Matt Bowman has been manager Mike Matheny’s favorite relief pitcher in 2017. In fact, Bowman has been one of the most-used relievers by total appearances at 71. In a vacuum, this isn’t necessarily the worst thing as Bowman is a decent choice out of the bullpen. And it’d be a stretch to complain about a 3.52 FIP (and 1.3 fWAR) over 123.1 MLB innings of work. However, baseball isn’t played in a vacuum, and when better arms — i.e. Juan Nicasio, Tyler Lyons (more on this at the very end) — are available, it’s in your team’s best interest to use them, especially in high-leverage situations. Especially when your team is competing for a playoff spot. And especially when your team is attempting to avoid a sweep against the rival Chicago Cubs.
But I am not here to document Matheny’s odd bullpen usage. My old site — Viva El Birdos — has already done a solid job detailing that. As has Ben Lindbergh. As has Bernie Miklasz. This is not an exhaustive list, either. Instead, I want to analyze the approach Matt Bowman took against Jason Heyward in a critical seventh-inning at bat on Sunday.
When the at bat took place, I was driving home from a wedding that had taken place in Indiana. Thus, I was listening to the game on 670 the Score and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of their broadcast. When Pat Hughes asked Ron Coomer what to expect in the Heyward at bat, his response was simple: “The base-hit [Heyward] hit earlier in the game was a fastball from Lynn and it was away. I’m going to guess they’re going to try to pound Heyward inside.” These guys watch the Cubs every single day, so what do they know, you ask? Turns out, they know a lot, as backed up by this BrooksBaseball.net heat map:
Since the beginning of the 2015 season (for Heyward’s sake, I included a good offensive season in the timeline), right-handed pitchers have successfully attacked Heyward up and in (green box) with fourseamers and sinkers. These same RHPs have experienced considerably less success with their fastballs middle-away (yellow box). Sure, this is a batting average heat map, and batting average certainly has its limitations. However, with a runner on third base — with two outs and the score tied — getting a hit is ultimately the easiest way to score the go-ahead run.
Keeping this in mind, if Bowman, Yadier Molina, and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist intended on attacking Heyward exclusively with sinkers — he threw six straight in the at bat — why not target up and in? Before going further, let’s just watch the at bat, two pitches at a time. And as usual, I must first give credit to @cardinalsgifs for producing the following GIFs.
Pitches one (ball) and two (ball)
As you can see by the end location of both sinkers, Bowman didn’t exactly hit Molina’s targets. However, that’s not the point I am trying to make. Rather, the point here is that both targets were set up well away from Heyward. The targets were so far away, they would have been a borderline strike had the spots been hit. Yes, pitch number two actually landed in the strike zone, but was likely called a ball due to Bowman missing his target (and a subsequent poor frame by Molina).
Pitches three (ball) and four (called strike)
Again, Bowman struggles with his command on these two sinkers. Yet, the point here is that, again, Molina — whether it was his call or Lilliquist’s — remains planted on the outside corner for Heyward. The most surprising part about this approach is Molina went out to the mound to chat with Bowman before the AB took place. As shown by my heat map embed above, the scouting report against Heyward is publicly available. Part-time bloggers have zero issue finding it. Heck, Molina even played on the same team as Heyward for a full season. A season in which right-handed pitchers had success going up and in against him.
Pitches five (called strike) and six (in play, run)
Given the outcome of the very next pitch, I don’t know what to think about called strike two. The Cardinals may have actually benefited from the borderline pitch being called ball four. Regardless, the count came full, and Bowman, Molina, and company had a chance to deviate their approach. Heyward had been served sinker, sinker, sinker, sinker, and sinker thus far. Bowman throws a good changeup/splitter and a decent slider. With a base open, a walk doesn’t end all hope. Why not try a 3-2 offspeed pitch and see if you can catch a below-average hitter off balance? Or, if committed to throwing the sinker, why not buzz the hitter up and in as his eyes have been trained for down and away?
Did this loss seal the Cardinals’ fate? Probably not. Their fate was probably already sealed by the first two losses of the series. Would Bowman getting Heyward out guarantee a Cardinals’ victory? Nope. However, if you’re going to stick with a non-strikeout guy in Bowman — as Matheny seems to prefer — at the very least give him the best chance to succeed with a proper plan of attack.
P.S. Tyler Lyons can get both lefties and righties out. He is a former starter who was quite good the first time through a batting order. Why Matheny is so reluctant to leave him in to put out his own fires is beyond me. Especially considering his raw stuff is far superior to Bowman’s.
Questions, comments, concerns? Feel free to leave them below or email me: stlcupofjoe at gmail dot com.