WHAT WAS OLI THINKING? What a moron, am I right? #FireOli
I’m just kidding.
That’s not the route this article will travel even though I’ve seen many takes about the Alec Burleson pinch hit decision begin this same way. And that’s exactly why I want to examine this particularly interesting moment of in-game strategy. Instead of bashing Marmol or simply arguing for the contact abilities of Alec Burleson vs. the overall production of Nolan Gorman, I want to look deeper.
This article will attempt to do a few things - examine the stats to determine who should have been the choice to pinch hit and also provide a reasonable middle ground. But, first here’s some context in case you missed the game on Friday and don’t know what I’m talking about.
In the 8th inning with the St. Louis Cardinals down one, Jose Fermin’s spot in the order came up with the bases loaded and one out. Oli Marmol decided to use Alec Burleson instead of Nolan Gorman to pinch hit against Cubs righty Mark Leiter Jr.
And then this happened.
Ron Kulpa should get an assist on this DP. pic.twitter.com/HcKWaHTUH5— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 21, 2023
The Cardinals went on to lose that game and snap their winning streak after some bad umpiring and an ill-timed double play. So, was Oli right to turn to Burleson or should he have gone with Gorman? Let’s investigate from all angles.
This is 100% what Marmol was thinking. With the bases loaded and only one out, a sac fly does the trick. So does a ground ball through the middle or a ground out, so long as it doesn’t become a double play.
Enter Burleson and his 10.2% strikeout rate, which is over three times lower than Gorman’s 31.2% strikeout rate. That means that Burleson puts the ball in play a whole lot more often than Gorman does. You may not agree with the decision to use Burleson but this is certainly a compelling argument in favor of Burleson.
It may also be worth considering which hitter is hotter. In the month of July, Burleson has a 124 wRC+ and Gorman has a 138 wRC+. More recently, Gorman was coming off an 0-for-5 game but had a 5-game hit streak before that. Burleson also was coming into the situation with a 5-game hitting streak. Gorman may have been hotter but both hitters were pretty comparable in terms of “hotness”.
There is a key difference, though. While Gorman had the higher wRC+, Burleson had the higher batting average and OBP. Gorman’s wRC+ is heavily boosted by his slugging percentage, which is nice to have but not exactly necessary in this context.
So, I would actually give the advantage to Burleson if we want to look at recent results. If we take a step back and look at who is the more productive hitter overall, Gorman is the clear winner.
So the heat check doesn’t really matter that much. Maybe there’s a slight edge for Burleson but both hitters have been hot and Gorman has been better overall so it’s basically a wash.
The Double Play
When putting the ball in play in this situation, there are basically two bad outcomes that could happen here. The first is a pop up, because it might as well be the same as a strikeout, and the second is a double play. And the double play is exactly what happened.
So, should Marmol have hedged hits bets against the double play ball? He certainly should have thought about it, but how much?
This is where ground ball rate comes into play. If the sole focus was determining who was less likely to ground into a double play, Gorman would be the clear choice. The slugger has just a 29.9% ground ball rate this year (according to Fangraphs) while Burleson hits the ball on the ground 42.4% of the time. That’s significant.
As you would expect, Gorman’s 3 double play balls compared favorably to Burleson’s 8 at the time. With 9 ground ball double plays after Friday’s game, Burleson now ranks tied for 47th among all hitters. So he does hit into more double plays than the average hitter. That matters, but how much? Does it outweigh Gorman’s strikeouts?
To answer that question, we need to look at how often Burleson grounds into double plays when he has the opportunity to do so. That means we’ll be looking at a small sample, but one that’s helpful to consider.
Burleson has come to the plate 39 times with a runner on first and less than 2 outs. That subset covers the entire range of ground ball double play situations. So take his 8 ground ball double plays (prior to Friday’s game) and divide it by his 38 plate appearances (again, prior to Friday’s game) and we get a rate of 21%. So, this year, when Burleson has come to bat in a potential ground ball double play situation, he has hit into that double play 21% of the time. If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is.
Now let’s look at Gorman. Gorman has come into a potential double play situation 93 times and has hit into the double play 3 times. That gives him a rate of 3.2%. That’s much better.
So, now, if we add the player’s strikeout rate to his double play “success” rate, we have Burleson at 31.2% and Gorman at 34.4%. Burleson is still ahead. But the problem with this little formula is that it weights a strikeout and a double play evenly and we know that’s not true.
A strikeout means that another hitter gets a chance while a double play means there are no more chances. Obviously the double play should be weighted more heavily. But how much more? It’s basically infinitely more because there’s a 0% chance of scoring a run after a double play with one out but to make the math simple, I’m just going to say that a double play is twice as bad as a strikeout. As you can probably figure out, it doesn’t really matter how much I weight the double play ball. Gorman is going to come out on top.
So let’s redo our calculation now, and, remember, we’re looking for the lower number here. The calculation looks like this: K% + (2*DP%).
Now we’re left with Burleson at 52.2 and Gorman at 37.6. Gorman wins by a landslide.
So while Burleson may have the advantage when it comes to making contact, his propensity to ground into double plays actually makes him a worse option for this situation than Gorman.
It’s pretty clear. Oli Marmol did make the wrong decision. But it certainly wasn’t an egregious decision. In fact, it’s completely defensible even if it is wrong. Burleson does make a lot more contact than Gorman and he has been hot. Marmol may not have hedged enough against the double play but I certainly understand the thinking.
I had the advantage of hindsight and time to analyze the situation whereas Marmol had to make the decision on the spot. He doesn’t really deserve all the heat he’s taken from fans on this decision.
There’s also the fact that his decision should have worked. Burleson took 3 straight balls then got screwed out of 2 calls that were both outside and off the plate. So while he did chase the third pitch that was even further outside, I don’t blame him one bit for swinging to avoid letting Ron Kulpa ring him up on what should have been ball 4, or rather ball 6.
It’s just unfortunate that the pitch Burleson had to swing at was a sinker down and a few inches outside. That’s a pitch that’s tailor-made to get a ground ball. Burleson may be a ground ball hitter but having to swing at that pitch sealed his fate when he should have already been standing at first base.
Marmol made the wrong choice from two good options and it still would have worked had there been a halfway competent umpire.
I honestly understand Kulpa missing the first call. It’s off the plate but it’s not that far off the plate. It’s not too surprising to see that pitch called a strike. The problem comes when Kulpa tells Burleson that the pitch just caught the corner and then he proceeds to call the next pitch, which was even further outside, a strike. If the first one was the corner to Kulpa, it’s indefensible, even for him, to say that the second one was over the plate.
#STLCards pinch-hitter Alec Burleson: “On 3-0, I thought it was borderline & I asked him if it was corner and he said ‘Yeah, that's the corner.’ To me, that means you're not going any more than that (outside) and then (strike 2). So, that forced me to swing 3-2.”— John Denton (@JohnDenton555) July 21, 2023
The worst part of the whole situation was the umpiring. Marmol underweighted Burleson’s double play potential but he made a decision that made sense on the surface even if it was wrong. And though Burleson did indeed ground into a double play, there wasn’t much else he could do given the pitch that he had to chase.
Thanks for reading, VEB.