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September 24, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Examining the Braves' Decision

by Eric Seidman

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One of the best parts of September is that a group of teams will inevitably play the most important games of their seasons in that month. Seldom is there a season in which the four playoff spots in each league are locked up before the final weeks, and this season has been no different. To start this week, the Phillies were set to battle the Braves in the most important series of both of the National League East rivals' years to date, while the Yankees and Rays fought for American League East supremacy in arguably their biggest series of the season. However, unlike the latter match-up in which both teams are definitely going to the playoffs, the former had more serious playoff implications at stake.

Entering play Monday night, the Phillies boasted the best record in the NL at 89-61, with the Braves three games back at 86-64. The Phillies had been playing out of their minds for almost two months, while the Braves were scuffling a bit. After losing to the Cardinals on July 21, the Phillies had fallen to 49-46, a full seven games behind the 56-39 Braves. From July 22-September 19, they went 40-15 while the Braves managed a 30-25 record. The 10-game swing placed the Phillies three games ahead of the Braves with six head-to-head games remaining, one series on each of their turfs.

From a playoff odds standpoint, before the series began the Phillies had a 79.5 percent shot at winning the division and a 19.9 percent shot at winning the wild card, putting their overall odds at a secure 99.4 percent. The Braves were 20.5 percent likely to win the division but had a 69.3 percent shot of winning the wild card, odds of 89.8 percent. The Phillies were virtually in, and the Braves weren’t far off. In spite of the high odds for both teams, home-field advantage is an important animal, especially given how poorly the Braves have played on the road. If the Phillies swept the Braves they would hold a commanding six-game lead in the division while the Braves, with three more losses, might have to fight to earn the wild card berth. On the flip side, if the Braves swept the Phillies, the teams would be tied for the NL East lead. A sweep didn’t have to occur, of course, but this is what was at stake.

Understanding that the series on their home turf held the possibility of changing their course, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel shuffled his rotation. By flip-flopping Kyle Kendrick and Roy Oswalt last week, Manuel made it possible for the H2O trio—Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt—to face the Braves this week. The Braves had the opportunity to do with ace Tim Hudson what the Phils did with Oswalt, but instead chose to keep their rotation in its normal order. That order involved their three best pitchers—Hudson, Derek Lowe, and Tommy Hanson—pitching against the Mets over the weekend, while leaving Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, and Hanson to pitch against the Phillies.

With the off day on Thursday, September 16, the Braves certainly could have gotten creative and found a way for Jurrjens, Hudson, and Hanson to be slotted in against Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt, but they didn’t. In fact, not only was the rotation not shuffled to allow Hudson to pitch in the series, the Braves were forced to go with Brandon Beachy, making his major league debut, in the first game after Jurrjens (knee) had to be scratched, followed by a pitcher with less than two months of major league experience in Mike Minor and then Hanson.

On the surface, this was an incredibly questionable non-move exacerbated by the fact that the Phillies did go on to sweep the Braves, effectively ending any hope of them winning the division. This Phillies team should beat Beachy and Minor, even if they tend to struggle against pitchers they have never seen before. As it currently stands, the Phillies are as close to having a 100 percent probability of making the playoffs as is possible without actually having clinched a berth, with a six-game lead over the Braves, Reds, and Padres with just nine games left to play. The Braves, however, saw their playoff odds drop from 90 percent to 72 percent, substantial but not deadly.

What immediately sticks out as a potential defense for manager Bobby Cox’s decision is that the Braves still make the playoffs in approximately three out of every four simulations. And while the 72 percent likelihood shouldn’t help them sleep too soundly at night, they aren’t exactly clinging for their lives right now. Here is how the remaining schedules shake out for the contenders:

Braves: at Nationals for three, vs. Marlins for three, vs. Phillies for three.
Padres: vs. Reds for three, vs. Cubs for four, at Giants for three.
Giants: at Rockies for three, vs. Diamondbacks for three, vs. Padres for three.

The Giants and Padres have similar schedules, sandwiching each other and a solid team with a poor team. The Braves will play the lowly Nationals, a fairly depleted Marlins team, and a Phillies team likely to be using bench players and pitchers like Vance Worley and Mike Zagurski as they rest regulars for the postseason. Though anything could certainly happen, I feel confident suggesting that the Braves have the easiest schedule of the three teams. Additionally, by virtue of the Giants and Padres playing each other, it becomes increasingly likely that only one of those teams will make the playoffs. Given that line of thinking, was Cox’s decision to not move Hudson around and go with his best pitching weapons all that terrible?

While I was originally in fervent disagreement with the non-move, my thinking has changed since I began researching for this article. There are a few scenarios under which Cox might have been operating that could help explain what happened:

Scenario #1: Jurrjens is a very good pitcher and he was slated to pitch on Monday. That would have given the Braves Jurrjens-Minor-Hanson, which isn’t as potent as a potential Jurrjens-Hanson-Hudson, but is still somewhat formidable. When Jurrjens was scratched, Cox couldn’t go back in time and juggle the rotation. His hand was forced: either go with someone on short rest, go with Kenshin Kawakami, or go with someone new. He chose the third option. This scenario is predicated on thinking Jurrjens would be healthy and that Hudson wouldn’t be needed necessarily.

Scenario #2: The Braves have played poorly on the road and were going into a three-game road series against the best team in their league, which had absolutely been on fire. Cox subconsciously thought they would be lucky to win one of the three games and decided that he would rather ensure as much as he could that they swept the Mets by using the rotation in its normal order rather than shuffle things around, potentially lose a game to the Mets, and waste their ace in a game they might lose anyway.

Scenario #3: Cox thought that youngsters the Phillies haven’t seen before in Beachy and Minor might pose a similar threat to better pitchers they had seen umpteen times over the years. 

Scenario #4: Cox realized that the Braves are in a good spot, no matter what happens, because if they lose out on the division they can still get into the playoffs as the wild card. In that event, it wouldn’t matter if they lost to the Phillies so long as they could handle their remaining schedule. Shuffling the rotation around for the Phillies could preclude their best options from being lined up for the Nats or Marlins.

Personally, the fourth scenario rings the most true to me, with some of the second scenario mixed in. Cox obviously had his hand forced when Jurrjens went down, though the situation wouldn’t have been as dire had he done some shuffling beforehand. The Braves are still in the wild card chase even after being swept by the Phillies, and they go into a pivotal series with the Nationals having Hudson and Lowe ready to go. It’s too easy to retrospectively say they were unlikely to beat the Phillies even with Hudson, but it should feel good for them to emerge from a sweep leading the wild card with their ace on the mound in a crucial game. Ultimately, the jury will be out on this decision until the end of the season, when we know if the Braves make the playoffs, because division title or not, making the playoffs is making the playoffs.

If the Braves fall completely out of the picture, the decision to not use Hudson against the Phillies isn’t going to be the sole explanation, but it is likely to comprise a big chunk of that pie, because it wasn’t as if Philadelphia absolutely dominated the series. Who knows what would’ve happened with a Minor-Hanson-Hudson rotation? Maybe the Braves lose the first one and take the next two, changing the entire picture. Each of the games was winnable, and color me skeptical that Hudson wouldn’t have presented a better shot at shutting down that offense than  Minor or Beachy. The latter rookie didn’t pitch poorly, but he also didn’t last that long or pitch that effectively, either, both of which are uncharacteristic of Hudson.

 So the million-dollar question is: do you think it will ultimately matter? Or will the Braves get in and this will merely be an afterthought?  

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

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

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prs130

Beachy only gave up one ER, but he was getting hammered. He got like 4 or 5 line-drive outs. The error by Heyward was on a gapper that knuckled in the wind. Cox had Beachy on a very short leach - I doubt we'll see him in a meaningful game again this year.

Sep 24, 2010 06:19 AM
rating: 0
 
MWSchneider

Regardless of who the Braves pitched, the matchups would have favored the Phillies because any one of their Big 3 is probably better than even Tim Hudson, especially with the Braves on the road. Obviously, anything can happen, but it's not clear that changing the rotation would have made much difference. In fact, the pitching was largely fine. Beachy gave up three runs, largely due to Jason Heyward's error, and lost 3-1, Minor lost 5-3, and Hanson lost 1-0. It's hard to see how you would win scoring 4 runs in three games regardless of who was pitching. It's unlikely that Jurrjens (assuming he had been healthy) and Hudson would have done much better. Unfortunately, the sweep has put the Braves in a difficult, though not untenable, position because, while the schedule may favor the Braves on paper, they have played the Nats poorly in Washington (and the Nats are over .500 at home),and the Marlins are always difficult for the Braves. In short, I think Cox made the right decision. Being three games behind with (at the time) 12 to play, only a sweep would have realistically done much to change the division race and this was highly unlikely in any event. Changing the rotation to (potentially)gain one game doesn't seem worth it to me.

Sep 24, 2010 06:20 AM
rating: 4
 
Patrick M

IMHO, forget about making sure to get a premier match-up against the Phillies. Cox's goal should have been to maximize the innings he could get from his best starters in the remaining games.

Did Cox's actual usage further that goal, or not?

Sep 24, 2010 06:25 AM
rating: 1
 
bravejason

It was depressing to go into a series with your rival and have someone you'd never heard of before start the first game for your team. That said, MWSchneider has it right, scoring just 4 runs, three of which came in one game, was the real culprit behind the sweep. Game 2 was probably lost considering that 5 runs were surrendered, but games and 1 and 3 were winnable.

Obviously, Cox didn't know in advance how well his pitchers would pitch, but he was probably expecting (or hoping) for more offense. Or he may have realized that the team had been struggling all month while the Phillies had been tearing it up and figured that ultimately the only thing that counts is the number of wins, not where you get them. So keeping the rotation on its ususal schedule presumably maximizes pitching performance and when offense finally (hopefully) gets back in gear they'll be in good shape to win a few more games.

Sep 24, 2010 07:38 AM
rating: 0
 
Mike Melaragno

I 120% agree with MWSchneider.

Sep 24, 2010 08:20 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

Home-field advantage in the playoffs has been pretty unimportant. See 'Sauce, Secret'. So even going in the Braves weren't really competing with the Phillies. But with the Giants/Pods/Rockies. Only against one of them might it have been worth it to jiggle with your starting rotation.

Sep 24, 2010 09:02 AM
rating: -1
 
pobothecat

Amazed that the odds are 72%. Amazed.

Sep 24, 2010 09:24 AM
rating: 1
 
tweicheld

The Braves might come out of this okay, because they didn't have to use their closer or either of their top two starters against the Phillies. They have their work cut out for them, though. The Nats and Marlins are a pain in the rear to play at this time of year. They need to tighten up in the field and run the bases better, but their pitching has been fine. If the Phillies clinch before next weekend, what does Charlie Manuel do in the Braves series? Isn't there an unwritten rule about using reserve players when the opposition is still in the playoff race? Or will Charlie be exempt because he's taking care of his own?

Sep 24, 2010 09:26 AM
rating: 0
 
kantsipr

As a Braves fan, my personal opinion is that not a heck of a lot that Cox can do matters as long as he's sending out the same 5-8 hitters.

Sep 24, 2010 09:46 AM
rating: 0
 
gtgator

Umm . . . the team scored 4 runs in 3 games. Had it been Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz on the mound, it would have been tough to win a game, much less 2 of 3 (to close the division gap).

I mean, if you're going to use hindsight analysis, at least focus on a direct correlation as to the cause of the losses (i.e. the offense). Exactly how did starting Beachy, Minor and Hanson adversely affect the runs scored as compared to starting Hudson, Hanson and . . . (do we even have a decent 3rd starter if Jurrjens was unavailable). It just seems a waste to focus on what kind of SP they could have used when it was a lack of runs that was their demise.

And here's one advantage to keeping the rotation intact - their best pitcher (Hudson) gets his last two starts against the weakest two teams they had left to play (Nats and Marlins). He could lose both games, I know. But with so few games, a win is a win and Hudson theoretically has a better chance at two wins now than had 1 or both of his final starts been matched up against Halladay or Oswalt. At this point, it doesn't matter against whom they get the win - just that they do. I would presume Hudson vs FLA and WAS give better chances at wins than Hudson vs. PHI.

Sep 24, 2010 10:33 AM
rating: -1
 
jlefty

Your comment is much more heavily reliant on hindsight analysis (the Braves not being able to score many runs), than Eric's article. He only briefly commented on the actual results of the series, and instead focused on Cox's view at the time of the decision and what it means from here on out.

Sep 24, 2010 13:05 PM
rating: 2
 
MWSchneider

The other teams would complain but I don't think Manuel has any obligation to risk his own team's playoff chances through injury to help someone else. Of course, it would benefit the Braves potentially if he played reserves in the final three games but I would say the same thing if the shoe was on the other foot. If the other teams won more games, they wouldn't be in the position of having to rely on other teams.

Sep 24, 2010 10:37 AM
rating: 0
 
mark1623

As a Padres fan I agree. The Phillies need to do what is best for them and owe nothing to any of the three NL West teams. I think the unwritten rule about playing your best against contenders really only applies to teams that are out of the race, not those that have actually clinched.

Sep 24, 2010 16:13 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Just for the record, I really hate when comments start with some type of a sarcastic or condescending "Umm." Make the points, don't be an arse.

Sep 24, 2010 10:40 AM
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Additionally, to those who feel that the offense is the only part that brought them down, I would argue that if the Braves went with Minor-Hanson-Hudson, perhaps things go differently. I'm very butterfly effect-y, and to say that they would automatically score 4 runs with different pitchers is just like saying a team lost a run because a player didn't tag from 2nd to 3rd when the next batter hits a deep fly ball that would have scored him had he been on third. Hate when announcers make that mistake.

Sep 24, 2010 10:46 AM
 
RaymondV

Finally, somebody addresses this issue. When a player doesn't tag up from 2nd to 3rd and the next player hits a long fly ball, I also hate when the announcers say, see, lost a run there. Same with stolen bases. The pitcher would have thrown different pitches, the batter would have had a different approach. I'm not sure how having different pitchers on the mound for the Braves affects the offense's run production, however. Would like to hear more about that.

Sep 24, 2010 18:24 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

It might not have changed anything. But I'm not going to simply assume that under different circumstances the Braves still would have scored 4 runs in the series. Maybe they would have but I just don't know. Perhaps that detracts from the main point/question which focuses on what Cox decided before the series, but the intent is still there. It boils down to, did he wisely not use Hudson in a game he was likely to lose anyway, or was it odd to not give Hudson the best chance of at least taking one game from the Phillies?

Sep 25, 2010 06:20 AM
 
Richie

You ought to explain what "butterfly effect-y" means. Except that I know, and believe it's basically garbage. So personally I'd just as soon you don't.

Saying 'changing the starting pitchers might have affected the offense' is similar to contending that 'wearing their home blacks rather than whites might have affected the offense'. If you want to examine Cox's decision, fine. Then what the offense wound up doing is irrelevant to the extent to which it wasn't forseeable. But looking at it in retrospect, yes of course the offense killed them such that the starting pitcher choices hardly mattered. So it certainly turned out well that Cox didn't rejigger his rotation.

Sep 24, 2010 20:29 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Of course the offense killed them. But when someone posts a comment claiming I engaged in pure hindsight analysis when my article focuses on the decisions made prior to the series, fun Eric goes away and mad Eric surfaces.

Sep 25, 2010 06:15 AM
 
Richie

Well, rather than get mad, I think a simple "no I'm looking at the decision rather than explaining the result" would've sufficed just about perfectly.

Sep 25, 2010 08:31 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

It was a joke. My focus on the decision was very evident in the article. I think maybe some people didn't read the article and then commented about how the offense was the downfall, which is hindsight analysis for a different article.

Sep 25, 2010 08:37 AM
 
dodgerken222

Looks like the critical game now is tomorrow's Beachy-Livan match-up. That game doesn't look like a day at the beach(y) for the Braves. Actually, neither does Monday's Sanabia-Minor tilt against the Marlins. Braves have to hope that Phils play next weekend like a spring training game, although if the Braves are still alive at that point I think Manuel will play his A-game lineup even if the pitchers are going through their playoff tune-ups.

Sep 25, 2010 09:50 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

I think the only thing differently Manuel would do is only let H20 throw about 5 innings. You're just not going to see Halladay go 8 innings in a meaningless game.

Sep 25, 2010 10:11 AM
 
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