- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Matt Kemp Isn’t Bonds, But You Still Walk Him

In a couple of hours, for The Morning After, you’ll see the story of the Dodgers and Braves playing a fun, exciting, memorable game. It featured pitching dominance, comebacks, clutch two-out hits, and a walk-off. The game went 12 innings, but it could have gone longer. It probably should have gone longer, really. But Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez made a decision in the 12th that, I think, cost his team the game.

Criticizing the manager is as old as baseball itself, and most of the time it amounts to petty bickering. Armchair managing is easy, because the moves never blow up in our faces. But every once in a while there is a move so painfully wrong that a comment from the ivory tower is warranted. This is one of those instances. I simply cannot understand why Gonzalez would pitch to Matt Kemp in the 12th.

In the top of the ninth this game looked set. The Dodgers had taken a 2-1 lead in the seventh on a Casey Blake home run, and Clayton Kershaw was absolutely dealing. He had retired the first 10 batters of the game, and while the next 26 outs didn’t quite come as easily, he still got through them with only one run, a solo shot by Freddie Freeman, allowed. It was that 27th out that was difficult to come by.

With none on and two outs in the ninth, Kershaw allowed two straight singles, followed by a walk and then a single that plated two and gave the Braves the lead. Unpredictable, this game of baseball can be. The Dodgers did their part by eking out a run against Craig Kimbrel in the ninth, which set the stage for the 12th inning showdown that would have many fans scratching their heads.

Gonzalez had few options in terms of the bullpen. He had already used Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty, and Johnny Venters was unavailable due to arm soreness. That left Cristhian Martinez, who had 63 innings of big league experience, to handle some critical innings. None would be more critical than the 12th, when the Dodgers sent their 2-3-4 hitters — Blake, Andre Ethier, and Matt Kemp — to the plate. Martinez got Blake to ground out, but then Ethier doubled into the corner. That put the game-ending run on second with one out and Kemp at the plate.

It’s no secret that Kemp is one of the hottest hitters in baseball. He had been carrying his team through the first two weeks. The only other real offensive force on the team, Ethier, stood on second. First base was open. Juan Uribe, who is off to a terrible start, was on deck. Kemp’s run ultimately meant nothing, since the runner ahead of him would end the game once he touched home plate. Does it not seem like a fairly obvious decision to have the inexperienced Martinez walk Kemp and face Uribe? Gonzalez thought not.

Maybe he should have consulted Tangotiger’s When to Walk Barry Bonds chart. No, Kemp is not Bonds, especially not Bonds circa 2002, when Tango created the chart. But, to repeat, he is one of the hottest hitters in the league, and we know that in general he is a very good hitter. Better, surely, than Uribe, the man batting behind him. Scroll down on the chart to ninth inning, runner on second, one out, tie game. The instruction is not merely to walk. It is to “Walk, Now!” Again, that’s because Kemp’s run means nothing. It also puts on the double play possibility, and Uribe isn’t exactly immune from those.

Yet Gonzalez decided to have his inexperienced pitcher face Kemp. It appears that Kemp thought he’d be pitched around, because he took strike one right down the middle. He then swung over a pitch diving down, putting him in an 0-2 hole. The decision to pitch to him looked quite a bit better. That is, until Martinez threw the 0-2 pitch right down the middle. Fool Kemp once, sure. Fool him twice? Not a chance. He deposited it over the wall in center, giving his Dodgers the walk-off victory.

Before levying the charges against Gonzalez, I checked the Twitter feed and blog of Atlanta Journal-Constitution Braves beat writer David O’Brien. I also checked out the Braves’ MLB.com writer Mark Bowman, but he is apparently off this week so the MLB.com recap had to suffice. In no instance did I see Gonzalez answer a question about his decision to have Martinez face Kemp instead of Uribe. This appears odd, because I was screaming at my TV at the time, and I know that a few other baseball writers I follow and converse with were doing the same. The decision seemed odd enough that surely someone would ask about it. Alas, we’re left without answers.

The only possible point I can conjure to defend Gonzalez is how each hitter performed in the series. Kemp had just one hit in 14 PA leading up to his walk-off in the 12th, while Uribe had five hits in 12 PA, including a homer earlier in the game. Yet Uribe had also struck out twice earlier in the game, and it’s not as though he was putting on a laser show with his three hits the previous day. In other words, I don’t see why you’d weigh Uribe’s latest 12 PA so heavily when he’d looked like crap in the 60 PA that preceded them, while at the same time discounting Kemp’s body of work this season. Regardless of three-game trends, Kemp was clearly the more dangerous threat there.

As I said earlier, managing from the height of an ivory tower is quite easy. We can look down on managers and judge them, because our moves do not face repercussions. But in this case, I’m trying to descend to field level. I’m trying to think of reasons why Gonzalez would have the fifth-best pitcher in his bullpen face one of the three best hitters in the NL so far this season (and a generally good hitter outside this season). I have come up with nothing that would convince me that pitching to Kemp was the right move. I’m sure Gonzalez has his reasons, and I really wish that one of the beat writers had found them out. But I’m not convinced that his reasons will present strong enough evidence that would justify his non-move in this scenario.

Update: Via O’Brien, Gonzalez has explained himself. “We had handled him pretty good the whole series,” he said, while adding that if Kemp had gotten ahead in the count he probably would have walked him. Again, I find this inadequate. It completely ignores the pitcher on the mound and assumes that because the Braves’ better pitchers handled Kemp, that Martinez could do the same. I’m glad that someone asked the question, and I’m glad that Fredi gave an honest answer. But it still doesn’t add up.