Joe Maddon and The Lefty Specialist | The Process Report

Joe Maddon and The Lefty Specialist

By R.J. Anderson //

Something I’ve always found odd is that people accept the idea that rookie players will make mistakes – they call them rookie mistakes for a reason, you know – while eventually progressing and improving with on the job training and exposure. When it comes to managers, though, that principle seems thrown out; context is ignored at times and the ability to grow seems unlikely at best and improbable at worst.

Maybe that’s because of all the retreat managers in the majors who are mostly accepted as finished products. True, Joe Maddon was an interim manager with the Angels and spent many years as the bench coach, but 2006 was his first full season as manager. And 2008 was the first full season he spent managing a winning time. And 2009 was the first time he managed a team with winning expectations. And maybe he learned something from each of those occasions. Maybe it took those experiences to build his schema into what it is. So much goes into managing and sometimes it takes placing ones hand upon the burning stove to connect action and consequence.

With that in mind, I wanted to look at Joe Maddon’s evolution with the left-handed relief specialist, commonly known by the shorthand term, LOOGY – or Left-handed One Out guY on a year-by-year basis.

2006

In telling a story that revolves around chronological progression, you don’t always have to start t the beginning, but it probably helps. The 2006 Devil Rays had five left-handers pitch for them; Scott Kazmir – who had a sensational season, one of the best in franchise history –, Mark Hendrickson, Casey Fossum, and J.P. Howell started all season long. Only Jon Switzer pitched in relief, and he only appeared in 40 games – or 33.2 innings worth.

Switzer didn’t actually appear in a major league game until June 24 (or game 75) which meant Maddon’s first foray into being a real manager included handling a pen full of righties. Switzer himself is actually an interesting story and a rather big one over 2006-2007. The Rays selected him in the second round of the 2001 draft out of Arizona State University. Now, you already know how the story unfolds; and you already know that “left-handed specialist” isn’t quite what you hope for a second round pick from college, but rest assured, Switzer was a starter in college with impressive strikeout rates (249 strikeouts in 215 innings pitched).

Switzer started in the low minors too and wasn’t too bad at it until he hit the upper minors. He started with Double-A Orlando in 2003 and posted a 3.43 ERA with solid peripherals through 126 innings. Naturally, management gave him one start at Triple-A before calling him up to the majors. He’d appear in five games. He would miss the entire 2004 season with an injury and upon returning in 2005 would split time in the minors as a starter and in the majors as a reliever. Once Andrew Friedman became General Manager, Switzer became a reliever fulltime, effectively ending his starting pitching career in the majors before it ever got going.

Once Switzer arrived, the Rays’ playoff hopes were all but dead – about 0.1% odds, per CoolStandings. There was nothing lost by throwing the 26 year old with a higher 80s fastball and slider combination out there just to see if he could also use his changeup and get some righties out. He couldn’t, of course, but when your bullpen is full of guys who can’t get right-handed batters out, does it really matter if you use your lefty specialist against righties too?

As it turns out, those five lefties? Yeah, they wound up facing the most opposite handed batters on the season of all Rays’ pitchers. Given that four of them were starting pitchers, that’s not unsurprising, but Switzer would only face 37% lefties.

2007

That would be the same story for most of 2007. Again, the Rays chose against using a roster spot on a left-handed reliever to begin the season. Unlike 2006, the rotation featured only Kazmir and Fossum. I alluded to it before, but there are really two situations in which a LOOGY isn’t required:

1) That team has right-handed relievers capable of getting either hand out.
2) That team has right-handed relievers incapable of getting either hand out.

This bullpen fell into the latter category. Fossum would bomb out of the rotation and make his first relief appearance on June 1. Switzer wouldn’t come up until the first week of July. Jeff Ridgway would get a few pity appearances late in the season before the Rays shipped him to Atlanta. Fossum faced 34% lefties overall (including his 10 starts) and Switzer 41% lefties. Switzer actually did not pitch poorly out of the pen, but would find himself jumping to the Red Sox a season later and he’s bounced around a bit since. Fossum would quickly find himself out of work as well.

2008

This is the first time the Rays’ front office really spoiled Maddon during the off-season. They signed him Trever Miller as well as claiming Kurt Birkins off waivers. J.P. Howell moved to the bullpen as well and of course, even David Price appeared in a few games too. Maddon responded with a resounding, “Huzzah!” and wasted no time using Miller. Nearly 60% of the batters Miller faced were lefties, while Birkins only pitched in 10 innings and Howell faced nearly 60% righties.

Worth noting is that Maddon occasionally used Miller in blowouts, which meant navigation away from the typical avenues of appliance.

2009

Miller and Birkins were expelled while Brian Shouse and Randy Choate were input. Maddon responded by using the side-arming LOOGY 57% and 58% each against southpaws. Now, there is no perfect way to figure out just how costly the usage was, but let’s take a look at the bottom five moments of the season by WPA for both of these guys.

Choate
-.289 Adam Kennedy homered (lefty)
-.144 Matt Wieters homered (switch)
-.142 Adam Lind singled (lefty)
-.103 Kendry Morales singled (switch)
-.091 Curtis Granderson singled (lefty)

Shouse
-.262 Ichiro singled (lefty)
-.185 Jeremy Hermida singled (lefty)
-.162 Ross Gload singled (lefty)
-.145 Kevin Youkilis doubled (righty)
-.125 David Ortiz doubled (lefty)

Two observations:
1) Choate was clearly Eve to anyone named Adam.
2) Only one of these moments were because they faced a true righty. The rest were switch-hitters who may or may not have batted with the opposite hand the rest of the game.

Expanding the list to 10 or 15 or 25 plays – the arbitrary number of your choice – may or may not change the landscape. I certainly wouldn’t think either facing a righty is a good process, but context is vital in these situations.

2010

And here’s the other time the Rays really spoiled Maddon with the bullpen. By adding Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano, Maddon has been able to lock down the latter innings with those two (as well as Grant Balfour) and simply use Dan Wheeler and Choate as OOGY relievers. Amongst pitchers with at least 20 innings this season, Wheeler is being used the most against batters of the same hand (as a percentage of total batters faced). You know who is second? Randy Choate.

Maybe that’s a coincidence. Or maybe Maddon learned.



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