Chess Match: Staying with the ace
The situation: Bottom of the fifth. Cardinals trail, 2-0. Daniel Descalso hits a one-out double, bringing the pitcher’s spot to the plate. Chris Carpenter has allowed two runs, one earned, over five innings on 89 pitches.
The decision: Carpenter stays in the game and hits for himself.
The outcome: Carpenter grounded to short, advancing the runner to third with two outs. After Ryan Theriot walked, Colby Rasmus flied out all the way to the wall in right field and the Cardinals did not score in the inning. Carpenter pitched the sixth, allowing a single but no runs, and was lifted after that.
The analysis: This, in my opinion, is a great situation to start Chess Match for the year, because there’s a ton of stuff packed into this one moment.
The arguments for pinch-hitting basically come down to two main points, I think.
One, the Cardinals hadn’t been scoring any runs, and I don’t just mean today. As you all saw, this team has been searching for offense all week. This was a chance to get on the board. You have David Freese and Jon Jay on the bench. Freese has extra-base or even home run potential, though right now it seems like maybe he’s a bit of a long shot for a base hit. Jay, meanwhile, seems like a good option to get a single against a right-handed pitcher.
Two, Carpenter had worked hard. He was pleased with his stuff, and said he felt strong. But he’d thrown 89 pitches, a large majority of them with runners on base, over just five innings. Eighty-nine pitches in five innings is a lot different from 89 pitches in seven or eight innings. It’s not that I expected him to crumble in the next inning or anything, but this was a different five innings, a different 89 pitches, than in some games.
Additionally, with an off day coming up tomorrow and most of the bullpen rested, getting through four innings with the ‘pen shouldn’t have been a big worry. Say you don’t score — it’s another opportunity, like on Saturday, to get Mitchell Boggs those innings that TLR has already said that he needs. If you do score, one, it’s a good problem to have, and two, there are enough pitchers out there to match up for 12 outs. I know some people are panicking about the bullpen, and if you really think they can’t get 12 outs, then you probably see this issue differently from me. But I’m not as worried as some are.
The primary argument against pinch-hitting, for me, is the fact of a short bench. With Matt Holliday unavailable, the Cardinals are playing with a four-man bench. You’re not going to use Gerald Laird or Tyler Greene there, so you really only have two options: Freese and Jay.
Freese, as mentioned above, can run into a homer, but he’s also slumping a bit to start the year. Correia was having a good game, and you don’t necessarily do him any favors by putting him in there. Tony La Russa also has a long history of preferring to save his biggest bench weapon, which on Wednesday Freese certainly was, for a later situation. Jay, meanwhile, might have been the best option to get the single that gets the Cards on the board, but using him is even more problematic. If you bring in Jay, you no longer have any outfielders available on your bench, and it’s the fifth inning.
For my money, that’s the strongest argument against: Jay is probably the best choice, and it’s a really tough spot to put yourself in to play four full innings with no available outfielders except Greene, who as you know is an infielder.
There’s also the simple fact that Carpenter is the ace, and La Russa as a general rule will almost always live and die with his horse. That seemed to be his main contention when I asked him after the game (see the quote below).
The comment: “I don’t even think it’s a close call. You’ve got a starting pitcher giving up nothing and you’re going to get him out in the fifth inning and pitch the bullpen four innings? I don’t even think it’s a close call. For me it wasn’t.” — TLR.
My verdict: The more I look at it, the less sure I am about my initial view. At the time, I really though the play was to get Carpenter out of there and play for the runs. But the matter of the short bench really is a significant one. Say you get the lead, and you want to play defense in right field. Well, you’ve already burned Jay.
But even so, I think in the end that the play is to go for the runs. And I think the play is Jay. You deal with getting through the innings with your bullpen, or playing defense in the outfield, when you get there. If you don’t get any runs, the game stays 2-0, none of the rest of it matters. Those are problems that you’re HOPING you have to deal with. And the way you make it so that you have to deal with them is by scoring some runs. I don’t think Freese is the play, early and against a right-hander. He’s the guy for when one swing can actually win or lose you the game.
I think what it comes down to is a strategic question rather than a tactical one. Play to score runs or play to avoid preventing more runs. When you’re down 2-0, the other guy is pitching a good game and you have 14 runs in six games, for me, the correct strategy is to play for the runs. It’s certainly not black and white, but I think it’s the way to go.