Mathenaging: Why does St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny like to put the go-ahead run on base?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Matheny has apparently developed a new method of hurting the St. Louis Cardinals' chances at winning: intentionally putting the go-ahead run on first base in the late innings.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has made many questionable decisions since taking the helm in St. Louis. The last two games have perhaps revealed one of his most bizarre tactical tendencies: putting the go-ahead (or fall-behind) run on base in the late innings.

Each game involved a righthanded reliever pitching to a tough lefthanded batter. Rather than allow Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal—the Cardinals' two best relievers, with stuff capable of retiring batters no matter their handedness—Matheny went out to the mound with what appeared to be words of caution that resulted in a walk.

Today, I thought it'd be fun to look at these walks through the prism of Win Expectancy (WE), which David Appelman explains is "the percent change a particular team will win based on the score, inning, outs, runners on base, and the run environment." WE is based on historical data. It does not take into account the players playing in a particular game. It assumes that the two teams start the game with an equal chance of winning the contest. For today's exercise, I'm using Tom Tango's WE charts, which are dated in terms of run environment because they're from 2002 but are easy to find and read.

Sunday vs. Chicago

On Sunday night at Wrigley Field, the Cardinals achieved something they hadn't all series against the Cubs: a lead. Matheny turned to Martinez in the seventh inning with a one-run lead. After coaxing two groundouts from the Small Bears, things got interesting. Luis Valbuena tripled, which put the tying run at third base with two outs.

Matheny visited the mound, presumably to discuss how to handle Anthony Rizzo, Chicago's lefthanded-batting slugger. With southpaw Kevin Siegrist loose and presumably ready to enter the game, Matheny decided to stick with Martinez. Martinez's pitches to Rizzo made Matheny's instructions clear. Martinez tossed two fastballs wide of the zone. Then Molina stood up, held out his gloved hand, and Martinez finished off the walk intentionally.

Matheny had ordered his club to intentionally put the go-ahead run on in the bottom of the seventh inning. In doing so, he hurt the team's chances at winning:

vs. Cubs

Inning

Outs

Score

Runners

WE

Pre-BB

7th

2

+1

xx3

.664

Post-BB

7th

2

+1

1x3

.641

Of course, all-world catcher Yadier Molina then allowed a Martinez pitch to go between his legs for a passed ball that plated the tying run. This is reflected in two charts below. The first reflects how the passed ball impacted the Cards' WE. The second chart shows how the Cardinals' chances were with the go-ahead run moving to second on the passed ball compared to if the go-ahead run had not been intentionally put 90 feet closer to home by the manager.

vs. Cubs

Inning

Outs

Score

Runners

WE

Pre-PB

7th

2

+1

1x3

.641

Post-PB

7th

2

Tied

x2x

.304

vs. Cubs

Inning

Outs

Score

Runners

WE

No BB

7th

2

Tied

xxx

.414

Post-BB

7th

2

Tied

x2x

.304

Monday vs. Atlanta

Last night in Atlanta, the Cards once again enjoyed a lead in the late innings. With the Braves up in the bottom of the ninth and a one-run lead, closer Trevor Rosenthal got himself into hot water. Andrelton Simmons singled to lead things off. The Braves sac-bunted Simmons—who represented the tying run—from first to second base. After a Ramiro Peña flyout, Jason Heyward dug in with two outs.

Out came Matheny for a meeting at the mound. After talking things over with Matheny, Rosenthal fired three straight balls that weren't particularly close to the zone. He then threw a 3-0 offering over the plate before ultimately walking Heyward. With Rosenthal's somewhat questionable command early this season, it's difficult to say for certain, but the plate appearance appeared to be that most weasely of managerial puppeteering: the ol' unintentional intentional walk. And it put the go-ahead run on first. For the second night in a row, Matheny appeared to give an order that increased his team's chances to lose:

vs. Braves

Inning

Outs

Score

Runners

WE

Pre-BB

9th

2

+1

x2x

.857

Post-BB

9th

2

+1

12x

.830

The WE charts make clear that Matheny hurt the Cardinals' chances to win both in Sunday night's seventh inning against the Cubs and in Monday night's ninth inning versus the Braves. Thankfully, the Cardinals were able to win both games in spite of their manager's monkeying around. Despite the club's two consecutive victories, I'm left wondering: How many more times will Matheny order his pitchers to intentionally place the go-ahead run on first before it costs the club a game?

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