Second-guessing Scioscia: the wisdom of pitching to Joey Votto

Welcome to what is going to be a new semi-regular feature at the site: Second-guessing Scioscia! As you probably surmised, it is a space in which I will be second-guessing the decision-making skills Mike Scioscia. This is something we've always done here at MWAH, but never in an official capacity. We do this now not because Scioscia is a shaky manager, I actually quite like him, but rather because every manager is faced with tough decisions on a regular basis and reconsidering how that decision should have been approached is interesting. Sure, there will also be some days we do this where the main point of the piece will be "WTF WAS SCIOSCIA THINKING!!!" Hopefully those will be few and far between. Hopefully this semi-regular piece will only be weekly rather than dail as well because at the end of the day, we mostly trust Scioscia and do not at all intend this feature to come off as a weekly hit job against him. Anyway, enough exposition, let's get to the first big second-guess of the season:

Why did Mike Scioscia pitch to Joey Votto in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line?

For those that missed it, the Halos were faced with the difficult decision of being tied 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth with Scott Downs on the mound, a runner on second, one out and first base open. That left Scioscia with the difficult decision of letting the lefty Downs face left-handed Joey Votto, one of the best hitters in all of baseball, or pitching around Votto so Downs could face the right-handed Brandon Phillips but with the possibility of a double play on the table.

We all know what happened in real life. Scioscia let Downs face Votto and Votto smacked a hard grounder that Albert Pujols had a shot at making a play on, but he failed to do so. Game over. Reds win. But don't let the actual result bias you because while it makes Scioscia look bad, it just as easily could've made Scioscia look good had Pujols come up with the ball. The question isn't whether it worked out or not so much as whether or not Scioscia was making the optimal choice with the game on the line.

On the surface, there isn't much to question. Downs and Votto are both left-handed, therefore you need to play the match-up. That is probably true in most cases, but Joey Votto is not most cases. Sure, he is a lefty, but he also is really friggin' awesome. For his career, Votto has an .898 OPS against southpaws. That's 101 points below his OPS against righties, but it is still an amazing OPS. There are right-handed batters who specialize in hitting lefties that don't have an OPS as high as .898 against lefties. Clearly this is no normal case of exploiting the platoon advantage.

The alternative though would've been to have Downs intentionally walk Votto and pitch to Brandon Phillips, thus forfeiting the platoon advantage. Here, Phillips is more normal in that he does hit lefties better than righties. His career OPS against lefties is .834 which is very good but it is also a whopping 59 points lower than Votto against southpaws. Even with that advantage, Phillips just isn't as dangerous of a hitter seeing how his career overall OPS+ is 97. He's pretty much as average as they come.

The other advantage in facing Phillips is that the double play would be in order and that is an are where Phillips has shown some weakness having grounded into a double play in 15% of his opportunities to do so in his career (the MLB average is 11%). And since this is the bottom of the ninth in a tied game, putting an extra runner on base isn't really a big deal. Granted, it does increase the probability of the Reds scoring that run by a marginal amount (from .418 to .429). Factor in too that Downs is a groundball pitcher, making it even more likely that he can induce a game-saving GIDP. And if Downs doesn't get the GIDP but still gets Phillips out, the Halos then regain the platoon advantage with left-handed Jay Bruce due up next.

There is a mitigating factor here in that Downs has his own platoon splits. For his career, his OPS allowed against righties is .158 points higher than lefties. But there are some receny factors to consider too. Downs has generally been death on lefties the last three years allowing an OPS no higher than .488 during that span. Whereas against righties his recent splits are a little more difficult to figure out. In 2010, righties hit .637. In 2011, he limited them to .581. In 2012, he was hammered for  an .813 OPS by righties.

That really muddies the waters doesn't it?

If you trust that 2012 was a blip, then one might lean towards Downs facing the generally less dangerous Brandon Phillips. However, if there you believe Downs has lost something and is now extremely vulnerable to righties like he was in 2012, then letting him face Phillips is downright stupid. Given that Downs plunked Shin-Soo Choo with the first pitch of the inning, it might even factor into your thinking that Downs doesn't have his best stuff in this given outing.

This managing thing turns out to not be so easy. If it were me, I think I'd probably lean towards walking Votto and hoping Downs could get Phillips, but I'm not at all confident about it, much like I'm sure Scioscia wasn't confident about letting Downs face Votto.

At this point, I turn the decision-making over to you, because we all know crowdsourcing is clearly the way in-game baseball decisions should be made:


Garrett Wilson

About Garrett Wilson

Garrett Wilson is the founder and Supreme Overlord of and editor at The Outside Corner. He's an Ivy League graduate, but not from one of the impressive ones. You shouldn't make him angry. You wouldn't like him when he is angry.