Managerial Decisions: Hurdle Bats a Reliever Twice

The Pirates lost 7-1 to the Cincinnati Reds on Monday night. Tyler Glasnow dug a deep hole right out of the chute. After giving up a leadoff single to Billy Hamilton and getting Jose Peraza to fly to center, Glasnow walked four straight batters. 1-0 Reds, bases loaded and Glasnow's already thrown 38 pitches. The Pirates' win probability has already dropped below 25%. There has only been one out recorded in the game.

Glasnow manages to get out of the first giving up only one more run. In the Pirates half of the first the first two batters reach, but a flyout and two strikeouts leave the runners stranded (watch the pattern emerge). 

Glasnow runs into more trouble in the second. After getting an out he gives up two singles. Joey Votto, who walked in the first, comes to the plate. Glasnow strikes him out on a nasty 0-2 curveball.* The two runners on base steal second and third on the strikeout. Adam Duvall steps to the plate. The Reds' win expectancy is 79%. Duvall lines the first pitch to left for a 2-run single giving the Reds a 5-0 lead and increasing their win expectancy to 89%. After another stolen base, the fourth, and a walk, the fifth, Glasnow's night is done. Wade LeBlanc comes in and gets the final out and the Pirates go to the bottom of the second down 5-0.

*Silver lining on Glasnow? Coming into the game Votto had swung and missed at two pitches so far this season. Glasnow tied him up with a great fastball on the hands in his first at bat and punched him out with the curve in his second. Unfortunately there wasn't much else good in between.

The Pirates opened the second with a walk, single and a walk to load the bases. Their win expectancy jumped back to 25% as Wade LeBlanc's spot came up in the order. 

LeBlanc threw four pitches to end the second inning. He was the team's designated long-man for this game. The Pirates other long-reliever, Trevor Williams, pitched two innings on Sunday and got loose on Saturday so was not deemed available by manager Clint Hurdle. Felipe Rivero had pitched the three previous days so was also not available. That meant the Pirates had four available relievers: closer Tony Watson, set-up man Daniel Hudson, Juan Nicasio and Antonio Bastardo to cover 21 outs.

On the bench the Pirates had backup catcher Chris Stewart who was not going to be used to pinch hit in the second. That left a slightly injured Josh Harrison, John Jaso, Phil Gosselin and Alen Hanson. Hurdle chose to stick with LeBlanc in a no-out situation knowing he had the top of the order with Jordy Mercer and Starling Marte after LeBlanc. LeBlanc hasn't been an automatic out at the plate. He sported a .250 batting average and .276 on base percentage coming into the game, but all but one of those plate appearances took place before 2014.

LeBlanc who struck out swinging, dropping the Pirates' WE 6%. Mercer followed with the same result and Marte grounded to short to end the inning, each dropping the WE another 5%. The Pirates went to the top of the third with a 9% win expectancy. 

After an error allowed the first batter to reach, LeBlanc retired the Reds in order. The Pirates went to the bottom of the third with a 10% WE. Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco both singled and David Freese and Francisco Cervelli both walked (that meant nine batters had reached base in the first three innings before an out was recorded and the Pirates had one run to show for it). With the bases loaded, no outs and down 5-1 Josh Bell came to the plate and Michael Lorenzen replaced starter Brandon Finnegan. The Pirates WE has soared to 32%.

Bell hit a shallow pop flyout to center and Polanco stayed at third. One out. Adam Frazier dribbled one up the first base line and Polanco was forced out at home. Two outs and the Pirates WE is back down to 18%. Hurdle is again confronted with the decision whether or not to bat LeBlanc with 18 outs still to cover with his 4-man pen. He again chose to bat LeBlanc who again struck out swinging on a 1-2 count. The Pirates WE dropped to 12% and they didn't put another runner on base. The Reds bullpen retired all 21 batters they faced in order.

Did Hurdle make the right decisions?

I can't see an argument for pinch-hitting for LeBlanc in the second inning. Had Glasnow gotten out of the second and the same situation arisen, it's a easy decision. Pinch-hit Harrison for Glasnow because you aren't burning your long-man. But, with no outs and 21 more outs needed from the bullpen, giving LeBlanc a shot and passing the burden to the top of the order was the right decision. The fortuitous thing in that situation is that LeBlanc didn't bounce into a double play. Unfortunately for the Bucs, Mercer and Marte failed to deliver.

The decision as to whether to bat LeBlanc in the third inning isn't very different, but the fact that there are two outs may give the feeling of greater urgency. Let's assume LeBlanc's career OBP of .276 is outdated and it's more like .175. The lefthanded hitting Jaso is probably the Pirates best option off the bench at that point and he increases the chance to reach base by about 20%. 

Hurdle then also needs to assess how much using some combination of the four remaining guys in the bullpen potentially decreases the Pirates chances to win games in the upcoming days. With the rescheduled game on Thursday the Pirates were scheduled to play the next nine days before getting another day off. Again I think Hurdle made the right decision. Had it been the fifth inning, he probably plays things differently. Had the score been 3-1, maybe he plays things differently. But being the third, he still has to get 18 more outs and pulling LeBlanc there probably means the Pirates have to shuffle the roster today to get a fresh bullpen arm to the majors.

I think Hurdle made the right decisions considering all the variables. Wade LeBlanc batted three times and twice struck out with the bases loaded. His outs, to some degree made his pitching performance moot. But he did pitch 5.1 innings, providing a big assist to the bullpen and giving Hurdle continued flexibility for the time being.

Thumbnail Image Courtesy of Getty Images North America.

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