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October 28, 2013

Playoff Prospectus

World Series Game Four Recap (Cardinals Edition)

by Ben Lindbergh

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Throughout the World Series, we'll be providing two recaps of each game, one with a focus on the winner and the other devoting a longer look to the loser. This is the Cardinals entry for Game Four. The Red Sox edition is here.


I’m starting to sound like a broken record. “If [Mike] Matheny has an obvious flaw, it’s his slow hook with his postseason starters,” I wrote on Saturday night. “And in Game Three, it came back to bite him again.”

Maybe I should make a macro; with this series still far from over, it might save me (and other internet analysts) some time. Matheny made the same mistake in Game Four, and this time the Cardinals couldn’t recover.

Look: Lance Lynn is a pretty good pitcher. As a starter, he’s struck out a batter per inning, with roughly a league-average park-adjusted ERA. He throws fairly hard and has a big, durable build, with no recent history of arm injuries. As back-of-the-rotation guys go, that’s about the best-case scenario. There’s been some talk that the Cardinals could try to trade Lynn this winter, perhaps for a shortstop, and to make room in the rotation for some younger, higher-ceiling starters who are further away from arbitration. If they do, they’ll have no trouble finding a taker.

But Lynn has limitations, some of which are specific to him, and some of which apply to all starters. Be mindful of those flaws, and you'll minimize their effects. Pretend they don't exist, and you'll make them more costly.

Lynn threw 79 pitches through the first five innings of Game Four, striking out five Boston batters and allowing two hits, two walks, and one run. In the regular reason, when teams go a week (or more) between off days, every manager in the majors would let the 26-year-old start the sixth in a similar scenario, hoping to coax an extra inning or two out of him and save someone else’s arm.

But last night was the World Series, and the rules weren’t the same. The Cardinals had four days off between NLCS Game Six and World Series Game One, another off on Friday, and one more scheduled for Tuesday, with Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha slated to start the next two games. Joe Kelly had given them 5 1/3 innings in Game Three, and although their five most reliable relievers had appeared after him, only Trevor Rosenthal had faced more than four batters. With the winter no more than four days away, there was no need to eke out another few outs from Lynn to keep the bullpen fresh. This was the sort of situation a manager spends the first six months of the season keeping the bullpen fresh for.

The only reason for Matheny to leave Lynn in for the sixth, then, was if he believed that the right-hander would give him a better chance to get the next few outs than one of several relievers. And it’s tough to make that case.

For one thing, the lineup was about to turn over again. Beginning with leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury, Lynn would be facing batters who’d seen him twice already, and we know what happens when pitchers take a third trip through the lineup: contact rates rise, and balls get hit harder. (Historically, this hasn’t been true for Lynn, who’s actually limited batters he’s seen twice in the same game to a .616 OPS. But the sample is small, and it’s mostly based on a low BABIP; Lynn’s K/BB ratio has fallen from 3.50 in his first trip through the lineup to 2.51 in his second and 2.05 in his third.)

On top of that, the first and fourth batters due up were left-handed hitters, and the second (Daniel Nava) was a switch-hitter who’s much more effective from the left side. Lynn is a right-handed pitcher with lousy results against left-handed hitters and a profile that supports sizeable splits. Matheny could have gone to Kevin Siegrist, a lefty who’s effective against opposite-handed hitters. Instead, he stuck with his starter.

The frustrating thing about managerial mistakes—particularly those involving pitching changes (or non-changes)—is that they often end up looking deceptively like the right move in retrospect. After all, even a suboptimal matchup is usually going to go the pitcher’s way. And sure enough, despite the deck being stacked against his starter, Matheny almost got away with leaving Lynn in. The righty earned two quick outs, getting Ellsbury to pop up and Nava to ground out.

But then Dustin Pedroia singled, bringing up David Ortiz. And here Matheny made another strange decision: just as he’d stuck with Carlos Martinez against Ortiz over a warmed-up Randy Choate in Game Two, he went with Lynn against Ortiz over a warmed-up Choate last night. Lynn threw four semi-intentional balls to Ortiz, later telling reporters, “I’m not one to be dumb. I’m not going to let that guy beat me in that situation.” After that walk, with two outs and two on, Matheny finally made a move, replacing Lynn with Seth Maness. And Maness left a 2-2, 90-mph sinker up to Jonny Gomes, who drove it over the left-field fence for a game-winning three-run homer.

Matheny faced some criticism over the sequence after the game, but not for the right reasons. Here’s an excerpt from the game story at MLB.com:

[Lynn would] rebound to retire the first two batters of the sixth before Dustin Pedroia dropped a single into left-center. That brought Matheny to the first of two key decisions he would have to make that inning. He had lefty specialist Randy Choate available in the bullpen, though the numbers did not make that the obvious move.

In 10 career at-bats against Choate, Ortiz had four hits. Ortiz had also singled off Choate the night before. Matheny did not like the matchup.

"He was ready," Matheny said. "We just weren't going there."

The first key decision Matheny had to make didn’t come with Ortiz up. It came before the inning, when he left Lynn in. Leaving Lynn in longer, with Ortiz up, just compounded the original error. Once Matheny decided to pitch to Ortiz—as he should have, since walking him meant advancing the tying run to second—the numbers made going to Choate the obvious move, despite what the game story says. But to come to that conclusion, Matheny would have had to have been looking at more meaningful stats: not the tiny, 4-for-10 sample of head-to-head matchups between the two, but the massively more significant career performance of Ortiz and Choate versus left-handed opponents, which suggests that Choate vs. Ortiz is a matchup a manager should be happy to have. Matheny fell for the fallacy that Ortiz couldn’t be pitched to, both because the Boston first baseman had success in this series and because he’d hit a few singles off Choate. For a manager, a short memory isn’t an asset. Neither is a selective one.

Matheny is taking some flak for going to Maness after Ortiz reached base, because Maness was the one who gave up the big blow. But bringing in Maness was the best move Matheny made in the inning. The groundballer had given up only two homers to right-handed hitters this season, and Gomes had hit only five against right-handed pitchers. That matchup was unlikely to lead to disaster, but just as the wrong managerial move often ends in success, the right one sometimes backfires.

There’s a comment on that game story by a reader named “ThankYouCards.” “89 pitches, 1 earned run, Lynn was doing his job,” it says. “Walking Ortiz is hardly a reason to hook.”

In other words, if Cardinals fans (and Lance Lynn) are angry about anything, it’s that Matheny didn’t leave Lynn in longer.

The Red Sox might still have scored in the sixth had Matheny done something differently, or they might have won some other way. We can’t say the Cardinals failed to win because of Matheny, but we can say he made it more likely that they’d lose. In-game tactics are about paying more attention to process than results. They’re about knowing what the research says about how starters pitch when they go deep into games, even when they’ve pitched well up to a point. And they’re about being skeptical when it comes to small samples. Maness shouldn’t have left that sinker up, and Kolten Wong shouldn’t have slipped after taking a too-large lead. Rookies—and non-rookies, for that matter—make mistakes. But only Matheny’s mistakes were premeditated.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

19 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Tarakas

I'm a Cardinals fan. I have been baffled by Matheny's handling of pitchers both this postseason and last year's. He leaves his starters in too long again and again. It is infuriating.

He has a team with 8! relief pitchers. Before the postseason Mo made a comment about the lessons learned by Larussa's quick hooks and heavy reliance on relievers in the 2011 postseason, and how the team planned to use this strategy again. Apparently, Matheny was not listening.

Why carry 8 relievers if you are going to leave Kelly and Lynn in to roll through the top and heart of the Boston lineup a third time?

Oct 28, 2013 06:10 AM
rating: 3
 
BrianGunn
(439)

I keep saying the same thing over and over this October: "Was nobody watching the 2011 World Series?" La Russa found a blueprint for the title that is PERFECTLY suited to this Cardinals team, yet somehow Matheny has chosen to throw it away.

Oct 28, 2013 07:42 AM
rating: 1
 
BillJohnson
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Remember that the Cardinals were one Seth Maness ground ball from getting out of that sixth inning unscathed. This from a guy who is a ground-ball machine and whose HR rate this year was one per 15.5 innings, over 50% better than league average (1/10.2).

It has been fashionable this year to rip managers for decisions, particularly pitching decisions, rather than looking at what is actually going on. What was actually going on in that game was that the Cardinals were being shut down by Boston pitching, plain and simple. A thoughtful look at why that shutdown is occurring would have been much more valuable than joining the herd of lemmings rushing to blame it all on the manager. I'm disappointed in this article.

Oct 28, 2013 06:35 AM
rating: -7
 
johnwood427

Is Shelby Miller broken? Handcuffing Lynn and Miller for a total of six or seven innings would have limited Lynn to one at bat- plus limit the chances of Lynn's apparently fragile psyche to go red line.

Oct 28, 2013 07:09 AM
rating: 3
 
BrianGunn
(439)

Speculating on Shelby Miller's whereabouts is an exercise in Kremlinology, but from what I hear the Cards think he has a dead arm (his numbers in Aug and Sept support this). I'm also guessing that Matheny - who's been having a torrid love affair with small sample sizes - felt burned when he brought in Miller in the NLDS and saw him give up a home run to the first batter he faced. So the Cards don't trust Miller, whether fairly or not. In which case I'm not sure why he's even on the roster.

Oct 28, 2013 07:39 AM
rating: 2
 
BillJohnson

It's actually quite normal for there to be one or two players on a team who are on the Series roster but never get into a Series game. Over the last ten years, a large majority of Series teams haven't used their whole rosters, with one or two guys being saved for "break glass in case of major emergency" roles. The only thing that makes Miller's appearance in that role unusual in any way is that he was good during the regular season, rather than being the 25th man (the no-shows seem to be either spare catchers or mop-up relievers as far as I can tell).

Oct 28, 2013 08:31 AM
rating: 2
 
Behemoth

Yeah, it's not a competition to use every guy, but to deliberately go into the most important series of the year with two pitchers that you don't think are fit to throw (or they would have much more prominent roles) is pretty close to negligent.

Oct 29, 2013 03:20 AM
rating: 1
 
Tarakas

A couple things matter here:

First, the issue is that his decision also resulted in the two men on base who scored with the home run.

Second, we are analyzing the thought process behind a decision, not the result. Decision making processes and results are different things.

To make a more extreme example: Betting your house, car, and life savings in roulette on 22 is a bad idea, whether the ball lands on 22, a number next to 22, or the other side of the wheel.

Oct 28, 2013 09:19 AM
rating: 2
 
sbnirish77

"What was actually going on in that game was that the Cardinals were being shut down by Boston pitching, plain and simple."

Much more perceptive than second-guessing on Matheny.

This game was lost because the Cardinals could not exploit the one advantage they had for 4 innings - and 86 mph fastball from Buchholz.

Well maybe a second advantage of getting to see Lackey in the 8th.

Oct 28, 2013 09:33 AM
rating: 0
 
mikebuetow

Ben,

We've been working for years under this assumption that pitch counts are important because they are a good indicator of pitcher effectiveness, but what is suggested here is that it is batter familiarity, not pitcher fatigue, that is the root cause. Is that a fair takeaway from your piece? And if so, then would certain types of pitchers (those who throw from a variety of arm angles and at a greater variety of speeds, perhaps) be less affected as they get deep in the game?

Oct 28, 2013 07:29 AM
rating: 1
 
BrianGunn
(439)

A large body of research indicates that, yes, familiarity rather than fatigue is what dooms pitchers as the game goes on. (Pitch counts are a greater concern long term - and of course to the extent they are correlated to times through the order.)

Oct 28, 2013 07:34 AM
rating: 0
 
BrianGunn
(439)

"If Cardinals fans (and Lance Lynn) are angry about anything, it’s that Matheny didn’t leave Lynn in longer."

This may be selectively true, but I can tell you that the Cards fans I was emailing with last night started screaming bloody murder when Matheny let Lynn take the mound at the top of the 6th. Some selected emails as the inning starts: "This is suicide," "Matheny is trying to lose this game," "I feel like we've lost already." Then of course when he stayed in to pitch to Ortiz we were all rolling on the floor in agony. For us it was a slow-motion car wreck.

(Btw, more prescience in the 9th. An email from then: "Why not run Kelly instead of Wong? Better to keep Wong on the bench in case the game goes extras and the runner's only job here is to not get picked off.")

Oct 28, 2013 07:32 AM
rating: 1
 
jdeich

What's odd is that Randy Choate is presumably on the postseason roster as a LOOGY. He faced only 141 batters in his 64 appearances in 2013, 70% of which were lefties. His maximum pitch count in 2013 was 25, and both times he threw 20+ pitches were in blowout losses. His career OPS against is .793 vs. RHB and .555 vs. LHB.

So if Matheny isn't going to use him in key situations vs. LHB when he's warmed up, what is he saving him for?

Oct 28, 2013 08:12 AM
rating: 3
 
sbnirish77

You are going pretty far out on the plank to criticize Matheny when his two best moves (Maness vs. Gomes and Siegrist vs. Ortiz earlier) have blown up in his face.

Sometimes the players just have to perform and that pitch to Gomes was as fat as any Maness threw this year.

The real story is that Matheny has been afraid to bring Siegrist in to face Ortiz after the HR the other night when he has had several opportunities to do so. Twice he has essentially IW a batter to put a runner into scoring position.

Oct 28, 2013 09:07 AM
rating: 0
 
jdeich

The usual refrain here is to separate processes from outcomes. Matheny's decisions should only be evaluated based on information Matheny had at the moment he made them.

It's entirely consistent to consider those moves (Maness vs. Gomes and Siegrist vs. Ortiz) to be simultaneously wise and unsuccessful.

Oct 28, 2013 09:20 AM
rating: 1
 
Behemoth

That doesn't give him a pass to make bad moves, surely.

Oct 29, 2013 03:21 AM
rating: 0
 
sbnirish77

"That matchup was unlikely to lead to disaster, but just as the WRONG MANAGERIAL MOVE OFTEN ENDS IN SUCCESS , the right one sometimes backfires."

We aren't talking about bringing in Lackey in the 8th are we?

That move was the results of pulling your starter early for consecutive games. Maybe a position Matheny was trying to avoid down the road going with Lynn in the 6th.

Oct 28, 2013 09:15 AM
rating: -1
 
Tarakas

Prior to yesterday's start, Lance Lynn had made 4 postseason starts in his career. In those 4 starts, his ERA after the third inning is 21.60.

This is consistent:

2/3 IP, 4 runs
2/3 IP, 4 runs
1 1/3 IP 2 runs
2 1/3 IP 2 runs

While this is a small sample size, it does not argue that one wants him facing the top of the Boston lineup in the 6th inning of a playoff game. His performance after the third inning in las night's game is consistent with the rest of his career:

2 2/3 IP, 3 runs.

Conversely, he is almost untouchable the first time through a lineup.

I would bet that if you analyze his career regular season starts, most of his earned runs are after the 3rd or 4th inning. If it was me (and it is not), in the World Series I'd pull a Larussa 2011, toss him out there for 3-4 innings and be done with it if the score was close. That is why you have 8 relievers.

I'd rather lose a game by having Seigrist throwing 99 in the 6th than seeing whether Lynn can make it through 6 good innings for the first time in his postseason career, with the top of the Boston lineup coming up.

Oct 28, 2013 09:35 AM
rating: 2
 
gjhardy

Well, Matheny is certainly consistent.

Oct 28, 2013 21:36 PM
rating: 2
 
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