Last night, Jason Motte gave up two bloop singles and took the loss, but likely even more frustrating for the Cardinals not-closer closer, he had to watch the runs score from the dugout. After Ian Kinsler dumped one into no man’s land and then Elvis Andrus punched one into shallow right-center field, LaRussa was essentially faced with four decisions:
A. Leave Motte in to face Josh Hamilton, hoping that a non-healthy Hamilton would be overpowered by his fastball, and then have Motte match up against right-handed batters Adrian Beltre and Michael Young.
B. Intentionally walk Hamilton to load the bases, set up the force at home and a potential double play, and give Motte three consecutive right-handed batters to try and retire – Young, Beltre, and Nelson Cruz.
D. Bring in Rhodes to face Hamilton, but hide Motte somewhere in the field for that one batter so that he could return to face Young and Beltre.
LaRussa chose option C, and of course, it ended up not working out very well for St. Louis. Was there a better option that would have been more likely to help the Cardinals keep the lead, or at least not head to the bottom of the 9th down by a run?
Option A has some pretty obvious problems, as Motte/Hamilton isn’t a match-up that is likely to end with a strikeout – the result that St. Louis really needed with runners at second and third and no outs. Motte’s career K% against LHBs is 20.4%, while Hamilton’s career K% versus RHBs is just 16.5%. Even with his groin injury, he’s maintained his ability to get wood on the ball, and against an RHP, contact was a pretty likely outcome. Neither Motte nor Hamilton have strong GB tendencies, and Hamilton would clearly go up to the plate looking to hit the ball to the outfield.
However, Option C – the one that actually went down – had many of the same issues. While Hamilton’s strikeout rate against LHPs jumps to 22.1%, Rhodes K% against LHBs this year was just 16.1%. His career numbers are much better, but he’s not the same pitcher he was a few years ago, and Hamilton had hit an outfield fly against him the night before. Perhaps even more frightening should have been Rhodes FB% against LHBs this year, which was a staggering 55.8% – his prior ability to get lefties to hit the ball on the ground hasn’t showed up much in 2011.
Even considering the platoon advantage, it doesn’t seem obviously clear that the Cardinals were more likely to strikeout Hamilton with Rhodes on the mound, nor were they less likely to have him hit the ball in the air. Beyond just the fact that he’s left-handed, in fact, it doesn’t seem that bringing Rhodes in to face Hamilton actually increased the likelihood of any of the outcomes the Cardinals should have been trying to maximize in that situation.
If having Rhodes face Hamilton didn’t incur an obvious significant benefit over having Motte face him, then Option C seems demonstrably inferior to Option A, because having Motte face Hamilton means that he gets to stay in the game to face Young and Beltre. In order to justify the downgrade in the right-on-right match-ups that were essentially inevitable and also likely to be of extreme importance, you’d have to get a pretty massive bump in expectation of striking Hamilton out or getting him to hit the ball on the ground, and I don’t see that bringing Rhodes in did either of those things.
So, that leaves options A, B, and D. Option B has a lot of positive benefits – platoon advantages with Motte versus three RHBs, and any ground ball at an infielder likely keeps the run from scoring and might even get you a double play. However, it comes with the cost of putting an additional runner on base, and then an extra base hit could get that runner home and potentially expand the lead even further.
However, Hamilton’s potential third run has pretty significant diminishing returns due to the late nature of the game. By the time Andrus scored the go ahead run, the Cardinals win expectancy had already dipped to 18.3% – it would have fallen to just 7.8% had the Cardinals finished the inning with a third run scored, but Andrus scoring lowered the Cardinals odds from 32.5% – stranding him was a lot more important than stranding Hamilton.
Additionally, WPA doesn’t account for the fact that the Cardinals were going to send up the bottom of their batting order in the 9th inning, and asking Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker, and Rafael Furcal to generate offense against Neftali Feliz was likely to end in failure. While scoring two runs off Feliz was less likely than scoring one, they really needed to end up in a situation where they didn’t have to score any, and they could only do that by stranding Andrus on base.
Walking Hamilton and having Motte face the three right-handed bats almost certainly gives you the best chance at stranding Andrus. You get to keep your best reliever on the mound, get him the platoon advantage in every at-bat, set up a force at home, and give yourself a chance at a double play on a well struck grounder. You might not be able to strand Kinsler without a lot of luck or top notch pitching, but Motte has performed well enough that he should have been trusted to keep Andrus from scoring, even against three good RHBs.
Option D would have perhaps been the most interesting to watch from a fan’s perspective, as the decision on where to put Motte would have been fascinating. The usual answer is left field, but when you’re facing a guy who is desperately trying to hit the ball in the air to set up a play at the plate, you don’t really want inferior outfield defense at that moment. Even though Motte’s a converted catcher and has a great arm, you probably don’t want to ask him to catch a pop fly or make an accurate throw to the plate if Hamilton was able to aim the ball to left.
The best option might have actually been third base, as left-handed batters rarely hit ground balls to the left side – Hamilton’s career GB% to the left side is just 18.7% – but then you’re essentially inviting Ron Washington to execute a squeeze play. Could Hamilton have gotten a bunt down far enough up the 3B line to make Motte field it? Could Motte field a ground ball from that angle and make an accurate throw home? It would have been fantastic theatre, but I can’t say that I would have had the stones to pull that move off in the World Series either.
To me, the best option was almost certainly putting Hamilton on and leaving Motte in to face the following trio of right-handed bats. The cost of the third baserunner is outweighed by all the positives that come from keeping Motte on the mound, and it would have given the Cardinals their best chance to enter the bottom of the ninth in a tie game instead of needing a run to keep playing.
Playing the match-ups can be a good idea, but taking out a good RHP for a mediocre LHP – especially with right-handed bats as far as the eye can see set to follow – seems like overmanaging at it’s worst.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.