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CardsCards: On Mike Matheny and batting the pitcher 8th

Cardinals baseball, Carlos Martinez

“And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say,
That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

And then the true meaning of Christmas came through,
And the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!”

Leave it to Dr. Seuss to offer the best plausible explanation for why Matt Carpenter excels at hitting leadoff. Magic exists, and the spirit is in us all to defy physics and logic, and to suddenly gain ungodly amounts of strength. Beyond that, what else could it be?

So, okay. Matt Carpenter, the team’s best hitter, bats leadoff. That’s not the worst thing in the world. The leadoff spot in a typical order will see 30-40 more at-bats than a No. 3 hitter will over the course of a season.

That’s good!

Of course, at the same time, 162 of those at-bats are guaranteed to have nobody on base–for your best power hitter.

As for the rest of the at-bats, the vast majority of them will be following a pitcher such as Michael Wacha.

That’s bad.

Naturally the question is, if Matt Carpenter can only be his best when batting leadoff, how does one get him more chances to actually drive in runs?

The simplest answer, of course, is to bat the pitcher 8th.

Mike Matheny isn’t going there.

Quotes from the Derrick Goold article found here:

“I’ve let our analytics run with this, too,” he said. “And I’ve yet to be convinced that there’s a huge advantage to doing that.

“If you’re at a point where you’re really trying to dig to make something happen offensively, it’s worth entertaining. I don’t rule anything out but I just don’t see that much of a benefit.”

“I wanted to see some data, just to support my feeling, and I don’t think there’s much to persuade us that that’s the way to go.”

These are amazing quotes.

First of all, he’s kind of right. Look up any study on the pitcher batting 8th, and you’ll find that with historical lineups, there really just isn’t much of a difference.

Google any article and you’ll find a range of conclusions somewhere between there is no benefit of all, to just a few runs a year, to the occasional one in the 15-20 runs range. Most agree the benefit isn’t more than a handful of runs per year.

When it’s generally agreed upon that every 10 runs equals a win, we’re talking about a move that probably only adds about ½ a win per season.

½ a win isn’t going to save the 2017 Cardinals.

But it would help, right? Look at Matheny’s quotes. Everything he says indicates the data the Cardinals have say it would help, but not so much that he feels it’s worth it.

It makes me want to play solo Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun.

The idea that the Cardinals, who finished a single game out of the playoffs last year, and have spent THIS year being at best inconsistent–and at worst, desperate for any lucky victory–eschew something because it doesn’t help ENOUGH… it’s ludicrous.

Now, there are reasons a team would choose not to be at their best today because the benefit isn’t worth it. Teams organize their starting rotation to have lesser starters pitch today so their ace can go against a tougher opponent. Teams choose to not start the clock on a prospect because they will hold more value in future years than the current one.

In each scenario, the team has to weigh a chance of winning today versus winning tomorrow, and they are choosing the time in which winning will be more important or more valuable to them. That’s acceptable rationale.

But what is Mike Matheny’s reasoning behind not wanting to bat a position player 9th?

It might hurt someone’s feelings.

Your money quote: “I’ve been that guy, down to ninth,” said Matheny. “And it’s not a fun spot to be.”

Talk about a leader of men.

Of course, it’s just terribly moronic. Part of your role in leading this team is to communicate your vision. This isn’t little league ball. This isn’t high school. These are the 30 best teams in the world featuring the 30 best analytics departments. There should be constant education about what makes for playing smart baseball.

How hard is it to tell a player he’s not batting 8th anymore–and will instead bat 9th–and will be doing so precisely BECAUSE he’s a better hitter than the pitcher? How hard is it to explain that even if his little league coach batted the fat slow guy last, this is a professional team, one that understands a batting order is a circle? To explain that you want him batting 9th so his superior skills can actually help the team win when he reaches base?

I cannot imagine that being a hard concept to understand. Yet, the above quote makes it clear: Not only will Mike not use or teach this, but also… he doesn’t even understand it himself. He just knows that batting last hurts, and the possibility of an extra win or two is not worth the horrible, terrible, emotional pain that a player might feel batting in the last spot.

The worst part? If batting the pitcher 8th would help any team more so than the rest, that team would be the Cardinals.

You see, the basic truth behind all of this is that it’s a give and take. Like the occasionally frustrating infield shift, sometimes a batter happens to hit a slow roller right to where the shortstop normally would have been, and it goes for a hit. With this move, there are times when the pitcher is batting 8th where he’ll come up with two runners on, and you’ll wish a position player was there instead. When Tony La Russa deployed such a strategy, Albert Pujols was batting 3rd, and the 9th place hitter would be getting on base for, say, David Eckstein. The inning would have to survive multiple batters before any big thumpers get their chance.

The 2017 Cardinals? They have their big thumper batting leadoff. So how much would it help him to not have the pitcher before him? I made this handy graph for you:

No, I’m just kidding. That’s what I found when I googled “Corn Distribution Chart” This is because it’s so freaking self-evident what a help it would be, it needs no analysis.

The 2017 Cardinals pitching staff has an OBP of .181, which is well above league average. Eric Fryer–who is positively Kozmosian­­–has an OBP of .275. This means that even with the Cardinals very good hitting pitchers–and using the Cardinals worst hitter as an example–Matt Carpenter gets 10% more at-bats with someone one base.

Folks, that’s actually low for the averages. The typical pitcher OBP is in the .150 range, and the typical 8 hitter is a little south of .300. Meaning under normal circumstances, you would be almost doubling the plate appearances Carpenter gets with runners on by batting the pitcher 8th.

In other words, this tactic makes more sense for the Cardinals than it would for any typical team, so long as Carpenter leads off. It’s basic logic, right? Everything is settled?

Not so fast.

There is a very simple reason that the Cardinals could take this advantage and completely flush it down the toilet, and it’s the manager.

“In 2015, high-leverage plate appearances accounted for roughly 10% of all plate appearances, per FanGraphs. The Cardinals led all teams in high-leverage plate appearances by pitchers with 31 plate appearances, per Fangraphs. This might seem like a small amount, but consider that once every five games, the Cardinals went with an automatic out in a key situation.”

Since Mike Matheny began his managerial tenure he has led the league in this stat once, tied for the lead league once, and tied for 2nd twice, including last year.

One of the biggest arguments against pitchers hitting 8th is the idea that they will get more at–bats, and that those at bats will be more important. It’s a very simple idea to combat, because in the middle or later innings, when your pitcher is up in a high leverage spot where you need runs, you pinch-hit. Obviously.

But that concept apparently isn’t as obvious to Mike Matheny, and the 8th spot really will see more at-bats, and more high leverage at-bats overall, and it needs a manager that knows to go to the bench.

I know what some of you will say. Go to THIS bullpen?

My answer is this: You mean on THIS team? With a bigger burden on THIS offense? Trust THESE starters longer? It’s all bad. Something is likely to break and fail. Lately it seems to happen every single day. But you still put your team in the best position you can to win, even if it means going to this bullpen and watching it all blow up; it was likely going to blow up anyway.

So after all of this, should the Cardinals bat the pitcher 8th? I don’t know. Who cares? You’ve seen all of the talk about the Cardinals moves being deck chairs on the Titanic, and that’s right today on June 25th. There probably isn’t anything the Cardinals can do to turn around their season, so it almost doesn’t matter what Matheny throws on the field. Mike Mayers isn’t going to be the secret to this team playing at a .600 clip. Randal Grichuk isn’t going to spend a month in the minors and become the new Greek God of Walks.

But batting the pitcher 8th is a tool for a team desperate for any possibility of help, and the manager won’t use because it doesn’t help enough.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

John Mozeliak has failed to learn the most important lesson from the Titanic. Every year he insists on building an unsinkable ship, and every year his captain runs it into an iceberg.

Wouldn’t it just be easier to get a new captain?

CardsCards, batting 8thThe Intrepid STL
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