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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As for Will's suggestion about Brian's potential areas of value, I couldn't disagree more. I've seen some writers--especially statistically-minded BP writers who have gone on to bigger things inside the game--go from rough on a weekly assignment (and no diamonds were they then) to polished genius. That's not a way of saying something nice about myself--writing is a muscle, and the more that you use it, the more that you can achieve with it. Brian stretched himself in a different direction as far as an in-game tactical decision. I was glad to see that he didn't simply go for the straight statistical route, especially when many of the sample sizes involved in what might have been employed would *not* have added value any more than what he did here, they might have just numericized an argument already made well enough.
It gets a thumbs up from me, I guess, because it was well written and seemed JUST the right length to keep my interest from wandering.
A couple of grammar/spelling errors, though, almost dinged you down. Just something to lookout for the next time.
Decent hook, and (unlike some entries) not a tedious play-by-play rehash. I would have hammered more on the "if you're going to carry 13 pitchers, shouldn't you be willing to use them?" point, but maybe that's just me.
Also, there's a minor nitpick in introducing Jason LaRue using only his last name... but overall, the piece was
Brian's writing has been getting better and I think he did a great job with his writing style, tone, and editing on such a short deadline. But is something getting sacrificed along the way?
Got my thumbs up.
What really kills it for Brian C. is that this stumbles badly out of the gate. Of course a manager can cost his team a game. The rest of the paragraph was annoying rhetoric. Tim blows away Brian at drawing the reader into his story.
However, I did enjoy the drama over the key decision here. Brian did a terrific job of describing La Russa's pinch hitting alternatives.
Then I have to agree with most of the comments that the conclusion fell flat. Tim was actually more thorough in his analysis, though Brian's concluding rhetoric was pleasantly digestible. Sort of ironic, don't you think?
Plus, I actually agree with LaRussa here. The Cardinals bullpen is pretty good, but Carpenter is your ace, and only getting 5 innings from your ace sets you up for problems, especially when 2 of your last 3 starters failed to get out of the 6th.
There are times when managers do make choices that are clearly inferior. I don't think this is one of them at all.
However, I agree with Will about Brian's opinion vs. Tony LaRussa's. I think Brian might have missed a few things. For example, he says LaRussa pinch hit for Carpenter in the "exact same situation" in the 8th inning. Not quite. In the bottom of the 6th, Carpenter saw David Wright (.919 OPS), Ryan Church (.699), and Fernando Tatis (.684), and retired all 3. In the bottom of the 8th, the first 3 hitters were Daniel Murphy pinch hitting for the pitcher (.675 OPS), Alex Cora (.673) and Luis Castillo (.705). It seems that you'd want your ace on the mound much more in the 6th, than in the 8th.
It just seems to me that the choices were not limited, as Brian suggests, to "swing away" or "pinch-hit." Given the possibility of a bunt here, even if you ultimately dismiss that option, I think at minimum you need a paragraph addressing it: is Carpenter a terrible bunter? Is "runner at 3d w/ 2 outs + Carpenter stays in game" really so much less valuable than "Rasmus/Greene gets to face Santana and the Cardinals go to the pen early"?