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Ibanez, Santana, and Fun With Small Sample Size

In his latest missive defending Ruben Amaro Jr, Bill Conlin dismisses concerns—voiced here among many other outposts—that the addition of aging left-handed outfielder Raul Ibanez to a lineup already featuring portside bats Chase Utley and Ryan Howard renders the Phillies too vulnerable to lefty pitching. Here’s my favorite part of the defense:

The best news? He has faced Mets ace Johan Santana 34 times and has a .353 average.

Though I didn’t like the Ibanez signing—and it’s going to look much, much worse in a month or two, after Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn all sign for a lot less—and I’m not a huge Conlin fan, I’m not dismissing the statement. Rather, it got me thinking about the point at which we can take a sample of outcomes—batter vs. pitcher, batter vs. team, pitcher vs. team--and determine (rightly or wrongly) that, yes, something sustainable is at work.

We all know cases like this. My all-time favorite is Joe McEwing vs. Randy Johnson.

The career numbers of the Cardinals and Mets utility infielder against the future Hall of Famer aren’t actually that great: 11 for 44, .250/.244./.432. But for one year, McEwing, one of the least impressive physical specimens ever to don a big-league uniform, absolutely owned the Big Unit. In 2000, in six at-bats against Johnson, McEwing smashed three doubles and a home run. To that point, his career numbers against him were 6-18, .333/.300/.684.

It turned out that McEwing, who was never an everyday player, faced Johnson more than any other single pitcher during his big-league career, presumably because his managers always started him against the Unit. Over the final five years of that career, though, he registered just five hits, including one double, in 23 more at-bats against the hulking lefty. His 2000 success was a fluke—albeit one of the funnier, more entertaining flukes in recent baseball history.

One that’s more relevant for Phillies fans, but no more easily explained, is Ryan Madson’s total dominance of Albert Pujols. In 12 career plate appearances, the Cardinals superstar is 0 for 10 against Madson, with two walks. They face off once or twice a season, and someone on the broadcast, usually Chris Wheeler, mentions the history; as with all such streaks (see Lidge, Brad; consecutive saves), I’m in terror of a jinx… but thus far, Madson has preserved his hitless run against the best player of this era. Still, a McEwing vs. Johnson-like regression to expectations seems likely one of these years. 

Less easy to dismiss as fluke is the utter mastery of Pedro Martinez over Pat Burrell. In 28 plate appearances, Burrell has one hit and two walks against Pedro—and he registered that hit (a home run) in 2008, easily Martinez’s worst season in the majors. With both players likely to leave the NL East rivalry this winter, Burrell's futility against Pedro will pass into memory for most of us, and heavy drinkers should have a good shot at blotting it out altogether.

In considering the success of batters or pitchers against whole teams, we often have a larger sample to work with but, obviously, less continuity to consider. A fairly clear-cut case is Jamie Moyer and the Florida Marlins: as Pedro might have put it, he’s their daddy. (In almost all cases, this literally could be true.)  Moyer has faced Florida 12 times in his career, starting in 2006, and won 11 of them, including the first 10. For the most part, this hasn’t manifested as total flailing helplessness on the part of the Marlins hitters; they have 10 home runs off Moyer in the 76.1 innings he’s thrown against them over the last three seasons, and his 2.95 ERA is impressive but not indicative of consistent dominance. It’s also worth noting that the instability of the Marlins organization meant considerable lineup turnover between 2006 and 2008. But the results have been consistent from year to year, perhaps suggesting that Florida’s advance scouting on the ancient southpaw is just bad.

Still, these things can turn around fast. A cautionary example is Boston’s Tim Wakefield against the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays.  Wakefield is 19-5 in 31 career starts against Tampa, but before 2008 that mark was 19-3; this past season, the suddenly emergent Rays battered him in three starts, beating him twice and scoring 12 runs (10 earned) in 15.1 innings. Red Sox fans who once could pencil in a sure win when the knuckleballer faced the Rays no longer can do so with any confidence--especially after they mauled him again during this year's ALCS.

To bring this back to where we started: while Ibanez’s numbers against Johan Santana are pleasant to contemplate, I’d be far from confident that we can look forward to three years of ownership. Even more acute cases of lefty-on-lefty dominance can turn back around: for years, Carlos Delgado treated Jamie Moyer more disrespectfully than he did "God Bless America," going 26-57 (.456) with 7 home runs through the 2006 season (during most of which period Delgado was a Blue Jay and Moyer a Mariner). But the last two seasons, Jamie’s had the upper hand: Delgado is just 5 for 24, with one homer, two RBI and a walk, over that stretch. This seems like a reasonable expectation for Ibanez and Santana—though it likely won’t stop the likes of Wheeler and Conlin from blustering about Raul’s past mastery of the Mets ace.