There were a lot of head-scratching moments in last night’s game. The evening featured bizarre baserunning, way too much bunting, and some really inexplicable bullpen management, but more than anything else, there were intentional walks. A lot of intentional walks.
Some of them were understandable, if not defensible, because of the tradition of how baseball has been managed for years. For instance, in the third inning, with Rafael Furcal standing on third base and just one out, Ron Washington ordered an intentional walk to Albert Pujols. Despite this not being one of the situations where that’s a good move, there is upside to the play – a ground ball double play gets you out of the inning without allowing the run, the best possible outcome given the circumstances. The cost of putting an extra baserunner on makes it a poor percentage play in most circumstances, but it’s a gamble that offers the best case potential, and that can make it an enticing option for many managers.
The fifth inning IBB to Pujols was more of just straight up fear of the Cardinals best hitter, as putting him on to load the bases with two outs put C.J. Wilson – not a guy who was pounding the zone or instilling faith in anyone that he could throw strikes when he needed to – in a do-or-die situation. The walk there removed any margin for error, and you have to believe that the gap between what Pujols and Holliday could produce is staggeringly high in order to justify that one. But, you know, Holliday is having a bad series, and managers often react to recent performance more than they should. If you think Holliday’s struggles in the last week are predictive in some way, then you might be able to make a case for putting Pujols on to face an inferior batter. You probably shouldn’t believe that, but it’s not entirely ridiculous.
But, have no fear, the entirely ridiculous was still to come.
If we fast forward to the seventh inning, we find Pujols facing Alexi Ogando with Allan Craig on first base and one out in a tie game. Ogando pounds in strike one, getting ahead of Pujols with a good slider. Then, on the 0-1 pitch, we get the “botched hit and run” – Pujols stares at a fastball up and away and Craig is gunned down easily at second base. There are now two outs, the bases are empty, and Ogando has Pujols in a 1-1 count. And Ron Washington calls for the intentional walk.
This one – this is just nutty. Yes, Albert Pujols might hit a home run and give the Cardinals the lead, but aside from hitting a triple, it’s probably the least likely outcome from that match-up. As good as Pujols is, only 5.9% of his career plate appearances against right-handed pitchers have resulted in a home run, and Ogando is no ordinary right-handed pitcher. For his career (postseason not included, since we don’t have L/R splits for the playoffs), Ogando allowed just five home runs to 394 right-handed batters – just a 1.3% HR/PA rate. Yes, Pujols took him deep in Game Three, but the odds of that happening again were close to 1-in-20, and that’s before we even adjust for the fact that Ogando already had one strike in the bank.
As great as Pujols is, a two-out walk with the bases empty in a tie game is just nuts. Ron Washington put the go-ahead run on base and created a rally for the Cardinals of his own free will. You’d have to think Matt Holliday was on the verge of death to justify the move, and it’s even worse with Lance Berkman – a left-handed hitter who is just as good against RHPs as Pujols is – looming in the on deck circle. Holliday, of course, is still a good hitter, and showed it by singling to center field, and then further proved that he’s capable of athletic accomplishments by taking second on the throw home. All of the sudden, a simple two out, bases empty situation turned into a situation with two men in scoring position and Berkman coming up to face a right-handed pitcher.
You can’t let Berkman face Ogando in that situation, so the options are either to replace Ogando with Darren Oliver – making Berkman bat from his much weaker side – or to put him on and go after David Freese. Because it was the Night Of The Intentional Walk, Washington chose the latter option, and now Ogando was faced with getting Freese out with the bases loaded.
Again, the walk takes away any margin for error. Instead of giving Oliver a chance to get Berkman out by hitting the corners, Ogando was asked to get Freese out with no safety net. He had to throw strikes, and he had to throw them to a guy who has been raking during the postseason. Now, I’m not one to advocate changing your strategy based on a player’s recent performance, but Washington had been walking Pujols all night under the basic premise that Holliday’s poor World Series performance is meaningful – how can you then turn around and load the bases to face a guy who is hitting .393/.443/.772 in October?
More to the point, the bases would be loaded despite the Rangers pitchers giving up just a single to center field – two of the three baserunners belonged to Washington, and Ogando was only in a bases loaded spot because of his manager’s decision making in that inning. As one commenter in last night’s game chat put it, this was homemade jam, and while it’s delicious on toast, it’s pretty terrible on the baseball field. Ogando got Washington off the hook, but relievers should not have to put out fires started by their own manager. For a guy who fiercely believes in trusting his players, his decision to not trust Ogando to get out Pujols (or Oliver to get out Berkman) was downright bizarre. And it easily could have cost the Rangers the ballgame.
Not to be outdone, Tony LaRussa would follow the next inning with his own pair of intentional walks. The second one was so bizarre that it required an explanation about crowd noise and miscommunication, but it was the first intentional walk of that inning that is truly inexplicable. With Octavio Dotel on the mound – you know, the guy who held RHBs to a .154/.198/.211 line this season – LaRussa opted to intentionally walk Nelson Cruz, and then go after David Murphy with Mark Rzepczynski.
I get liking the Murphy/Scrabble match-up, but LaRussa should have loved the Dotel/Cruz match-up. Cruz posted a .289 OBP against right-handed pitchers this year, and Dotel is one of the toughest right-on-right pitchers in all of baseball. 34% of the right-handed batters that faced Dotel this year struck out – thirty-four percent. That match-up heavily favored the Cardinals, and instead LaRussa decided to punt it.
If there were two outs, you could somewhat rationalize the move since Rzepczynski versus Murphy was highly likely to result in an out. But with just one out, walking Cruz made it likely that Mike Napoli was going to bat with the go-ahead run on base, and LaRussa would have to either make yet another pitching change or let Napoli face a left-handed pitcher in a critical situation. If you just let Dotel face Cruz, the odds are very good that you’re going to get an out there, and then you can just bring in Rzepczynski to go after Murphy with two outs, and you could leave Napoli standing in the on-deck circle while the rally fizzles. Instead, LaRussa opted to fold a great hand, and a few minutes later, his team was losing 4-2.
Even ignoring the bizarre IBB to Kinsler that was apparently necessary to get the right reliever on the mound, the last few innings were filled with inexplicable decisions by both managers to put opposing runners on base. Washington was saved by his bullpen, LaRussa was not. In both cases, however, their reflexive walk-someone-every-time-first-base-is-open strategy made their teams less likely to win the game.
I understand not wanting the other team’s best players to beat you, but I fail to see how beating yourself is any better.
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