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Mike Matheny’s Rookie Mistake

First, let’s start off with caveats. The Cardinals offense didn’t score a single run last night, so there was probably nothing Mike Matheny could have done to change the final result. The Giants rally from the point of contention consisted of a broken bat base hit that no one had ever really seen before, an infield single, and a pair of ground balls to shortstop that weren’t handled properly. From a retrospective point of view, it’s impossible to look back at the third inning and think that the decisions made by the Cardinal manager were the cause of the team’s downfall.

At the same time, however, the way Matheny handled the third inning is a mistake he needs to learn from.

Through the first two innings of the game, Kyle Lohse had thrown 38 pitches, and he wasn’t exactly sharp. The Giants had already collected four hits — including a line drive by pitcher Matt Cain — and put two runs on the board, and now the middle of the order was due up again. With Scutaro, Sandoval, and Posey set to hit, the possibility of Lohse getting chased early was very real, and in a Game Seven situation, you have to start warming two relievers just in case. This isn’t a situation where you care about getting a guy loose and then not using him – odds are pretty good you’re emptying the bullpen today no matter what, so anyone who gets loose now is going to pitch, and probably pretty soon.

Instead, Matheny started the inning with no one warming behind Lohse. Two pitches into the inning, Marco Scutaro was on third and Pablo Sandoval was on second, and now it was scramble time. Down 2-0 with two men in scoring position and nobody out, the Cardinals Win Expectancy was already down to 12%, and if you account for the fact that they were on the road and facing Matt Cain, it was probably a little bit lower than that. If you can somehow get out of this situation only allowing one run, you’re still in the game, but there was also the distinct possibility that this rally could blow the game open and decide the game right then and there.

You already have runners at second and third with nobody out, and you’re pretty sure that Buster Posey is going to draw a walk with first base open, even though it’s not officially an intentional walk. That will bring Hunter Pence to the plate with the bases loaded, who will then be followed by Brandon Belt (LHB), Gregor Blanco (LHB), and Brandon Crawford (LHB), then the pitcher’s spot. It’s a pickle, but it’s a pickle you can get out, especially if you can strike Pence out, because then a double play gets you out of the inning without a run scoring. A double play from Pence is a worthy trade-off too, but that one costs you a run, so your strong preference should be for a strikeout of Pence first.

This sets up two pretty decent options:

1. You can take advantage of the R-L-L-L bats coming up, by first bringing in a high K right-hander to face Pence, then bringing in Marc Rzepczynski to go after the three lefties. The best option for a one batter righty specialist when you want a strikeout is probably Edward Mujica, as his career K% against RHBs is 21% and his BB% is just 4%. Mujica’s a strke-thrower who misses bats, which is exactly what you need in a bases-loaded situation. Rzepczynski has struggled lately, but has historically been extremely tough on left-handers, and has a career 63% GB% against LHBs. Even in a down year, he ran a 2.18 K/BB and 4.18 GB/FB against LHBs this season. Using Mujica against Pence and Rzepczynski against Belt/Blanco/Crawford maximizes your chance of the strikeout/double play combination that keeps the score 2-0 and gets you out of the jam.

2. Bring in Trevor Rosenthal. The Cardinals fireballing youngster has been dominant out of the bullpen, striking out 11 of the 22 batters he’d faced during the postseason before last night, and his velocity/curve combination makes him highly effective against hitters from both sides of the plate — he was actually slightly better against lefties in the minors, and the same has been true in a very small sample during his big league career. During the regular season, Rosenthal faced 89 batters, and 54 of them (61%) either struck out or hit the ball on the ground. Rosenthal is the strikeout and groundball package in one pitcher, capable of escaping that jam all by himself, and allowing you to save the match-up relievers for later in the game if necessary.

Either option had upside. This is where the Cardinals bullpen depth — combined with having Adam Wainwright available out of the bullpen — was supposed to pay off.

Instead, Matheny got Joe Kelly up. Kelly isn’t a bad pitcher, but he’s essentially a right-handed groundball specialist. He’s mostly a sinker/slider pitcher who throws from a low 3/4 arm slot, which makes him vulnerable against left-handed hitters. In the minors, he posted huge platoon splits, with LHBs posting a .780 OPS against him, compared to .616 for right-handers. While his Major League data is still a small sample, the trend has continued – .635 OPS against right-handers, .908 against left-handers. He only struck out 22 of the 200 LHBs he faced in the Majors this year, and lefties hit .313/.389/.528 against him. There’s no way Kelly should be asked to run through three left-handed batters even if he gets Pence out, so Rzepczynski needs to be ready to face Belt if you’re going to use Kelly as the righty-one-out-guy.

Instead, Matheny used Kelly there because, in his own words:

“Right there we needed a ground ball, exactly what Joe Kelly got us. A pitcher would have been up fifth, which we would have risked losing Trevor Rosenthal for a partial inning instead of being able to stretch him out a bit.”

He didn’t want to use Rosenthal to get three critical outs in the third inning because there was a chance that the Cardinals would get two hits in their next at-bat, forcing a pinch-hitting situation that would chase Rosenthal from the game. Instead, he was willing to use an inferior reliever in the most important part of the game so that he could save Rosenthal for two innings in a less critical situation later. And, of course, there was a pretty good chance that Rosenthal wouldn’t hit in the next inning anyway, as getting two guys on in four plate appearances against Matt Cain isn’t something you should count on.

Kelly ended up giving up the broken bat “double” to Pence that broke the game open, then went on to face all three left-handed hitters, the pitcher, a switch-hitter batting from the left side, and finally one more right-hander before being lifted so that Mujica could retire Pablo Sandoval to end the inning.

All told, Kelly faced seven batters. Four of them hit left-handed, and all four lefties put the ball in play. One of the three right-handed batters he faced was the pitcher.

You could maybe make a case for using Kelly against Pence before bringing Rzepczynski if you wanted to save Mujica for a full inning, since he doesn’t have huge platoon splits. While Kelly isn’t the pitcher you really want on the mound in the highest leverage situation of the game, he wasn’t a terrible match-up against Pence, and he basically won the match-up, only to get screwed over because of the physics of a thrice-hit baseball. But, the plan was bad from the beginning. Even if Kelly had gotten Pence out, Matheny was still asking him to get Brandon Belt in another critical situation. Kelly is literally the worst option in the St. Louis bullpen versus left-handed hitters. If you lose this game, your season is over. Having him face Belt (and then Blanco, and then Crawford, and then Pagan) just should have never been an option, especially with Rzepczynski and Rosenthal sitting in the bullpen watching the entire thing.

The way he handled Jason Motte this year showed that Matheny is willing to be flexible in his bullpen usage when it benefits the team. Last night, however, he let the inning dictate which reliever he used in an elimination game. Even for the staunchest believer in the value of planned roles for each pitcher, that’s just overly fanatical to the idea. Matheny had good options in the third inning, and given how Rosenthal has been pitching in the playoffs, it’s not that hard to see him getting out of that situation with the score still 2-0. Instead, the inning ended with the Giants up 7-0, and the rest of the game was basically academic from that point on.

Rosenthal, Mujica, Boggs, and Motte still took the mound in Game Seven. They just pitched when it was too late to actually matter.