FanGraphs: What was La Russa thinking?

April, 19, 2010
4/19/10
10:59
AM ET
On Saturday, the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets played one of the classic National League games of all time. After 20 innings and 652 pitches, every player on both rosters -- save Oliver Perez, Chris Carpenter, Brad Penny and Adam Wainwright -- had been used. Position players pitched two full innings and one (Joe Mather) took the loss for Tony LaRussa's team.

Along the way, there were plenty of swings in momentum. At FanGraphs, we use a statistic called "Win Probability Added" to measure the change in likelihood of a team winning as events unfold. For example, when Skip Schumaker hit a double to open the second inning, he added 6.1 percent to St. Louis' chance of winning the game.

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As you can see by the accompanying game graph, there were some single plays that stand out. Some of these swings in win probability were directly due to managerial decisions, and now that we've had a day to digest this epic game, it's still hard to understand what La Russa was thinking with some of his decisions in extra innings.

Perhaps his most harmful was the decision to double-switch out cleanup hitter Matt Holliday, because it allowed the Mets to intentionally walk Albert Pujols and take advantage of the situation. Even with Holliday under the weather, choosing to have the pitcher's spot due up behind the game's best hitter is simply a poor choice.

On two separate occasions (in the 12th and 14th innings), the Mets took advantage of Holliday's absence by intentionally walking Pujols to load the bases. Both times, La Russa chose to let a relief pitcher swing the bat in situations where an out would decrease their odds of winning by 15.4 percent, a staggeringly high total for one play. La Russa left actual hitter Bryan Anderson (and his career .362 on base percentage in the minors) on the bench while his pitchers flailed away.

Even if you think Anderson isn't much of an offensive force, the gap between he and a relief pitcher at the plate is enormous. The average major league pitcher got on base just 18 percent of the time last year, and as relievers, Jason Motte and Blake Hawksworth bat infrequently, so that even overstates their abilities. With two chances to win the game, La Russa chose to let two of the worst hitters in the sport swing the bat.

Even still, those plays may not have been the biggest errors of the night. Ryan Ludwick's caught stealing in the 19th inning cost his team 21.6 percent in win probability. Had he been ruled safe, the Cardinals odds of winning would have increased by just 4.2 percent. In other words, he would need five successful steals in that situation to cancel out just one caught stealing, and Ludwick had a career 57 percent success rate prior to the attempt. Henry Blanco, the Mets catcher, has thrown out 43 percent of all base stealers in his career. The odds were simply not in Ludwick's favor, and getting thrown out was a huge blow to the Cardinals. It was yet another bad decision on a night full of them. The Cardinals threw away three great opportunities to win, and eventually, the Mets won by default.

Eno Sarris is a writer for FanGraphs.

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