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.”
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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