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Mathenaging returns

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Questioning Mike's decisions in Sunday's game

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Twice over the offseason I looked at the Cardinals bullpen, once noting that it has a chance to be the best in team history because of the depth, and once to claim that it's breadth would help meet the 2016 innings demand. Basically, I think the Cardinals bullpen is very deep with good pitchers, and affords Matheny an opportunity most managers don't have: the ability to pull a starter early if he's struggling, and still have good pitchers going the rest of the way. He can't exactly act like Tony La Russa in the 2011 playoffs, but he can get much closer than a lot of managers.

Of course, Matheny's ability to follow through on such a strategy evokes quite a bit of rightful pessimism among a large portion of VEB, but I decided to be optimistic: it sure seemed like Mozeliak purposely built this deep bullpen, surely this was the result or product of discussions that Mo and Matheny had over bullpen management, right? That's still too early to tell. Let's look at how he managed the pen on Sunday.

Sunday was a win that completed a sweep of the Braves, and got the club back to .500, but it kind of glossed over a very weak start from Adam Wainwright. In a very un-waino-like fashion, Adam only went five innings, walking a batter per inning, with just two strikeouts on the day. He also gave up a homer and five other hits. As WyoCards pointed out in his recap, Wainwright was also uncharacteristically visibly upset (and once very vocally upset) with himself during the game. Well, the surface numbers and Waino wasn't lying, he was definitely not himself:

Wainwright, in 2014 and 2015, induced swings at pitches out of the zone at a well above average rate. He continued that on Opening Day. The Braves, so far in 2016, swing at pitches out of the zone at an above average rate. Yet, when the two met on Sunday, Wainwright induced a below average amount of swings at outside pitches. And, even though the Braves were chasing at a lower rate than usual, they were swinging at a higher rate of pitches than usual.

The Wainwright of recent history has been one that gives up an above average amount of contact, but it was higher than usual on Sunday, despite facing a team that so far has put together an essentially league average contact rate. That translated to a lower SwStr% as well, as less than one out 20 pitches from Wainwright caused a swing and miss. These numbers shouldn't be expected to represent the new Wainwright going forward, it's only a couple of starts. The point is that on Sunday, Waino simply wasn't as good as expected, and Matheny should have noticed.

Relative to past decisions, it's probably a point in Matheny's favor that Wainwright only went five innings. However, I'd argue that Matheny was too slow, and should have pulled Wainwright after four. Let's reset the scene: Wainwright made the third out of the top half of the fourth, and came out to pitch the bottom half. That inning didn't go so well, as Adam gave up a double, walk, and homer in that order, tying the game at four. The top half of the fifth would end with Brandon Moss who was batting third, meaning the pitchers spot was due up sixth in the top half of the six. The Cardinals also only had Lyons and Maness pitch in relief the previous day. Maness didn't pitch the day before that, so he could be available, whereas Lyons' outing went multiple innings and thus was probably unavailable. The team also had a day off following Monday's game, meaning the other five could at most throw at most two days in a row (Sunday and Monday) before getting a day off on Tuesday.

The Braves in the bottom of the fifth however, had their best hitters due up to face Wainwright their third time. Nick Markakis, Freddie Freeman, and Jeff Francoeur. It's not exactly an MV3 but its the best three they got. It's not late, but it's a tie game, and the Cardinals' pitcher has been not only below the standards he's set for himself, but worse than league average, and against a bad offense at that. Also, add in the times through the order penalty, and the fact that the toughest part of the order coming up. With six available relievers, each reliever besides Bowman could have lined up for an inning each in order to get through nine innings. One could have went two and saved someone, if that struck Matheny's fancy. Had the game gotten out of hand at some point, Bowman could have alternatively eaten the last few innings, saving two or three late inning options. In the case of extra innings (which is made less likely by pitching the five best relievers available in each of the last five innings) Bowman could take over at that point as well.

Instead, as we know, Matheny went with Wainwright again. Waino yielded two fly balls, one for a double, one for an out. They then intentionally walked Adonis Garcia which was a confusing decision in itself. Why not just pitch carefully to a guy with a 38.9% O-Swing% the year before, and possibly back yourself into a strikeout instead? Waino then gave up a third fly ball, good enough for a sacrifice fly. It could have been much worse, and it was still bad enough to give up the lead.

As Craig mentioned yesterday, Mike likes to try to get his starters through five innings, so they can qualify for a win. However, this instance was a shining example of how trying to get his starters the win makes the team less likely to win. Considering pitching wins are irrelevant, and team wins are paramount, this is a disastrous decision making process.

As Craig also mentioned yesterday, Matheny had Rosenthal pitch an almost-meaningless ninth inning, completely wasting the bullets of his best reliever. To his credit, Rosenthal did pitch the highest leverage plate appearance of the night (7.99 LI when he struck out Francoeur to end the eighth), but, not counting the intentional walk to Freeman, Broxton handled the second highest leverage plate appearance, which came when Rosenthal was ready to go. That was Nick Markakis' at bat in the eighth with one out and runners on first and third in a one run game.

With his unquestionably best reliever ready to go, Matheny instead stuck with one of the weakest arms for what was, at the time, the highest leverage plate appearance of the game, and again it could have very well cost the Cardinals a win. Fortunately, Broxton got Markakis, and fortunately, Matheny finally went with his best reliever after purposely putting Freeman on. Then Trevor did what Trevor does, and the eighth inning threat was averted. To make matters all the more fortunate, the Cards broke out for five runs in the ninth, making the eighth inning situation somewhat irrelevant in hindsight.

Things won't always work out so fortunately though. Matheny will cost the team wins if he continues this approach, and the bullpen is set so that he doesn't have to.