Mike Matheny’s Other Decision

In the bottom of the fourth inning of Game 4, with the Cardinals up 1-0, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny faced a choice. With two outs and men on first and second, pitcher Lance Lynn stepped up. Like most pitchers, Lynn is hardly a threat with the bat; in 137 regular season plate appearances over his first three seasons, he had just seven hits, all singles. Lynn had thrown four solid innings, so Matheny let his pitcher bat. Lynn flew out to right, and the Cardinals would score just one more run.

In the top of the fifth inning of Game 4, with the Cardinals still up 1-0, Boston manager John Farrell faced a similar choice. With two outs and men on first and second, pitcher Clay Buchholz stepped up. He may or may not be able to handle the bat, but with only four career regular season plate appearances in his seven years in the bigs, there’s little reason to think he could. Buchholz had also thrown four productive innings, but Farrell instead chose not to let his pitcher bat.

The decision didn’t lead directly to any Boston scoring, because pinch-hitter Mike Carp grounded out to end the inning, and it’s likely that both of these moments will be quickly forgotten in the wake of Matheny’s confounding seventh-inning decisions, Farrell’s choice to go with John Lackey over Koji Uehara in the eighth, and whatever it was that Kolten Wong was thinking. Yet with runs coming at a premium this October, Buchholz looking shaky at best, and Lynn unlikely to offer St. Louis a whole lot more with the top of the Boston lineup not far from coming up for a third time, it was the perfect opportunity to try to take advantage of a situation and generate some badly-needed offense. (This isn’t entirely second-guessing, either, as it was suggested by several at the time.)

We’ve read a lot about Matheny’s dangerously slow hook, but it’s hard to say that this really falls under that category, because Matheny would have had to go well against accepted tradition to yank his starter after just four innings. (That Farrell did so is in large part due to the far-from-healthy status of Buchholz, who was never expected to work deep into the game.) Then again, accepted tradition demands that if Randy Choate exists on this planet for any reason, it’s to face the opponent’s most dangerous lefty hitter, which Matheny also opted not to do.

And if I may steal from Dave Cameron’s above-linked piece about Matheny’s bullpen usage, it’s not hard at all to see that Lynn was unlikely to be successful in a third trip around the Boston lineup, as the league numbers for starting pitchers show:

League

BA

OBP

SLG

1st PA vs SP

0.250

0.310

0.390

2nd PA vs SP

0.259

0.319

0.411

3rd PA vs SP

0.270

0.331

0.429

As might have been expected, Matheny gained little from this. After Lynn flew out, he immediately then went out and struggled through a 29-pitch fifth inning, coughing up the lead on a double, two walks, and a sacrifice fly, then setting up the Red Sox for Jonny Gomes‘ huge homer in the sixth.

But then again, this isn’t all on Matheny, is it? In an all-hands-on-deck playoff world of twelve-man pitching staffs and a much higher frequency of days off than in the regular season, the Cardinals should easily have been able to eat up five bullpen innings. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t really have 12 pitchers on his staff. Game 3 starter Joe Kelly was unavailable, of course, but he’s also carrying two complete black holes, starter Shelby Miller and reliever Edward Mujica.

Miller has pitched just once in the postseason, relieving in Game 2 of the NLDS more than three weeks ago and has been eating up a roster spot since. Mujica was the team’s primary closer for most of the year, yet pitched just a single inning in both the NLDS and NLCS, and has yet to appear in the World Series. It’s possible that either or both are injured or just fatigued, and if so, you understand why Matheny prefers to avoid them. But if so, you still can’t quite comprehend why either are still on the roster, because even if alternatives like Sam Freeman or Tyler Lyons or Jake Westbrook are imperfect, they still seem better than going with what is essentially a ten-man pitching staff that doesn’t even have the benefit of the extra bench players such a situation would normally provide.

Matheny had used five pitchers to back up Kelly in Game 3, and knew that Monday would bring a Game 5 without the benefit of a day off, so perhaps not putting himself at a disadvantage behind Adam Wainwright tonight by pulling Lynn too early on Sunday night was at the forefront of his mind. Whether or not that risk takes precedence over the incredibly high likelihood that he was hurting himself in the game at hand is up for debate, but the fact that he’s trying to win a World Series with a 22.5-man roster (giving Allen Craig a half here, and that’s generously counting Peter Kozma as a full player) isn’t. Matheny, obviously, is a flawed manager in the perception of many, but you do wonder what his decision making might have been had he be given a full staff to work with.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and is an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.

16 Responses to “Mike Matheny’s Other Decision”

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  1. Miller did not start Game 2 of the NLDS. He pitched the eighth inning in relief.

    I think your analysis is spot on. Oddly, I think Matheny showed too much of a hook last night. He probably should’ve left Lynn (a strikeout pitcher) in against Gomes, who had been terrible to that point. Maness has to be perfect and keep his sinker down to be effective. Had Lynn remained in for the final out of the inning, I think he could’ve escaped the inning with less damage.

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  2. Richard says:

    Matheny does have a full staff and his pitching usage is solely in his hands.

    Granted, Mujica isn’t really a servicable reliever outside of eating innings in a blowout (BTW, neither are Freeman, Westbrook, or Lyons, likely), so you could say he’s playing short one roster spot. However, he’s not playing Miller because Matheny is fixated on roles for his relievers:
    Rosie: closer
    CMart: Setup man (late)
    Siegrist: Setup man (early)
    Choate: LOOGY
    Maness: DP specialist
    Axford: First late reliever when trailing
    Mujica: Second late reliever when trailing
    Shelby: Long man (to use only in case the starter doesn’t last 4ip or during extra-extra innings; with Matheny’s extra-slow hook, that equates to virtually never)

    The problem for the Cards is that Matheny does not deviate from his preconceived roles regardless of matchups or leverage, even in the postseason.

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  3. vivalajeter says:

    I’m confused – what decision are you questioning?

    It looks like you might be saying that Lynn should have been pinch-hit for in the bottom of the 4th, but at that point he faced the minimum number of batters, on very few pitches. You mention him facing the team for the 3rd time, but I don’t think that happened until the 6th inning (which doesn’t coincide with Lynn’s at-bat).

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    • Mike Petriello says:

      I clarified the language slightly. He was an inning from the top of the lineup coming up, and of course he had been doing well through the first four, as you say.

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  4. Bad Bill says:

    Suggesting that Lynn should have been pulled for a PH in the 4th, after facing the minimum on 50 pitches, is pulling a lever for the sake of pulling it. “Gee, wonder what this big shiny red button does?” It is the ADHD school of managing. I will not defend Matheny’s management of the pitching staff in the 6th inning, but good grief.

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    • Travis L says:

      This is accurate for people who are unaware of the following:
      1) There is little correlation of in-game success. That is, just because a guy pitched well in innings 1-4 does not suggest he will pitch well in inning 5. He’s much more likely to pitch to his career numbers than he is to the inning 1-4 numbers.
      2) third time through the lineup turns an average MLB starter into a replacement level pitcher.

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      • Bad Bill says:

        Is it really so difficult to understand that in the fifth inning, he was not MAKING his third pass through the lineup yet?

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    • Baltar says:

      Whoa! You are way off base. Lynn is at best an average pitcher (the fact that he started this game well is irrelevant), and the Cardinals, who were sure to need some runs, had a great scoring opportunity–the perfect place for a pinch hitter.
      That was one of many inexplicably and unbelievably awful decisions made by those 2 managers in this game. This was one of the worst-managed games ever.

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      • Richard says:

        OK, where did these “Lynn is at best an average pitcher” memes come from?

        Career FIP of 3.34. xFIP of 3.55. FIP and xFIP numbers the past 2 years abou the same.

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        • Brad Johnson says:

          I’m going to play devil’s advocate here since I don’t have a strong opinion. I think both pulling him or leaving him in are extremely defensible choices.

          It would probably be more precise to say that Lynn is an inconsistent pitcher with a mean expected performance roughly around league average for any given outing. In 2013, he demonstrated bouts of poor control within otherwise strong outings on multiple occasions. Whether those events should affect how Lynn is used is a separate debate, but it’s not entirely unreasonable to err on the side of caution in a World Series game.

          Framed another way, it’s not unreasonable to aggressively pursue postseason runs when you have a non-elite pitcher on the mound. It’s a simple tradeoff. Does pinch hitting for Lynn have a higher run expectancy than the difference between relievers minus Lynn?

          We can calculate this, but I’m not going to. The answer is almost certainly yes because any of the Cards relievers probably have a LOWER run expectancy than Lynn, hence making the decision to pinch hit a win-win in terms of probable outcome.

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  5. im not a matheny fan as he leaves pitchers in too long and plays players that hit their weight. love from his players give in to game decisions .give me a manager who plays to win regardless of players feelings.go cardinals. we need a third baseman,shortstop,center fielder and agood bench!

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    • Jonathan Clayton says:

      Barry, aren’t you asking a bit much? They’re in game 5 of the WS, won 97 games with a Pythagorean way over that, and you’re saying 7 of 13 position players have to go.

      Plus I have to laugh about SS. Most of the FA chatter was about Stephen Drew, who now has thrown up (as in it makes me puke)a post-season OPS worse than Kozma (yeah, I know, small sample size). Guess he won’t be getting his Bora$ from STL.

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    • fbp says:

      BARRY, SHUT THE FUCK UP…seriously.

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  6. Jonathan Clayton says:

    I’m a fan of the early hook too, but this case was a little ambiguous unless you really, truly believe that there’s no correlation between a great innings 1-4 and inning 5. Few humans would ever accept that.

    Now, the failure to run Craig up there in game three when Kelly (after four less overpowering innings) was up with bases loaded and one out, that was managerial incompetence. Kelly is likely to do more harm (DP) than good (on base), while Craig feels like a sure thing to at least hit a fly ball. Of course, Craig would be doubled up on anything in the infield…..

    If I publish a book that says “never allow your starting pitcher to bat a second time in a playoff game unless you are up three runs or more”, do you think we can persuade these guys to then start acting that way.

    Of course, I’m assuming that Shelby Miller is actually alive and ready to come pitch a couple innings! If so, there was no excuse not to put him in for innings 5-6 one of the last two games. Heck, many of us think he should be starting ahead of both Kelly and Lynn, and up until the last week of the season he seemed likely to be ahead of Wacha.

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