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The win and the save statistics are causing poor choices by Mike Matheny

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The pitcher win and the save are arbitrary statistics. They should not inform managerial decisions, but they do.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Most statistics are around to provide credit for a player's performance. Some are better than others.

  • A home run occurs generally when a batter hits the ball hard enough and far enough that it clears the outfield wall and the batter can run all the way around the bases to score. Home runs are difficult and take quite a bit of skill. A home run is a really good statistic and very much worth keeping track of.
  • Runs Batted In (RBI) occur when a batter hits the ball causing other runners or himself to score. The RBI is not as good of a stat to keep track of in terms of giving credit to a player because it is highly dependent on teammates to get on base and provide opportunities. Some players receive many more opportunities than others so RBI can be misleading.
Wins and saves are worse and Mike Matheny keeps them in mind when he is managing to the detriment of the team.

For a starter to receive a pitcher win, he must pitch at least five innings and be the current pitcher when his team takes the lead for the final time. When using statistics to give deserved credit to a player, the pitcher win can be incredibly deceiving. Pitchers are reliant on their offense to score runs, their defense to make good plays and the bullpen to maintain the lead after the starter departs. A pitcher can pitch very poorly and get a win, and a pitcher can pitch very well and get a loss. Wins are misleading, but many still judge pitchers based on wins so many players and managers believe they are important, and unfortunately, Mike Matheny uses pitcher wins to help him manage games.

There are a few different ways this can manifest itself. First, the pitcher can hit for himself in an important situation so that he can stay in the game and hopefully earn a "win" by staying in the game until the Cardinals take the lead. As I pointed out at the beginning of the offseason, the Cardinals were first in MLB in plate appearances by pitchers in high-leverage situations.

Second, the manager can leave in a tired pitcher when the game is tied or losing by a small margin so that the team can get back up to bat and the offense can hopefully take the lead and earn the pitcher a win. Nick Lampe, in his piece on Mike Matheny and wins, noted a specific example when Matheny let Lance Lynn keep pitching despite being tired and ended up giving up another run before taking him out of the game.

The third way, which has already occurred this season is when Mike Matheny lets a struggling pitcher try to complete five innings so he can qualify for the win. In the second game of the year against the Pirates, Michael Wacha was struggling. He made it through four innings, but twice innings were ended with the pitcher's spot and in another he was bailed out by a double play. He was not locating his pitches, his change was ineffective, he had given up multiple hits in each of three prior innings leading to three total runs. The Cardinals offense helped the club by scoring five runs.

In the bottom of the fifth, if Michael Wacha could get three outs, then he would be in line for a pitcher win if the bullpen held serve the rest of the way. Or, the fully rested bullpen could hold serve beginning in the fourth inning. Wacha would not get the win, but the Cardinals might still win. The top of the order was due up. Michael Wacha was ineffective, getting a groundout followed by two singles and a walk. Wacha and Matheny were living dangerously and the risk hurt the team when Aledmys Diaz, in his first MLB start, made an error trying to get the inning-ending double play. That error is on DIaz, but loading the bases and taking the risk were on Matheny and Wacha.

While Matheny generally leaves pitchers in too long, there is still the question of whether Matheny would change his managing somewhat if the pitcher win did not exist. Would pitchers still remain in tie games or when the team is trailing when they are past their point of effectiveness? If a pitcher could get a win after four innings, would Wacha have still been in that game against the Pirates? Matheny's stated goal is to play for the game at hand, but he does not always manage like it.

While we do not know for certain that Matheny would manage differently without the pitcher win, we do know that he would if the save statistic did not exist. Matheny has stated that he knows arbitration salaries are based on statistics like saves and that the tries to get Trevor Rosenthal as many saves as possible. Ben Humphrey discussed this issue last summer. First the save rule:

From Baseball-Reference, here is a refresher on the boxes that must be checked in order for a save to take place. The pitcher must have finished a game his club won; he was not the "winning" pitcher; and one of the following conditions is met:

  • He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning;
  • He enters the game, regardless of the score, with the potential tying run either on base, at bat, or on deck; or
  • He pitches for at least three innings.

This is where we get the ridiculousness from yesterday where the Cardinals best reliever pitching the ninth inning in a six-run blowout. Rosenthal saved the game for the Cardinals yesterday, but not because he got the final three outs of the game in the ninth. Rosenthal saved the game when he came in during the eighth inning with the bases loaded of a one-run game and struck out Jeff Francouer. That was a good move by Matheny, but unfortunately, what Rosenthal did in the eighth does not earn him a save statistically. He had to come out and pitch the ninth.

If it were still a one-run game or even close, then bringing Rosenthal out for the ninth would have made sense. However, Rosenthal spent a ton of time on the bench watching the Cardinals score five more runs and put the game out of reach. With the game out of hand and Matt Bowman available in the bullpen, Matheny could have asked Bowman to get those last three outs and get the team to St. Louis for the home opener today.

Instead, to get Rosenthal the save, Matheny let the Cardinals closer in the batter's box, risking unnecessary injury. Then, he let him pitch in a blowout. After 26 more pitches, a walk, two hits, and a run, Rosenthal got that save. When Rosenthal entered the game, the Cardinals win expectancy was 65% and after the end of the eighth, Rosenthal's pitching had moved it to 85%, a gigantic out by Rosenthal. When Rosenthal came back out to pitch the ninth inning, the Cardinals win expectancy was 99.8% and already a sure thing.

Pitchers only have so many bullets, and Matheny has overworked Rosenthal in the past. After 30 pitches yesterday, Rosenthal might not be available today, or he might be slightly diminished after a tiring outing. While player loyalty is well and good, Matheny owes it to the team and the organization to put the team in the best position to win the game in the moment as well as over the season while considering the health of the player.

With Wacha, Matheny risked the team's chance to win a single game. With Rosenthal, Matheny risked today's game as well as the health and future effectiveness of his closer. The reason: the pitcher win and save statistics. These statistics are interfering with Matheny's ability to effectively manage the team, and hurting the Cardinals.