Once Upon A Time In The Projections

I’ve been thinking a lot about baseball player projection system lately, which is just a fancy way of saying I’ve been sick and unable to play 3d video games without feeling nauseous or write creatively so my brain had to go off and do something dumb. A few days ago, Fangraphs published Dan Szymborski’s 2015 ZiPS projections for the St. Louis Cardinals. If you follow enough of Cardinals/sabermetric twitter you know that Szymborski took issue with a particular Cardinal blogger who questioned the necessity of these projections and made some fundamental mistakes regarding the ZiPS process. Piling on Cardinals fans is a national pastime for some reasons we don’t bring on ourselves (the media’s terrible Best Fans in Baseball Narrative) and some reasons we do bring on ourselves (I can’t even look at Cincinnati on the map without muttering “kiss the rings”) so the blog post was passed around, ridiculed, and pulled.

Social media drama is the last thing I ever want to care about, but the argument got me thinking. First off, I respect all the hard-as-hell mathematical work that goes into developing projections. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t even know where to start learning how to do it. Second, there is clearly an audience for projections–as demonstrated by the anticipation leading up to the ZiPS reveal. So it’s cool someone is putting in the hard work.

But what do good projections really tell us?  I haven’t been able to answer that question and it has stuck with me through a haze of cold medicine.  This isn’t just about ZiPS, or STEAMER, or PECOTA, or any projection system in particular but about the concept of projection systems in general.  What information are they providing?

“They give us a better idea of how players will perform!” you are shouting at your screen while you add my name to a list that includes Murray Chass.  And you’re right, that’s exactly what they do. Maybe.

Bear with me on a thought experiment (groan, I know) while I consider two hypothetical projection systems: the PERFECT system and the BEST system.

The PERFECT system: The PERFECT system correctly and accurately projects player performance. As indicated by its name, it gets nothing wrong. In December of 2013, the PERFECT system projected Matt Carpenter to get 709 plate appearances and a .272/.375/.375 triple slash. How does it do this?  I dunno. Let’s say that, to borrow heavily from the film Interstellar, it tracks batted balls in the future by the minute changes in gravitational fields as they travel backwards through space-time.

Now, the PERFECT system trivializes baseball in lot of ways and calls into question important concepts like free will and predestination.  But it also does one thing really well: it’s the only projection system in the goddamn universe that predicts Allen Craig will have a .266 BAbip in 2014. It’s also the only one that sees Pat Neshek coming.  The really weird stuff–the stuff that has a lot of value to predict–is only truly caught by the PERFECT system.

“That’s not fair!” you reply and move my name above that of noted blogger Murray Chass. “You can’t compare projection systems to literally seeing into the future!” Well I can because this is the internet and on the internet you can advocate for things as crazy as seceding New Hampshire from the Union or SEGA producing Shenmue 3. Also, I need something to compare with the next system.

The BEST system: The BEST system is a bit more realistic. This projection model is top-of-the-line.  Using all that math I don’t understand, it provides the most precise predictions possible without any knowledge of the future. I think we can all admit that (Interstellar notwithstanding) there is no way to measure all the random shit that happens in a baseball season.  And as someone who watched the Cardinals bat .330 for an entire season with RISP, I know for a fact that the sample size of an entire season isn’t enough to weed out all that random shit.

What the BEST system does, however, is successfully weed out all the random shit in the past stats, and uses that to provide an exquisite shit-free stat line for every player in the upcoming season. The BEST system is so good, its creators boast, that if the 2015 season were to be played 1000 times and the results averaged together, the numbers would be exactly what the BEST system projected for them.  This seems like a crazy boast, but the cast of the television series Sliders (which is still running in at least one universe) confirms that it is true.  The BEST system is just that good.

Every year, when you run the numbers, the BEST system is going to be named the most accurate projection system. In aggregate, that will be true. But what about each individual player?  Sure, the BEST system will be the system most likely to come the closest to the real numbers. But, by design, it will staunchly be unable to identify an outlier.  That’s not a bug. It’s a feature of a good projection system.

Remember how I said that playing the season 1000 times would result in averages that equal the BEST system projections?  And how great that was?  The problem is that 1 of those seasons is going to give you the PERFECT system projections.  And then the other 999 seasons are going to drag that pin-point accurate projection straight to the average.

What I’m saying is this: the problem with the BEST system is that it’s incredibly conservative. It will predict a decline from Allen Craig, yes, but not because it knows he will turn into a pumpkin  It is because his 2013 was also an outlier. The BEST system will never predict a collapse.  Similarly, it will look at everything about Pat Neshek and spit out some mediocre numbers, because of course it will.  No one could have seen that coming (and no one should be expected to).

This conservative nature is the problem with any good projection system, because conservative predictions aren’t terribly interesting. With the exception of minor leaguers, the BEST system as described above isn’t going to tell you a lot you couldn’t glean from a glance at the player’s age and MLB stat history. Which is a shame, because developing something like the BEST system that is so (on aggregate) accurate would be an incredible mathematical achievement. It just wouldn’t tell us anything about current MLB players.

This is why the really fascinating stuff in the ZiPS projections for the Cardinals isn’t, say, Matt Holliday’s numbers or Adam Wainwright’s numbers. Someone taking a wild guess or simming the year in MLB: The Show could come up with a triple slash of .275/.348/.456 slash line for Holliday. I don’t mean this a an insult to ZiPS, which of course is way more work than that, and will be more accurate for more players.  But a conservative prediction that Matt Holliday will continue a gradual decline is, well, not exactly a revelation.  And any good projection system will likely come to a similar, conservative result.

The interesting stuff in the ZiPS are projections from guys like Ty Kelly (.254/.333/.358) or Samuel Tuivailala (3.29 ERA, 28.3 K%). Kelly is a journeyman utility infielder with no MLB time projected to be about as good as Kolten Wong.  Tuivailala is a converted position player who rocketed through the system in two years on the strength of a  99 mph fastball. Obviously, a system that identifies guys like these who can be immediately productive at the MLB level would be very valuable. Maybe the BEST system as described above would do that, but the problem is that these projections–which are truly interesting, and the reason I like looking at ZiPS–are the most difficult to verify as reliable. Kelly’s numbers are based on the idea he receives 550+ PAs and god help the St. Louis Cardinals if injuries force the team into that situation.

While I like to look at projections and I respect the hell out of the work that goes into them, I’m sympathetic to the argument baseball old-timers put forward that they are meaningless.  The more accurate a projection system gets, the less it tells us that we didn’t already know.

Of course, projection systems published on the internet are mostly created to give us something to talk about in the off-season and I just wrote 1000+ words about them. So maybe I’ve already lost any argument I was trying to put forth.

 

Advertisements

Call Me Mabry

John Mabry stepped into the batters box in the top of the seventh inning with one out and a runner on first base.  He already had three hits on the night–a single, double, and a triple in that order.  Hitting for the cycle is never easy, but Mabry couldn’t have asked for a better scenario in which to knock the ball out of the park and finish the feat in style.  The year was 1996 and the “juiced ball” era was beginning its peak with a league average ERA of 4.60 and luminaries such as Jay Buhner, Todd Hundley, and Brady Anderson socking over 40 HR.  It was a balmy night in pre-humidor Coors Field, where the Rockies would give up a stunning 122 HR on the season (and hit 149 of their own).  The pitcher was Mike Munoz, whose career is a testament to both the time period in which he played and the ballparks in which he was moored (Coors and Arlington.  From 1989 to 2000 Munoz managed to pitch in 453 games despite a career ERA of 5.19.  Munoz was a lefthander, sure, but Mabry never had much of a platoon disadvantage.  In fact, in 1996 he crushed lefties to the tune of a .351/.382/.536 line.

After falling behind behind 2-0, Munoz grooved a pitch to Mabry and Mabry connected, crushing the pitch over the wall in right field. Just like that, John Mabry made baseball history.  He didn’t just hit for the cycle; he hit for the natural cycle. Single. Double. Triple. Home run. In that order.  Only fourteen players have ever hit for a natural cycle, making it a rarer feat than a perfect game or an unassisted triple play.

The Cardinals still lost the game.

There’s no more precarious position than the hitting coach of an underperforming team.  It’s not entirely fair, but the hitting coach has become something of a designated scapegoat for fans, media, and even teams themselves to heap all the blame of a faltering season. The reasons for this are clear enough.  There are three prominent coaching positions on any baseball team: manager, hitting coach, and pitching coach.  Teams are reluctant to fire their managers mid-season, and pitching is seen (perhaps incorrectly) as requiring patience.  Batting, however, is violent and quick.  Each at bat lasts only a couple minutes (unless Clay Buchholz is pitching) and ends with a definitive result.  Batters don’t often get injured while batting, and are known to have more control over the result of batted balls than pitchers. For these reasons, it’s easy to think that a change in batting coaches might fix a team whereas swapping pitching coaches might just disrupt the rhythm of a staff.

The 2014 St. Louis Cardinals present a particularly formidable challenge for a hitting coach.  In 2013, the Cardinals led the National League in runs scored on the strength of one of the most bizarre seasons in baseball history.

The 2013 Cardinals numbers with runners in scoring position weren’t just historic; they blew away the previous records and resulted in a split (versus bases empty situations) so huge that it will likely never be approached. I don’t particularly like the idea of taking an entire year of stats and declaring them meaningless, but projecting anything from the performance of the offense in 2013 is useless. You might as well be positing halfway through the 1941 season that Joe Dimaggio would never go hitless again.

Unfortunately, that’s what everyone has done. The Cardinals came into 2014 as favorites to retake the pennant, largely on the strength of the pitching but without much concern over a lineup that was losing one of its best hitters (Beltran), gaining one of the streakiest batters in the game (Peralta), and wasn’t nearly as good as it performed in the first place.

John Mabry had a rather unusual career as a player.  1996 was the only season he received more than five hundred plate appearances, and he put up a line of .297/.342/.431, which is respectable for just about anyone other than a firstbaseman in 1996. He had a couple more years clustered around ’96 in which he received 400 or so PAs. But other than that, he spent his fourteen season career as a bench and platoon guy.  That, by itself, isn’t strange except that Mabry was a corner OF/1b who played in one of the biggest offensive environments in baseball history and he was a rather unremarkable hitter. A career .263/.322/.405 line isn’t terrible, but it certainly doesn’t light the world on fire, either. Guys like him don’t usually stick around, since corner OF who can slug a little are some of the most fungible players in baseball. Most GMs probably think they have a RF who can manage a 90 OPS+ somewhere in their minors right now.

There are a few reasons Mabry was different. First, there was the impression he could play third base. He couldn’t, but still managed to be sent out there for 800 or so innings, in which he had .905 fielding percentage on the balls he could actually reach.  This perceived utility gave him a leg up on the Thomas Howards of the world. Second, Mabry had a hell of a sweet swing. Effortless yet strong, Mabry looked like he knew what he was doing, even when he struck out. He was Will Clark or Mark Grace without the results, but that’s often enough to get you onto a major league bench over a dozen similar guys. Third, Mabry was a classic clubhouse guy. Whenever he was in the lineup, you could guarantee that the announcers would talk about his intangibles, his willingness to play any position (he even pitched on two occasions), and his place as a role model for younger players. His future in coaching was a topic of speculation as early as 2004 during his last stint with St. Louis, three years before he would retire.

John Mabry is now the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t hitting. The Cards are scoring 3.74 runs a game, good for third worst in the NL and fifth worst in baseball. They have scored fewer runs in more games than the Royals and the Phillies. The team’s OPS is .680. They look listless and lifeless at the plate, though struggling will do that for any lienup. And so, of course, people are calling for Mabry’s head.

In general, I’m reluctant to shift the blame from underperforming players to the coaching staff. Matheny and company deserve the heat for bad lineups, strange bullpen usage, and double switches that do nothing but cripple the heart of the order. But there are usually far more believable culprits-luck, age, regression-when it comes to poor performance. What could Mabry possibly be doing to turn Allen Craig into a pumpkin or to sabotage every prospect called up from Memphis? The idea is rather absurd, and it’s never seemed quite right to lump all the responsibility on the hitting coach.

So I won’t say that firing John Mabry is the answer to the Cardinals woes. But there might be enough to start asking the question. One stat I’ve left out above is the Cardinals’ home run totals. So far, through 66 games, the Cardinals have only hit 36 home runs. Barry Bonds started 2001 with a 66 game stretch in which he personally hit 38 home runs. Different era and Bonds was a freak. But god damn. The Cardinals slugging percent is at .360 as a team, third worse in the majors behind some pretty awful Mets and Padres squads, both of which have hit more balls out of the park.

What’s more, this squad shouldn’t be so anemic. You’ll never confuse Craig or Holliday with Mark McGwire, but they aren’t slap hitters, either. Matt Adams has been hurt, but he’s still had over 200 PAs to knock some pitches over the wall. So what’s going on? Just for a thought experiment, let’s look at some HR rates

In 2011, his breakout year, Allen Craig smacked 11 HR in 200 ABs, for a rate of one per every 18 at bats. In 2012 this number dipped slightly, to one HR for every 21 ABs. Not a big change, and arguably can be written off to the changing run environment. Then, in 2013 Craig’s HR power disappeared. He hit one HR every 39 ABs, but was still quite productive, in large part due to an almost unbelievable .474 BAbip with runners in scoring position. This season, Craig has hit one HR for every 42 ABs, his BAbip cratered, and he’s just now working back from a terrible slump that consumed the first part of the season.

Of course, Craig was injured and those injuries are clearly the most likely reason his power was sapped. So let’s look at Matt Holliday. In 2012/2013 he hit a HR for every 23 ABs. This season, it’s once every 59. Matt Adams 2012/2013 hit a HR every 20 ABs. For what it’s worth, throughout the minors he hit one every 18 ABs. In 2014, he has three HR in 194 at bats, a rate of one per 65 ABs.

I want to briefly stick with Adams for a moment, because he had a great few moments early in the season, in which opposing teams put a hard shift into play expecting him to pull the ball and he blooped it the other way instead. It was funny the first time, and still the second, but as it continued to happen you couldn’t help but wonder if he was letting the shift beat him after all. Adams had been a power threat and suddenly he was 2013 Allen Craig, relying on BAbip and misplayed balls turning singles into doubles.

Aside from Craig, Holliday, and Adams there aren’t any other good examples because no one else ever really hit for much power. Carpenter is hitting ever fewer balls out of the park than expected, but his totals last year were modest anyway. And then there is Jhonny Peralta, who leads the team with 10 HR, but if we’re theorizing that this is something that can be laid at the feet of the coaching staff, Peralta hasn’t been with these guys long. Also if I’m letting myself go down this rabbit hole, it’s worth pointing out that four of those HR were in the first couple weeks of the season.

So what am I suggesting here? That John Mabry is coaching the team to not hit home runs? No, because that’s silly. I don’t particularly like it when coaches and managers talk about how they don’t need the long ball to win (because it’s not true) but I don’t think anyone would coach HR power out of a player. But I do wonder if adjustments meant to improve, such as working with Adams on going to the opposite field, are leading to unintended results. Last season the Cardinals had such an inordinate amount of success “hitting it where they ain’t” with runners on that it looked more like a viable strategy than it really is. I think we’ve come to the point where I hope that John Mozeliak and the front office are at least asking for these questions. Find out what’s been going on at BP and in video sessions, and just make sure that Mabry and Matheny aren’t taking the wrong lesson from 2013 (and the only right lesson from 2013 is that baseball can be real god damn weird).

John Mabry’s final season as a player was a month-and-a-half-long stint in 2007 with the Colorado Rockies, the victim of his natural cycle all the way back when Bill Clinton was finishing his first term. His swing was as graceful as ever, though slowed by age, and it was clear it was time for him to move on.  He played the majority of his 30 inning at third base, even though at age 36 he really couldn’t play the position. He had four hits, including a HR, in 39 PAs and then he was released. He became a spokesman for a chain of stores selling hunting supplies, then a color commentator, and then a coach.

He finished 2007 with a .466 OPS, which is better than Daniel Descalso’s 2014.

 

 

 

Allen Craig is Fine. Probably.

NOTE: Allen Craig is out of the lineup tonight versus a left-handed starter, which is crazy because this season he’s been like the CIA in the 1980s: all he can do is hit lefties. Maybe he’s hurt and this is all a moot point. Or maybe Matheny is just going to Matheny and there’s no explanation.

I doubted Allen Craig for a long time. I thought his 2011 was a flash in the pan, a right-handed version of 2006 Chris Duncan, boosting a championship team up on his shoulders when they needed him, before the league could figure him out. Even after 2012, when put together an almost full season slash line of .307/.354/.522, I thought it was only a matter of time until the clock struck twelve and he turned into a couple of mice dragging a pumpkin around the basepaths.

Craig reminded me of so many other players before him. Some people call these guys “quad-A” talent, to indicate that they are too good for the minor leagues but not good enough to hack it in MLB. I’ll put a finer point on it, because there are several types of quad-A players. I’m not talking about the Brad Thompsons or Tyler Greenes but a specific species of player that has tormented fans ever since stats went mainstream.

I’m talking about minor league sluggers. They are usually a year or two older than the competition, either because they were drafted out of college or they’ve been in the organization longer than you remember. You don’t remember when they joined the organization because they weren’t drafted in the first couple rounds or they weren’t highly touted international signings or because they joined as minor league free agents. They don’t play any position very well so they usually end up at first base or right field, but somewhere on their Baseball Reference page they’ve got some minor league innings at 3b or CF because scouts claim their bat won’t carry them at a corner. But those scouts have to be crazy, because these guys are smashing AAA pitching and you just read Moneyball and we’re not here to sell jeans.

I’ll call these guys “Kilas”, after their patron saint and Platonic ideal Kila Ka’aihue, who spent years in the Royals’ Omaha affiliate doing his best Albert Pujols impersonation, seemingly ignored by a Major League team content to give at bats to Ross Gload, Scott Podsednik, and the death rattle of José Guillen. When he finally got his shot at the Majors, Kila struggled to a career .221/.305/.382 line over about 450 plate appearances.

Every team has a Kila at one point or another, and every fan base rallies around him. You can hear them on the radio, you can read them on the message boards, and if you’ve got a co-worker who read some of Baseball Between The Numbers, you’re probably never free of it. “Bring up Kila.” “Have you seen John Rodríguez’s slugging percentage?” “Can’t wait to see what Izzy Alcantera can do in Fenway.” “Cut Tino, bring up John Gall!”

So I thought Allen Craig was a Kila. He had all the warning signs. He was never considered a serious prospect, he didn’t have a position, he isn’t terribly athletic, and his tools were limited to the power/eye combo that doesn’t always translate from the minors. I was wrong. Craig had better plate coverage and contact skills than I expected, allowing him to overcome the problem that faces most Kilas, which is the inability to handle a league (mostly) full of pitchers who can locate their pitches on the corners of the zone. Even once I figured this out, I was stubborn and I kept expecting a crash that never came. By the middle of last season I finally accepted that Craig could be a Major League hitter. I stopped waiting for the crash and let myself enjoy the hits.

I’m not writing all this now, with Craig slumping harder than Nintendo’s marketing department, to say that I was right before. I’m not bragging about being right on Craig, because I’m a Cards fan and I always want to be wrong when I’m doubtful of a player. Rather, I just want to give some background for what I’m about to say:

Allen Craig is going to be fine. He may never be what he appeared to be in 2013, but that shouldn’t come off as a surprise. Anyone evaluating the Cardinals offense should probably treat 2013 like season four of Community and just assume what we think we experienced was just the result of fumes from a gas leak. We’re probably never going to see an entire team hit .330/.402/.463 with RISP again in our lifetime, and we’re certainly never going to see it from a team that hit .236/.297/.356 with the bases empty. Allen Craig was arguably the biggest beneficiary of the 2013 gas leak, putting up a line that looks more Ted Williams than Torty: .454/.500/.638

Craig probably won’t be the same hitter we saw in 2011-2012 either, as his home run power has seen a dramatic drop since his first full season. Whether this is the byproduct of nagging injuries or a conscious attempt to trade fly balls for line drives, I’ll leave up to your imagination. There is no way to know for sure, at least not until Peter Bourjos pulls an Edward Snowden and releases tapes from the batting cages before seeking asylum in Chicago.

So why am I optimistic about Craig? First, his BAbip is floating around .225, a hundred points below his career numbers. A big part of his slump has been terrible luck. So far this season he’s hit 64 balls on the ground and only 8 have squeaked through for hits. That’s only good for a .125 BAbip, when his career numbers on ground balls put him at .258. Twice as many hits on just grounders would go a long way to reversing the slump. Second, and on a related note, Craig is hitting way more grounders in total. His gb/fb rate in 2014 is 1.56, almost twice his career rate and high enough that even Ichiro Suzuki might give a respectful nod.

So Craig is hitting twice as many grounders as would be expected, and grounders are producing half as many hits as would be expected. Unless there is a hidden injury here or Craig suddenly has turned into the Kila I feared, unable to cover the inside corner of the plate, expect his numbers to bounce back. He might not make another All Star game, and it might not be enough to stave off Oscar Tavares, but don’t go writing him off based on a month and a half of bad luck just because it follows a year of the stupidest good luck.

Rob Johnson Fined For Describing His Promotion As “Double Bagging”

Mere hours after being promoted to back up St. Louis Cardinals backup catcher Tony Cruz, the team levied an undisclosed fine against veteran Rob Johnson for inappropriate remarks made to the press about his role on the Major League club.

When asked how much playing time he expected to get, and why he believed that the Cardinals thought they should carry three catchers on the roster, Johnson compared the added protection of an extra backstop to the practice of wearing two condoms at once, colloquially known as “double bagging.”

“Baseball is just like ****ing on Craigslist,” Johnson said just after exiting the plane from Memphis. “You don’t just plow some **** you never met without a condom, and you don’t go into a game without a second catcher.  If you’re not safe, some bad **** is gonna happen at home plate.  And what do you do when the only piece of *** who responded to your 2:30 casual encounters post looks extra nasty, but you gotta be at the park by 4:00? You don’t just kick her out of the back of your half-ton like you’re some kinda royalty. You go, but you go extra safe.  You wrap your **** up twice, just to be sure.  Looks to me like the NL Central just got extra nasty, so the Cards decided if they’re gonna **** it, they gotta double bag it.”

The team immediately issued a response to Johnson’s statement, noting that his remarks were “not in the spirit of the St. Louis Cardinals organization” and “an affront not only to fans, but to his teammates.”

Manager Mike Matheny echoed the team’s condemnation of the veteran catcher.  “I don’t know who he thinks he is,” Matheny said.  “I won’t have behavior like that in my clubhouse.  He should head right back to Memphis if he thinks that this team supports casual sex, profanity, or any form of birth control other than the will of the Lord.”

Jake Westbrook was similarly disgusted by his new teammate, noting that he would be a bad influence on all the young pitchers, especially Kevin Siegrist, who Westbrook believes has not reached puberty.

“Craigslist?  The only Craigslist I need is Allen Craig’s list,” said Cardinal first baseman Allen Craig, pulling out a well-worm piece of paper.  He then proceeded to muse wistfully about how he hadn’t “seen Amber since the night of the fire.”

Other teammates weren’t so quick to criticize.  “I think he sounds cool,” said reliever Seth Maness. “Like that guy from my high school who owned a van. Well, I think he went to my high school. I never saw him in classes. But he definitely had a van.”

When asked just how “nasty” he thought the NL Central race was getting, Johnson became agitated. “It’s like a warm can of Keystone Ice left open on the bar,” he told reporters.  “You don’t wanna  drink it because, ****, it’s not even full.  So you know someone else put their mouth on it. But the bartender is in the back taking a **** or something and you’re pretty sure you’ll smell any cigarette butts floatin’ on the top before you taste anything, so you risk it.

“That’s how nasty the NL Central is.”

Even outside of baseball, Johnson’s comments have caused controversy. The American Medical Association issued a statement, clarifying that the use of two condoms did not protect any better against pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease.  Noting that it is superfluous and reduces the overall effectiveness of the protective method, the AMA likened using multiple condoms to wasting a MLB roster spot on a third string catcher.

Elaboration on an Abomination

I wish that I could convince myself that what I am about to write is simply hyperbole.  I don’t want to feel this way.  I don’t want to be this reactionary and short-sighted.  But it’s impossible.  I can’t stop thinking it.  Tonight may have been the worst-managed baseball game I’ve ever watched.  Feel free to correct me.  Tell me about a game that was managed worse. It would make me feel better.

Tonight I watched the St. Louis Cardinals make a series of awful decisions that cost them the lead in the World Series.  And it sucked.

Earlier this evening, I made a very quick post about Mike Napoli’s stats versus righthanded and lefthanded pitchers.  It was brief, and I only made it because I couldn’t fit my point into a single tweet.  Basically, Napoli’s had a strong platoon split for his entire career.  He hits righthanders fine, but he crushes lefties.  This season especially, he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball against lefthanded pitching.  Leaving in noted lefty Marc Rzepczynski to face Napoli with the bases loaded was painfully foolish.  It’s reminiscent of allowing Lohse to face Howard in game 1 against the Phillies.  La Russa loves matchups, and he’s been manipulating them like crazy throughout the playoffs.  Here, he sat in the dugout and watched as a mediocre lefty faced a batter who eats lefties for breakfast.  The result was predictable.  4-2 Rangers.

If only that was all we saw tonight.  Instead, we also witnessed Ryan Theriot pinch-bunt.  Bunting isn’t a great move in general.  There are few situations where it improves the chances of scoring a run.  Most of those situations involve a pitcher at the plate.  There’s no reason to insert a player into the lineup specifically to bunt.  That’s insane.  I thought about citing statistics to prove how insane that is.  I don’t think that’s necessary.  The insanity is self-evident.  And I wish it was the most insane thing we saw.

No, the most insane move of the night was bringing Lance Lynn into the game to intentionally walk Ian Kinsler.  This was the calling card of the catastrophe.  It was how we all know that something was truly wrong.  There’s no explaining it.  Bringing in a pitcher, issuing an intentional walk, then pulling that pitcher should never happen.  Never.  I can contrive an elaborate situation to justify almost any managerial move–even the pinch bunt.  Not this one.  Clearly, the Cardinals management was lost in one of the most important games of the year.

Then to top it all off, in the top of the ninth the Cardinals send Allen Craig while Pujols (who can hit the ball a long way) is batting and Neftali Feliz (who can barely find the strike zone) is pitching.  It wasn’t just predictable that Albert would swing at a ball out of the zone and Craig, slow as his tortoise, would be thrown out at 2b.  It was damn near fated.  Craig can’t run.  Feliz is probably one of half a dozen pitchers in baseball  that Pujols can’t be trusted to make contact with.  Why?  Why hit and run there?  Craig crossing the plate doesn’t win the game for the Cards.  It doesn’t even tie the game.  The only reason to hit and run is to prevent the double play.  DPs have been a problem for the Cards, but consider this:

Albert Pujols has struck out 704 times in his career.  He’s only hit into 232 double plays.  That’s actually a lot of double plays and not that many strikeouts.  But the K is STILL far more likely than the GIDP.

Neftali Feliz has struck out 164 batters in his career.  He’s allowed 150 ground balls.  That’s right, Feliz is more likely to strike out a hitter than allow him to make contact and produce a ground ball.

There’s no reason to just expect a DP.  There’s no reason AT ALL to hit and run.

After the game, the excuses came fast and furious.  There was something wrong with the bullpen phone.  Albert himself put on the hit-and-run.  The speed at which this team covers for Tony La Russa is phenomenal.  If Allen Craig could run as fast as the Cards spin their failures, the team would be coming home up 3-2.

I really don’t know what else to say about what we saw in game 5.  It was atrocious.  It was like watching a car accident, except car accidents are usually over much quicker.

One week ago, the entirety of sports media was fawning over La Russa’s brilliance.  I wonder how many of those same writers dare question him after tonight?

Whiskey Tango Franklin

There are a whole lot of things I could write about Sunday’s game against the Braves. Most of them have already been covered earlier at some point in this blog. Ryan Franklin is a bad pitcher, Ryan Theriot is a bad shortstop. Trying to wring anything more out of these subjects would be agonizing. I think everyone knows my opinion about the two Ryans at this point. Frankin is a long reliever and Theriot is a second baseman. Relying on them in critical innings or at shortstop respectively has led to predictable disaster. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Et Cetera. Et Cetera.

But that’s not all that happened. The Ryan-fueled collapse wasn’t the biggest loss the Cardinals suffered on Sunday. David Freese was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken bone in his hand. Once again, the St. Louis Cardinals do not have a third baseman.

Freese getting injured and missing significant time was almost as predictable as a Ryan Theriot error or a Ryan Franklin walk-off loss. Yes, HBP injuries are unexpected. Yes, it has nothing to do with his ankle. But we’ve seen this before. Think back to June 17, 2001, when J.D. Drew lost 6 weeks to a broken finger when David Wells drilled him in the hand.

These two injuries, combined with the bizarre career of Nick Johnson, almost make me want to believe that avoiding the DL is an innate talent that certain people simply lack. But I won’t go that far. It’s far more likely that this is just confirmation bias rather than some incredibly mild form of osteogenesis imperfecta that allows the victim to play baseball and live a normal life but makes HBPs, foul tips, and bad baserunning far more dangerous.

Whether or not an injury to David Freese can truly be unexpected, the injury still happened. And it caught the Cardinals off guard. In fact, combined with an earlier precautionary exit from David Freese, TLR was forced to move Albert Pujols to third base for the first time since–

Wait. That’s not how it happened. That’s not why Albert Pujols had to take his surgically reconstructed elbow across the diamond, where he actually has to use it. That’s not why a player who hasn’t played 3b in nearly a decade was put there during a tie game.

All of that happened because Tony La Russa pinch hit Jon Jay for Tyler Greene. AFTER both of the injuries. The decision was made to pull Greene from the game with the full knowledge that someone would have to play out of position at either 2b, SS, or 3b. (And Ryan Theriot was already playing out of position at SS.)

It was one of the most unbelievable things I’ve seen from TLR. And that’s saying a lot, because I can still remember the day he brought in Jeff Tabaka to face Lance Berkman, and when he double switched Matt Holliday out of the lineup during a 20 inning debacle. There’s a reason Albert Pujols is not the Cardinals’ 3b. It isn’t like we’re keeping him at first because of the fantastic options we have at third. He’s a 1b because he’s been diagnosed with a bad case of Fucked Up Elbow. And last I checked, throwing across a baseball diamond is not part of the recommended physical therapy for Fucked Up Elbow.

Unsurprisingly, TLR has backed himself into this corner before. On April 22, 2008, an injury to Cesar Izturis coupled with typically poor bench management by the Cards front office left the team with a deficit of infielders. That time, however, TLR made the right decision. He put Pujols at 2b.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t the right decision. But if you start from the assumption that “moving Pujols off 1b” is a critical part of the solution, 2b is the best place to stick him. Throws at second base rarely require much force, and it’s probably the second best position on the diamond for a player with a halfway reconstructed elbow. Yes, Pujols wouldn’t have any range at 2b, but neither does Skip Schumaker and that never seems to bother La Russa.

If TLR moved Pujols to 2b for a couple innings, I might have made a few jokes. It would have been funny. It would have made a few fantasy baseball teams with very low playing time requirements juggernauts. But it wouldn’t have been particularly dangerous for the Cardinals’ season, or Albert Pujols’s career.

And now, of course, the team has to make do without David Freese. From the sounds of it, the Cards are activating Allen Craig rather than calling up Matt Carpenter. What does this mean? It means we’re going to have to fill three spots in the lineup (and the entire infield defense minus Albert) with the following players: Ryan Theriot, Nick Punto, Tyler Greene, Daniel Descalso, and Allen Craig.

How terrifying is that?