Thursday, October 3, 2013
Chess match: Pirates versus Cardinals
By Christina Kahrl
Baseball managers are never more scrutinized than they are right now. From the roster selections they help make -- selecting what options they want to have on hand -- to the way they use those players to the best advantage, the short series of the postseason tests a manager's abilities tactically within individual games and strategically over the course of a series. After witnessing the impact made by Bruce Bochy with the Giants in two of the past three years and Tony La Russa's quick hooks and pen-dependent victory with the Cardinals in 2011, it's clear they can and do make a difference.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the four chess matches in the division series, focusing on what sets these managers apart from the norm.
Pittsburgh Pirates versus St. Louis Cardinals
What Clint Hurdle likes to do: He isn't afraid of using rookie pitchers in big situations. In Colorado, he won a pennant with rookies Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales in his second-half rotation, with rookie Manny Corpas closing. So Gerrit Cole in the rotation and Justin Wilson and Bryan Morris in the pen aren't going to be sheltered.
With his starting pitchers, Hurdle has the quickest hook in baseball. He's faster on the draw more often than even Joe Maddon. While some of that resulted from having a number of young starters plus Jeff Locke's second-half meltdown, it has been a consistent feature of his Pittsburgh tenure. All those short starts created opportunities for swingman Jeanmar Gomez to shine during the season. If a Pirates pitcher gets the hook early, Gomez could be a surprise hero.
On offense, Hurdle will platoon to cover a weaker slot in the order, which you would probably expect from a guy who played for Whitey Herzog. Hurdle has built and won with platoons in Colorado and Pittsburgh. Swapping in Justin Morneau for Garrett Jones as the lefty half of his first-base platoon with Gaby Sanchez suited him just fine. The Cardinals have an all-righty rotation, so Morneau will start, but let's see if Hurdle will hit for him if Mike Matheny goes to a lefty reliever.
Hurdle uses defensive replacements more than anyone in baseball; having Clint Barmes available at shortstop is one big reason why. While Hurdle is conventional in letting only the fast guys steal, the Pirates, according to Baseball Info Solutions, had runners moving on the pitch more times than any team in the league.
The Pirates embraced the shift this season (fourth-most in MLB), one reason they rated third in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved at plus-68 and had the fifth-lowest batting average on balls in play. But as Eno Sarris reported in his ESPN Insider preview of the series, the Cardinals are not a pull-happy team; they hit to the opposite field more often than any team in the postseason. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see who starts at shortstop, Barmes or the more offensive-minded Jordy Mercer. They shared time in September, with Barmes starting the wild-card game.
What Matheny likes to do: Stay out of the way of his offense by avoiding little ball in almost any form. The Cardinals were last in the league in steals, and they got just 17 sacrifice bunts out of nonpitchers all year (nine by Jon Jay). That isn't to say Matheny's runners aren't aggressive; the Cards were among the best at having baserunners take an extra base on hits (43 percent, better than any other team in the postseason). He also doesn't mess around with his lineup card, turning in an MLB-low 89 different lineups.
After taking a lot of heat for his bullpen management last year and having to turn away from veteran temp Edward Mujica in the closer's slot late in September, Matheny has relied more heavily on a younger, more talented crew down the stretch (six rookies in the bullpen for Game 1, including starters Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha, one of whom will start Game 4 if necessary). Flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal gets the most attention now that he'll get the save opportunities, but groundballer Seth Maness and hard-throwing lefty Kevin Siegrist have been equally critical. The transition from the La Russa pen that relied on and won with a cast of veterans and situational journeyman types is almost complete in its shift to a pen stocked with better overall talent.
That echoes what's happened in the rotation, which gets more of the press. As good as Miller, Wacha and Joe Kelly have been, how could it not? But between that group, the new hands in the pen and Lance Lynn, Matheny and his staff deserve considerable credit.
Advantage: If it comes down to in-game tactics, the advantage is Hurdle's to exploit.