On July, 3 2012, the Rays squared off against the Yankees in a matchup of right-handed starters. The Rays sent James Shields to the mound opposite Ivan Nova and the Yankees. Despite Nova’s handedness, Tampa Bay’s lineup featured five right-handed batters. There was nothing strange about B.J. Upton or Desmond Jennings in the lineup; however, left-handed pitching mashers Sean Rodriguez and Jeff Keppinger each received a start against the Yankees’ young righty. As did Jose Molina.
The rash of injuries this season have limited Joe Maddon’s ability to exploit platoon splits, as he has in the past. That said, Maddon chose the three righties over left-handed alternatives. Why? Maybe it was a hunch. Perhaps it was to provide James Shields with a stronger defense. Given the lack of talent on the roster, it could have been his way of getting the best nine players in the lineup regardless of matchups. Or was there some process-related reasoning for the unusual lineup?
In all likelihood there was a mix of reasons as to why Maddon chose these nine specific batters to face Nova. But one thing we know for sure is that Maddon did not do it just to do it. When asked post game about what went into his decision making, the reigning American League Manager of the Year gave us a little insight into the process.
“Nova to me is really good on lefties when he gets the breaking ball where he wants to underneath them,” Maddon said. He then noted that, against the Rays, Nova frequently went to the breaking ball on the first pitch. This set up future breaking balls deeper in the count and lower in the zone.
A lot of what manager’s say is coaches speak or media fodder; however, Maddon is telling the truth.
Nova’s 2012 pitch selection (h/t Brooksbaseball.net)
As you can see, Nova’s secondary pitch of choice is the curveball. This is especially true against left-handed batters. More so, the curveball is Nova’s preferred secondary pitch on first-pitches and with two strikes against the opposite hand.
Nova’s 2012 first pitch selection (h/t Brooksbaseball.net)
Looking at the first pitch of the at-bat, Maddon’s assessment was spot on. Nova is definitely a disciple of pitching 2.0, throwing his curveball more than 30 percent on the first pitch. Once more, this is particularly true against left-handers whom seen a first-pitch curve 40 percent of the time. In fact, no right-handed starter in the major leagues throws more curveballs or first-pitch curveballs to left-handed batters than Nova.
With two strikes, Nova prefers his slider and his curveball when going for the kill. The slider is the weapon of choice against right-handers while the curveball is selected for the lefties. He buries the curveball low and away for lefties staying away from hard contact and enticing hitters to chase out of the zone.
While Nova’s usage of curves against lefties is well above the league average, his rates against the Rays’ left-handers are even higher. In three starts against the Rays this season, Nova has thrown a curveball to a lefty 38 percent of the time. On first pitches, the rate jumps to 48 percent–the highest usage rate of any of his offerings.
The heavy diet of breaking balls to Rays’ lefties has worked well for Nova. Although it is a rather small sample size, coming into the July 3 game, lefties had tallied just four hits in 38 plate appearances; none of them off the curveball.
On that day, 32 of Nova’s 102 pitches were curveballs. Of those 32 hooks, 23 were thrown to the four left-handed batters in the Rays’ lineup–including eight on the first pitch. The quartet combined to go 1-11 against Nova with a walk. The lone hit was a single by Elliot Johnson which actually came against the curveball; the first hit off Nova’s curve by a Rays left-hander this season.
Meanwhile, the five right-handed batters selected by Maddon went 6-14 with four runs driven in. The trio of non-regulars: Keppinger, Molina, and Rodriguez went 4-9 against Nova including a home run and a double from Rodriguez. On the season, Rays’ lefties have just five hits in 42 plate appearances against Nova while righties have 12 hits–seven of them for extra bases–in an equal amount of PA.
A hunch, a defensive strategy, an attempt to get the most talent in the lineup at one time, or a data-driven process. Whatever compelled Maddon to start five right-handed batters– including three non-regulars–against Nova was the right move for that game. With better options, perhaps the strategy would be a bit different. But, for this particular game the process versus Ivan Nova provided Tampa Bay with a victory.