Inning by Inning, the Decisions that Could’ve Haunted Mickey Callaway – But Never Did

On Monday night, the Mets beat the Phillies, 7-6, in extra innings.

It was an exciting, back-and-forth affair. Two aces started in Noah Syndergaard and Aaron Nola, and the matchup was nationally broadcast on ESPN. The 3rd inning saw the Mets score 3 in the top of the frame, with the Phillies responding with 3 in the bottom. The 4th inning saw the Mets strike back with 2 more, only for the Phillies to get those 2 right back in the bottom half.

Although the Mets eventually won, it can (and will) be argued they tried their hardest to lose. Not the players, of course, but the management. Suboptimal bullpen usage has become a sort of strawman argument in these days of advanced statistics, but this usage was so egregious (and the mistakes by Mickey Callaway and the Mets were not in the bullpen alone), I felt the need to dig in, inning by inning. Join me on the journey of a tortured Mets fan:

Middle 8th: Pete Alonso is removed from the game in a double switch

This decision, in a vacuum, isn’t so awful. Pete Alonso had just struck out swinging to end the top of the 8th, and his spot was therefore 9 spots away in the order. To me, though, this was the first eyebrow-raising decision by Callaway late in this game. Alonso has been by far the best hitter on the Mets this season: his 204 wRC+ not only by far leads the team, but is 8th in the majors; he leads the team in slugging percentage by 200 points, and has double the home runs of anyone else on the roster.

Alonso was no doubt pulled for the combination of defensive concerns (overblown; he’s the best overall Met in fWAR defense included) and his spot in the lineup just passed (but considering his replacement, Jeurys Familia, pitched more than 1 inning in just 1 of 9 appearances this season, that shouldn’t have been a huge concern). Although this decision isn’t as cut-and-dry as the following bullpen management, taking your best player out of a 1 run game is a move worth dissection at the very least, and it hurt the Mets later in this game.

Bottom 8th: Robert Gsellman is brought in with the bases loaded

Jeurys Familia, as he has been often this season in his Queens return, was ineffective. That’s not Mickey Callaway’s fault. The bases were now, though, loaded with 2 outs in a 6-5 game. In a matchup against a divisional rival, on national TV, with the world watching. The Phillies #2 hitter, Jean Segura, was coming to the plate, followed by Bryce Harper. Fangraph’s leverage index rated this moment as the most important event of the game. It was in this moment it would all be worth it: trading two top prospects and taking on $120 million of Robinson Canó to acquire the best relief pitcher in baseball.

That pitcher, though, stayed on the bench.

This, to me, was the most indefensible move of the game by Callaway. It’s now well-documented that Mets management as a whole has decided to only use Edwin Díaz for 3 innings at a time. That actually makes some sense in an effort to keep him ready for the playoffs (though not entirely; you can miss the playoffs outright by not winning enough in the regular season), considering his past bone spurs.

However, to me, that has zero bearing on whether to bring him in in this situation. He could only go 2 outs the next inning if management says so. Or, he could even have just gotten this one – it may have been more valuable than 3 outs later on. Díaz hadn’t pitched in 3 days; he was about as fresh as a reliever can possibly get before a manager starts to say they’re not getting enough work.

There’s even an argument that the Mets put more strain on Díaz by not using him here, as Baseball Prospectus’ Jarrett Seidler tweeted:

People forget that throws while warming in the bullpen are pretty close to recorded in-game “pitches”, even if they’re not labeled as such; this has been a lesser-discussed downside to “saving your closer” for the “save situation” – just because they’re not in the game, doesn’t mean they’re not throwing.

In a nutshell, whether they didn’t want Díaz throwing more than 3 outs or not, there was no excuse to not have him, who they gave up so much to acquire, was so well-rested, and so unbelievably more effective than the rest of the Mets’ bullpen, to not get the call in this situation.

Instead, almost poetically, Robert Gsellman then walked Segura on 4 pitches. This not only tied the game 6-6 in the bottom of the 8th, but brought Bryce Harper to the plate with the bases loaded. Before this walk, Fangraphs estimated the Phillies’ win probability at 35.3%. After, it was 63.2%. That’s what I call a high leverage situation.

Of course, Harper ended up popping out, and the Mets lived to fight another inning.

Bottom 9th: Gsellman is left in to pitch 

In the bottom of the frame, the game was still tied 6-6. Do or die now – yield a single run, and the Phillies win the game. Again, the fully rested, fully dominant Díaz sat on the cold bullpen bench. And again, the Mets were bailed out.

Bottom 10th:  Luis Avilán is brought in

Here we have the same situation as the bottom of the 9th: a tie game, where one run given up loses you a full game in the standings against a division rival. With 3 righties coming up, the Mets opted for… Luis Avilán, a lefty whose ERA is currently 10.80.

The winning run got as close as 90 feet away in the inning; Jean Segura, whose RBI tied the game in the bottom of the 8th, was at the plate. Díaz remained on the bench.

After a 2-0 count, Avilán struck him out swinging. Callaway proved right again.

Top 11th: Travis d’Arnaud is brought in as a pinch hitter (and asked to bunt)

In the top of the 11th, the chickens from the Pete Alonso benching back in the 8th finally came home to roost: with 1st and 2nd and nobody out, his 2nd slot in the lineup was up to the plate in what would have been not only an enormous opportunity, but one with the Mets’ best hitter at the plate.

Instead, they had to use a pinch hitter, as Avilán currently held the lineup spot (managing really is easier in the American League).

Now, there are multiple angles to break down.

TangoTiger has developed a run expectancy matrix – predicting the number of runs scored in each of 24 possible situations based on the occupancy of the bases and the number of outs. The data was taken over a span of (coincidentally) 24 years.  What did it find?

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 5.25.17 PM

The matrix has an x-axis of the number of outs, and a y-axis of the baserunner setup. Each of the decimal numbers represents the expected number of runs scored from that point on in the inning. For example, with the bases empty and nobody out, there is a base run expectancy of .477. What does this matrix tell us?  For one, it shows that, in general, sacrifice bunts – a conventional-wisdom baseball tactic – are generally not smart.  A man on first with no one out gives you a higher run expectancy than a man on second with one out, and so on.

A manager might make the argument that in extras, you don’t want 2 or 3 runs, but just 1, so you need to get that run as close to home as possible. In the top of an extra inning, though, 1 run doesn’t automatically win the game as it would in the bottom of the frame. So that argument for bunting should hold even less water.

Bunting rant aside, it seems the Mets had decided they wanted to bunt. Travis d’Arnaud, though, the pinch hitter they selected, hadn’t laid down a successful sacrifice since 2016. Not only was he their best remaining bench hitter (any pitcher could have laid down a bunt), but one who had laid down 3 successful sacrifices in his entire career (that pitcher probably would have been even better at bunting). It seems simple, then, that saving him to hit later would be prudent.

Instead, d’Arnaud bunted the first 2 pitches foul, before popping the 3rd out to first base.

* * *

Baseball, of course, will always come down to the players, and the players won the Mets this game. In the end, Robert Gsellman and Luis Avilán’s pitching was just good enough; Rhys Hoskins’ defense just poor enough, and Juan Lagares’ baserunning just good enough to win the game for the Mets. But in any company, when someone better suited as an intern fails as a manager, it’s not the fault of the should-be intern, but the fault of the boss who put that intern in a position to fail. It’s the reason CEOs are so often fired when things go south for a company.

Had the Mets lost, perhaps Mickey Callaway and the Mets’ management would have to be held more accountable by the media. But who knows. If these decisions continue, the losses will come in time.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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