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Not using Seung Hwan Oh yesterday seems like a huge blunder

For the life of me I can’t figure out why the Cardinals didn’t use their best relief pitcher in the 9th inning of a tied game at home yesterday.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds

The decision to not bring out Seung Hwan Oh yesterday to pitch the top of the 9th against the Brewers seems like such a blunder that I’m worried I somehow missed mention of the fact that he’s injured or needing of rest which would render the rest of this post pointless. If that’s the case, close your browser or leave a deservedly mean comment below, and enjoy the rest of your day. But hoping that isn’t the case, here’s yesterday’s sequence of events almost step by step to truly illustrate how perplexing it was to not use Oh.

With the Cardinals down 1-0 in the bottom of the 8th, Matt Carpenter doubled to lead off the inning. Kolten Wong attempted to bunt the first offering from Zach Davies but poked it foul. Since August 6, Wong has been hitting very well (.286/.406/.554), and conventional wisdom probably warns against bunting in that situation, but with his speed it didn’t seem unreasonable for him to try to catch the defense sleeping on the first pitch. Where some may have taken issue is that with the defense now firmly aware that a bunt was possible, Wong, presumably on orders from the dugout, stayed dedicated to the bunt. Wong never connected, ended up grinding the count full, and didn’t get the opportunity to swing away until he already had two strikes and much less margin for error. He ended up moving Carpenter to third anyway on a hard grounder to second and received the obligatory “attaboys” in the dugout from the team and manager alike.

Sacrificing an out to move Carpenter to third wasn’t completely indefensible. According to Baseball Prospectus, in 2016, a runner on third with one out scores slightly more often (68% vs. 66%) than a runner on second with no outs. It might thwart the possibility of a bigger inning, (I’ve highlighted this before) 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. But if the goal was, at the very least, to tie the game, it worked. Carpenter scored on the next at-bat when Stephen Piscotty flew out to deep center.

The strategy was not to my liking - I would have preferred Wong swinging away the second he stepped up to the plate. But securing the tie in the 8th with the hopes of sending the Busch crowd home elated from a walk-off win was, again, defensible. The Cardinals had sluggers Randal Grichuk, Brandon Moss (who, to be fair, is in the midst of a major slump), and Jedd Gyorko due up. And the Cardinals have scored a lot of runs in the 9th inning this year. In fact, more than any other team in the National League. According to the Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, they average .60 runs per game in the 9th inning. The NL average is .44.

But the best way to set up the walk-off scenario was to enter the bottom of the 9th with the game tied. That required doing whatever was possible to stop the Brewers from scoring in the top of the inning. They had their 2-3-4 hitters due up - the strength of most teams’ lineup - so naturally that’s combatted with the best available relief option.

That option was closer Seung Hwan Oh. In 2016, by fWAR, Oh has been worth more than two wins than the Cardinals’ next best reliever (2.5 to Matt Bowman’s 0.4). Only Kenley Jansen (3.0 fWAR) has been worth more for relievers in the NL. Oh had also only thrown two innings the over last six days so he was rested by most accounts.

Instead, Matheny went with Kevin Siegrist who, was on the same rest as Oh, and has a 2.95 ERA, 4.41 FIP, and 5.09 xFIP in the second half this year and who has been barely above replacement level all season. It didn’t work. Ryan Braun hit a solo shot in the top of the 9th, the Cardinals didn’t score in the bottom half, and today Oh has now only thrown two innings over the last seven days.

Mike Matheny has rather admirably been pretty open that he takes into account contracts and money when handling bullpen roles. In other words, get the closer as many saves as possible to help him with his next contract negotiation. That’s fine only because that mindset is hardly unique to Matheny. But unless my understanding of baseball is skewed, any opportunity to get Oh a save was gone once the Cardinals played for and secured the tie in the 8th inning. Saving Oh for the 10th inning at home would not have been any different than using him in the 9th inning but for the fact that the Brewers’ heart of the order was due up and the 10th inning wasn’t guaranteed to happen. Had the Cardinals stretched the game to extra frames, the score still would have been tied and Oh still would not have been able to log a save.

So unless I’m missing something, Matheny:

  1. played for the tie in the 8th inning;
  2. decided to not use Oh, best relief pitcher, to face the Brewers’ best hitters in the top of the 9th even though the game was on the line;
  3. opted to save Oh for a hypothetical inning that offered no save opportunity; and
  4. did all of this with a playoff berth on the line.

Or, to put it another way, by playing for a tie in the 8th inning, Matheny lessened the chance of a save opportunity for Oh in the 9th and then didn’t pitch Oh in the 9th wasn’t a save opportunity. Goodness.

Following the loss, both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus have the Cardinals’ playoff odds slightly behind both the Mets and the Giants. Each winnable game lost to the likes of the Brewers aided by head-spinning circular logic makes the remaining games that much more crucial. The Cardinals still have ten games left with the Cubs and the Giants and to date they have played .426 ball (19th best in MLB) versus teams with a winning record. It’s not going to be easy and yesterday was costly.

When assessing a manager, it’s fair to remember that a lot of moving parts go into a baseball game. I’ve never been under the impression that the job is easier than it looks and no one should ever expect the right move to be made day in and day out. But not pitching Seung Hwan Oh in the 9th inning yesterday seems like an obvious blunder at a time when the Cardinals can afford very few more.

UPDATE: It wasn’t a blunder at all, actually.

Well, hope your day went well.