We begin with some acknowledgements. First, a baseball game is never entirely won or lost based on a single event, a single match-up. Certain events can be of massive importance, but they’re massive because of the context, and the context is established by other events, that would’ve led to different outcomes given different outcomes. So many different things contribute to a game result. An impossible, uncountable number of things, some of them things you’d never consider. Perhaps you’ve recognized that baseball is complicated. This isn’t checkers. Checkers is also complicated.
Second, managerial decisions tend to have their significance exaggerated. As MGL is fond of reminding us, most managerial decisions lead to very minor swings in win expectancy, which of course is the only thing that matters. Certain decisions are worse than others, and some can be relatively major in a good way or a bad way, but at the end of the day it’s still up to the players on the field, and pitchers are always going to have the advantage over hitters, save for the most extreme of circumstances. When managers get ripped to shreds, there tends to be a lot of results-based analysis, and that’s by and large worthless.
Third, the Cardinals were crushed on Sunday when Jonny Gomes went deep against Seth Maness. It happened with two on and two out in the sixth inning of a tie game, and Maness is right-handed and Gomes is right-handed. That was actually a pretty good matchup for the Cardinals. Maybe it wasn’t the best possible matchup — maybe Mike Matheny should’ve gone to Carlos Martinez — but Maness was in a good position, and he was a better bet than a tiring Lance Lynn. In isolation, that was just a bad result. Maness put a sinker in a terrible place, after four consecutive sinkers way down in the zone. Here’s the original target, with the red dot marking where the pitch went:
Or perhaps you’d prefer an image showing where the pitch went, with the red dot marking the original target:
Far more often than not, Maness retires Gomes, and the game stays tied. Then we might be talking about something else, because Seth Maness usually doesn’t put his sinker where he put it in a 2-and-2 count. But the real issue isn’t Maness vs. Gomes. It’s what happened in the sixth before that, and it’s what didn’t happen in the sixth before that.
Lynn threw 89 pitches. Out of the gate, he was phenomenal. He ran into some problems in the fifth, and by the end of the frame he’d thrown 79 of his pitches, working through the order twice. We probably don’t need to point out another time that starters get progressively less effective as they work through the order again and again. Lynn has shown a wide career platoon split, shutting down righties but getting exposed by lefties. In the top of the sixth, the Red Sox would send up a lefty, a switch-hitter who’s a lot worse from the right side, and a righty. After the righty would be a lefty. There was an argument for something Matheny didn’t do.
Matheny elected to leave Lynn in. What would’ve been best would’ve been going to Kevin Siegrist. Siegrist is a lefty, and he’s a lefty capable of handling righties, and he would’ve been fresh, whereas Lynn wasn’t. This was the first mistake, and another demonstration of Matheny’s unfortunately slow hook. I’ll grant, though, removing Lynn after five would’ve been aggressive. The next mistake wouldn’t have required aggressiveness to get right. The next mistake was a mistake in what should’ve been an obvious situation.
Credit to Lynn: he retired the first lefty. He retired the switch-hitter batting from his strong side. The guy he didn’t retire was the righty, Dustin Pedroia, which put a runner on first with two outs. Up next was David Ortiz, and here’s the game’s most inexplicable .gif:
That’s David Ortiz batting against Lance Lynn in the sixth inning of a tied World Series game with Randy Choate throwing in the bullpen. Lynn actually had no intention of challenging Ortiz, and he issued a four-pitch unintentional intentional walk. That’s not a terrible outcome of that plate appearance, for Lynn, but what it did was push the go-ahead run into scoring position. Matheny recognized that Ortiz is really good, so he just elected to skip an opportunity to try to get him out. He liked his odds with Maness against Gomes, and I’ll grant his odds there were good. But Matheny didn’t properly understand what his odds would’ve been with Choate against Ortiz. Choate could’ve been the answer. Choate should’ve been the answer.
The move to force the go-ahead run into scoring position by walking Ortiz seemed at odds with having Choate warm in the bullpen.
“He was ready; we just weren’t going there,” Matheny said.
I don’t know, either. A little more, on Ortiz:
“I think they’re all watching and realizing that he’s tough to get out right now,” Matheny said. “We’ve got to figure out a new game plan and execute our pitches. But good hitters are going to get hits sometimes, even on good pitches. So we’ve just got to be careful and make sure we’re making our adjustments. We’ve got guys who can get him or any hitter out. But there’s definitely times when it’s a little more difficult and he’s locked in.”
What it seems like is that Matheny is putting a lot of emphasis on Ortiz’s good numbers so far in the Series. What it seems like is that Matheny is putting a lot of emphasis on Ortiz picking up hits against both Siegrist and Choate. It seemed like Matheny wanted to avoid Ortiz altogether, and under some circumstances you don’t want to let him beat you, but the thing about superstar David Ortiz is that under the conditions that were presented, he wouldn’t have been superstar David Ortiz. He would’ve been a far worse hitter in an identical body.
What’s a decent window for meaningful platoon-split data? Five years? Over the last five years, David Ortiz has posted a .411 wOBA against righties. He’s posted a .343 wOBA against lefties, in more than 900 plate appearances, and he was worse than that this past season. That’s not even the amazing part. Randy Choate was warm, or he could’ve been warm with a delay tactic, and Choate is a veteran lefty specialist. Over the last five years, Choate has allowed a .217 wOBA to lefties, in more than 500 plate appearances. To drive the point home, against Choate lately, lefties have batted .165/.238/.234. That’s basically what people have batted against Craig Kimbrel.
Ortiz has been considerably worse against lefties. Choate is a considerably above-average lefty, against lefties. What might we have expected from a showdown, had Choate been brought in? The Book Blog comes in handy. Plugging in their respective platoon numbers, I get a .235 expected wOBA for Ortiz. That’s similar to the numbers posted this year by Jeff Francoeur, Jeff Mathis, Brendan Ryan, Pete Kozma, and Clint Barmes. Regress a little bit, or make other small adjustments, and you might come away with something like a .270 expected wOBA. The point isn’t the specific number. We’ll never agree on a specific number. The point is the idea of the number. No matter what you do, as long as it’s reasonable, you end up at Randy Choate and the Cardinals having excellent odds. You end up with Matheny not having to just take his chances with Gomes, because he could’ve retired the guy in front of him.
Maybe you think Ortiz is unusually able to hit against Choate, but I don’t know why you’d believe that. And Choate has made a whole career out of facing tough lefties in important situations. This was exactly the kind of situation that called for Choate to be used, and instead he was used in the seventh to pitch to Jacoby Ellsbury with two out and none on. Matheny, it appears, was intimidated by Ortiz’s presence, and just didn’t want to deal with him. In so doing, Matheny underrated his own weapon in the bullpen, because pitchers are the other half of any batter-pitcher showdown. It’s about both the guy at the plate and the guy on the mound, and the guy at the plate isn’t himself against same-handed pitchers, and the guy on the mound could’ve been a guy built specifically for those very circumstances.
And if Ortiz were to reach against Choate, well you usually use Choate for one batter anyway, and then you can still go to Maness for Gomes. And you still have a lefty in the bullpen in Siegrist.
There was no reason for Ortiz to just be put on. The Cardinals had an opportunity to turn a superstar hitter into an ordinary human. They passed it up, and the next batter after that did his best to win the game. The Cardinals didn’t lose because Mike Matheny didn’t use Randy Choate against David Ortiz. The Cardinals lost because of lots of things. This is one thing they easily could’ve gotten right. So easily, in fact, I don’t at all understand the inaction. Last December the Cardinals signed Choate to a guaranteed three-year contract.
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