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The Missing Two Percent

With two outs in the top of the sixth inning in a tied game and runner on second, a manager elects to intentionally walk a right-handed batter with his right-handed starter in order to have that same starter face another right-handed batter. Two singles follow, putting the manager’s team down by two, leading the team to defeat. An intentional walk leading to bad things for the pitching team is hardly a novelty or surprise, but the characters involved make it a bit more interesting.

This happened yesterday. The manager was the Rays’ Joe Maddon, and the batter was the Royals’ Jeff Francoeur. Jeff Francoeur’s game (and lack thereof) has been dissected and discussed to the point of pointlessness. I have made plenty of contributions to the field, so there is no need to belabor that point. Joe Maddon has a pretty good reputation as a manager, but analyzing any manager’s abilities as a whole is difficult for a variety of reasons. This particular sequence struck me as odd, particularly given the Rays’ reputation for trying to gain every little advantage they can.

When Maddon called for the free pass, first base was open after former Ray Elliot Johnson hit a two-out double. Francoeur came to the plate. One might think that there is never a situation in which one would walk Francoeur, who (after Sunday’s game) is hitting .214/.257/.355 (57 wRC+) and, even taking regression into account, is only projected to be slightly better (both ZiPS and Steamer rest-of-season projections have him as an 83 wRC+ hitter). Francoeur had hit a home run in his previous plate appearance in the game, but it is hard to imagine that in itself would make that much of difference given his general futility.

It might have made sense if Francoeur was hitting in front of a pitcher, or if the pitching team had a lefty that they want to leave in the game for the next batter. (Francoeur, like almost all right-handed hitters, hits lefties better, although his abilities in that respect tend to be exaggerated.) However, the former Fausto Carmona is a right-handed pitcher (who is much better against righties than lefties himself), and the batter immediately after Francoeur, Alcides Escobar, hits right-handed as well.

Escobar is a pretty terrible hitter himself, but not bad enough to justify intentionally walking Francoeur to get to him. After a decent season (for a shortstop) with the stick in 2012, Escobar is back to coming to the plate with the noodle in 2013. He has not been as bad as Francoeur this year, but bad: .247/.273/265 (63 wRC+). Now, to be fair, he is projected to be a bit worse than Francoeur: ZiPS and Steamer have his rest-of-season wRC+ at 75 and 73, respectively. Without getting all the charts and running the platoon numbers as I have in the past for this sort of thing, let’s simply say that the difference is not nearly close enough, given the game situation, to make this a “guy call.” Escobar has been having been grounding into double plays at a high rate this year, but even if one thinks that is his true talent, there were two outs, so it would not have mattered.

While any number of things could have happened after the intentional walk, what actually happened was that Escobar singled in Johnson, then, after Maddon brought in Jake McGee, Alex Gordon singled in Francoeur to put the Royals up 4-2, a lead they would not relinquish. In this case, at least, bad tactics immediately begat a bad outcome.

This rang a bell for me, and sure enough, this is not the first time an intentional walk to Jeff Francoeur has ended in tears for one of the Royals’ opponents this season. On April 25 in Detroit, the game was tied 3-3 in the top of the tenth. With runners on second and third, Jim Leyland had Phil Coke walk Francoeur to load the bases, bringing George Kottaras to the plate. However, Coke then unintentionally walked Kottaras, bringing in the game-winning run. Leyland brought in Darin Downs, who got an out before giving up a fate-sealing grand slam to Alex Gordon.

As bad as Leyland’s decision to walk Francoeur turned out in hindsight, it makes more sense than Maddon’s from yesterday. Coke is a southpaw known for his big platoon split, so pitching around Francoeur to get to the lefty-hitting Kottaras (who was followed by the lefty Chris Getz in the batting order) at least had some immediate sort of logic to it, although I have not crunched all the numbers.

Maybe there is just something about Jeff Francoeur that makes managers want to pitch around him. Leyland’s decision is at least defensible on the face of it, but it is hard to put together a rationale for Maddon’s decision. Maybe Maddon was still riding that 2008 high from getting lucky when he had Grant Balfour intentionally walk in a run with Josh Hamilton at the plate. Poor managerial decisions, individually considered, are rarely a big deal from the perspective of probability. This time, Maddon was just particularly unlucky and it showed. Nonetheless, such a poor decision really stands out when coming from a team noted for its drive to take every tiny, marginal edge it can get.