Cano on to face Vernon Wells. Ryu, so far, has shown a reverse platoon split. Finally, on September 5, in the tenth inning, Boone Logan put Ortiz on to face Nava, and then pinch-hitter Brandon Snyder. So, twice, these were issued by pitchers with something like even splits. Three times, these were issued in extras, where a single run was at a premium. Wilson has massive splits, and Tuesday he walked Cano in the third.

The most important question, of course: was it the right thing to do? Is Smoak sufficiently inferior to Cano to justify going against the platoon splits? To get to the answer, we have to use the odds-ratio method, but to actually get to the answer, we need to have more information than we have. All we can do is estimate, based on assumptions and a little bit of split data. And we should start by noting that the intentional walk itself raised the Mariners’ win expectancy by 1.3 percentage points. Putting a runner on base doesn’t come without a cost, regardless of the pitcher/batter matchup.

Now, since 2009, Wilson has allowed a .253 wOBA to lefties, and a .311 wOBA to righties. Cano has posted a .348 wOBA against lefties, and Smoak has posted a .292 wOBA against lefties, batting righty. Smoak was particularly terrible against lefties a season ago. On the other hand, Cano has spent a lot of that time in hitter-friendly environments, and Smoak has spent a lot of that time in pitcher-friendly environments. The math gets complicated quickly, and it gets too complicated to pretend like we can arrive at two easy matchup numbers.

I’m comfortable estimating that Wilson vs. Cano would yield about a .290-.300 wOBA. I’m also comfortable estimating that Wilson vs. Smoak would yield about a .280-.290 wOBA. But it doesn’t take a lot to change those numbers, depending on your inputs, and there are reasonable arguments in either direction. For example, is there something about these particular matchups? Cano is 14-for-37 against Wilson, with five walks and four strikeouts. Smoak is 8-for-32 against Wilson, but with a .563 slugging percentage. We advise against believing in batter-vs-pitcher history statistics, but the general point is that not all batter/pitcher matchups are alike. You can’t apply the same math across the board and expect it to be accurate in the real world.

The end result? I think it’s effectively a toss-up. I don’t think we can conclusively say it was a mistake to walk Cano to get to Smoak. Likewise, I don’t think we can conclusively say it was the right thing to do to walk Cano to get to Smoak. Either position is justified, and in these cases there’s little room for heated criticism of the manager. There’s second-guessing, but second-guessing is the approach of the intolerable, and I think the most interesting thing is just what Mike Scioscia decided to do. With a lefty-killing lefty on the mound, Scioscia ordered an intentional walk of a lefty to get to a switch-hitter. And the lefty is so good, and the switch-hitter so much worse, that the decision wasn’t clearly a bad one. It’s a long-standing baseball rule to play the platoons, but every rule has its limits. Sometimes it’s about handedness, and sometimes it’s about talent, and sometimes it’s about almost exactly both.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

29 Responses to “Playing the Matchups By Not Playing the Matchups”

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  1. Steven Gomez says:

    Don’t forget one key factor: The run expectancy added by putting an extra baserunner on 1st base. If the difference in individual matchups is a wash, then walking Cano is still probably a bad idea because you are putting an extra runner on base without recording an out and increasing the likelihood that you will get scored on.

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    • Baltar says:

      Jeff wrote, “And we should start by noting that the intentional walk itself raised the Mariners’ win expectancy by 1.3 percentage points.”

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    • Paul Clarke says:

      Yes, BP’s run expectancy matrix for 2013 suggests that going from two outs, runners on 2nd and 3rd to two outs, bases loaded increases run expectancy by 0.11 runs. That difference seems far to big to be overcome by the drop that Jeff expects in going from Cano to Smoak.

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    • proposition joe says:

      In this case, shouldn’t it reduce the run expectancy because it gives the angels another force-out potential at 2nd? Or is that not factored in? I mean when there are runners on 2nd and 3rd I’ve seen teams walk the batter every time unless they’re facing a pitcher.

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      • Breadbaker says:

        Except there’s a run expectancy change from the bases being loaded and the possibility of a walk, hit batsman, etc. So sort of a wash.

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  2. Nick says:

    Smoak strikes out: “Way to go Scioscia, nice decision!”

    Smoak clears the bases: “F*#&ing Scioscia! Why’d he put another guy on base!?”

    It basically came down to Wilson hanging a bad pitch to Smoak that got crushed. I’d like to think that if he threw the same meatball over the plate to Cano, similar results would have ensued. I guess it saves a run scored in the latter scenario, but if you don’t make a quality pitch in that situation it doesn’t really matter who’s up.

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    • David says:

      No. It comes down to the process, not the results. Nothing is perfect, so the fact that the result was bad does not inherently invalidate the process. As you said, hang a pitch and almost anyone could kill it. Or, on the other hand, good hitters foul off hung pitches all the time. The one pitch is not a determining factor.

      Putting another man on base increases the run expectancy. Putting a lesser hitter at the plate decreases it. Which is greater?

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    • SimonSays says:

      “Hanger” =/= 91 mph fastball near the bottom of the zone. Granted he missed the side of the plate he was aiming for, but if we’re going to pretend that pitch was to Cano that was a fastball down and away, right where you want it.

      Also no one here is making those remarks about Scioscia. We gave it a strange look and wanted to know more. We want to learn about the process.

      And let’s avoid the excessive bolding next time.

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  3. cy says:

    “Putting a runner on base doesn’t come without a cost, regardless of the pitcher/batter matchup.”

    From Scoscia’s quote, it sounds like he didn’t factor in any cost. Of course, he may have just not felt like explaining his thought process. Still, while his intuition may have happened to be correct in this case, I think managers often fail to realize that even the best hitters are typically more likely to make an out than not, even in tremendously favorable matchups. That is, if they aren’t intentionally walked.

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  4. Green Mountain Boy says:

    What everyone is missing here is this: What did C J Wilson prefer? If he preferred to pitch to Cano, the L-L option, and was confident in it, he should have been allowed to do so. Lack of confidence in the matchup vs Smoak would have contributed to throwing a lousy pitch.

    On the other hand, if he preferred facing Smoak, then it’s all on him, not Sciosia, because the statistical analysis seems to be a 50-50 split.

    I think you have to go with the pitcher’s opinion in most 50-50 decisions like this, especially with proven veterans like Wilson. Confidence (or lack thereof) is a huge factor in determining results. With a less experienced guy or a kid… no. Then the manager should take control.

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  5. DannyC says:

    Should have brought in Trout to pitch to Smoak…..

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  6. 68FC says:

    I think it is worth noting that Smoak was a significantly weaker hitter from the right side last year. Wilson still effectively had a platoon advantage against Smoak.

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    • Value arb says:

      If one year platoon split was meaningful, yes. But it’s not, so no.

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      • 68FC says:

        Though it is not as drastic, Smoak’s career wRC+ vs L is 83 compared to 102 vs R. Smoak is a significantly weaker hitter from the right side.

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      • RC says:

        “If one year platoon split was meaningful, yes. But it’s not, so no”

        This is silly.

        There’s no reason that there couldn’t be something else here that Scocia or scouts are privvy to that we aren’t. It’s possible that Smoak’s splits are a symptom of something like a hitch in his swing… something that he still has.

        The fact that one year platoon splits aren’t enough to be predictive doesn’t mean that they never tell us anything. It just means they can’t conclusively tell us something.

        Stats are fantastic for looking at league-wide trends, trying to find undervalued players, etc, but they’re often very poor for trying to look at things that are in flux, or are particular to specific skills. We can’t get meaninful numbers fast enough, and that’s where scouting excels.

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  7. MGL says:

    In order for an IBB to be correct, roughly speaking (the whole analysis is “rough” anyway), the batter you face has to be considerably worse than the batter being walked. While no one decision like this one ever costs more than a couple hundreds of a win, I don’t think this one was a toss up. I think that the expected production of Cano and Smoak is a tossup, which means that the decision is not even close. I don’t have The Book handy, but I think the difference has to be something like 30 points of wOBA, and that is not taking into consideration that Wilson does not have good control which obviously means that he is leveraged with a base open and de-leveraged with the bases full. So let’s please not pretend that this was a toss-up decision. It was not. And it is true that managers rarely understand the cost of putting on a runner. They tend to only think of it as, “To whom would I like to pitch.” If you told a manager that batter number two was guaranteed to hit 20 points less than batter number 1 in a situation like that, they would walk batter #1 every time, even though it might take a 30 point difference for the IBB to be correct. How would a manager ever be able to quantify the effect of putting an extra man on base and what that means in terms of the IBB or not? No one could do that. I couldn’t do it. You couldn’t do it.

    It is never about a manager being smart enough to know the correct decisions. It is about a manager being smart enough to know that a human being cannot figure these things out in their heads during a game (maybe if they were an autistic savant they could), so a smart manager has to find out the correct decisions, at least “rules of thumb” in advance by consulting a statistician or someone with access to a statistician. Even if the manager knows things about matchups, heart and character, and the like, that the statistician does not know, the manager STILL is not able to factor those into the question, because he doesn’t know what the equation is! It’s like giving me the best took for working on cars. It doesn’t help me because I don’t know how to work on cars!

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    • I’m not entirely clear. 30 points of wOBA raw, or 30 points of wOBA against the particular pitcher in question? It takes that much of a difference to justify putting a runner on first to load the bases? Not saying it’s wrong, just bigger than I expected.

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      • Paul Clarke says:

        I found a relevant bit of The Book on Amazon Look-inside:

        “For example, with men on second and third and two outs, we estimate that the wOBA of the current batter needs to be at least 14% higher than the following hitters to justify the walk.”

        Which would suggest about 40 points of wOBA in this case.

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        • Not an unreasonable estimate of the gap between Cano and Smoak.

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        • Paul Clarke says:

          In general no, but the expectation with Wilson pitching is presumably the important thing.

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        • MGL says:

          Jeff, you estimate a 10 point difference between the two against Wilson and you say that 40 points is reasonable? I don’t get that. What is your dfeinitio of “reasonable” – not out of the realm of possibility? Plus, it is not what is reasonable (whatever that even means) that drive the decision. It is what is likely or what the a average is. In fact, while we are on the subject, I hate when someone uses the “reasonableness” argument to defend a decision. As I just said, the proper model that informs us about a correct decision entails the most likely or average result or estimate of a certain value.

          For example, if we are wondering whether to pinch hit for player A with player B in the 9th inning of a close game, you care about the likely or average offensive true talent of the players in question, not what is reasonable. Let’s say that player A is projected against this particular pitcher to be a .330 wOBA hitter and player B, .350 (with the PH penalty)? Is is a clear pinch hit situation. That it is possible that your projections are wrong and that both players are around equal or even that player A is better than player B, is a given, and does not drive the decision.

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        • Kazinski says:

          We don’t really have to guess do we? The gap is 50 pts. Cano has a career .344 wOBA against LH in 1930PA, Smoak has a career .292 wOBA against lefties in 633PA.

          So Jeff’s estimate of Smoaks wOBA against Wilson seems about right, but his estimate of Cano’s seems about 40 points low.

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        • @MGL, I misunderstood. I didn’t know if we were talking about regular wOBA, or expected wOBA against Wilson in those circumstances. By overall wOBA, Cano is obviously way way better. By situational expected wOBA, the gap is so small it *might* not even exist. It probably exists by about ten points. So then on that basis, it would not have been the right call to put Cano on, especially given that Wilson was reluctant to do it and he was the guy actually throwing the pitches.

          Sorry for the misunderstanding. In retrospect I should have known!

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        • MGL says:

          No problem Jeff. Yeah, the 40 points needed to IBB in that situation is obviously a general rule, but it refers to “against that pitcher.” And it is a high bar, IMO.

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  8. MGL says:

    You might be wondering what a “took” is. It’s a special device for working on cars…

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  9. Cybo says:

    I feel like I may be the only one to have noticed but what of the 2 IBBs issued to Jose Abreu yesterday? I swear it has to have been the first 2 times a guy with 0 career HRs has been intentionally put on to pitch to a guy with 440+ HRs. Seems to me that Garndenhire thinks Abreu is better than Dunn already. I mean sure us fantasy dorks kind of already knew that (some of us) but I would think MLB managers wouldn’t buy in so quickly.

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  10. Lefty says:

    There’s a 3rd option : Pitch around Cano
    See if he’ll fish.

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