The Pirates downed the Rockies in 14 innings on Friday thanks to a game-winning double off the bat of Jose Tabata. But the real hero of the game was manager Clint Hurdle, whose strategic decision to send Andrew McCutchen to the on-deck circle as opposed to relief pitcher Garrett Olson likely confused Jim Tracy into pitching to Tabata in the first place.
The Pirates bench was empty and, due to a double-switch made earlier in the game, the pitcher’s spot was due up second in the order, behind Tabata and before McCutchen. After Franklin Morales walked Josh Rodriguez with two outs in the 14th frame of a game knotted at three runs each, Tabata stepped into the batters box.
Knowing that the next scheduled hitter was a reliever, and that the Pirates’ only other pinch-hit options were pitchers, the safe course of action is to walk Tabata. This puts runners at first and second, but with a vastly inferior hitter at the dish.
The situation cannot be effectively measured by WPA without incorporating the strength of the batter. The Pirates might appear to have more of a chance to win the game with runners at first and second as opposed to just having first base occupied, but the difference is likely offset by the gap in productivity at the plate between Tabata and Olson. It’s interesting to ponder: does Tabata up with a runner on first give you a better shot at winning than a reliever up with first and second? I vote yes without hesitation, meaning Tracy’s decision should have been clear.
But Hurdle effectively removed this course of action from Tracy’s consideration, opting to create the illusion that the dangerous McCutchen was due up after Tabata. If McCutchen actually was due up, then pitching to Tabata makes sense. In other words, Jim Tracy made the right decision to pitch to Tabata given what he thought were the circumstances. But there was a stark contrast between that and the actuality of the situation, which proved to be costly.
After the game, both managers tried to justify their respective rationales. Hurdle denied he tried to deke the opposition, justifying his decision based on McCutchen’s experience over Olson’s with aiding runners rounding third. Tracy explained why pitching to Tabata made sense: the hot hitter would still need an extra base hit to win the game.
Further, he “reasoned” that walking Tabata would put Rodriguez in scoring position, where he could score easily on a bloop hit. Had both of these managers taken their truth serums before being interviewed, Hurdle would have laughed while remarking how he got away with a fast one. Tracy would have awkwardly admitted he did not know the situation.
There are two main discussion points here. First, was Hurdle’s maneuver legal? Second, why wouldn’t the managers know the game situation? Perusing the major league rulebook, and the section specific to batters, I found absolutely nothing to suggest that Hurdle stepped out of his legal realm. In fact, the word “deck” only appears in the rulebook twice: to define a save situation, and to indicate that an on-deck batter shall enter the batters box in a timely fashion.
Managers strategically use the on-deck circle from time to time to try and prevent an intentional walk, or to prevent the opposition from making an optimal pitching change. In those situations, however, the team merely shuffles through available bench bats who could legally bat following the current hitter. What sets this situation apart from the rest is how McCutchen was actually in the lineup, and how his presence in the on-deck circle might be considered a form of batting out of order. But it’s not. A rule would only have been broken if Tabata reached base and the Pirates tried to extend their deke by actually sending McCutchen to the plate.
As for how Tracy could have fallen for such a tactic, well, these things happen. As embarrassing as it may be afterward, I would feel much more comfortable as a Rockies fan knowing he fell for the maneuver as opposed to truly believing that pitching to Tabata was the right decision with the knowledge that a relief pitcher was due up next.
What is infuriating from a fan’s perspective is that managers are paid primarily to know the situation at all times and to make decisions accordingly. Hurdle took a chance on Friday, and succeeded because he understood his job duties more than his counterpart.