October Moment: Playing the odds in Toronto

The Texas Rangers have taken a 2-0 lead in this best-of-five ALDS versus the Toronto Blue Jays and they have Mike Napoli and his tremendous success against left-handed pitchers to thank for it.

Napoli did not start Game 2 against the right-handed Marcus Stroman, but he knew his opportunity might come late against one of the Blue Jays left-handed relievers. That is exactly what happened in the top of the 8th inning of Friday’s 6-4 Rangers win.

With Delino DeShields, Jr. on second base and two outs, Napoli was summoned to pinch hit for the lefty Mitch Moreland against Brett Cecil. Cecil had just struck out Prince Fielder and Rangers manager Jeff Banister knew this was the time for his pinch-hit specialist. Napoli delivered with a liner past the second baseman.

In the other dugout, the decision to keep Cecil in the game was not as simple as it might seem. Managers are armed with more data than ever in today’s game and here’s what Toronto’s John Gibbons knew:

  • Cecil, over his last 38 games, had thrown 32.2 IP with zero earned runs. He struck out 45 hitters to 5 walks in that span.
  • Cecil versus Napoli was tipped heavily in favor of Cecil. Napoli was just 2 for 17 with 1 HR and 7 strikeouts in his career versus Cecil coming into that at bat.
  • Napoli versus Cecil over the past two seasons was 0-for-5 with 4 strikeouts.
  • Napoli has hit .274 with a .904 OPS in the regular and postseason versus LHP in his career.
  • Napoli versus lefties since August 1st was 20 for 55 with 5 homeruns and a 1.143 OPS.

Cecil is known for his nasty curveball. According to FanGraphs Pitch FX data, he used that pitch 39.8% of the time in 2015, more than any other reliever in baseball. He also has a .151 batting average against on the pitch with 52 strikeouts and 2 walks.

We know the numbers, we know the batter, and we know the pitcher. While many objected to Gibbons’ decision to stick with the red-hot Cecil because of what Napoli does to lefties, I was OK with it.

With the count 1-0, Cecil was not going to give in with the fastball and decided to go with his best pitch. Except it wasn’t this time. Cecil threw the curveball, but it was the 1-0 count for a strike curveball.

Good pinch hitters don’t let get-me-over curveballs go by with a runner in scoring position. Mike Napoli is not necessarily a good pinch hitter (.104 career BA) but he is experienced (56 PAs).

Gibbons played the numbers he liked. He also showed confidence in one of his best relievers. Cecil fell behind and threw a bad pitch, which almost always trumps a numbers argument. The location of the pitch, not the pitcher throwing it, allowed Napoli and the Rangers to tie the game in the 8th and ultimately win it in the 14th