Happy Labor Day Weekend VEB! Randal Grichuk seems to hitting well as of late, so that’s something to celebrate. In the last 30 days, Grichuk has been hitting great, and doing so in about the most Randal way imaginable: An attrocious 33.8 K% and 1.5 BB% more than made up for by a .324 BABIP and and an astounding .448 ISO.
In typical Mike Matheny fashion, that has meant an increase in playing time. He’s had at least 3 plate appearances in every game since returning from his latest demotion to Triple-A (he’s had two in 2016). I’m not going to recap every part of the Cardinals’ strange handling of Randal Grichuk. I don’t have to because Craig already has.
The short of it is that for nearly all of his players, Matheny has a very low tolerance for just a few games in which a player lacks production. A player can have a bad series and count on playing less in the next one. That’s reality for pretty much everyone on the team besides Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter. The opposite can also occur: a hot stretch can guarantee more playing time in the short term.
The problem is, baseball is not predictive in such small samples. The Cardinals lost consecutive series to the Reds and Braves about a month ago. That doesn’t make those two teams better than the Cardinals. Most fans grasp this, as do the players. Player performance is even more suspect in such a small sample, as each individual player has a much smaller amount of PA than his team’s total PA over any given sample.
Players have both great and horrible stretches over a 162 game season, that’s a given to most fans regardless of their feelings about statistics in baseball. It evidently does seem lost upon Matheny though. Mike has assembled his lineups completely around who is hot at the moment and who isn’t.
This is has been a particular problem for Grichuk. That’s because Grichuk is the epitome of a streaky hitter. Generally, a hitter’s floor is largely based on his walk rate, and that is the biggest hole in Grichuk’s offensive profile. He also strikes out much more than average. Strikeouts and walks both tend to stabilize in smaller amounts of plate appearances than Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) and a player’s extra base hit ability (ISO).
For Grichuk, that means his profile literally lives and dies based on his results on contact. You can see that pretty well from visualizing his rolling 15-game wOBA throughout his career, provided by the good people atFangraphs.com :
Quite a few high peaks and low valleys there. Grichuk’s 2016 peaks and valleys were lower than in 2015, but it wasn’t all that significant of a difference. His latest peak bucked that trend though, and represented his best 15-game stretch of his career. Does that mean Grichuk figured out something about hitting? I would seriously doubt it. He’s probably just a little more in sync than usual or in a better rhythm, or seeing the ball a bit better.
A lot of players’ 15-game wOBA’s jet around in this fashion, but with Grichuk there’s a higher tendency due to how much of his profile is dependent on results from contact which varies a lot by its nature.
The problem is, Mike Matheny doesn’t even use 15-game stretches to draw from, it’s more like 3-5 games. Let’s check out Grichuk’s 5-game rolling wOBA:
Wowza. Again, this probably isn’t all that different from most players, but I’d expect it to be a little streakier than average due to Randal’s profile. It’s hard to imagine a more streaky graph, though those are probably out there.
Notice the Y-axis is scaled differently than the first. In 15-game streaks, Randal had peaks in-between .450 and .500, with several valleys between .200 and .250. Remember, wOBA is scaled to OBP, so the average of both this year is .318. When shortened to five, he has peaks around .600 and valleys around .100. Randal, over five game stretches, can look like one of the best hitters in history or the worst hitter in history. Again, this probably isn’t all that different than most players.
Are these 5 and 15 game stretches predictable? Not really, they bounce around with reckless abandon. The only clear pattern to either graph is the tendency to shoot up and down. When Grichuk is struggling, you can be sure better days are ahead in the near future. When he’s hot, you can be sure worse days are ahead.
So instead of just letting Grichuk be Grichuk, he’s periodically been benched or demoted, and its generally meant a worse everyday lineup. That’s been the case whether it meant more time for Quad-A talent Jeremy Hazelbaker, or it meant putting Piscotty out of position in center-field. I actually do like Tommy Pham as a hitter more than Randal, but that’s clearly not how the Cardinals feel. They should be sticking with who they think is the better player, regardless of his stats in the last series.
Matheny seems to take this strategy based on the fact that the team has a lot of depth this year. I love the depth the 2015 Cardinals possess, but this isn’t how you utilize it. You do so by playing the match-ups. That’s mostly based on handedness, but also ground-ball hitters gain a small advantage against fly ball pitchers, and vice-versa. You can also play match-ups on defense as well, emphasizing infield defense more when the Cardinals have a ground-ball pitcher on the mound, and outfield defense when a fly-ball pitcher starts. It also makes sense to use the positional versatility of the current group of players to make sure everyone is well rested.
I was originally very "meh" about Matheny’s strategy of playing time being largely based on the last few games production. It’s not the way I would do things, but it was at least an improvement over the perception of many (including myself) prior to this year that he doled out playing time largely based on a player’s "Mike Guy" status.
However, after several months of dealing with it, something has to change. Baseball talent is not measured over a few days of results. Matheny should know that. This isn’t something that every manager does wrong, quite a few managers are vocal about letting their starters play through the inevitable rough patches of the year. That’s not to say a player’s slump can’t ever warrant giving him a day off. Sometimes, a player’s swing is just out of sync, or he’s dealing with a small injury.
A lot of times, we’re not privy to that type of information. But Mike Matheny is switching it up way too often for something to be really going on each and every time he sits a starter. Every time a bench player plays over a starter, it decreases the chances of winning that particular game. Of course, players need regular rest in order to be their most effective. The manager’s job is to balance the two. I don’t think Matheny is doing particularly well at that portion of his job right now.