Let’s play a game in which you are the manager of a Major League team faced with an in-game decision. It’s the baseball version of the old “IBM Presents You Make the Call” commercials that used to run during NFL games.*
* For those of you under 30, IBM was a company that made typewriters when I was a kid.
Here’s the set-up: Your team is winning 3-1, on the road, in the bottom of the 6th inning. There are runners on first and second base with one out.
Pretty simple set-up, right? Ok, here’s your chance to be a manager. Given the scenario above would you rather pitch to 2011’s Dan Uggla or Jose Bautista? (When I say “2011’s” I mean the 2011 version of these two hitters.)
Before you answer, especially for those of you who aren’t hard-core baseball fans, here is a little bit more detail on what type of hitter the 2011 version of Dan Uggla and Jose Bautista is.
Jose Bautista Dan Uggla
Batting Avg: .302 .233
On-base %: .447 .311
Slugging %: .608 .453
Chance of Striking Out: 17% 23%
You may be thinking three things: 1) This is a trick, right? 2) Joe, c’mon, this isn’t a realistic question. Managers don’t get to choose who they pitch to. 3) The answer is so obvious there has to be a cost to choosing Uggla right?
It’s not a trick, it is realistic because the manager does get to choose who he pitches to, and the cost is minimal to non-existent. Have you made your answer? Now, let’s see what decision St. Louis Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa made.
Faced with the exact same scenario as detailed above on Saturday night during Game 1 of the NLDS, Tony LaRussa chose to pitch to the 2011 version of Jose Bautista, a hitter who by some measures was the single best player in all of baseball this year. “Wait a minute,” you might be saying, “I watched that game. Ryan Howard was the batter and LaRussa had no power to change who was hitting.” That’s not true – there are two Ryan Howards.
Ryan Howard #1 Ryan Howard #2
Batting Avg: .298 .231
On-base %: .397 .311
Slugging %: .623 .438
Chance of Striking Out: 28% 33%
Notice the extreme similarity between the two Ryan Howards and 2011’s Jose Bautista and Dan Uggla respectively. It’s an uncanny comparison. Why are there two Ryan Howards? Ryan Howard #1 only faces right handed pitchers and Ryan Howard #2 only faces left handed pitchers. Those are his career numbers and they show one of the most extreme splits in baseball; against right handed hurlers he is consistently an MVP candidate and one of the best hitters in baseball, but against southpaws he morphs into a middle infielder with some power and a horrendous strike out rate.
Inexplicably, Tony LaRussa chose to leave his starting pitcher, right hander Kyle Lohse, in the game to face Ryan Howard #1 in an extremely high leverage situation. A high leverage situation is a point in the game at which the probability of winning shifts materially in either direction based on the next event. It’s a concept that sometimes is more obvious when examined in a game of chance.
In the context of blackjack a low leverage situation exists when the player has a pair of twos and the dealer is showing a ten. The next card dealt qualifies as a low leverage event because no matter what it is, it’s not going to have much effect on the odds of winning the hand. Before and after that single card, the player’s odds of winning the hand will be roughly the same. On the other hand, let’s say the player has a 14 and the dealer is showing a seven. If you play by “the book” and take another card, that’s a very high leverage situation. Your odds of winning the hand are going to change a lot no matter which card gets dealt to you.
Turning back to the situation LaRussa faced. At the point Howard strolled to the plate, St. Louis had a 64.4% chance of winning the game. (All situational win probabilities courtesy of fangraphs.com and baseballprospectus.com.) If Howard strikes out it rises to 72.4%. Get out of the inning with a two run lead and it goes all the way to 81.6%. Clearly there are a lot of things Howard could do, but if he hits a 3-run home run, St. Louis’ chance of winning drops to 25.2%. Obviously, this is a hugely important at bat. You’d be hard pressed to create a higher leverage situation prior to the 7th inning. It’s time to deploy the best weapon you have.
So why would Tony LaRussa leave his right handed starter in the game to pitch the equivalent of AL MVP candidate Jose Bautista?
It can’t be that his bullpen was tired. The entire bullpen, thanks to off days and a complete game clincher last Wednesday by Chris Carpenter, had not thrown a single pitch in five days. It can’t be because it was too early in the game – Kyle Lohse started 30 games this year and pitched just over 180 innings, which averages to six innings a start. I cannot believe that anyone would argue that with a completely rested bullpen available, the Cardinals needed Lohse to go a full six innings instead of 5 1/3. It appeared LaRussa got blinded by the inning he was in and tried to rigidly adhere to the three inning relief roles he has assigned his relievers.
Once a game begins, the most important thing a manager can do is put his players in the most favorable position possible to win and Tony LaRussa did exactly the opposite of that on Saturday night.
(Post script: This piece was written yesterday afternoon. Last night, during the 8th inning and the Cardinals leading by one run, Ryan Howard came to the plate representing the go-ahead run. LaRussa brought in left hander Arthur Rhodes to pitch. Howard promptly struck on three pitches. He may have squandered an outstanding opportunity for the Cardinals to return home to St. Louis with a commanding 2-0 lead, but Tony LaRussa didn’t make the same mistake two nights in a row.)