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Mathenaging: Still losing at reliever chess after nearly three seasons on the job

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After nearly three years on the job, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny still hasn't gotten the hang of late-inning reliever chess.

Reliever usage is like a game of chess. The manager has to take stock of the pieces he and his opponent have on the board and run through the ripple effect of a given move. The days and innings leading up to Cardinals manager Mike Matheny's decision to leave righthander Seth Maness in the game to face the lefthanded hitting Ike Davis even worse.

During the Cards' weekend series in Philadelphia, Matheny called on his relief corps to cover 13 innings. Because of this, the Cardinals reinforced the big-league bullpen on Monday by optioning bench infielder Greg Garcia to Triple-A Memphis and recalling lefthander Tyler Lyons to replace him on the active roster. Lyons, who has worked as a starter and reliever for St. Louis this year, bolstered the pitching staff during the Pirates series as an extra arm in pen and could also start a game during Saturday's doubleheader against the Cubs—the fifth day after any appearance he may have been called upon to make in Monday's series opener against Pittsburgh.

The move also gave St. Louis a short bench of four players: infielder Daniel Descalso, outfielder Shane Robinson, outfielder Peter Bourjos, and catcher Tony Cruz. After Robinson suffered a shoulder injury during Monday's game, the Cards placed him on the disabled list and replaced him with rookie Randal Grichuk, who was summoned back to the majors from Memphis. Tuesday night, the Cardinals still had a short bench and a 13-man pitching staff.

During the course of Tuesday night's game, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was forced to make two position-player substitutions because of injury:

1)  In the top of the sixth, Hurdle pulled center fielder Andrew McCutchen due to the effects of an awkward run-in he had with the outfield wall. Jose Tabata replaced McCutchen in the lineup and playing right field, with Starling Marte shifting from left to center field and Travis Snyder moving from right to left field.

2)  In the top of the seventh, Hurdle had to remove first baseman Pedro Alvarez from the game because of a foot injury. Gaby Sanchez replaced Alvarez in the lineup and in the field, playing first base.

The players left on the Pirates bench after these moves were: (1) first baseman Ike Davis, (2) infielder Jordy Mercer, and (3) backup catcher Chris Stewart.

Cardinals starter Lance Lynn lasted six innings. Matheny called on southpaw Sam Freeman to handle the home half of the seventh. Freeman did so in 1-2-3 fashion, using just five pitches.

With Russell Martin (RHB), Gabby Sanchez (RHB), Starling Marte (RHB), Clint Barmes (RHB), and the pitcher's spot due up in the bottom of the eighth, Matheny understandably called upon Maness, a righty. After striking Martin out to start the inning, Maness allowed back-to-back singles to Sanchez and Marte. Maness induced a flyout to Jon Jay in center for the inning's second out. It was then that Hurdle yanked his starting shortstop Barmes from the game and pinch-hit for him with Davis—leaving the Pirates the righthanded batting Mercer and Stewart (the backup catcher) on their bench.

To his credit, Matheny apparently foresaw Davis pinch-hitting as an opportunity and had Randy Choate, the veteran lefty specialist of all veteran lefty specialists loosening up in the Cardinals bullpen. Yet even though Matheny had six relievers at his disposal, he had no righthander getting loose alongside Choate. It seemed that Choate was loose and ready for game action as Davis strode to the batter's box. But Matheny elected to have the righty Maness face the lefthanded-hitting Davis. Here are the career platoon splits for Davis, Maness, and Choate:

Ike Davis

Split

PA

K%

BB%

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

vs. LHP

472

29.0

7.6

.197

.261

.318

.121

.259

61

Total

2066

22.9

12.6

.241

.337

.425

.184

.333

112

vs. RHP

1594

21.1

14.1

.255

.359

.459

.204

.292

127

Seth Maness

Split

TBF

K%

BB%

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

vs. LHB

176

8.5

6.8

.288

.341

.453

.165

.338

-

Total

516

15.3

4.5

.269

.311

.397

.131

.305

-

vs. RHB

340

18.8

3.2

.260

.295

.369

.109

.288

-

Randy Choate

Split

TBF

K%

BB%

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

vs. LHB

803

26.7

7.9

.188

.271

.267

.079

.244

-

Total

1335

20.5

10.1

.231

.327

.320

.089

.287

-

vs. RHB

532

11.1

13.5

.299

.412

.405

.106

.354

-

Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Matheny's explanation as to why he opted to stick with Maness instead of bringing in Choate:

"They pull him pretty fast," Matheny said. "Any time we bring Randy in, we have to be — in my opinion — in a game-changing situation. We have to be extremely confident that that lefty is going to stay in there. I’ve watched Clint (Hurdle) too many times. I know exactly what he’s going to do in those situations. That’s usually the deciding factor. And that’s putting Randy in a real tight spot."

****

Matheny explained that despite stressing at several points this season that he’s comfortable using Choate against righties, he was not in this case.

He understood the lack of a move would draw questions.

"I trust Seth to get that guy out right there more so than Randy having to come in and watch a righthanded (hitter) face him and put him up against a wall," Matheny said. Hurdle "is not going to hold on to his (righties)."

So the reason that Matheny didn't lift Maness for Choate was because he was certain that Hurdle would pull back Davis in favor of one of the two remaining position players on his bench: Mercer or Stewart. Matheny trusted Maness against Davis more than Choate against Mercer (who surely would've pinch-hit over the backup catcher Stewart in Matheny's predicted scenario). Looking at Mercer's career splits and cross-referencing them with Choate's above, that's seemingly understandable.

Jordy Mercer

Split

PA

K%

BB%

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

vs. LHP

203

9.4

6.9

.344

.388

.541

.197

.400

161

Total

877

17.2

5.9

.266

.316

.399

.133

.309

98

vs. RHP

674

19.6

5.6

.243

.294

.357

.113

.282

78

The problem is that this is a false choice Matheny created for himself. Had Matheny gotten a righty loose at the same time as Choate, he could've called on Choate to force Hurdle's hand. Matheny could've induced Hurdle to burn his second-to-last bench player in the bottom of the eighth inning of tie game while also ensuring that the Cards maintained the platoon advantage.

Because of two injuries and after Davis was announced as the pinch-hitter, Hurdle and the Pirates had just two bench players remaining—one of whom was the backup catcher (a role that leaves managers hesitant to use the player as a pinch-hitter). Lefty One Out Guy typically means the type of out recorded on the field, but on Tuesday night it could've meant getting Davis out of the game. Had Matheny put the onus on Hurdle to remove Davis in favor of Mercer, the Pirates bench would've been down to one player, the backup catcher who is a career .224/.298/.291 (.267 wOBA, 64 wRC+), in the late (if not extra) innings of a tie game.

The criticism of such a move would be that it burns Choate without him even facing a batter. Given Choate's history of one-batter appearances that result in a walk, that seems a bit of a stretch even if Nick Greenwood was unavailable (as Goold reported in the above-linked article). Matheny still would've had Lyons to serve as a long man, closer Trevor Rosenthal, setup man Pat Neshek (who, according to Goold, Matheny said he wanted to avoid using—though it's unclear if he meant just in the eighth inning or in the game at all), and Carlos Martinez.

Matheny could've been bold and forced the action. Instead, Matheny was sheepish and let Hurdle dictate his decision. In doing so, Matheny gave Hurdle and the Pirates a favorable matchup that resulted in Davis clubbing a game-winning homer. The Cardinals didn't lose on Tuesday night because of Matheny, but their manager sure didn't help their chances of winning with his eighth-inning decision-making. It's almost enough to make one long for the days of Tony La Russa. Almost.

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