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Mike Matheny’s terrible bullpen strategy: a vignette

In a must-win game, Matheny showed us why we think he’s so bad at this

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

First: Mike Matheny probably did not cost the Cardinals yesterday’s game. Repeat that as many times as it takes to either open your mind to the point, or to grasp that I am not claiming Mike Matheny cost the Cardinals yesterday’s game. Matheny didn’t throw the pitches that allowed the Cubs to take the lead late in the game (or early in it, for that matter) and wasn’t responsible for the fact that the offense only scored three runs. The players on the field were the ones who executed every pitch, catch, throw, and swing, and the lion’s share of blame and credit for results on the field should always go to the players who did the playing. If Randal Grichuk squeezes a liner, or the wind’s not blowing in for Dexter Fowler, or any number of other things, Matheny’s mistakes would be (as they usually are) papered over.

Second: Mike Matheny put the Cardinals in a worse position to win yesterday’s game than a better manager would have. He might have cost the team the game, versus what happened in some unknowable counterfactual world in which a better manager made good decisions instead of bad ones. And that’s a problem.

So with that in mind, here’s a series of decisions ranging from plain old weird to downright bad that Matheny made yesterday afternoon (whether or not their outcomes were good):

Kept Lance Lynn in to pitch to Kris Bryant in the 4th. Matheny was apparently ready to pull Lynn: we know this because his batting spot came up in the top of the 5th, and Matheny pulled him. Yet instead of getting a fresh arm, he let Lynn pitch to one of the best hitters in the league in the bottom of the 4th with two men on base. With September bullpen sizes in effect, Lynn already at 76 not-that-effective pitches, and the knowledge that Lynn isn’t seeing a fifth inning, it’s just weird to let him pitch to Bryant with RISP instead of getting a fresh arm for one out. Lynn got a strikeout, though, so no damage done on what was really more of a head-scratcher than anything else.

Let John Brebbia pitch to lefties in the 6th. With an inherited runner on second and the game tied, Brebbia was left in to pitch to both Jon Jay and Ben Zobrist. Brebbia’s wOBA allowed is 64 points higher vs. LHH, and his minor-league splits are equally ugly. Although you do want a righty to pitch to Ben Zobrist (a switch-hitter who is better from the right side) and Kris Bryant, a smarter move would have been to LOOGY Jay, and let another righty take over for Zobrist. If you want that righty to be Brebbia, fine: use somebody else for one out to start the inning. Brebbia got the outs he needed, so again, fortunately no harm was done here, and again, this was more puzzling than awful.

Gave away the platoon advantage in the 7th. Now it gets pretty bad, and we start to see Matheny easily outmaneuvered by Joe Maddon. Tyler Lyons came in with a stack of lefties due up and the score still tied — so far, so good. After Anthony Rizzo and pinch hitter Javier Baez reached, Lyons induced a pop-up for one out. Due up were Albert Almora, Jr. (R), Jason Heyward (L), and Addison Russell (R). Ian Happ, a switch hitter who is best from the left side and who could take over for Almora in CF, was on the Cubs’ bench. The choice was thus (a) stick with Lyons for a righty and a lefty, or (b) bring in a righty, invite Maddon to pinch hit Happ, and have a righty pitch to two lefties. Matheny chose (b) for no good reason I can fathom, and Bowman entered.

Perhaps this is because he conceives of a “double play guy” role that Bowman has inherited from Seth Maness, but that’s dumb: Bowman has gotten grounders 53% of the time this year vs. Lyons’ 43%, and not all grounders are double play balls, so you’re giving up the platoon advantage for one hitter in exchange for a pretty small increased chance of a GIDP by the first batter. Anyway, Lyons is better than Bowman, so choosing to have the lesser pitcher face two guys without a platoon advantage seems clearly worse than having the better one face two guys with the platoon advantage vs. one of them.

Anyway, this is when the Cubs scored the go-ahead run, so significant harm indeed was done.

Held back Juan Nicasio until after the damage was done. This...this is the bad shit. The Cardinals needed this game about as badly as a team can need one game in mid-September. Nicasio seems to be the best pitcher in the bullpen. We know Matheny wasn’t doing the “save him for a save” nonsense, because Nicasio pitched the bottom of the 8th — when the Cards were already down 4-3.

So if you’re going to use a righty where Matheny used Bowman in the 7th... and you’re not married to saving Nicasio for a save... why in the world wouldn’t we see the best reliever on the team in the 7th instead? This is so obvious that it is painful to point out to a (surely not reading this) MLB manager, but when your team has three runs, preventing your opponents’ fourth run is FAR more important than preventing their fifth.

Matheny was willing to deploy Nicasio to prevent the Cubs from getting five, but not four. That is asinine. (And it is not a good answer that when the game was tied, the possibility of a save situation seemed more likely than when the Cards were behind. That’s like saving your fire extinguisher for a fire that might or might not occur later in the evening, when your toaster has violently burst into flames at 9 a.m.)

So was there damage done, here? Would Nicasio have gotten out of the jam where Bowman didn’t? I don’t know, but he sure would have had a better shot, and that’s the point. Recognizing and exploiting matchups and probabilities is the manager’s entire job between the 1st pitch and the 27th out, and Matheny botched that job several times yesterday.

Mike Matheny’s terrible bullpen strategy has been a point of criticism basically since the beginning. Yes, the team has had some strong bullpens in the past under Matheny, but that’s because those teams had the horses in the bullpen that this team lacks — and even then, Matheny got less out of his highly talented bullpens than he could have. Craig specifically mentioned this in his post last year calling for Matheny’s firing, and he’s right: Matheny’s demonstrated (and demonstrated, and demonstrated, and demonstrated) inability to manage late-game strategic situations to his team’s best advantage is a good reason to replace him. He’s costing the team wins.

Can I say with any certainty that yesterday was one of those wins? No, I can’t. But if I do something every night that hurts my chances of winning by just, say, 2%, then over hundreds of games I can confidently state that I have cost my team some wins. And I can say with certainty that yesterday goes into a long list of close games in which Matheny made boneheaded bullpen moves and the Cardinals lost. At least some of those losses belong squarely on Matheny’s doorstep, and it needs to end.