Superficially, it’s difficult to get upset about the Phillies’ 3-2 loss to the Diamondbacks last night. Actually, it’s difficult to get upset about any one game at all these days. The regular season is far from over, and more than a few people probably won’t appreciate me saying this, but these final weeks feel like elaborate dress rehearsals for the playoffs. There is some fine tuning to do, some roster moves to be made, some valuable reps to be had, but, at least per Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds, the Phillies have a one hundred percent chance to play in October. Not one time, in the thousands of their simulations, did the digital Phillies fall out of the race. Even once the playoffs arrive, for all the hair-pulling, hand-wringing, and second-guessing that will occur, the Phillies are essentially throwing the best roster in the league at a swirling cyclone of small sample variance and unpredictable machinations and hoping that they’re spit out on the other side as World Champions. They may instead be torn apart and ejected in pieces, but that’s no more ignominious than a house laid to waste by tornado — the ones that survive aren’t necessarily the most well-built.
Still, there are plenty of things you can do in the playoffs to nudge the percentages in your favor, and that is what makes last night’s loss, on more careful inspection, particularly hard to stomach. Because if the personnel management we witnessed makes an encore appearance in the playoffs, the Phillies will be handicapping themselves needlessly and inexplicably.
Charlie Manuel’s decision to leave Halladay in to start the 9th inning, with the Phillies leading the Diamondbacks 2-1, is not one that I care to question. Per win expectancy, the Phillies were 84% likely to win the game, and it goes without saying that Roy Halladay is a master of his craft at 20 pitches or 100. Not having anyone warming up to start the inning, though, suggests a lack of foresight. Even after he surrendered back-to-back singles to Justin Upton and Miguel Montero, I find it hard to argue with leaving Halladay in. With runners at 1st and 2nd and nobody out, the most desirable outcomes for the team on the field are strikeouts and ground balls, and this year Halladay has achieved those with a collective 60% of the batters he has faced. His opponent in this instance, Lyle Overbay, had done one of those two things in 52% of his plate appearances. But hey, sometimes the batless fleck of roster garbage stumbles upon success. That’s baseball. Charlie Manuel can’t defend against that.
The truly inexcusable decision came next. With the lead surrendered, and Halladay sitting on 110 pitches, Manuel made no move; he elected to let Roy pitch the rest of the inning. They weren’t easy pitches to make, either. With a runner on third and one out, he was lucky enough to retire Sean Burroughs on two pitches, but, after an intentional walk to Gerardo Parra, labored through six pitches to get Paul Goldschmidt on a strikeout. That may not seem like a lot, but they were completely unnecessary. There is just no justification, with the entire bullpen on two days of rest, to make him finish that inning. Manuel had no idea how many more batters the Diamondbacks would send to the plate, and it begs the question of how long he would have let Halladay persist, had the Phillies been less fortunate. Bill has written about similar instances quite a few times before, to very mixed responses. The debate rolls endlessly on (and, for the record, I side perpetually with risk aversion), but there must be a certain threshold at which all of us agree that common sense points to one obvious move. What hidden benefit could the Phillies gain by leaving Halladay in after Overbay’s double? What possible justification exists for it?
What occurred in the bottom of that inning was arguably worse. The Phillies were down one run with Carlos Ruiz, Michael Martinez, and then the pitcher’s spot due to bat. At this point, they had John Mayberry Jr., Ben Francisco, Ross Gload, Wilson Valdez, and Brian Schneider available on the bench. Per wOBA, the only player of this bunch with an above average bat is Mayberry. In fact, Mayberry is 17% above average, and an extra-base machine — over half of his hits, both this year and in his career, get him to second base or further. So at least to me, mere blogger that I am, the best strategy seems obvious: hope that Carlos Ruiz gets on base, as he had at a respectable .357 clip entering the game in question. Pinch hit the power threat Mayberry for the glove-only Michael Martinez, who had compiled a laughable .255 wOBA up to this point. Hope that Mayberry produces yet another extra-base knock, and then send Ben Francisco to the plate, who, maligned as he has been this season, has still managed a .304 wOBA, and would be the best of the remaining options. You could also have elected to pinch run Wilson Valdez for Carlos Ruiz prior to the Mayberry at-bat, and, should extra-innings have ensued, placed him at third and brought in Schneider behind the dish. You can quibble over the details, but I think that would have been a perfectly reasonable protocol to give the Phillies the best chance at success.
What actually happened would have been an admirable ballpark troll had Charlie Manuel not been completely sincere. Rick Astley popping up on the HD video screen wouldn’t have been out of place. Ruiz did indeed get on base, drawing a walk from J.J. Putz on five pitches. Manuel chose to leave Martinez in the game and advance Ruiz to second via the sacrifice bunt. Any run expectancy matrix will demonstrate that this actually reduced the number of runs that the Phillies could have expected to score. The natural rebuttal is that, since the Phillies only needed one run to tie and another to walk off with the win, the extra value of advancing Ruiz to second outstripped the cost of the out surrendered. But win expectancy for a home team down by a run, which takes into account this added bit of context, is also reduced by the bunt, from .331 with a runner on first and no outs to .282 with a runner on second and one out. And all of this assumes that the parties involved are league average. The Phillies could have brought in Mayberry, who gets on base almost 33% of the time against righties like Putz, but instead opted for a strategy that gets the runner on base nearly 0% of the time.
As a grand finale, Manuel pinch ran Mayberry for Ruiz once Martinez had bunted him over, ensuring that Mayberry could not step to the plate at all during the Phillies’ last gasp. He sent Ross Gload, who has been battling a hip injury and wallowing in ineffectiveness all season, to the plate for Halladay. Gload had a .257 wOBA against righties entering the game, and, even after the misallocation of Mayberry, was still a worse choice than Ben Francisco. So it isn’t surprising that he struck out swinging, and, after Rollins did the same, the game was over.
Manuel’s justification for leaving Halladay in to finish the ninth was, as reported by Todd Zolecki, “it’s kind of his game, isn’t it? That’s my ace.” Similarly, he would probably respond to criticisms about his handling of the ninth inning bats with a reminder that he’s been in the game of baseball for a long time, and he knows more than a little bit about it. He’s earned that. I wouldn’t presume to take that away from him. I wouldn’t tell Chase Utley to alter his plate approach, or Roy Halladay to modify his pitch sequencing. But unlike the mechanics that go into pitching and hitting, managing a baseball team involves a discrete beginning state, a tangible manipulation, and a discrete end state. Observing the change that occurs through these three steps, we can make objective observations about the effect a manager has produced. And that is where folksy rejoinders fail in the face of readily available data. There are surely elements to Manuel’s managerial ability that we will never be able to quantify, but the ones that we can clash so fiercely with simple baseball axioms that they’re impossible to let slide.
Last night’s loss, on its face, is ridiculously easy to get over. It’s not even a bump in the road. In all but the most paranoid of projections, it costs the Phillies nothing. The poor strategy that made it so distinctly frustrating, should it be allowed to play out in the postseason, could inflict serious damage to their World Series hopes. And there’s nothing to indicate that this is the last we’ll see of it.