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June 28, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

LaRussa's Choices

by Brian Cartwright

Can a manager cost his team a game? It's hard to tell, as the players throw the balls and swing the bats, leaving the managers to fill out the lineup cards, give the steal sign, pinch hit, and bring in numerous relievers. We don't get to mark down a home run or a strike out for the manager, as the best we can do is see what did happen when he made a choice, and surmise what might have happened with the opposite choice.

Last Thursday the Mets were playing host to the Central Division leading Cardinals. Both teams had former Cy Young award winners on the mound, Chris Carpenter (2005) for the Cardinals and Johan Santana (2004 and 2006) for the Mets. The Cardinals entered the game with a 40-33 record, in first place one game ahead of the Cubs, while the 36-34 Mets trailed the Phillies by one game in the East.

The Cards jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning when Yadier Molina singled in Skip Schumacher, but the Mets went up 3-1 in the bottom of the fourth when Nick Evans lined a two-run double to right field, a pitch Carpenter described as his only mistake of the game. Santana allowed a run and stranded five over the first two innings, but had been on a roll since.

Rick Ankiel, one of three left handed batters in the starting lineup against the lefty throwing Santana, led off the top of the sixth inning with a double over the head of right fielder Ryan Church. Khalil Greene followed with a ground ball to third baseman David Wright, who held Ankiel at second while throwing to first for the out. That brought Cards starting pitcher Chris Carpenter to the plate. Mets television announcer Ralph Kiner observed that "before the game, Carpenter was not a very good hitter". Despite getting a single and a walk in his first two plate appearances, Carpenter stilled owned a career batting average of .091.

Before the sixth inning, it's virtually a given that the starting pitcher will get to hit in almost any game situation - the manager will have to grin and bear it. After the sixth, there's not much time left to win the game and the bullpen is ready, so the pinch hitter is almost automatic. It was here that Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa had a choice - with the Mets' ace starter on the mound, and the tying run at the plate with one out in the sixth inning, do you let Chris Carpenter, a bad hitter even compared to other pitchers, swing away, or do you pinch hit? Despite allowing three runs in the fourth, Carpenter had only thrown 63 pitches through five innings and had a season ERA of just 1.78, so clearly he had good innings left in his arm.

Over the years LaRussa has been famous for constantly changing relief pitchers to gain the platoon advantage against same handed batters. To accommodate this, the Cardinals currently are carrying 13 pitchers on the 25 man roster, five starters and eight relievers, leaving only four batters on the bench. The choice of having so many pitchers leaves so few reserve bats that it restricts LaRussa's options, especially early in the game. With only four players available to pinch hit, who did LaRussa have to choose from?

For Johan Santana, it really doesn't matter which side of the plate the batter stands. From 2006 to now, right handed batters have hit 222/268/365 off him, while left handers hit 235/288/405.

There are some announcers that might ignore small sample size and point out that LaRue was hitting .333 against left handers, but that's in only 12 at bats. From 2006 to 2008, over 524 total at bats, LaRue had a .197 batting average against lefties, .180 versus righties - most days he probably couldn't hit an Eric Seidman fastball!

Then there is rookie outfielder Colby Rasmus. One of the Cardinals' best young hitters, this year the lefty swinger has only five hits in 44 at bats against left handed pitching, so obviously he can't hit Santana, right? Well, in the minor leagues Rasmus was a career 278/364/496 batter versus right handers, and 275/371/455 against left handers. Other than a decline in power, those are virtually identical numbers.

So far this year fellow left handed hitting outfielder Chris Duncan has a .242 batting average against left handed pitching, but only .202 since 2006, compared to .278 against right handers.

The last guy on the LaRussa's bench was rookie reserve infielder Tyler Greene, with a .274 batting average in 84 major league at bats. As a minor leaguer, Greene had career numbers of 263/334/413 against left handers.

Any of the four would be a better batter against Johan Santana, but Chris Carpenter got his at bat in the sixth inning, grounding out to second base. Joe Thurston followed with a single, driving in Ankiel and making the score 3-2. Despite threatening in the eighth and ninth innings, that was the final as Francisco Rodriguez closed out the game to get the save for the Mets.

Each of the four players on the Cardinals bench would eventually get into the game. LaRue did pinch hit for Carpenter in an identical situation, one out and a runner at second, but in the eighth inning, and lined out. Greene singled for Ankiel against the left hander Pedro Feliciano in the eighth, Duncan struck out in the ninth, and Rasmus replaced Ankiel on defense.

I would have let Rasmus bat for Carpenter in the sixth inning. The tying run was at the plate, Johan Santana has no advantage over left handed batters, and Rasmus' minor league numbers show he does fine against left handed pitching and shouldn't be judged unqualified by 44 major league at bats. Tyler Greene doesn't have as good of an on-base percentage as Rasmus, but he also would have also been an acceptable choice in that situation.

Even though the Cardinals did score one run in the inning, they clearly lost an opportunity to add more. What did LaRussa gain by letting Carpenter remain in the game? Carpenter was able to pitch scoreless innings in the sixth and seventh before being pinch hit for in the eighth. Out of the eight pitchers in the bullpen, is there no one that LaRussa would also trust to pitch two scoreless innings?

Of the four relievers that did appear in the game, none pitched more than a third of an inning, and the last three threw no more than seven pitches each. The advantage LaRussa tries to gain by using his relievers a batter at a time limits his options elsewhere in the game.

Neither the Cardinal nor Mets announcers made any comments that the career .091 hitting Carpenter shouldn't be batting in that situation, but reading the game summaries, for me that was the single event that stuck out among all five afternoon games - LaRussa had squandered a chance to tie the game against Santana. Maybe I'm the one who's out in left field, but that's what is so great about baseball, we can all have our opinion of what should have been done.

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