June 14, 2014

Baseball Conventional Wisdom Is Sometimes Stupid

The Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Miami Marlins 8–6 last night in 13 innings thus breaking a streak of 11 consecutive losses on Fridays the thirteenth. Good news, right.  Well, only sort of.

Perhaps the best news was that the much-anticipated right fielder Gregory Polanco, called up only days before to fill in for Neil Walker, who underwent an emergency appendectomy, ended the night with five hits, including a game-winning home run in the top of the thirteenth inning. Polanco looked pretty good in the field as well, saving a run in the third by making a diving catch of what seemed a sure hit by Reed Johnson. The night was made sweeter for the new Pirate by his mother’s presence in the stands for the first time in his major league career. (See the MLB.com story here.)

Overall descriptions of the game are available from MLB.com and from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As can be seen from the box score, Polanco went 5 for 7; Marte 4 for 7, including a first inning two-run homer; McCutchen 2 for 7; Davis 2 for 3; Martin and Mercer each 1 for 6; and Barmas 2 for 2.

What was most extraordinary about the game was the bottom of the ninth. Jeff Lock had pitched eight innings, given up 2 runs to the Pirates’ 6, and walked none. He had thrown 101 pitches and had not allow a run since the third inning. His effectiveness did not seem to be diminishing as the game wore on.

But baseball conventional wisdom says that it risks the health of a pitcher for him to throw more than 100 pitches in a game. It is also conventional wisdom to bring in a specialist pitcher in the ninth inning when your team is ahead. In this case, Manager Clint Hurdle took out Locke and brought in Justin Wilson. Since there wasn’t a save situation, Hurdle did not select closer Jason Grilli or Grilli-substitute Mark Melancon.

Wilson, who seemed nearly incapable of throwing strikes, walked two and managed only a single out. Hurdle had had enough; he brought in Grilli, a move that, in times past, had seemed to make shutting down the opposition pretty much a sure thing. Grilli couldn’t throw strikes, either. He got one ground out, but he walked two and gave up a two-run single. He then intentionally walked Casey McGehee, a serious threat at the plate, to load the bases. With the score 6–5, Grilli was pulled for Melancon. The formerly reliable closer was seriously and visibly upset. Malancon wasn’t much better than Wilson or Grilli. He walked in the tying run before scoring the third out. A seemingly certain Pirate win had suddenly gone from a comfortable 6–2 lead to a 6–6 tie. Pirate pitchers had walked 6 batters in a single inning!

Jeanmar Gomez, who proved to be the winning pitcher, throw 4 scoreless innings for the Pirates, allowing the team to retain the two-run advantage earned by Polanco’s home run in the thirteenth.

Clint Hurdle went with the conventional wisdom in removing Locke after 8 innings, but I think doing so was a serious mistake. Bringing in a new pitcher, irrespective of his record, is always something of a crap shoot, and why would you want to roll the dice rather than stick with a pitcher who is doing a fine job and who has just barely crossed the arbitrary line of maximum allowable pitches? This is not the first time I have seen games fall apart when a successful pitcher has been removed near the end of a game.

Instead of going with the conventional wisdom, baseball managers should spend a few moments realistically weighing the odds of their decisions. They just might make different, and better, choices.

Update, 6/15/2014. Yesterday’s game was alarmingly similar to Friday’s. Charlie Morton pitched seven innings and left the game with the Pirates ahead 8–2. He threw 108 pitches. Stolmy Pimentel came in in the eighth and gave up a two-run home run in the ninth. He was replaced by Grilli, who gave up another two-run homer. The final score was 8–6.

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