What Were the Mariners Thinking With Robbie Ray Move in Game 1?

Robbie Ray
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Hindsight is always 20/20, a truism that is acutely felt after a particularly heartbreaking loss. It’s one ringing true in the heads of Mariners fans who witnessed a Game 1 victory in the AL Division Series slip through their fingers yesterday. Ben Clemens had the game recap, but I wanted to hone in on the final, decisive at-bat in the bottom of the ninth. More specifically, I want to try to answer the question in the headline: what were the Mariners thinking when they brought in Robbie Ray to face Yordan Alvarez?

On the surface, the move looks defensible. Paul Sewald had gotten the first two outs of the inning but had allowed two baserunners to reach to bring Alvarez to the plate. Why not bring in the lefty to gain the platoon advantage? Seattle even thought this very situation through in the lead up to this series. After the game, Mariners manager Scott Servais explained how that plan came to be:

“It was something going into the series where we were at, looking at our rotation, where we were going to head, and talking with Robbie about using him out of the bullpen as a bullet, so to speak, for that type of scenario. Bringing in a lefty against Alvarez, although Alvarez is one of the better hitters in the league … I looked at it in the seventh inning and said, ‘Hey, this could happen.’ So that was the plan going in.”

The Mariners aren’t strangers to game planning around Alvarez, having faced him dozens of times in the regular season during his career. Not that it’s done them much good: he has a career .305/.385/.597 (166 wRC+) slash line against Seattle in 179 plate appearances. You really can’t game plan around Alvarez, either; he’s one of the best hitters in the league and was one of the two best hitters in baseball this year. And it’s not like gaining the platoon advantage is much of an advantage anyway, given his impossibly small career platoon split: a .404 wOBA versus right-handers and a .406 wOBA against left-handers. His career strikeout rate against southpaws is even a few points lower.

If the Mariners were committed to using Ray in a high-leverage situation against Alvarez, how should he go about attacking him? After revitalizing his career in Toronto on his way to winning the AL Cy Young award last year, Ray essentially turned himself into a two-pitch pitcher, with his four-seam fastball and slider generating plenty of swings and misses. He started off this season with that same approach but struggled to maximize both pitches the way he did last year. So to alleviate his issues, he re-introduced a sinker to his mix, giving him a third pitch to help him expand the zone horizontally.

Because the Mariners and Astros play each other so often, we even have an example of Ray using his sinker to great effect against Alvarez:

That was from an at-bat from June 6, the very game where Ray began utilizing his sinker for the first time this season. A perfectly placed sinker on the inside corner gets Alvarez to pound the ball into the ground, where it’s gobbled up by the Mariners’ infield.

The sinker helped Ray regain his effectiveness during the regular season, but it was far from his best pitch. Opposing batters put up a .406 wOBA against it, easily the worst mark of the three offerings in his repertoire. He was able to generate both swings and misses (22.7% whiff rate) and ground contact (52.3% groundball rate) with it, so it wasn’t completely ineffective, but when it was left up in the zone, batters generally did tons of damage.

Ray’s best pitch, on the other hand, is his slider, which earns plenty of whiffs and weak contact. Even his four-seam fastball is good in its own right; he’s able to get batters to swing under it often, though when they make contact, they’re able to get under it and elevate it a lot easier than his other pitches.

So in that ninth-inning matchup on Tuesday afternoon, you’d expect Ray would go after Alvarez with his best pitch, an approach that’s encouraged by the Mariners. Instead, catcher Cal Raleigh called for two sinkers to start the at-bat, and it looked as though Ray didn’t shake him off. Here are Alvarez’s career splits by pitch type against left-handed pitching:

Yordan Alvarez, pitch type splits vs LHP
Pitch Type Whiff% Z-Contact% O-Swing% Hard Hit% Barrel% GB% wOBA xwOBAcon
Four-seam 18.5% 84.1% 14.5% 68.4% 23.2% 37.9% 0.552 0.611
Sinker 12.8% 92.5% 23.3% 49.0% 6.1% 63.3% 0.316 0.339
Slider 30.1% 89.4% 35.0% 45.1% 23.1% 35.2% 0.457 0.567

Of the three pitches in Ray’s arsenal, Alvarez crushes four-seamers and sliders and struggles against the sinker. “Struggles” is relative there; he’s still Yordan Alvarez and can hit nearly anything thrown his way. But if the Mariners were going to try to take advantage of a slight weakness, throwing a sinker would be the way to go. Unfortunately, Ray left the pitch in the middle of the zone, and putting a pitch in the spot against a batter like Alvarez is a recipe for disaster.

In his post-game comments, Ray tried to explain his process: “I was just trying to get the sinker in on him, and it didn’t get there.” Had he executed the location he wanted, it’s possible we would have seen the same result as that at-bat back in June, with a hard ground ball to the right side. Instead, the ball ended up 438 feet away from home plate.

Were there any alternatives to Ray in that situation? The Mariners had burned through most of their best relief options already: Matt Brash, Diego Castillo, and Andrés Muñoz had all been used earlier in the game. Servais could have left Sewald in to try to get out of the mess he had created. The righty possesses a sizable platoon split (a 40-point difference in wOBA), but his career strikeout rate is slightly higher against left-handers, though with a huge problem issuing walks to them too. Even if Alvarez had walked, Sewald would have held the advantage against Alex Bregman, albeit with the bases loaded and no margin for error. Intentionally walking Alvarez to take the bat out of his hands wasn’t an easy call either. The run expectancy with two outs and runners on first and second is .343. It jumps to .736 with the bases loaded.

The rest of the Mariners’ bullpen didn’t have much in the way of good choices:

Mariners Relievers vs. LHB
Player Batters Faced K% BB% GB% wOBA
George Kirby 284 27.1% 4.9% 42.9% 0.245
Penn Murfee 96 30.2% 5.2% 41.0% 0.260
Matthew Boyd 692 22.5% 5.6% 35.4% 0.301
Erik Swanson 310 27.4% 4.8% 34.1% 0.302
Matthew Festa 136 22.8% 11.0% 34.9% 0.354

Swanson has the most high-leverage experience out of the relievers who were left, and it’s a little odd that he hasn’t been used at all during the playoffs even though the Mariners have played three close games already. His fastball/splitter combo isn’t the best matchup against Alvarez, though, since he feasts on offspeed pitches from right-handers (like every other pitch type). Festa and his fastball/slider combo wasn’t an option, and I don’t think Boyd was either despite being the only other left-handed pitcher on the roster. Murfee certainly got results against left-handed batters this year, but he’s a rookie who sports a fastball that sits below 90 mph — not exactly the kind of pitcher you’d trust in a situation like this.

Kirby would have been a fascinating choice; he made the first relief appearance of his short career in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series in Toronto to close out Seattle’s miraculous comeback win. He’s also held opposite-handed batters in check with his excellent fastball and pinpoint command. But if Servais and the rest of his decision-making group had already considered using Ray out of the bullpen in this series, then it’s probably likely they had also committed to using Kirby as their Game 3 starter in Seattle on Saturday. It’s possible Kirby was available to pitch out of the bullpen in Game 1, but probably unlikely given the other decisions on their playoff roster.

What this all comes down to is an impossible decision against one of the best hitters in baseball. There is no right answer. Had another reliever come in, it’s possible the Mariners would be heading into Game 2 with a surprise win under their belts. It’s even possible turning to Ray in that situation could have worked out. But in these big situations, where the game can turn on a single pitch, everything always comes down to execution. Ray missed his spot, Alvarez didn’t, and the Mariners were left thinking about what could have been.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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1 year ago

Even though I didn’t like the result of this game, I did like this article, Jake.

Matt Greene
1 year ago
Reply to  eely225

Yeah… knowing Alvarez’s results vs the sinker makes this feel a lot more defensible. Maybe I’ll actually sleep tonight…

1 year ago
Reply to  eely225

Yes it made a seemingly ridiculous decision seem defensible as the least bad choice.