Last month I talked about managerial strategy when it comes to pinch hitting for starting pitchers relatively early in a game. In the game I look at, the Giants were down one run and had the bases loaded with one out in the fifth inning. I thought the decision to pinch hit was close but clear, especially given that the pitcher at the plate was both not a good hitter and had thrown more than 80 pitches already.
The Braves and Reds played a day game in Cincinnati yesterday. Atlanta led 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh when the Reds put men on first and second with two out. According to FanGraphs, this at-bat had the highest Leverage Index of the entire game (3.71). You don’t need a run expectancy matrix to know that this was an important spot for the home team. And yet the pitcher, Mike Leake, came up to the plate.
This move is baffling. Leake had already thrown more than 90 pitches, so he was close to done. Yes, Leake did have a homer off of Mike Minor in his career, but that’s a small sample size and charitable memory, to say the least. Leake isn’t a bad hitter; in fact, he’s one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball with a carer .293 wOBA, including a .295/.306/.443 slash line last year.
But he’s a good hitter for a pitcher. He still has a career strikeout rate of 29.1 percent and career walk rate of 3.3 percent. He still has a career 77 wRC+. Baker had an entire bench to work with. Yes, they weren’t the best options (and that means there are serious roster management issues), but they were options nonetheless. Jack Hannahan has a projected .294 wOBA, but he’s a lefty. Derrick Robinson has a projected .251 wOBA, so his switch-hitting ability is of limited use. Cesar Izturis, another switch hitter, is also a very, very bad hitter (projected .254 wOBA). Corky Miller, a righty with a .289 projected wOBA, was the backup catcher.
So maybe you don’t think it was that bad a choice; Dusty had few viable options and Leake was pitching well. But I can’t stress the importance of that situation enough. You are down to your last seven outs. You have no idea what the next two innings will bring, and you know that you are facing one of the nastiest bullpens in baseball. This may be your last chance to put a run on the board.
We don’t even need to consider the fact that Leake is not going to have his best stuff in the eighth inning and you have the ability to mix-and-match with your bullpen against the Braves’ lineup. Mike Leake is not your best option to hit. Even if there isn’t a huge difference between him and Hannahan or Miller, you need to do whatever you can to get a man on base in that situation. You need a position player there.
Leake flied out. The Braves scored five runs in the eighth inning. So it goes.