Today In Poorly Formed Thoughts

For fans of the Toronto Blue Jays, Richard Griffin’s is a familiar voice. He has covered the team for a number of years, writing for Canada’s largest newspaper. He fulfills the role that every baseball team’s fan base should desire: the seasoned baseball columnist who shows up at every game and is unafraid to share his opinion no matter if it ruffles feathers or not. Although he may veer toward being unreasonable from time to time, he’s a good writer who doesn’t give his subject matter more seriousness than it deserves. It helps matters rather tremendously that Mr. Griffin also seems to be good-natured even about the more disparaging responses he often elicits from the Blue Jays blogosphere in response to his writing.

Yesterday, Mr. Griffin posed the following question: Is Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon to blame for Ricky Romero’s struggles this season?

Maddon suggested on May 23 that he would put more left-handers into his batting order if he had them. Romero, when asked about Maddon’s comments, did not react well. The fact is lefties for the year batted .310 with an OPS of .899 vs. Romero. Right-handers hit .268 with a .782 OPS.

What Mr. Griffin is describing is Mr. Maddon’s employment of  the Danks Theory, which is about a manager constructing a lineup that neutralizes an opposing pitcher’s best weapon. In the case of Mr. Romero, his change up against right-handed batters has been proven to be the most effective pitch in his repertoire. So, by putting as many left-handed batters in the lineup as possible, Mr. Maddon renders the southpaw’s out-pitch irrelevant.

Mr. Griffin goes on to not only correlate, but also force causation between Mr. Maddon’s comments and Mr. Romero’s declining record and earned run average.

Was he bothered? Consider that prior to May 23, Romero was 5-1, with a 3.84 ERA. After that game, dismissed as he was by Maddon, he went 4-13, with a 6.81 ERA.

The Toronto Star columnist then makes a strange claim that would be difficult to prove.

There is statistical evidence that even within his starts, Romero’s primary issues were mental, not physical. At moments when he should have stepped up to the challenge in his role as the staff ace, he seemed to shrink away, his performance anticipating the worst — which is of course what you get.

The statistical evidence that Mr. Griffin speaks of is the cherry-picked innings of work following his team scoring runs, which are arbitrarily claimed to be one of the two sets of circumstances in which a number one starter must “step up.” He refers to these as shutdown innings.

The Mockingbird’s Jon Hale believes that the term belongs on the statistical wall of shame.

Imagine there was a guy who for some freakish reason only allowed runs immediately after his team scored. So the worst example of this supposedly lead-killing, win-stealing phenomenon. Compared to other pitchers with the same ERA, he would actually have the lead much more often, since he would never give up a lead before the offence got going, and also get more wins — since he would never give up leads when his offence went cold (i.e. he would pitch better in higher-leverage situations).

Mr. Griffin’s so-called evidence hinges on a small sample of incidents throughout a rather bad season. However, even if there was proof of this phenomenon occurring over the course of a larger sample, it’s not nearly enough to suggest the causation of Mr. Maddon’s comments, let alone that Mr. Romero’s issues are mental.

This is what bothers me most about arguments that hinge on intangible factors. Far too often, some sort of magical quality is attached to an otherwise worthless argument. Think about what Mr. Griffin is suggesting here: Ricky Romero had bad numbers in particularly important situations this season, therefore it’s a mental issue. Even if he’s correct in the massive assumption that Mr. Romero’s faults are mental, it only explains the cause of the cause of his struggles. There should still be physical evidence associated with his mental state that’s causing the lousy numbers

Nakedly suggesting that intangibles are the root of anything is akin to believing that literal angels are helping Mike Trout be awesome or that Jeff Francoeur is being hindered by devils. That’s not to suggest that intangibles don’t play a role. I’m certain that they do. But we should be able to see what role they play by examining what’s happening under whatever the circumstance that’s deemed to be the cause of the success or failure by the narrative. For instance, if it’s believed that a player is having trouble focusing in a particular situation, we should be able to see something different in a dynamic sense to his approach during those specific instances.

Even if we discover a glaring difference, we still can’t say for certain that a mental issue is the cause of the poor command or the drop in velocity, but we will be able to have a pretty good idea that the poor command or drop in velocity is why the player is terrible in that situation. And isn’t that the interesting part of player analysis? It seems to me that the cause of struggles is far more fascinating than the cause of the cause of the struggles anyway, especially when the cause of the cause is an obvious assumption based around a preconceived narrative.

For more investigation into what’s been different this season for Ricky Romero compared to the rest of his Major League career, check out the following:

What’s Wrong With Ricky Romero? [Getting Blanked]

How Romero Has Changed. [The Mockingbird]

What Happened To Ricky Romero? [Fangraphs]

The Lost Season Of Ricky Romero. [Baseball Nation]