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On not bringing the closer in for a tie game on the road

Mike Matheny’s poor strategy has hurt the Cardinals.

St Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Feeling a bit frustrated about Mike Matheny and the Cardinals’ organization poor decision to start Jaime Garcia and then seeing Matheny’s comment calling criticism of the decision second-guessing, I decided to do a search of Mike Matheny and second-guessing. My plan at the time was to dig up Matheny quotes about being second-guessed and then show that actually, it was not second-guessing, but poor decision-making that was easily predicted ahead of time. I didn’t really find what I was looking for, but I found something else worth a post on using the closer late in a tie game.

On Sunday, the Cardinals found themselves tied 4-4 against the Miami Marlins in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Cardinals brought in Matt Bowman in the ninth. Bowman, who has been a terrific find by the Cardinals, and deserving of higher leverage situations, was not a terrible choice to come in the game at that time. However, he is not the Cardinals best reliever.

The Cardinals second-best reliever, Kevin Siegrist, had just pitched the eighth. There is a credible argument that Bowman is the third-best reliever, but there really isn’t an argument to make that Bowman is better than the current Cardinals closer, Seung Hwan Oh.

Signed at a bargain rate (another great find by the Cardinals and Bowman and Oh are exhibit A and B this year of why you don’t pay for relievers), Oh has struck out 33% batters, walked just 7% and given up just two homers. He is unquestionably the Cardinals best reliever and closer. Having the previous two days off, Oh was likely ready to go.

And my search above led to me the following tweet from the 2014 playoffs.

You might remember that game as the one Michael Wacha came in and gave up a walkoff home run to the Giants while closer Trevor Rosenthal and backup closer (yes, that was a thing in those playoffs) Carlos Martinez sat that one out.

Credible arguments were made on twitter that perhaps Matheny was saving Oh for the potential heart of the lineup with Stanton likely up in the 10th. While I disagree with that logic as the 10th inning isn’t guaranteed to happen, it has some logic in it that you want your best reliever facing the most difficult situations. Of course, it doesn’t matter if you don’t make it there, and it doesn’t really matter at all if that’s not what Matheny was thinking.

I assumed that maybe the 2014 playoffs was some odd #mathenaging that didn’t really carry over, and that perhaps he was just making an excuse for a struggling closer he didn’t really believe in, but didn’t want to say as much. So I looked up games over the past year where the Cardinals were on the road and tied heading to the bottom of the ninth.

The very next chance Matheny got, on April 12, 2015 against the Cincinnati Reds, Trevor Rosenthal was used in the ninth inning of a tie game on the road. The Cardinals scored in the top of the 11th, Carlos Villanueva pitched the 10th and the 11th to finish the game.

Since then:

April 21, 2015: No Rosenthal. Cardinals lose on walkoff in the 10th.

May 18, 2015: No Rosenthal until the bottom of the 14th with runners on first and second, no out. Cardinals lose on walkoff in the 14th.

June 18, 2015: No Rosenthal. Cardinals lose on walkoff in the ninth.

July 11, 2015: No Rosenthal until two outs bottom of the ninth. After Cardinals took the lead in the 10th, Rosenthal gave up tying run in the bottom of the tenth, and Cardinals lost on walkoff in the 14th.

July 12, 2015: No Rosenthal until save situation in the bottom of the tenth after Cardinals took the lead in the top of the tenth. Pirates walkoff against Rosenthal in the bottom half of the 10th.

August 5, 2015: No Rosenthal until two outs in the ninth. Rosenthal pitches a clean tenth, and the Cardinals win in the 13th as Seth Maness pitches the 12th and 13th.

August 28, 2015: No Rosenthal. Cardinals lose on walkoff in the ninth, although it would have been three straight days for Rosenthal.

September 15, 2015: No Rosenthal until the 10th in save situation and the Cardinals win.

April 5, 2016: No Rosenthal until the 10th. Cardinals lose on walkoff in the 11th against Seth Maness.

June 7, 2016: No Rosenthal. Cardinals lose on walkoff in the 9th against Kevin Siegrist.

July 8, 2016: Rosenthal, who is not the closer anymore, comes in during a tie game in the ninth, walks the first batter, gets the sac bunt for the first out, then Oh, who is the closer, came in and then a HBP, strikeout, and then a single led to a Cardinals walkoff loss.

July 31, 2016: See above

In review:

  • After the disastrous Wacha game, Mike Matheny brought in his closer to start the ninth the very next opportunity he got, the Cardinals won on a walkoff, and then he never did it again.
  • The Cardinals are 2-10 in games since the start of 2015 where the Cardinals did not use their closer in the ninth inning of a tie game on the road.
  • Three times, the closer was used in the middle of the ninth inning. The Cardinals went 1-2 in those games.
  • Four times, the closer was brought in during the middle of an inning. The Cardinals went 1-3 and in two of those games, the closer blew the game.
  • Five times, the closer was never used at all. The Cardinals went 0-5 in those games.
  • Just twice out of 13 games was the closer saved and brought in during a save situation, and one of those times the save was blown.

The record above is anecdotal of course, but logic would tell you that using your best pitchers is the best way to win a game. Worrying about a save chance that might never happen is foolish. If this strategy is being used as a way to get the closer more saves in a way to boost stats is counterproductive to winning the game. On Sunday, Bowman wasn’t an awful choice. He had been pitching well, and a miscommunication in the outfield prevented what probably should have been a clean inning.

The decision to use Bowman was not the best managerial decision, however, and unfortunately it is a decision that Mike Matheny, along with other managers, has made repeatedly over the last few years. Bad process. Bad results.