Should a single at bat when a game is all but over (down 7-2 with two outs in the ninth) determine something of this magnitude? Absolutely not, but with Mike Matheny's propensity to utilize small-sample-sized hitter versus pitcher statistics, along with quirky reverse splits, sometimes drastic decisions need to be made for the betterment of the team. Before we get into the meat of this discussion, let's set it up with a few pregame quotes on Oscar Taveras from the manager:
Matheny talking Taveras/Craig pregame: "We've got to do what we can to win today, we're not here in the development business."— Chris Hrabe (@chrabe) July 22, 2014
More Matheny: "When a guy has done a lot of what he needs to do to prove what he can do at [AAA], you figure out how can it fit in here."— Chris Hrabe (@chrabe) July 22, 2014
Matheny, known for his conciseness with the media, made four distinct points in two short sentences, but I am going to focus on one of them: "We're not here in the development business." Given that the club is in what appears to be a tight divisional race, I wholeheartedly agree with this. However, at the same time, there are some obvious holes in his thought process as well.
When looking at a baseball manager's job description, constructing a lineup that consists of the roster's best eight guys should be very near the top of his task list. I do not even need to include hitting numbers to show that starting Allen Craig, especially with a right-hander on the mound, is not in the team's best interest right now. Over the last three seasons, Craig has been worth 7.6 fWAR to the Cardinals, but for whatever reason, he is not that type of player this season (-0.3 fWAR through 93 games).
I am a believer in the notion that he either did not recover from his Lisfranc injury properly or still has not recovered completely (both are relatively plausible, to varying degrees), but whatever the case may be, he's not hitting anything with authority, and in this situation, the end result is much more important than the process. Throwing all statistics aside, it is Craig's non-existent plate coverage, especially on the inner half, that frustrates me most.
For comparative purposes, let's take a look at Oscar's plate coverage from last night's at bat versus Kirby Yates:
As you can see, Oscar faced eight pitches in the at bat. After getting a tough strike one call on a pitch that was roughly five and a half inches below the strike zone, Oscar was forced to expand his zone (not abnormal for him given his contact percentage) and swing the bat. He swung at five pitches (two fastballs, two changeups, and one slider), and including foul tips, he made contact on all five swings. That's impressive considering Yates gave Oscar his full repertoire and lived out of the true strike zone on all but one pitch.
Despite an almost perfect set-up pitch (a dancing 85 MPH changeup over a foot beneath the zone), Taveras was able to barrel a well-placed 94.5 MPH fastball (with over six inches of horizontal movement) for a line-drive single up the middle. Using just this one at bat as a reference, one could craft a pretty informed argument that not a single hitter on the current roster has plate coverage in the same ballpark as Taveras. It did not matter that Taveras rode the bench for 26 outs of a completely lifeless ballgame.
Rumors of "laziness" and "bad attitude" have fairly or unfairly plagued Taveras for years, and this at bat would have been a perfect time for this to come to public fruition. The game was all but over. After getting screwed by the home plate umpire on strike one, he could have left his bat on his shoulder and moved on to the next game. The 7-2 loss wouldn't have been his fault. Instead, in eight pitches on a late Tuesday night in July, Oscar gave us a flash of what we can expect from him in the future. The plate coverage the 22-year-old possesses is unlike any other player Cardinals fans have witnessed with the Birds on the Bat since 2011.
To finish my thoughts on Matheny's comments, does Oscar still need some major league development? Absolutely. He is less than 100 plate appearances into his MLB career. Yet, one could argue that any player, including the great Mike Trout, has room for development. If starting a certain player that requires development directly hinders the team's overall chance at success, absolutely don't start him, but this is not at all the case here. With ample playing time to work his way out of a season-long slump, Craig has provided negative value to the 2014 Cardinals. Thus, when Matheny does "what he can to win today," it should include starting a "developing" player with incredible plate coverage and a proclivity to barrel baseballs.