Game Notes: Dodgers 5, Cardinals 3, 30/07/09 - The Big Come Down

Jul 31, 2009 at 2:56 am
-- So let me get this straight, Cardinals: you follow up the best game of the year with that clunker? I can't tell you just how disappointed I am in you guys. No, I don't care that you took three of four from the team with the best record in baseball. No, I also don't care how close the game was. You guys blew it. You had a chance to sweep the Dodgers, and you let them off the hook. 

But don't worry, I'm not here to point fingers. Well, actually, that's not true. Pointing fingers is exactly what I'm here to do. And there's plenty of blame to go around for this one. 

-- First, I blame Tony La Russa. In the bottom of the eighth, the Cards had an outstanding opportunity to take the lead. Nick Stavinoha, pinch-hitting for the pitcher, led off the inning with a double just out of the reach of Manny Ramirez. No outs, man on second, the top of the order coming up. As good an opportunity as you're going to get. Score the run, Franklin pitches the ninth, everybody goes home happy. And then the worst of Tony reared its ugly head, and he overmanaged his team right out of scoring. 
click to enlarge The Mozart of Overmanaging strikes again.
The Mozart of Overmanaging strikes again.
With Skip Schumaker up, La Russa chose to bunt Stavinoha from second to third. Now, I know I've said this before, but bunting simply isn't a good idea in nearly any situation. The run expectancy with a man on second and no outs is actually higher than that of a man on third with one out. Based on Tangotiger's Run Expectancy Matrix, we see the former situation produces an average of 1.189 runs. By bunting that runner over to third, you're expected to score .983 runs. It's just bad baseball, regardless of what conventional thinking tells you. Giving away outs is almost always the wrong thing to do. 

Unfortunately, Tony wasn't done yet. With Hong Chih Kuo, a tough lefty on the mound, La Russa decided to pinch-hit Ryan Ludwick for Colby Rasmus. Now, pinch-hitting Ludwick for Rasmus wasn't a terrible move, by any means. The real problem was the situation. You have a man on third, with less than two outs. A fly ball scores the run. Any kind of hit scores the run. Hell, even a squeeze play there scores the run. (In fact, it was the second night in a row when I felt like the squeeze play would have been a good idea. Bunting to gain an extra base = bad. Bunting in direct exchange for a run = good.) Basically, if you can get the ball out of the infield, the run scores. Unfortunately, Ludwick struck out, and that's when it all went to shit. Joe Torre chose to walk both Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, loading the bases, and brought Rick Ankiel to the plate with two outs against the lefty Kuo. 

Now, I'm not going to rag on Ankiel. He's been hitting pretty well lately. I don't think that means he's figured anything out, necessarily, but a hot streak is still nice to see. The problem is that even when Rick Ankiel is hitting well, he's still perhaps the last hitter in the world you want to see with the game on the line. In late and close situations for his career, Rick's line is .168/.228/.307, good for an OPS+ of 38. That's right. Thirty eight. (League average is 100.) The concept of clutch has been mostly disproven, but when you consider Rick's history, I don't think you can discount the fact he absolutely collapses when the game is on the line. 

Predictably, Ankiel struck out on three pitches, swinging wildly at three straight fastballs from Kuo. One of them might have been a strike, but I wouldn't bet on it. By using Ludwick to pinch-hit for Rasmus ahead of his big right-handed bats, La Russa gave Torre a way out of the inning. All he had to do was pitch around the Cardinals' two best hitters, and the inning was essentially over. If he had let Rasmus hit, even if Colby struck out as Ludwick did, the Cards could have then thrown their three best hitters out there, and Torre would have had to pitch to at least one of them. For a manager who has always prided himself on thinking two moves ahead, La Russa was badly outmanaged by Torre in that inning. It's really the biggest flaw La Russa has: he's so convinced he has this magical effect on the game, he's utterly incapable of simply taking his hands off the wheel and letting the players play.