Recently, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has employed an unorthodox strategy against pitchers with great change-ups. Ever since Dallas Braden and his nasty change threw a perfect game against the Rays, Maddon has stacked his lineups with players who bat with the same hand as the starting pitcher in order to neutralize that pitch. The change-up is a pitch that is typically used to neutralize opposite-handed hitters, and so Maddon is attempting to take away this advantage from pitchers with great change-ups by reducing the number of opposite-handed hitters in the lineup. So far, the strategy has worked pretty well.
Most notably, on May 29, the Rays torched White Sox lefty John Danks for eight runs with a lineup that included four left-handed hitters. On Wednesday night, the Rays faced right handed change-up specialist Shaun Marcum of the Toronto Blue Jays, who had a 2.77 ERA entering the gme. The Rays lineup still included three left-handed hitters, as it’s essentially impossible for the Rays to remove Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Reid Brignac from their line-up at this point. However, the Rays sent up switch-hitters Ben Zobrist and Dioner Navarro to bat right handed against Marcum, and even more telling was that they not only used right-handed catcher Kelly Shoppach as the DH, but they hit him clean-up.
Did it work? Marcum’s line — four innings, 10 hits and seven earned runs — certainly suggests it did. Shoppach, Navarro, and Zobrist were a combined 3-for-6 against Marcum, including a home run by Navarro.
A look at the Pitch F/X data suggests that Marcum still threw his change-up as often as he normally does, so he didn’t alter his game plan much. In his 12 previous starts, Marcum threw 21.1 percent change-ups, and 14 of his 67 pitches (20.9 percent) were change-ups on Wednesday night. It was still effective, as he threw 10 of the 14 (71.4 percent) for strikes and drew swinging strikes on three (21.4 percent) of them, both marks well above the league average. However, that swinging strike mark is five points below his average for the season, suggesting that hitters weren’t fooled quite as often by the pitch.
Despite the early success, Joe Maddon may not exactly be on solid ground with these decisions. In their careers, both Marcum and Danks aren’t significantly better against opposite-handed battters. Instead, they have performed at roughly the same level against these hitters, showing no real platoon split. The “Danks Theory,” as some are calling the strategy, has worked, but it may take switch hitters out of their comfort zones, and it’s possible that neutralizing the change-up may come at the cost of making a pitcher’s fastball or curveball more effective. It will be interesting to see whether the Rays continue to trot this odd strategy out there even if they get shut down a few times.
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