Decisions, Decisions

Last week, we saw managers make poor decisions about when to take their starters out. In those cases, their decisions did actually contribute to their teams’ losses. But the point wasn’t to retrospectively bash a manager because his decision didn’t work out. My point was to go back and look at information that the managers had at their disposal, and then evaluate the decision-making process regardless of the result.

Last night Brewers manager Ron Roenicke had Randy Wolf–his pitcher–up to bat in the sixth inning with runners on the corners and just one out in a 4-2 game. He chose to let Wolf “safe-sacrifice.” A sac that allows the runner on the third to make a split-second decision about scoring based on the bunt. The alternative would obviously have been to pinch hit, and righty Casey McGehee was twiddling his thumbs on the bench.

There were layers of stupidity to this decision. First of all, the only time a sacrifice attempt averages more run scoring than swinging away is when the batter is really, really, really bad. Giving away an out when you only have two left in the inning is not a sound strategy… if scoring runs is your goal. Wolf definitely matches the profile of abysmal hitter (.218 career wOBA, .173 on the season), however he doesn’t actually have to bat. Pinch hitting is a possibility in this sport we call baseball–new rule, or something.

Despite having a poor season, Casey McGehee has proven in his first three full seasons to be, at the very least, an average major league hitter. In his first two seasons in the show, he tallied wOBAs of .367 and .346, both above average. While 2011 was not nearly as fun for McGehee, his first two seasons can’t be completely ignored. In fact, his walk and strikeout numbers this season fit snugly with 2009 and 2010, and his proportion of line drives, groundballs and flyballs is about the same as last season. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say he’s been a little unlucky (.249 BABIP).  While letting McGehee swing away has the potential for an inning-ending double play, that small loss is completely made up for by his chances to walk or get a hit, scenarios that would undoubtedly increase the Brewers’ run-scoring potential that inning.

The other part of Roenicke’s strategy that doesn’t add up was sending Wolf out to work through a Cardinals lineup his third time through. As with most pitchers, Wolf gets less effective as the game wears on. By the third time through the lineup, his OPS against has risen 46 points while his K/BB ratio falls from 2.43 to 1.97. Here is a nice group of hurlers more capable than Wolf to finish off the 6th through 9th innings. And it just so happens they all can be found on Milwaukee’s playoff roster.

Brewer Relievers




John Axford



Takashi Saito



Francisco Rodriguez



LaTroy Hawkins



Roenicke could have improved his team’s chances of scoring in the top of the sixth, and simultaneously decreased the Cardinals chances of scoring in subsequent innings, just by pinch hitting and using his quality bullpen. In the end, the score remained 4-2, and the Brewers won. Wolf sacrificed the runner to second, Hairston held at third, and then Morgan struck out to end the threat in the 6th inning. Wolf went on to pitch scoreless 6th and 7th innings, and was lifted for Francisco Rodriguez in the 8th.

Some would say, “it worked. They won.” But the end result should not be how these decisions are analyzed. I could have been the Brewer’s manager, told Hairston to reverse-steal second while Wolf and Morgan swung blindfolded and high on shrooms (not unlike Miguel Olivo every night). They would have left the top of the sixth still up 4-2, and they would have won, and it would have “worked.”

The fact is that when Wolf came up to the plate in the sixth with two runners on and one out, the Brewers had an 80% win expectancy based on MLB averages. Even after the run-scoring opportunity was squandered, Milwaukee’s win expectancy stood at 66%. We can hypothesize that a smarter use of the bench could have bumped the Brew Crew’s theoretical win percentage up to 85%, but either way, there was a still a better than 50% chance of winning the game regardless of the strategy employed. So determining that the strategy was smart because it “worked” is not a particularly logical conclusion. It was likely to work no matter how the 6th inning was managed.

Instead, past results–based on hundreds or thousands of samples instead of just one–show that letting Wolf sac in that situation and then pitch the next two innings is not a strategy that is going to work as often as pinch hitting and utilizing the bullpen.




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