There’s been some rumblings out there that Mike Matheny deserves some credit for the way the Cardinals have battled back this season after a slow start. This post isn’t about how Mike Matheny has generally guided the team to a 76-69 record this season. This post is about last night, and the Cardinals’ use of Ryan Sherriff.
The Cardinals faced a 1-0 deficit heading to the top of the fifth inning last night. Jack Flaherty had given up a homer to lead off the game, navigated the second and third innings without issue, striking out three and walking none. He gave up a hit and a walk in the fifth to Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez, respectively, but got out of the inning. In the fifth, he gave up an infield single, got a ground ball that Flaherty bobbled preventing a double play.
With one out and the pitcher up, Flaherty looked set to put him away, but then hit him. With Flaherty’s control clearly not great and the lefty Jesse Winker up, Mike Matheny made a good decision to go to the bullpen and grab a lefty. Winker has almost no experience against MLB lefties, but his minor league stats show some evidence of a platoon split. Ryan Sherriff comes in and gets Winker to pop out. Good decision. Good result. It doesn’t always work out that way, but this time it did.
While much of the focus last night came on the decision to use Sherriff against Eugenio Suarez, some focus should come on the batters before Suarez. After Sherriff did his job against Winker, he was left in to face Zack Cozart. Against lefties this season, Cozart is hitting .369/.465/.679 with a wRC+ of 194 compared to his wRC+ of 130 against righties. Now this season is a pretty small sample and Cozart wasn’t a great hitter before this season, but for his career Cozart’s wRC+ against lefties is 22 points higher than righties.
There is some question of whether Ryan Sherriff should deployed as a LOOGY or if he should be facing batters without the platoon advantage as well. Mike Matheny believes he should be facing both:
"The sink that he has when he's been down in the zone, he's going to be able to get righties out just as easily as lefties," Matheny said. "He's been throwing the ball extremely well, and we're going to continue to throw him in those big situations because he can get righties as well as lefties."
Is Matheny correct? This season, in Triple-A, Sherriff had a 56% ground ball rate, which is a lot of grounders. Righties, in 141 plate appearances at all levels, put up a .218/.295/.290 batting line against him. That seems pretty good. There are some concerns, however. Against lefties this season, Sherriff has struck out 31 of 101 batters (30.6%) and walked just two. Those are great numbers, supporting the notion Sherriff should be able to get lefties out.
Against righties, Sherriff hasn’t been as good, striking out just 25 of 141 batters (17.7%) and walked 14 (9.9%). Now, it is possible that Sherriff has some sort of skill in suppressing contact. However, it didn’t show up last season in Triple-A when he struck out 15.7% of righties, walked 7%, and gave up a a batting line of .299/.346/.437 with an overall 59% ground ball rate against more righty hitters than he has faced this season.
Matheny’s statement further flies in the face of what he has seen with own eyes. Before last night’s game, Sherriff had faced 20 righties. He had struck out five of them, but he had also walked three and given up a home run, the dinger a walkoff to Nick Hundley to lead off the tenth inning. This was after Sherriff had been properly deployed in the ninth to get Brandon Crawford. Although it was after Tyler Lyons had been pulled earlier in the ninth with a one-run lead and replaced by Seung-Hwan Oh, who coughed up that lead.
So Ryan Sherriff very much should be used as a LOOGY, but he was left in to face Zack Cozart anyway. While much focus has been placed on the replay, let’s keep in mind Cozart hit the ball really hard, 101 mph off the bat, a hit more than a third of the time. The Cardinals were fortunate that DeJong was even able to knock that ball down, let alone get it close to an out.
The decision to leave Sherriff in for Cozart was a poor decision and got a poor result. It doesn’t always work out that way, but this time it did. The next batter was Joey Votto, who is a beast, and the bases were loaded. Perhaps Sherriff shouldn’t have been left in to pitch to him given the long layoff with the replay, but it was a lefty on lefty matchup.
There is a counter-argument to Sherriff not being used as a LOOGY when two of the other lefties in the pen—Brett Cecil and Zach Duke—had been used the previous day, the latter for two innings. That perhaps could have played into Matheny’s decision-making. It would have been fortunate if Matheny had thought ahead and not pitched his lefties knowing that multiple LOOGY situations might come up against a team with Joey Votto and rookie pitcher making the start for St. Louis.
Regardless, Votto got a hit. This took the Reds chances of winning (without considering the relative strengths of the team) from two out of three to three out of four. Now Eugenio Suarez is up. Against lefties this year, Suarez’s wRC+ was 143 and against righties it was 120. For his career, his wRC+ was 25 points higher against lefties than righties.
Apparently, the fact that lefty Scott Schebler sat in the on-deck circle also played a role in Matheny not getting a righty to face Suarez. There were two outs at this time. If Suarez gets out, the inning is over and no more damage. If he gets a hit, the Reds lead grows larger making the Cardinals odds of winning considerably smaller. Schebler should have been irrelevant.
So we know what happens next. Suarez hits a grand slam, the rout is on and the Cardinals have just a one in 25 shot of making a comeback. It was a poor decision and it had a poor result. It doesn’t always work out that way, but this time it did.
So how did Mike Matheny, protector of players, respond after the game. He protected Sherriff a bit, as the quote above showed, but that was really just protecting himself as he attempted to justify his decision to put Sherriff in a difficult spot. The blame was not placed on Sherriff, and it wasn’t Matheny’s fault. Bad luck wouldn’t suffice. The blame needed to be placed elsewhere. And elsewhere he placed it. Poor Kolten Wong:
“Save five runs,” Matheny said of that play. “The only debatable issue is what foot stays on the bag for the stretch. If it was the other foot, if he’s got his right foot on the bag stretching out, that could be the difference. Got a pitcher who is running, you need the forceout.”
A lot goes into managerial decisions, and they can be very difficult. Understanding your own players’ strengths and weaknesses is incredibly important. Protecting players, even if it makes you look bad might be more important, it might be less important. Providing players with confidence and putting them in the best position to win is probably a manager’s most important job. Using Ryan Sherriff inappropriately and then blaming Kolten Wong was poor managing by Mike Matheny last night.