A.J. Ellis: Red Sox manager John Farrell trusting gut over numbers in the World Series

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Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis is providing analysis of the World Series to the L.A. Times. In a column posted yesterday prior to Game 2, he wrote about how Red Sox manager John Farrell is trusting his gut over the numbers in a short series lasting between five and seven games. The Red Sox are one of the teams most overtly reliant on analytics, which made Farrell’s decision to start Jonny Gomes in left field against two tough right-handed starters, as opposed to the left-handed Daniel Nava.

Ellis writes that it is Gomes’ playoff experience and energy, rather than proficiency against right-handers, that Farrell wanted in the first two games of the World Series against the Cardinals:

These immeasurable factors of chemistry are loathed by sabermetricians, who tend to scoff at these claims. Undeniable even by the most stubborn supporter of these new metrics is that in the postseason, the Red Sox are 1-3 when Nava starts games and 7-0 when Gomes does, heading into Game 2. To players, managers and fans, that is the only stat that matters in October.

They are 7-1 now, of course, as the Sox lost Game 2 by a 4-2 margin. Gomes is hitless in seven trips to the plate in World Series play. Farrell announced earlier that Nava would be starting Game 3 against Cardinals starter Joe Kelly.

As a self-described “sabermetrician”, I have two thoughts on this: Ellis is relying on a very small sample size, of course. Four starts for Nava and eight starts for Gomes is representative of very little. Secondly, while it is curious for Farrell to abandon the very tactics that helped bring his team to where it is today, it is unlikely to make any noticeable difference in a short series. Nava’s proficiency against right-handers, or Gomes’ deficiency against them, won’t be the sole reason why the Red Sox succeed or fail once you account for myriad other factors, plus the ever-present effect of randomness, even more stark within a smaller sample. In the big picture, there’s nothing wrong with Farrell trusting his gut, but it does set him up to be the fall guy if things don’t work out.

Why Ryan Zimmerman skipped spring training

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All spring training there was at least some mild confusion about Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He played in almost no regular big league spring training games, instead, staying on the back fields, playing in simulated and minor league contests. When that usually happens, it’s because a player is rehabbing or even hiding an injury, but the Nats insisted that was not the case with Zimmerman. Not everyone believed it. I, for one, was skeptical.

The skepticism was unwarranted, as Zimmerman answered the bell for Opening Day and has played all season. As Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal writes today, it was all by design. He skipped spring training because he doesn’t like it and because he thinks it’ll help him avoid late-season injuries and slowdowns, the likes of which he has suffered over the years.

It’s hard to really judge this now, of course. On the one hand Zimmerman has started really slow this season. What’s more, he has started to show signs of warming up only in the past week, after getting almost as many big league, full-speed plate appearances under his belt as a normal spring training would’ve given him. On the other hand, April is his worst month across his entire 14-year career, so one slow April doesn’t really prove anything and, again, Zimmerman and the Nats will consider this a success if he’s healthy and productive in August and September.

It is sort of a missed opportunity, though. Players hate spring training. They really do. if Zimmerman had made a big deal out of skipping it and came out raking this month, I bet a lot more teams would be amenable to letting a veteran or three take it much more easy next spring. Good ideas can be good ideas even if they don’t produce immediately obvious results, but baseball tends to encourage a copycat culture only when someone can point to a stat line or to standings as justification.

Way to ruin it for everyone, Ryan. 😉