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Breaking It Down: Placido Polanco’s Bunt

Last night’s 5-2 loss to the New York Mets will be remembered for rookie Jordany Valdespin‘s three-run home run in the top of the ninth inning, the proverbial nail in the coffin. The 24-year-old had gone hitless in his first six plate appearances in the Majors, but got his first hit against one of the game’s most dominant relief pitchers in Papelbon.

However, while that play was quite memorable, the Phillies could have put themselves in a better position to win in the previous inning — and relied on the butterfly effect for Valdespin’s home run to have never happened — with some better judgment. In the bottom of the eighth, with the score tied at two apiece, the Phillies put their first two base runners on with singles by Ty Wigginton and Carlos Ruiz. Based on the 2011 season, 1.4 runs scored on average with runners on first and second with no outs. Charlie Manuel chose to have Placido Polanco bunt the runners over, which changes the run expectancy to 1.3 runs with runners on second and third with one out. That late in the game, with the score tied at home with your best reliever ostensibly fresh and not rusty after a week of riding the pine, such a play is defensible.

The problem was, though, that Freddy Galvis lurked on deck. Galvis, with a .105 ISO in his 91 PA to date, would need to power a ball to the outfield against Mets reliever Bobby Parnell, a hard-throwing right-hander with a great ability to miss bats and induce ground balls.

Here’s a look at where left-handed hitters have put the ball in play against Parnell so far this season, followed by a look at where Parnell tends to throw his pitches.

Only two lefties hit the ball well against Parnell: Chipper Jones in Atlanta and Adam LaRoche in New York (the location explains why they weren’t home runs). The only other fly ball was hit by Jimmy Rollins in the previous inning of last night’s game (it is the leftmost light-blue box in the outfield). Considering Parnell’s power and Galvis’ complete lack of it, a sacrifice fly would have been a miracle.

Here’s a look at where Galvis put the ball in play when he made contact with pitches on the outer-third of the strike zone against right-handed pitching.

The three deepest balls in left field were hit on fastballs. From left to right: against Jeff Karstens (90 MPH), against Ernesto Frieri (94 MPH), and against Anibal Sanchez (91 MPH, double). Mostly, Galvis hit ground balls between first and second base. Parnell hit 93-95 with his fastball leading up to his face-off with Galvis, then reached 97-98 against Galvis. Needless to say, the odds of Galvis catching up with a 97 MPH fastball and hitting it deep enough to the outfield to score a run were not in his favor.

The Phillies could have pinch-hit for Galvis for Laynce Nix, but they knew the Mets would have quickly replaced Parnell with lefty Tim Byrdak. In fact, that is exactly what happened after the at-bat involving Galvis. Right-handed options off the Phillies’ bench included Erik Kratz and… that’s it. So, here were the scenarios:

None of the post-bunt match-ups were any more favorable than Polanco vs. Parnell. Despite his woeful start to the season, Polanco has been able to muscle the ball to the outfield with regularity.

As it happened, Polanco successfully bunted the runners over to second and third. Galvis then followed it up with a ground ball that went all of 60 feet.

Afterwards, Nix pinch-hit for Antonio Bastardo. The Mets brought in Byrdak, so Manuel replaced Nix with Kratz, who struck out swinging. The Phillies scored zero runs in a situation that called for at least one, even after willingly giving up one of six remaining regulation outs.

There is no guarantee that Polanco succeeds against Parnell. In fact, the nature of baseball itself would make Polanco between two and three times as likely to fail as succeed. However, as we have been focusing a lot on optimal strategy thus far in the 2012 season, it seems as if letting Polanco swing away would have been the right call than letting the weak-hitting Galvis take his hacks.

Sub-optimal strategy was rarely a problem for the Phillies in previous years because they had enough talent to make up for it. For instance, Manuel’s unwillingness to remove an ineffective Brad Lidge from the closer’s role in 2009 certainly cost the Phillies a handful of games, but they won 93 games and took the NL East by a six-game margin. 2012 is a different story. Accounting for the first month of the season, Dan Szymborski’s updated ZiPS projections has the Phillies at 84-78, seven games behind in third place in the NL East. The Phillies simply don’t have the margin to cope with bad in-game decision-making. By bullpen mismanagement alone, Manuel has cost the Phillies up to five games and his repeated reliance on the sacrifice bunt even more. With moderately better strategy, the Phillies could reasonably have four more wins and four fewer losses, putting them at 18-12 instead of 14-16. Playing catch-up in a new-and-improved NL East would be monumentally easier, but that simply won’t be the case going forward if the Phillies don’t play smarter.