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October 29, 2015

Playoff Prospectus

Assessing the Managers' Moves In Game 2

by Matthew Trueblood

In Game Two of the 1964 World Series, Bob Gibson lost to the Yankees. He pitched eight innings, and gave up four runs on eight hits and three walks. In the bottom of the eighth, with St. Louis trailing 4-1 and a runner on first base, Cardinals manager Johnny Keane lifted Gibson for a pinch-hitter (Bob Skinner). It was, inarguably, the right choice, and Skinner doubled to set up a run, but still, Gibson fumed. Gibson was pitching on three days’ rest, after a four-inning relief stint that came on one day’s rest in the season finale, but still, he fumed. Cardinals relievers gave up four runs in the top of the ninth, pushing the game far out of reach. Gibson was furious.

In Game Five, Keane didn’t mess with his ace. Gibson had faced 30 batters even before the bottom of the ninth started, but he held a 2-0 lead, and Keane elected to stick with him. Mickey Mantle reached on an error, but Keane left Gibson in. Two outs later, Tom Tresh homered off of Gibson, tying the game, but still, Keane left Gibson in. In the top of the 10th, a three-run homer gave the Cardinals some breathing room, so Keane didn’t even blink at sending Gibson back out there in the bottom half of the frame. When Roger Maris recorded the final out, Gibson had faced 39 Yankees, fanned 13 of them, and dominated.

From that game, Keane took as his lesson: never, ever lift Bob Gibson. And that lesson worked out just fine for him. In Game Seven, Gibson carried a 7-3 lead into the ninth inning, pitching on two days’ rest. The Yankees went 2-for-9 the first time through against the weary Gibson, then 1-for-7 (with two walks) the second time through, then 3-for-8 (with a walk) the third time through. By the ninth, Gibson was on fumes, and both Clete Boyer and Phil Linz took him deep. Fortunately, both were solo home runs, and Gibson held off the Yankees, and the Cardinals won the World Series. You can read about all of this in David Halberstam’s October 1964, which is a wonderful book. It’s also a book with an agenda. It’s about Gibson, the lion in autumn, the heroic giver of his whole self, and it’s about Keane, who learned to trust a person he wasn’t inclined to at first, and who learned, along the way, that it’s okay to trust pitchers.

And there’s our problem. It wasn’t always this way. The Casey Stengel generation of managers were very quick with their hooks, and used pitchers almost interchangeably. For the past 50 years, though, we’ve been living in a world where managers are convinced that it’s both a managerial imperative and a testament to their loyalty and their courage to trust starting pitchers. Sparky Anderson and Tony La Russa and Joe Maddon have tried to reverse the trend. They all share (or shared) an obvious (though inconstant) mistrust of starters. Anderson was Captain Hook, after all. La Russa once tried to run his whole pitching staff on three-day rotations of three-inning stints. Each had a guy or two they trusted deeply, for better and for worse: Don Gullett for Anderson, Chris Carpenter and Dave Stewart for La Russa, David Price and Jake Arrieta for Maddon. But their central tenet with regard to their starters was the one we see proved more and more correct, it seems, every week. Hell, in October, it feels like every game. The tenet is: get them the Hell out of there.

Terry Collins doesn’t think that way. Even when the Mets were mediocre, he notably leaned harder on Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler than almost any other manager leaned on similarly young hurlers. He’s never had such a lights-out middle-relief corps that it was obvious what his other moves might be, but he’s also never shown any inclination toward any other options. According to The Bill James Handbook 2015, only one NL manager executed fewer Quick Hooks than Collins’ 28 in 2014. This season, only the White Sox got more innings per outing from their starters than did the Mets. (We shouldn’t ignore, of course, that quality often dictates quantity. If the Mets’ starters weren’t so exceptionally good, Collins probably wouldn’t have let them linger as long in games.)

At this point in the evolution of Major League Baseball, it’s as simple as this: Collins’ way of doing things is wrong. In October, especially, when the schedule loosens and the leverage of each win grows and the need to think a week out when distributing innings evaporates, letting pitchers wade deep into close games is a damaging, dangerous strategy. It’s the most direct reason the Mets got blown out in Game Two on Wednesday night.

Jacob deGrom had faced 16 Royals batters when the fifth inning began. He held a 1-0 lead. On that information alone, it’s safe to say that a Mets pitcher should have been limbering up in the bullpen, in case they were needed. It’s when one leads narrowly that one should most aggressively think about getting a starter out of harm’s way, because the margin for error is nil and the likelihood of success is small.

Collins wasn’t thinking that way. In fact, he was so far from thinking that way that even after both Alex Gordon and Alex Rios reached base to lead off the frame, there was no more than some shuffling around in the Mets’ bullpen. Collins nearly got a gift from the Royals, then, when Alcides Escobar tried to lay down a bunt that made zero sense, but Escobar failed to execute, then singled on an 0-2 count. And the Royals were off and running.

There’s a sequence in the Royals order that is vulnerable to a lefty reliever, which (at long last) the Mets have now, in the person of demoted former starter Jon Niese. It’s Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales, and Mike Moustakas: two left-handed batters sandwiched around a switch-hitter whose power is mostly concentrated in his left-handed swing. When Hosmer stepped to the plate in the fifth, the game was still in the balance—two on, two out, tie game. Collins let deGrom face Hosmer, and Hosmer singled home two runs. Collins let deGrom face Morales, and Morales singled Hosmer over to third. Collins let deGrom face Moustakas, and Moustakas singled home Hosmer. Just like that, it was 4-1, and the Mets never brought the tying run as far as the on-deck circle the rest of the night.

Of course, Ned Yost made the same decision Collins did. He let Johnny Cueto face the top of the Mets’ order for a third time in the top of the sixth, and then the middle of their order in the seventh, and then the bottom of their order in the eighth. He had Kelvin Herrera up at some points, though, and Wade Davis up at others, and it was pretty clear that Cueto’s staying in the game was predicated on the fact that he didn’t let the margin for error narrow. The Mets couldn’t even make the Royals nervous, though, so Cueto got to pitch his way to the end of the game.

Baseball doesn’t have quarterbacks. It doesn’t have LeBron James-level dominant stars. Starting pitchers have been asked to fill that void for a century, because the ball starts in their hand on every play and because that kind of individual heroism is one of the things that makes consuming sports worthwhile for us. There’s a whole lot of good storytelling available to us when an October like Madison Bumgarner’s 2014 or Bob Gibson’s 1964 happens. Those performances allow the spotlight to find a great soloist and elevate the action. They also give us the stories of guys like Buster Posey (whose unique relationships with each of the pitchers who have led the Giants to championships are vital to the stories of those pitchers) and of guys like Keane (who found admirable humanity by learning to trust Gibson). They’re exceptionally rare, though. More often than not, trusting a starter, treating them as a special class, making them the center of the game itself, just invites defeat. One never knows how these things will end until they do, of course, and Collins got good results from the same paradigm in the first two series the Mets played this month. In this one, though, he gave away a game by going to the well a time too many. He trusted deGrom, but the story will be his unfortunate mistrust of Niese, Hansel Robles, and whoever else was out there in the bullpen, doing slow arm circles and watching Mike Jirschele do much faster ones.

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

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