There was an interesting moment in the bottom of the 5th inning in Tuesday night’s 2-1 loss to the Cubs that will likely be lost in the ether a few weeks from now. One of those “might mean something, quite likely means nothing” moments. But it was this: With two outs, Kolten Wong standing on second, and Stephen Piscotty having just scored on his dodge ball trip around the bases, Mike Matheny chose to pinch hit for pitcher Adam Wainwright with newly minted left fielder Matt Adams.
Adams worked a seven-pitch at-bat into a walk, but the possible rally was thwarted when Jake Arrieta struck out Dexter Fowler on three pitches. Still, if there was a chance for the Cardinals to win that game, that inning was as good as any. And the decision by Matheny to remove Wainwright before he had the opportunity to secure the “win,” or a quality start seemed like the obvious move, especially in a low-run affair, but when considering this manager’s past history it was still welcoming to see.
For starters, Wainwright had only thrown 82 pitches and conceivably had enough left for another inning or two. Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, and Jason Heyward - hardly murderer’s row by Cubs standards - were due up in the top of the 6th, with the bottom of the order to follow after that. We’ve certainly seen Matheny let starters languish on the mound in worse situations and his slow hook has been well-chronicled. But it was also the Cubs’ third time through the order, and Wainwright was due up in a high-leverage situation.
Craig Edwards has noted that too often Matheny has allowed the starters to hit in high leverage situations only to remove them from the game an inning later. Last season, as I wrote soon after game 162, Cardinals starters faced a lot of batters their third time through the order. I won’t go through all the painstaking details but to summarize, Cardinals pitchers faced 1,061 batters their third time through the order, second most to only the Nationals (1,066) in the National League. The big difference was that batters had an .801 OPS against the Cardinals in these situations (6th worst in the NL), and only a .695 OPS versus the Nationals (second best behind the Cubs).
This is bad for the obvious reasons. Pitchers are often worn down by the time the lineup comes around the third time. Conversely, hitters are more familiar with the pitcher’s stuff by that point, too. And it’s often that 6th inning when things implode - other than the 1st inning it’s typically the inning when the most runs are scored.
Well, here’s where the numbers get really ugly for the Cardinals. Last season, opposing hitters slashed .309/.371/.529 in 102.2 innings pitched by Cardinals starters in the 6th inning. All three stats within the slash line were the worst in all of MLB. That .900 OPS by opposing hitters would have ranked tenth in the NL, sandwiched between Ryan Braun and Paul Goldschmidt. Prefer wOBA? Same thing. Opposing hitters tee’d off at .380 (again, the worst in the league). Suffice to say, there were plenty of games lost in these moments.
Now let’s look back at Tuesday night. Once Wainwright was removed, Matthew Bowman, Brett Cecil, Kevin Siegrist, and Jonathan Broxton combined to hold the Cubs scoreless over the final four innings, needing just 48 total pitches between them to do it. We can quibble over which relievers were used, maybe a full-day rested Seung Hwan Oh should have gotten the 9th instead of Broxton to better the chances of a still one-run game for the final three outs, but it’s hard to find fault with Matheny’s overall bullpen philosophy that night.
One question remains, if the Cardinals weren’t threatening to score in the bottom of the 5th, would Matheny have pulled Wainwright (he was due up fifth)? Who knows, but I hope so. The 6th inning stats above aren’t pretty, we know the third-time-through-the-order stats aren’t pretty, and though Wainwright was holding his own, a one or two-run game is still there for the taking, meaningless pitching stats be damned.
If you subscribe to Joe Sheehan’s newsletter, you’ll know that he docks the Cardinals a couple of wins each season in his projections because of Matheny. This year, he sees Matheny as the difference in the Cardinals missing the playoffs. That’s a harsh, albeit deserved, assessment. However, Matheny can show marked improvement by managing the starters just like he did on Tuesday. It didn’t help them win that game but it will eventually pay off.
Credit to Baseball Reference and FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards for the stats in this post.