Game-Changer: Matt Joyce’s Go-Ahead Double

Even though J.A. Happ throws with his left-hand, you could make the argument that Matthew Joyce was still one of the best hitters available for Joe Maddon to play on Sunday. That said, Joyce did not get the start against Happ and he was not the first option off the bench either. In fact, he was not the second, third, or even the fourth reserve player used by Maddon on Sunday. Perhaps the plan all along was to save the best for last because in the situation with the highest leverage – and the Astros holding a 70% chance of winning with just four outs remaining – it was Matt Joyce who changed the game.

On an afternoon that saw 24 runs scored and 33 hits – including 18 extra-bases, it would seem tough to pick just one play as a game-changer. There were plenty of options – several provided by Evan Longoria who was the best player; however, none of the moved the needle quite like Joyce did in arguably the toughest spot of the game.

After a see-saw battle through the first seven innings, the Rays entered the eighth inning down 8-7. Following singles by Johnny Damon and Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton walked to load the bases with two outs. With Mark Melancon – one of the better right-handed relief pitchers in all of baseball – on the mound, Sean Rodriguez’s spot in the lineup was due.

To this point, Maddon had already used Sam Fuld, Justin Ruggiano, and John Jaso as pinch-hitters. Reid Brignac earlier entered the game as defensive replacement. Still, Maddon’s lone card to be played was arguably his best. With Rodriguez’s struggles against right-handed pitchers, he was lifted for Matt Joyce – Tampa Bay’s best threat against righties. 

Melancon stayed with the hard stuff against Joyce, throwing him nothing but fastballs. After falling behind 2-0, the Astros’ righty battled back to even the count at 2-2 on two swing and misses from Joyce. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, and one pitch away from ending the inning, Melancon hung a cut-fastball that Joyce ripped down the right field line. Joyce barely missed a grand slam, but settled for a two-run double that put the Rays ahead for good.

Considering the situation – bases loaded of a one-run game with two outs in the eighth inning – the leverage index was through the roof for this confrontation. Usually, a high-leverage situation reads around 2.0 on the index. The LI in this particular at bat was 7.17! As mentioned, the Astros held a 70.5% chance of winning as Joyce as announced. Following his double, their chances of winning dropped down to 22.3%; a difference of 48.2%.

In a game filled with big spots and big blasts, none of them were quite as big as the sweet-swingin double off the bat of Matt Joyce.

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The Difference Between B.J. Upton And Desmond Jennings

Yesterday, I wrote about the Rays and selling off a piece or two. B.J. Upton was the focus, and I hinted that Desmond Jennings might be able to replicate his performance. I did not want to leave that thought hanging—even though Upton’s two home runs since are doing a nice job of making the timing look silly—so here is the expansion of that thought.

Let’s start with Upton. The Sunday performance will raise his seasonal line, but his 2008-2011 offering of .247/.336/.397 will remain mostly constant. The average major leaguer is hitting .252/.320/.389 this season and the average center fielder is hitting .262/.328/.410. Upton, for his part, is an above average hitter by those measures, and the two big projection systems out there figure this to continue. PECOTA has Upton at .240/.329/.383 and ZiPS says .246/.334/.410. If you discount Upton’s 2009 season more strongly than the systems or three-year system, then his expected production increases. The defensive metrics are all over the place for Upton. Some say he is above average and has been for a while now, others say he is above average now, but wasn’t last year, and others say the exact opposite of that. To my untrained eye, Upton is above average, probably a plus-five defender for the sake of conservatism. Upton is an above average runner too, who makes up for whatever mechanical flaws he has with outstanding athleticism.

Jennings is tearing up Triple-A, and has hit .285/.374/.431 over parts of three seasons with Durham. Not shockingly, the projection systems play it close to the middle ground, with PECOTA saying .261/.334/.369 and ZiPS at .268/.339/.378. They don’t expect Jennings’ Triple-A numbers to translate perfectly, at least not right away, but he still figures to be an average-to-above average offensive center fielder. Defensively, it’s hard to get a good read Jennings, but in the time he was up with the team last season, it appeared that he embraces a more reckless style of defensive play. One play in particular showed off Jennings kamikaze attitude, as he nearly bulleted through the left field wall chasing a foul ball in Toronto. I do wonder if there is a dome-adjustment period for outfielders who previously had not played under a roof, but Jennings got his feet wet last season, so he should be fine. Jennings has a lesser arm than Upton, but his range is said to be fantastic, so he should be an above average defender, perhaps with better mechanics.

I’ve written about how the Elias rankings do not value Upton’s skill set properly, so if the Rays want to get a lasting return as Upton leaves, it will have to come via trade rather than draft pick. With a season and a half standing in between Upton and free agency, this might be the best time for the Rays to get a return. It just depends on if a team will offer fair value, if so, the Rays can make a move without hurting their chances too much. If not, then having too many worthwhile outfielders is rarely a bad thing, and the Rays will just have to figure out how to keep a ready outfielder busy in Triple-A for a little while longer.

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The Princeton Prospects To Watch

The Rays Princeton started their seasons last week, so it’s a good time to touch on the notable prospects at the level. The further away from the majors, the less statistics matter. In a level like Princeton, the tools matter more, and the mechanical improvements and progress displayed by the players don’t necessarily show up in the box score. Keep that in mind. Here are the five prospects most worth your time (in no particular order):

Ryan Brett
Age: 19
Position: 2B
Acquired: Third-round pick in 2010

While the Red Sox have a short second baseman who gets far more publicity (Sean Coyle), the Rays have a little dynamo too. Brett stands no taller than 5-foot-9, but packs a mean hit tool and good-to-really good speed. He started the season six-for-seven, but a mini-slump has dropped his batting average down to .375. A high school shortstop and pitcher, the Rays have him playing second base, as they did during his exposure to the Gulf Coast League last season. In a perfect world, Brett becomes a picturesque leadoff hitter.

Josh Sale
Age: 19
Position: OF
Acquired: First-round pick in 2010

Sale has a home run this season and that remains his only hit throughout his first 14 at-bats. The hit tool is the vehicle in that Sale will drive to the major leagues, but it’s far, far too early to show concern. Sale, who turns 20 in July, also got in better shape over the last year (he did not play in the minors last season after being drafted), and had some tattoo work done.

Justin O’Conner
Age: 19
Position: C
Acquired: First-round pick in 2010

An Indiana product, O’Conner has plenty of promise. O’Conner only switched to catching before his senior season, but is athletic (he played shortstop before) with good speed for a catcher, a plus-plus arm, and power potential. The Rays have their catchers call the games, so O’Conner figures to get plenty of experience in that department. Should the bat fail to develop and the defense not be worth it, the Rays could always try throwing O’Conner on the mound. For now, though, he is the catcher with the most upside in the system.
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Elliot Johnson’s Bizarre Strikeout Rate

Elliot Johnson topped 100 plate appearances during the Milwaukee series, and I have to admit that I’m more interested in him than I expected, but perhaps not for the best reasons.

Entering the season, my general sketch of Johnson’s assets looked something like this (in order from best to worst attribute):
- Fast
- Versatile defender (second on the list because once you already have three good defensive middle infielders, the marginal benefit of having another is drastically reduced)
- Switch-hitter

In my mind, Johnson profiled like a pinch runner or defensive sub—tasks given to utility infielders. For whatever reasons, people compared him to Ben Zobrist, which reeks of force. Johnson never hit like Zobrist in the upper minors, despite having equal footing in prospect status, at least early in his career. Once Johnson reached Double-A, his career sputtered a bit. He still reached Triple-A at a young enough age, and debuted for the Rays at 24 (he wound up being the designated hitter for that squad in a game, which … let’s just move on).

With a rehab assignment in Triple-A earlier this season, Johnson has now played for Durham in parts of five seasons. Over that time, Johnson has amassed more than 1,700 plate appearances and a .261/.325/.416 line. Triple-A performances aren’t the end-all, be-all of player evaluation, as there are skills that can play up more there than in the majors, however Johnson’s underlying peripherals look like the imperfect translations of his major league performance so far in 2011:

Level SO/PA BB/PA ISO
Triple-A 23.16 7.64 .155
Majors 28.43 7.84 .146

Moving from Triple-A to the majors, you would expect more strikeouts, fewer walks, and less power. Johnson has delivered in two of those phases, but has shown a more walk-aware approach in the majors. Whether it lasts or not is anyone’s guess, and that applies to much of Johnson’s game.

The Rays broke out the shoehorn and inserted Johnson into a shortstop platoon. It’s an odd development, as Johnson only had 101 minor league games at the position, with 64 coming in 2010, but he seems passable at the position, with more range than arm. Johnson’s job is to play against lefties, as Reid Brignac hasn’t a clue how to go about hitting them. Despite the power numbers, almost none of it has come against left-handed pitching—only one of his six extra-base hits. However, seven of his eight walks have come as a righty, and he has struck out 14 times in 44 plate appearances. When the Rays shackle Brignac to the bench and let Johnson play against righties, he has shown more pop, but also has more strikeouts (14) than times on base (10).

Johnson swings and misses more than B.J. Upton, and only less often than Justin Ruggiano, Sean Rodriguez, and Kelly Shoppach. By extension, Shoppach is the only Ray who has ended a higher rate of at-bats via a strikeout than Johnson. If you go on a league-wide basis, Johnson has actually struck out about as often as Carlos Pena and Mark Reynolds, and more often than Russell Branyan and Jonny Gomes. It’s rare to see fast, good-gloved middle infielders fit in with those hulking sluggers when it comes to strikeout rate, but that’s why Johnson is sort of interesting, even if his pop pales in comparison.

As to whether Johnson’s whiff and strikeout rate will sustain, the former tenders to stabilize around 100 plate appearances, and the latter around 150. It’s not a total stabilization or anything, so there is room for further fluctuation, but there is a chance Johnson is going to strike out more often in the majors than his Triple-A totals suggested. That could change what is expected of him, and not necessarily in a good way.

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Daily Process: Rays, Davis Beat Astros

After Wade Davis’ last start, against the Marlins, I wrote that he had a very Niemann-esque start—a start where the results look good, but the journey itself is a bit underwhelming. I believe that tag applies again tonight, as Davis lasted seven innings, struck out three, walked one, and allowed an earned run on five hits.

The Astros are not a good team, and offensively they only have two, maybe three guys you worry about—Hunter Pence, Jeff Keppinger, and Michael Bourn—so Davis should pitch well against them, but it feels like Houston left a run or two on the field. Bourn hit a double in the first inning, and Keppinger followed it up with a ball back up the middle. Davis fielded the ball and spun towards second, where Bourn was frozen. After Davis advanced towards and tagged Bourn, he wheeled and fired the ball across the diamond, so as to set up a tag of Keppinger—who had since tried advancing to second on his own.

Anytime the opponent commits two critical errors during a single patch of run of play, you have to count your blessings. A batter later, Davis found himself again benefitting from good fortune, as a 2-2 count on Pence saw the outfielder poke a slurvey slider into left field. Johnny Damon (of all people) made the catch though. Later on, Davis would escape a bases loaded jam.

B.J. Upton hit his second home run in as many days. The old saying is that home runs come in bunches, and I don’t know about that, but Upton’s 2011 home runs sure have:

4/5
4/6

4/29
5/3
5/7

5/16
5/19

6/7

6/24
6/25

Evan Longoria hit two doubles, giving him three extra-base hits since the series began. He has went gloveless at the plate over the same span. Moises Alou is nodding knowingly somewhere.

A few other players did some thing I want to cover in additional posts, but kudos to Joe Maddon for bringing in Kyle Farnsworth earlier rather than later.

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