The Cardinals' 5-1 victory over the Brewers on Sunday was a satisfying way to ease into the mid-season break. Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus might have a thing or two to say about momentum and whether it matters (probably not, it seems), but from a fan standpoint it certainly makes the four-day break all that more bearable when the most recent image of your team isn't a complete collapse of a series against your main division rival.
So things can always be worse (or better, if you have a more balanced perspective since the '15 Cardinals team entered the break with the best record in baseball), but something happened in the top of the 3rd inning of Sunday's game that was either a big deal or not a big deal, again, depending on one's perspective, and that something was this:
With the score knotted at one and following a leadoff Tommy Pham line-drive double to left, Aledmys Diaz stepped up to the plate and bunted the first pitch he saw back to pitcher Junior Guerra. Pham was unable to advance to third; Diaz was easily thrown out at first. True to form, the inning ended three batters later (Jhonny Peralta drew a walk between the second and third outs) with Pham still standing on second. There was some handwringing at the time on Twitter, but two hours later the Cardinals won the game and this moment disappeared into the ether with the rest of the first-half unpleasantries that wound up being meaningless.
There's an argument that there are worse players to have bunt in that situation. Diaz is currently tied for third in the NL with 20 infield hits, one of which came on a bunt. But it was the wrong play at the wrong time, and to be perhaps unfair to manager Mike Matheny, whether he ordered the bunt or Diaz did it on his own, the fault still lies with him. (Note: If someone asked Matheny about this specific play and why it happened in the postgame presser I missed it.)
If Matheny ordered Diaz to bunt he's to blame for obvious reasons, and it would have been a mistake even had it been successful. In 2016, according to Baseball Prospectus, teams with a runner on third with one out score roughly 67% of the time, while scoring at a slightly less rate (65%) with a runner on second and no outs. However, data also suggests that had the bunt been successful it would have thwarted the chance for a big inning. Between 2010-2015, teams with a runner on third with one out scored an average of 0.95 runs, while teams with a runner on second with no outs scored an average of 1.10 runs.
Being that early in a tied game, the goal should be the big inning, even against a pitcher who's having a very good year, like Guerra. And that's especially true when your best every day hitter is at the plate, which Diaz is (by wRC+) when Matt Carpenter is on the shelf. He was hot, too. Heading into that game, Diaz had hit safely in 15 of 17 games and batted .369/.470/.723, good for an absurd 217 wRC+ during that stretch. A guy on a terror like that shouldn't be bunting in a similar situation in the 9th inning of a tied game let alone in the 3rd.
What's more, the Cardinals aren't a good bunting team. According to Baseball-Reference, they've attempted the fifth most bunts in the National League (the Braves, Rockies, Reds, and Brewers have attempted more), and they have the third worst success rate of moving the runner over behind the Dodgers and Cubs.
If Diaz chose to bunt on his own accord, he made a mistake but part of the blame still lies with Matheny. To the point of mockery, Matheny's been called a "leader of men," and most of the unquantifiable evidence we have indicates that he's quite good in that role. But part of being a leader is creating a climate in the clubhouse in which players know when there is a red light on bunts, and that at-bat on Sunday qualifies.
In Game 5 of the 2011 World Series (my god, that game), a hit-and-run in the 7th inning with Albert Pujols at the plate and slow-footed Allen Craig on first left Craig a sitting duck at second when the pitch was so far outside Pujols was unable to swing. It was a terrible idea even before it was botched. Afterward, we were told that Pujols signaled for the hit-and-run, and while it was still ill-advised, it was at least done by a player at liberty to make the call. I'm not comparing the stakes of a stupid Sunday game in July to the World Series, and Diaz has been better than any of us imagined he would have been, but while he's hitting the ball all over the field it's on Matheny to make sure he understands that's what he's in the lineup to do until given further notice. To put it simply, after only 334 plate appearances in MLB, Diaz should not be at liberty to choose to bunt in the situation that presented itself on Sunday and it's Matheny's job to make sure he knows that.
In a widely-shared column on Tuesday, Bernie Miklasz rightfully took Matheny's performance in 2016 to task and highlighted how much the Cardinals are under-performing given different win-expectancy models. Bad decisions like the one on Sunday are a microcosm of this very thing. This time it didn't matter, next time it might. And with all their losses already on the board, the need for the Cardinals to play better in the second half is obvious. They can start by being smarter.