Mike Matheny’s Dangerously Slow Hook

In his piece this morning about Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, Jeff wrote about Mike Matheny’s decision to stay with Martinez against David Ortiz, rather than go to the left-handed Randy Choate, in the 8th inning: The relevant post-game quote, again:

It’s not an easy decision. Knowing that we have a left-hander up and ready to go. A lot of it has to do with what we see, how the ball is coming out of Carlos’s hands at that time. We have two guys on base, one by an error and another by a ball that made it’s way kinda through the infield. Looked like he had real good life. And if we get through Ortiz, then we have an opportunity to use Carlos’s good life right there against a Napoli, where we don’t have to bring Trevor in more than one. Not an easy call, but we liked the way Carlos was throwing the ball at that particular time.

It’s probably really hard to take Carlos Martinez out of the game, I imagine. When you have that kind of stuff, and he’s been dominating the way he was in the postseason, it has to be tempting to just say “hey, let’s stick with the kid who throws 100.” Martinez isn’t a righty specialist, and as Eno Sarris pointed out before the series began, Ortiz struggled against especially hard fastballs this year, hitting just .238/.284/.365 on at-bats that ended with a fastball of 94+ mph.

Perhaps Martinez’s premium velocity makes him a better match-up there than the platoon splits would indicate. And, as Matheny noted, keeping Martinez in to face Ortiz meant that he also got to stay in to face Napoli, and he put some value on not having to make two pitching changes, including one that would force Trevor Rosenthal to enter the game in the 8th inning, then sit around and wait for the 9th to begin before taking the mound again.

But, while acknowledging that Matheny noted this was a difficult decision, it is not hard to see that decision as part of a broader pattern, as Mike Matheny has consistently chosen the pitcher on the mound over a potentially more attractive match-up available out of the bullpen. In fact, Matheny made perhaps an even more questionable decision to let Ortiz face a right-hander two innings earlier.

In the bottom of the 6th inning, with the Cardinals leading 1-0, Michael Wacha was sent back out to the mound to face the middle of the Red Sox order. And, importantly, it was the third time he’d be facing Shane Victorino, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz. I’ve written a lot about the third time through the order stats, so forgive me for replicating this table one more time, but here are how hitters did against starting pitchers in 2013 based on the number of times they had faced them in the same game.

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

The third time through the order, hitters start to really tee off on starting pitchers, to the point that even an average relief pitcher — with the platoon advantage — is likely to perform as well or better than a tiring starter. Wacha had thrown 88 pitches, and as many pitchers have noted, there is a demonstrative difference in energy expended between “high stress pitches” — basically, every pitch in the World Series, especially in a 0-0 or 1-0 game on the road — and the regular season. 88 pitches last night was probably equivalent to 100+ in the regular season. The 6th inning was almost certainly going to be Wacha’s last, so Matheny was just looking to get three more outs before he could hand the ball to Carlos Martinez.

Protecting a 1-0 lead, needing three outs, with your starting pitcher clearly tiring, and the 2-3-4 hitters for maybe the best offense in baseball due up. It would seem to me that this would be a decent time to have someone warming in the bullpen, just in case things get squirrelly, but Wacha began the inning with no bullpen activity behind him. And then he started off the inning by getting Shane Victorino out on a 1-2 ground ball to third base, a fairly easy four pitch out. Two outs left, with Ortiz on deck. Still, no one warming.

This was probably Matheny’s last chance to consider having a left-hander ready to face Ortiz. If he started warming up Kevin Siegrist or Randy Choate at the start of Pedroia’s at-bat, they could probably get him warm through various stall tactics over the course of a couple of minutes. But, instead, Matheny chose to stick with his young starter, not even giving himself the option of having a lefty ready to go after Ortiz. Wacha has a fantastic change-up, and he ran a reverse platoon split during the regular season, so having him face a left-hander isn’t the worst thing in the world.

But the decision of who should be on the mound at any given moment shouldn’t just be about the pitcher. It should also be about the hitter, and David Ortiz has one of the largest platoon splits of any hitter in baseball. For his career, he has a 168 wRC+ against RHPs, and a 110 wRC+ against LHPs. This year, he had a 94 wRC+ against lefties. He’s Miguel Cabrera when facing a righty and Austin Jackson when facing a lefty. Even if you love the way your right-hander is throwing, Ortiz’s own personal splits heavily suggest attacking him with a left-handed pitcher in critical situations.

Of course, Wacha is no ordinary right-hander, thanks to his dynamite change-up that gives left-handers fits. But, thanks to the wonders of PITCHF/x data, we can actually look at how Ortiz does against change-ups from right-handers, and compare that to what he does to breaking balls from left-handers, which is what Randy Choate likely would have been throwing him. From Brooks Baseball, here are Ortiz’s numbers against RHP change-ups and LHP sliders, 2011 to 2013.

RH Change: 570 pitches, .304 BA, .520 SLG
LH Slider: 451 pitches, .206 BA, .280 SLG

That’s not close, but there’s a pretty big selection bias here, as he’s more likely to see a slider in pitcher’s counts, whereas RH change-up artists might be willing to throw that even when behind in the couint, since it goes for called strikes more often than sliders do. So, let’s just even things out a bit and only look at pitches on 3-2 counts. This is going to trash our sample size, but it gives us only the pitches where neither side has the advantage, and the swing/take decision is based on the quality of the pitch, not an artificial advantage based on count.

RH Change, 3-2 count: 28 pitches, .211 BA, .421 SLG
LH Slider, 3-2 count: 21 pitches, .111 BA, .111 SLG

None of this can be considered definitive, but it’s hard for me to see how a tiring right-hander with a plus change-up is a better match-up against Ortiz than a fresh left-hander with a slider that lefties can’t hit. For reference, left-handed hitters against Randy Choate’s slider over the last three years: .088 average, .157 SLG. 22% of his sliders have been swung at and missed by lefties, while only 10% have been put in play, and when they do put it in play, nothing good happens. Choate’s slider is death to left-handed batters. Ortiz has a glaring weakness against left-handed sliders.

This should be a dream match-up for Mike Matheny. The Red Sox are sending their beast to the plate in a one run game, with the tying run on base, and in the bullpen, Matheny has the guy who throws the pitch that Ortiz can’t hit. But he wasn’t even warmed up, despite the fact that he knew Ortiz was going to hit that inning, and that Ortiz would represent, at worst, the tying run at the plate when he stepped in to face Wacha. And, after facing two hitters to get to Ortiz, Wacha’s pitch count would be pushing 100, and that match-up would be Ortiz’s third look at Wacha in this game.

Michael Wacha has absolutely delivered for the Cardinals in the playoffs, and he is one of the main reasons that St. Louis is three wins from a World Series title. I am sure there are parts of managing individual personalities that come into play on decisions like this, and perhaps Wacha has thrived as a rookie in part because Matheny has put so much trust in him, and he hasn’t had to worry about looking over his shoulder every time he puts someone on base.

But you can build trust in your guys by letting them overcome adversity in the regular season, when the outcome of one at-bat won’t kill you. In the World Series, when David Ortiz can literally turn a win into a loss, it seems like it would be more important to get him out than to instill Wacha with the knowledge that his manager trusts him. And the best way to get Ortiz out is to make him face Randy Choate.

As you know, Ortiz homered off Wacha to give the Red Sox a 2-1 lead. It didn’t end up costing the Cardinals last night, but I would suggest that perhaps Mike Matheny should think about having a quicker hook over the next five games. His bullpen is excellent, and not just the Carlos Martinez/Trevor Rosenthal part. When you have match-up specialists, and you’re playing in the World Series, you should probably play the match-ups. Matheny’s slow hook almost cost the Cardinals Game 2. If they want to win three more games, he should probably be a little more aggressive in going to the bullpen, even if his starter hasn’t yet squandered the lead. By the time he does, it’s often too late.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Minor quibble — Ortiz was due up 4th that inning. Ellsbury led off by reaching on Carpenter’s error.


Dave is discussing the 6th when Ortiz was due up 3rd.

Matheny, on the other hand, seems be discussing multiple at bats in his quote as though they were the same situation. He references having the lefty ready to face the lefty but says there were two on and seems to refer to Ortiz’s single to Carpenter.


You’re right. My fault. I had myself convinced that Ellsbury scored on Ortiz’s homer. I forgot about the walk to Pedroia.