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Today’s slate of interleague games was particularly unappealing as only one matchup featured two teams with winning records – the 2008 World Series rematch between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the pitching matchup of Antonio Bastardo (5.21 ERA) versus Andy Sonnanstine (6.60 ERA) left a lot to be desired. The lone National League contest had two winning teams, the first place St. Louis Cardinals and the second place New York Mets, and featured a face-off between two Cy Young winners on the mound: the resurgent Chris Carpenter and struggling Mets’ ace Johan Santana. While the mainstream buzz before and after was about the Cy Young matchup, the real story of the game was the showcase of Tony Larussa’s incessant managing style which gave mixed results.

The Pitching Matchup

In Santana’s first ten games of the season, he recorded eight quality starts, had a 7-2 record with a 1.77 ERA. During these 10 games, he averaged 11.7 K/9 and he had given up only five home runs in 66.0 innings pitched, with three of those coming in his last 3 starts in May. Conversely, during his first four starts of June he had a 1-3 record with a 7.33 ERA, never struck out more than three in a game, and had given up 7 home runs in 23.1 IP.

After two years of pitching minimally in 2007 and 2008 due to injuries, Chris Carpenter has been enjoying a solid 2009, despite a lost month due to a rib-cage injury. In his seven starts since his return on May 20, he had a 4-1 record with a 1.85 ERA, with six straight quality starts entering today. Some of his great performance has been due to his unbelievably low BABIP of .191.

The Game

St. Louis got on the board in the first inning with an unearned run thanks to catcher interference by Omar Santos with two outs. Ryan Ludwick‘s swing was late on Santana’s 91-mph four-seamer and caught Santos’ glove as he was reaching for the pitch. The error resulted in men on first and second for Yadier Molina, who lined an ineffective changeup to center to score Skip Schumaker, who had singled earlier in the inning.

Santana continued to struggle in the second and third, as his pitch count climbed to fifty-seven after three. At one point, he started seven straight hitters off with a ball. Santana was able to get out of a two-out, bases-loaded situation in the second, by jamming Albert Pujols just enough to induce a deep, but harmless, fly out to left. On the other hand, Carpenter cruised through his first three frames, striking out five and allowing no hits. The only base runner for the Mets was Alex Cora who started the game being hit by a pitch that actually went behind him.

The turning point of the game was the fourth inning. Santana started the inning by walking Carpenter on five pitches. Larussa decided to play for a single run, ordering Joe Thurston to sacrifice Carpenter over to second. After a ground ball to the right side that moved Carpenter to third, Schumaker ended the threat by looking at a 93-mph fastball down the middle for strike three.

After tiring himself on the base paths in the top of the inning, Carpenter proceeded to give up a lead-off single to Luis Castillo on a ground ball through the 5-6 hole. David Wright followed with a bouncer that deflected off of Carpenter’s glove into no man’s land between second and first. Ryan Church hit a scorcher that Pujols gloved, forcing Wright out at second. Fernando Tatis then blooped a single to right field to tie the game. After Fernando Martinez bounced a grounder that forced Carpenter off the mound, Nick Evans smacked a double into the right field corner on a 1-0 cutter that didn’t have much break. Both Church and Tatis scored giving the Mets and Santana a 3-1 lead. The four hits of the inning were the only ones that Carpenter allowed through seven innings, as he set down the Mets 1-2-3 five times.

Now pitching with the lead, Santana had his first 1-2-3 inning in the fifth, allowed a solitary run in the sixth after a Rick Ankiel lead-off double, and gave up a lone single to Albert Pujols in the seventh. With 110 laborious pitches, Santana scattered seven hits and three walks, only striking out three. He did manage to limit the damage to just two runs, one of them unearned.

In the eighth, Larussa went to work. In the top of the inning, he replaced Rick Ankiel with Tyler Greene to face new reliever, lefty Pedro Feliciano. After Greene’s bloop single to center, Larussa again decided to play for one run by having Khalil Greene lay down a sacrifice bunt. The small-ball threat was extinguished again as pinch-hitter Jason LaRue softly lined out to first and Joe Thurston hit a come-backer to the pitcher.

In the bottom of the eighth, Larussa kept the bullpen phone buzzing as he used four pitchers (Dennys Reyes, Kyle McClellan, Trever Miller, and Jason Motte) to overcome a single and two walks and keep the Mets from adding an insurance run. There were only two times in 2008 when four pitchers were used in a half-inning and the opposing team didn’t score. As you might have guessed, one of those times involved Tony Larussa’s Cardinals (the other being Cecil Cooper‘s Astros). Additionally, Larussa was the only manager last year to use four pitchers in an inning that consisted of five or fewer batters; a run, however, was yielded in that situation.

Francisco Rodriguez picked up his 20th save by striking out pinch-hitter Chris Duncan and Schumaker. There was a small threat as Pujols and Ludwick each drew two-out walks, but the game ended on Yadier Molina’s line out to left.

In terms of the starting pitching, the June trends continued. Santana labored and seems to have lost his out pitch as he only struck out three. He did, however, pick up his ninth win, tying him for the league lead with three others. Carpenter pitched well, except for that one pitch to Evans. He did continue to keep his BABIP ridiculously low, as the Mets were just 4 for 20 on balls in play. This was a game that showed that sometimes it’s about bunching hits together and not necessarily the overall number of hits.

Key Decision Analysis

The key decisions for Larussa in this game were the sacrifices in the top of the fourth and the top of the eighth. In both situations, he had a man on first with no outs. In the fourth with a one-run lead, he had his number nine hitter (who wasn’t a pitcher due to his unique pitcher-in-the-eight-hole batting order) up. In the eighth with a one-run deficit, he had his number seven hitter up with the pitcher following (who was likely going to be pinch-hit for anyway). In both situations was the sacrifice bunt the right call?

While Larussa has a reputation for over-managing, more recently, he has been typically middle of the pack in terms of using the sacrifice bunt. From 2000 to 2003, St. Louis was in the top three in the majors in sacrifice hits, but from 2004 to 2009, the Cardinals were ranked somewhere between 5th and 9th in the National League. Is Larussa becoming more frugal with giving away outs? On the flip side, Larussa does have a weird tendency to have his pinch hitters sacrifice (eight times in 2008 which doubled any other team in the majors).

To understand the possible benefit of bunting in this situation, let’s examine the change in Win Expectnacy at the FanGraphs scoreboard. According to FanGraphs, the Larussa decision in the fourth inning reduced the likelihood that the Cardinals would win by 1.7%, and in the critical eighth, it reduced the probability that the Cardinals would win by 4.2%. One caveat to remember is that the FanGraphs Win Percentage Added only considers the position of the runners, the number of outs and the inning; it does not consider how the Win Expectancy changes based on the lineup position, or the quality of pitcher on the mound (which helps define the run environment).

To back up these numbers, I used a Run Expectancy Matrix and Run Frequency Matrix that is based on the lineup position batting. In the fourth inning, Larussa didn’t really improve his chances of scoring at least one run (going from 37.7% to 37.8%), but decreased his expected runs in the inning from 0.78 to 0.71. In the eighth inning, the sacrifice bunt was more detrimental. He did slightly increase the probability of scoring at least one run from 38.3% to 39.2%, but he decreased his expected runs from 0.82 to 0.66.

The additional head-scratcher is the fact that he was playing for the tie on the road. In the eighth, even if he ties, he is still in an unenviable position. The Mets have two chances to score an additional run (a 48.4% probability that they will), while he has only one (a 28.2% probability) until extra innings are played. The significant reduction in Win Expectancy is taking this into account.
For a manager who prides himself on squeezing out small percentage improvements in righty-lefty matchups and batting the pitcher eighth, it was surprising that he ignored the percentages in these key situations.

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This is a nice game story. I'm really intrigued what Christina will think of this since she's more the game story maven. This popped up after Brian's article for me (it's random) and the structure and the analysis worked so much better for me. It didn't describe, but highlighted. He used a very solid technique in analyzing the decision points and didn't "overdo" it either. His descriptions were clear and concise, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of his argument while making a persuasive case that he was right. Too many times, lesser analysts will assume the stats make their case, but I love seeing the persuasive, explanatory work to help it along. That he did all this on deadline is both impressive and perhaps a structure that could serve as a template for others.
This piece might seem almost deceptively perfunctory, with observations about Santana's early-game struggles coming off on the pitch-perfect note--simple, descriptive facts observed instead of generating an overly elaborate set of observations. I would have liked to have seen more on that Cardinals' defensive eighth inning, but this is where game stories suggest future research--Tim could take this observation and follow up with a cool study on multi-pitcher/single-inning usage patters of various skippers. Similarly, he could do likewise on La Russa's pinch-hit sac bunts.

The downside? In the subsequent analysis segment, his references to team sac bunt totals aren't nearly so interesting as what would have been: team-wide totals for position players' sac bunts. There were more than a few names wrong; La Russa seems to give everyone trouble, but Omir Santos too?

Finally, there's the issue of using Win Expectancy. It's cool that he took the time, but also instructive as far as the meager utility of the exercise, because doing so documented how minor the potential impact any move might make. Where Tim makes the sale about their employment to me is where he has the good sense to strike a few cautionary notes about the limitations involved. Really good stuff, all in all.
This piece didn't have me at all until the Key Decision section. I thought that not only saved the piece, but made it well above average for me -- I actually wanted less "The Game" and more Key Decisions I liked it so much.
4th Article for me and probably the most sound so far. I'm with KG (again) on this, I didn't really find much interest in the article until the Key Decisions part, and would have liked more of that.

4/5 of the way through, nobody got an instant thumbs up. Is this like American Idol doing Gangsta Rap week? Do the writers really need to be so versatile that they're being pushed to do a concept or niche that they aren't really built/trained/molded for?
This is the last article I read. Kind of like Kevin, "The Game" section didn't really do anything for me and I thought Cartwright actually handled the recap a bit better. Not that Tim's was bad, per se... but "The Game" didn't show me anything I couldn't have found from glancing at a recap and box score/play-by-play where Brian's offered at least some insight behind what I could read in the paper.

The "Key Decisions" worked quite well for me though. Though the overall writing style and structured worked, it seemed more time should've been spent on the "Key Decisions" instead of coming in at the end like an afterthought.
I gave this one a thumbs up.
Perfunctory is one correct adjective. Boring is another. Deceptively, well, sorry but I don't necessarily agree with that adverb. Like everyone else, I found the analysis more compelling than the game description. I realize typos and infelicitous grammar (ah, the wages of syntax) can be corrected, but the name misspellings, particularly of La Russa, were bush league. I'm also surprised that Tim didn't see fit to mention the rumors swirling around Santana's health. Also, given the emphasis placed on La Russa's use of the bunt, shouldn't mention be made of the individual hitters' success rate(s)? I realize it's difficult to come up with that data on a tight deadline, but IMHO it could well be a factor in the managerial decisions beyond a hunch or otherwise playing the numbers. Middle-of-the-rod. In most respects more solidly constructed than Matt and Ken's pieces, but sorely lacking in personal style and tone. But at least he didn't make the unfortunate decision to make it a play-by-play, which may cost a worthier writer his place in the next round.
I agree. The Game section wasn't interesting, although I think we can blame the theme as much as the author. The intro was also a little too long, although I did like the pitching matchup. But in the real BP world surely if an editor says to an author "Oh noes! I need an article in 24 hours" the author would have more freedom than "and it needs to be tightly tied to some game on the 24th". I mean isn't this why real world authors sometimes keep a couple of mostly finished non-time sensitive pieces on the shelf. So they can produce a piece on short notice, even if it is about something unrelated to yesterday's news.
No, actually we often get much more strict instructions, especially if it's for a partner. I had a recent deal with Puck where we needed to turn over a major analysis piece on a specific team in less than 24 hours. Think Jay Jaffe had much warning when ESPN wanted something on the Manny Ramirez suspension?
Oops. Middle-of-the-road. :-)
A little thing (but one that grated on me as I read the article) is the spelling of Tony La Russa's name throughout the article as Larussa. I've seen it with both a space and without, but not with the R not capitalized, and if he's the person the article's about, you should probably have it right.
I have to admit that I completely flubbed on that. I don't think there were others, but I did check all the players except for Santos which I told myself I needed to get back to that (and never did). There's no excuse for La Russa, but I just had never paid that much attention. Ideally, that's something that an editor would say, "Tim, obvious fix. Do a "Replace All" kind of thing.

Funny, I actually like the The Game section better than the Key Decision section. I don't normally read Game reviews, but I found this entertaining. The one note in it I would quibble about was attributing Carpenter's bad inning to his exhaustion from running 90 feet twice the half inning before. It's OK to speculate that may have been the case, but not to state it as fact.

The Key Decision section had less drama to it. I was already aware sacrifices are not usually an efficient way to win games statistically. Although, I don't recall ever seeing the stats broken down for a particuly sacrifice situation with precise numbers like this, I was not sure reading all this dry stuff was worth the thrill. The numerical differences are ultimately very small - not enough to cover many factors not measuered - some of which Tim kindly suggested. There are possibly psychological factors one way or another not measured as well.
woops, pardon the typos, etc. I forgot to proofread before clickng "Submit"
I guess deadpan sometimes doesn't go over well in written form ;-) I meant the "exhaustion" to be a bit of a joke. I guess that didn't come across.

On the flip side that would be an interesting analysis. Examine pitchers' performance in the innings immediately after they have been on the basepaths versus those when they haven't to see if a pattern exists that running tires them out.
The St Louis TV announcers did say in the 6th that perhaps it was better if Carpenter didn't reach base, as the last time that happened he had his worst inning afterwards. It is a subject for research, but is still speculation at this point.
I REALLY hope to see something on this topic at some point in the future. It's something I've thought about in the past, but I don't have the brain power and/or resources to figure it out on my own.
Well I think MOST of us understood it as sarcasm :-)
Now, in Brian's 'LaRussa decisions' article, I just said I generally don't like the 'you made the whole decision' articles, because it's easy to say that after you know the results.

However, the use of run expectancy to show that LaRussa should have known he was hurting his chances to score/win by bunting is an article saver to me. It shows that even prior to the result, we know this is a bad decision.

Nice work. 3 thumbs up this week for me, and this will clearly be one of them.

This one did indeed feel rushed. The game description was a little choppy, but the opening pitcher synopsis and the closing key decisions portion were quite good. Turns out Tim's sarcastic throwaway line -- "After tiring himself on the base paths in the top of the inning" -- was lost on me as well, and I started wondering if we would see some kind of look at how well a pitcher pitches immediately after running the bases. This was a middle-of-the-pack entry this week, in my eyes, but it gets a thumb up.
The typos fit in fine here. At least he got the right manager.
I agree wholeheartedly with KG. The question of whether to bunt or not in those situations could easily sustain an entire article, taking into account the pitcher on the mound, the batter's bunting and hitting history, the probability of the following batter(s) knocking in the run, etc. And as Christina hints, you might end up with an interesting point about just how small these marginal advantages are.

Though the instruction was that the article had to be tied to one of the games on this day, I'm not sure why almost everyone felt the need to do a "game recap"-type article. Surely it would have been acceptable to take one aspect or event in the game and address that, as Sheehan often does. For my money, even a writer as entertaining and colorful as Christina has trouble making a straight game story hold my attention (though, to her credit, she has occasionally done so).
This one seems to have fit within the spirit of the instructionos. He wrote about that game. yes, the instructions said that it must relate to the game, but some were really tangential.
This wasn't.
Nice work