I don’t like playing armchair manager the next morning after a game and saying how I would have done things differently in order to bring my team to victory. Though, I’m sure we’ve all done it at some point. However, there are times where the manager makes decisions that the statistics dispute and should you really be surprised when it goes bad?
I’d say that over the last year, I have been heavily critical of Tony LaRussa. Last year, I felt that he spent a lot of time managing the Cardinals out of games while he tried to make something happen. However, praise is definitely in order for the job he did in the first half of the season as we balanced injuries and underperforming players and pitchers who just lost their ability to pitch. Then we came back from the All Star Break.
Fans have been quick to call out Fernando Salas for his blown save and his two losses over the last few games, the one in Cincinnati and the one last night. I don’t think the entire blame needs to be put on Salas, because it never should have been a tie game or a one-run lead in the first place. I read one Cardinals’ writer who claims that LaRussa doesn’t have faith in his left handed relievers. But can you have faith in their handling after seeing how he has handled them over the last few days?
Let’s take a look at the situations.
Against Cincinnati, LaRussa brought in Raul Valdes to face Joey Votto in a lefty-lefty matchup in the 6th inning. Votto would single off of Valdes and was standing on third base when P.J. Walters got out of a bases loaded jam. The next time Votto came up to the plate, LaRussa brought in Trever Miller to face him. Votto would rip a ball for a ground-rule double and plate the go-ahead run of the inning.
Now, my question at the time was why would we bring in a left handed reliever to face Joey Votto? Yes, it’s a common baseball strategy to pursue a lefty-lefty matchup. However, this year, Votto is hitting .363 against left handed pitchers and .304 against right handed ones. His batting average is higher against left handed pitchers, his OBP is higher against left handed pitchers, his slugging percentage is higher against left handed pitchers. So why do you bring in a left handed pitcher to face him?
At this point, we know how the game ended. Pujols took the lead back with a 2-run home run in the eighth inning before Salas allowed a walk-off 2-run home run to Brandon Phillips in the bottom of the ninth. But that was a game that should have been a bigger lead, but LaRussa just had to bring in the lefty to face a Joey Votto that has ripped left handed pitching all season.
Then again last night. In the bottom of the eighth with two out and Angel Pagan standing on third base as the tying run, Tony LaRussa elected to pull Lance Lynn out of the ballgame and bring in Jason Motte to face Josh Thole. The left handed Josh Thole would then single in Pagan to tie up the game before Motte would get Scott Hairston to fly out to Nick Punto.
Fernando Salas would come into a tied game in the ninth inning and face the minimum, allowing a hit and then getting a double play. Salas would come back out for the 10th inning where Angel Pagan would hit a game winning home run. Flash backs to Cincinnati. In fact, all the runs Salas has allowed since June 8th have come on home runs. But that’s not the point.
My question is why would you be willing to send Salas out for a second inning, but not for a 4 out save?
Josh Thole is a 24 year old, left handed hitting outfielder with very little power. He is the consummate example of a guy needing the lefty-lefty matchup. Thole hits .266 against right handed pitchers and a paltry .160 against left handed pitchers. Yet in this instance, LaRussa elected not to use his left handed reliever.
Instead, LaRussa left both Valdes and Miller in the bullpen and decided to bring in Jason Motte to get him one out with a man on third before giving the ball to Salas. Now, let’s take a look at Jason Motte. Left handed hitters have hit .326 against Motte with an OBP of .396. They have eaten him alive. Not only that, but Motte leads the team in the percentage of inherited runners scored at 42%. The players that are equal to him or higher on that list sound familiar, you might recognize the names: Miguel Batista, Ryan Franklin, and Maikel Cleto.
So why do you bring in Motte there?
Fernando Salas, your closer, has only allowed left handed batters to hit .181 against him this season with an OBP of .253. Salas also has the second-lowest percentage of inherited runners scored at 17% (only Mitchell Boggs‘ 8% is better on the team).
So why not Salas in that position? You were obviously comfortable enough with him to send him out there for a second inning and he is almost twice as good of an option against a left handed hitter than Jason Motte is. Even Trever Miller would have been a better choice, who holds lefties to a .214 average this season. Also, Lance Lynn, who was pulled out of the game holds lefties to a .237 average. All better options than Motte.
Tony LaRussa is known as the manager who plays the percentages, yet the decision to use a lefty-lefty matchup against Joey Votto (who hits lefties better than righties) but not against Josh Thole (who is awful against lefties) boggles my mind, and in my opinion has ultimately led to use losing those two games. It isn’t the first time I’ve noticed him going against the stats, and it’s rare for LaRussa to completely ignore the stats. He seems to be tinkering, trying to make something happen, and it’s bit us. Twice this week.
Many fans have grabbed onto these two games as the reason why the Cardinals need to go acquire a closer like Heath Bell. Except the problem is that Tony LaRussa did not put his team in the best position to win either of those games, and when the manager doesn’t do that, can you blame the players when they fail to get the job done?
Also, the statistics say that Fernando Salas is a better pitcher than Heath Bell is this year. Salas leads Bell in pretty much every category except the total number of saves. However, that has more to do with Bell being the closer from day one in San Diego than anything else.
I’ve read one of the Cardinals’ writers call it that LaRussa doesn’t trust his left handed relief. But can you really call it that when you don’t put them in a good situation?
Those are two decisions that seemed like really bad decisions to me at the time and ended up so. You have one man who is the example of the lefty-lefty matchup strategy and you don’t use it, but when you’ve got a guy who kills left handed pitching you do? Can you honestly have your faith instilled or removed from those two situations?
I don’t blame Valdes or Miller for allowing hits to Joey Votto. The statistics show that he hits left handed pitchers really well. And it’s not a reason to not use the lefty-lefty matchup against a guy who hardly hits lefties.