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Allowing Cecil to face Napoli was absolutely the right call

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Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

One of the pivotal moments of yesterday's Game 2 was also one of the most controversial managerial decisions. With the Jays clinging to a 4-3 lead with two out in the bottom of the 8th and the tying run on second, Brett Cecil was allowed to face Mike Napoli. And we all know how that ended: Napoli squared a 1-0 curveball over the plate enough to fist the other way into RF, and the game was tied.

What made it a controversial move, both in the gamethread at the time and afterwards, was that despite being utterly dominant and by far the Blue Jays' best reliever in the second half, Cecil was a lefty. And Mike Napoli is one of the best lefty mashers in baseball. Over his career, Napoli has a 145 wRC+ against southpaws, compared to 115 against righties. And over the three seasons, it's actually more pronounced, with a 151 / 101 platoon split.

On the other hand, Cecil is not your generic lefty in that he's highly effective against opposite handed hitters. Over the past three seasons, since he became a full-time reliever, Cecil has posted .273 wOBA against righties (for comparison, that's roughly the same as Alcides Escobar and Billy Hamilton over that frame, and they've been amongst the worst qualified hitters) with a strikeout rate above 30%. His fielding independent metrics have also been excellent, with a 3.02 FIP and 3.04 xFIP.

And the last two years, he's been even better, with a .250 wOBA, 32% K rate, 2.34 FIP and 2.64 xFIP. Amongst all pitchers - lefty or righty - with at least 50 innings, Cecil's wOBA ranks 37th. He's totally destroyed righties. And for what little it's worth, Napoli was was just 2/17 career against Cecil(albeit with 5 walks, though that wasn't a huge issue given the situation).

Still, with a bullpen full of quality right-handed relievers  who are similarly highly effective like Cecil - Mark Lowe, Liam Hendriks and Aaron Sanchez - surely it's a slamdunk to play Napoli's massive splits, right? And thus John Gibbons made a big mistake, perhaps playing the small sample size.

As it turns out, not at all. While Napoli destroys lefties overall, we're not interested in how he does against generic lefties, since that's not Cecil. Instead, what we want to know is what are his splits against pitchers.

Using Baseball-Reference's "vs. pitcher" splits, I pulled Napoli's results for the last three years against individal LHP and LHP. And then from Fangraphs, I pulled the splits for all pitchers against right-handed batters, cross-referenced the data, and kept only the pitchers who had a wOBA of .300 or lower, meaning they were at least roughly 10% better than average against righty batters.

This narrows it down to 26 lefties that Napoli has faced a total of 95 times, compared to 130 righties faced a total of 438 times. Both work out to be excellent comparison groups. As mentioned above, Cecil has a .273 wOBA against right batters over the last three years, and these elites lefties Napoli has faced have weighted average wOBA of .278. The righties have a weighted average of .272, so they're actually slightly better but it's not something to worry out. So let's see Napoli's results against each group:

Napoli against PA BA OBP SLG K% BB*% HR% 2B+3B%
LHP who handle RHB 95 0.150 0.284 0.287 37.9% 13.7% 3.2% 2.1%
RHP who handle RHB 438 0.202 0.311 0.362 30.6% 13.7% 3.0% 4.6%

Napoli is actually substantially worst against these lefties than righties, giving up 50 points of batting average, 30 on base points, and 75 points of slugging. He strikes out substantially more of the time, 38% compared to 31% while drawing free passes (BB* is non-intentional walks + hit by pitch) at the exact same rate. His home run rate is almost precisely the same, but he's been got extra base hits at over twice the rate against righties. In sum, there is actually nothing that Napoli has done substantially better against these lefties than the righties, and a numbers of things he's done substantially worse.

Now do I think Napoli is actually worse against elite RHB neutralizing lefties than righties? I'd venture almost certainly not, there is probably some element of small sample size here. But but the same token, at the very least we'd have to say his platoon splits disappear. In other words, Napoli absolutely feasts on crappy left-handed pitchers without the tools to neutralize opposite handed batters. But that's not Brett Cecil.

Beyond the quantitative argument above, there was further good reasons to stick with Cecil. He's been your best reliever ("dance with the one that brought you"), and he had his stuff as he easily dispatched Fielder whereas you a new guy might not have his stuff. Finally, if you bring in a new guy, it's for one batter if he does his job, because Roberto Osuna would have the 9th. And he's been less than automatic recently, and if something happened and it went to extras you'd regret burning an elite reliever for one batter for a pretty marginal upgrade (this is assuming there was some sort of platoon split).

In short, it sucks that it didn't work out. But leaving Cecil out to face Napoli was completely the right call on all fronts. Good job, Gibby.