Cardinals Make Questionable Pitching Decision; Playoff Baseball Don't Care

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Kelly will start game 3. There doesn't appear to be a strong objective, evidence based rationale for the decision but playoff baseball can always defy odds.

When the Cardinals make what looks like a blatantly dumb decision, I try to second guess my preconceived notions about the situation. The Cardinals aren't often a team that makes blatantly dumb decisions but that appears to be where we find ourselves headed into Game 3.

Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha are better pitchers than Joe Kelly. I say that as a Joe Kelly fanboy. Kelly can be successful over the course of a major league season but, for one game, I struggle to understand why scouts or stats would claim that he'd be the player you'd go to for this start.

Shelby Miller has struggled against the Pirates this year. While this has little meaning from a statistical perspective relative to his overall performance level, it can be the kind of thing that managers latch on to as they rationalize otherwise bad decisions. Overall, Miller put up much better numbers than Kelly. Any advanced pitching metric -- even the ones that include Kelly's better groundball rate -- all point to Miller as the better pitcher. FIP, tERA, xFIP, SIERA ... they all agree.

A quick glance at the Pirates performance against specific pitch types doesn't offer much explanation for the selection either. The Pirates have, like many teams, struggled against offspeed stuff. On a rate basis, changeups have been the most potent weapon against them. Sliders and curveballs follow. This kind of a weakness would seem to lend itself to Michael Wacha rather than Joe Kelly. Wacha's changeup has been the best of the trio by far.

This is a frustrating decision from the Cardinals. While the gap between Wacha/Miller and Kelly isn't huge, it's noteworthy and this strikes me as the kind of unforced error the Cardinals should have assiduously avoided in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Pirates will bring their best hurler, Francisco Liriano, to the mound.

(Kelly against Liriano is a big mismatch for the Cardinals. If the idea is to use Kelly to get through the game and hope you pick up a wild win while planning on taking games 4 & 5 with your better pitchers, that's a dumb strategy. It's roughly equivalent to a bunt. Giving away outs and giving away wins is a terrible idea. The probabilities are rarely in your favor when you do that.)

Having lamented the Cardinals pitching selection, this is the playoffs. Probabilities in a single game are not quite meaningless but they certainly don't dictate the winner. The Cardinals have the best NL offense and play their home games in a park that suppresses offense. While Liriano -- and his slider -- have been tremendous this season, it would be foolish to think that the Cardinals can't beat him.

For all the concerns about the Joe Kelly selection -- and there are plenty -- playoff baseball is still something that is easier to experience than analyze. Game time is 3:30pm CT. Experience it.

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