Just One Night

Baseball managers don’t make a great difference in the fortunes of a club. The most recent “smart” take on the significance of a manager’s role is that a good manager won’t cost you many games, but that a bad one will be noticed, possibly contributing to half a dozen losses for a team per season.

There was an occasion in last night’s Cardinals-Phillies game that has gone completely unremarked upon–as far as I can tell–that typically would receive plenty of scrutiny. The game was a 10-9 slugfest in the which the managers could do little more than watch; yet it was closely contested from the middle of the game on and there were spots where the right move might have made a difference in the outcome.

In the 9th inning, with the Cardinals trailing by a run, they had one out and a man on first. Due up to hit was the 23-year-old Matt Adams, a top Cardinals prospect rushed to the big club last Sunday due to injuries to three first basemen in one week. More than 1,000 players were selected before Adams in the 2009 amateur draft.

He has done nothing but hit at every level. He’s made believers of legions of scouts, not as a power hitter, but as a hitter with power, meaning he has good hands and could be expected to hit .300 in the major leagues. He also is projected to hit 25-30 homers a year if he fulfills the potential experts see in him. Scouts, Inc. head writer Keith Law wrote, “He has real raw power, can hit, doesn’t walk enough, will probably be a mediocre defender”.

Adams had 10 home runs at Triple-A Memphis. Memphis plays in the Pacific Coast League (oddly enough). His home park favors pitchers but the league is notoriously hitter-friendly because several of the parks are at altitude, are smallish, and the air is dry…Tucson, Reno, Las Vegas, Colorado Springs, etc.

General Manager John Mozeliak said this week that Adams is ready for the major leagues; the hope was that personnel on the big club would be healthy enough to keep him on a timetable for a 2013 arrival. Adams got here because of his bat.

The closer Johnathan Papelbon was pitching for the Phillies. His arsenal consists of two types of fastballs–a 2-seamer that sinks and runs in on right-handed bats, and a 4-seamer that rides and stays high in the zone. He will mix in a power slider with OK tilt that runs away from right-handed batters. He does not have a true off-speed offering; he pounds the strike zone with mostly fastballs in the low- to mid-90’s.

Adams is a left-handed swinger who is a much better hitter against right-handers at this early stage of his career, so from the Cardinals standpoint, (needing a hit or walk), they had a matchup they liked. But Adams was hitless this night. Starter Joe Blanton and a soft-tossing lefty reliever later got him to fish for a heavy diet of good curveballs and changeups. He got himself out a few times by getting tied up trying to murder pitches down in the zone traveling 80 mph. In the 9th, we might have seen a young slugger with elite bat speed against a hard-throwing reliever who throws strikes.

Manager Mike Matheny stepped in and pulled Adams back. In Adams’ stead, he inserted lefty-hitting Daniel Descalso, a utility infielder struggling mightily (albeit in few appearances) at the plate this season. He is known as a contact hitter: the problem is he hasn’t been making much contact in 2012. Perhaps Matheny thought Descalso had a better chance of making contact than Adams. The problem with that is Descalso hits the ball on the ground a lot, and both he and the player on first, Yadier Molina, are notoriously slow. A ground ball in that situation could have turned into a game-ending double play. So, I’m even more mystified as I write this…

Descalso made the Cardinals club last season based on his defensive versatility. He was a 25-year-old rookie with a decidedly low ceiling. He is a good part for this club, but Adams is considered to be a major offensive contributor to the team in the future.

The run expectancy for making this switch was in the area of costing a third of a run. If Adams hits a home run the game is over, and the Cardinals have won. The chances Adams could do this were considerably higher than with Descalso at the plate.

I submit that Mike Matheny hurt the team’s chances to win the ball game last night. Of course, we’re often told by the scribes who cover games that the manager must know better than us (“in mom’s basement); that there are “subtle, nuanced reasons managers do things” that we cannot know about. There are only two reasons we should accept for last night’s switch: 1) Adams is hurt, and we will not see him in the lineup tonight; or 2), Adams declined the competition, and he is presently being shipped back to Memphis with a tag that says “Cannot play”. Then we will never see him again.

The rightsholders didn’t mention it as it was happening or after the game was over. I get it: this is not a matter of major importance. Yet, it points to a faulty process. And the result: Descalso struck out, not reaching, not moving the runner forward. Nothing good came of this particular intervention. I would not have written this piece had Matheny let Adams hit, as the result, good or bad, would have flowed from a solid process of thinking based on what we know today about win probability.

So, I’m on the record that someone noticed, and someone talked about it, if only with himself! By the way, I’m high on Mike Matheny…not to cross you up.