Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Recency bias and sac bunting in the first inning

When you play the same team multiple times this early in the season, you’re bound to duplicate pitching matchups. Such was the case in the Cardinals’ home opener, when Reds lefty Tony Cingrani squared off against Cardinals righty Michael Wacha only five days after facing each other in Cincinnati. The two starters locked up in a classic pitchers duel, ultimately decided by the teams’ bullpens in a 1-0 Reds win.

So Reds manager Bryan Price could be forgiven for prizing that earlier experience in his strategy Monday afternoon at Busch Stadium. When leadoff man Billy Hamilton reached on a double in the first inning, the Reds decided to have #2 man Brandon Phillips move him to third. As Reds beat reporter Mark Sheldon quoted Price after the game: “We’ve got Wacha, who has had really nothing but success as a starter in the big leagues. So we don’t know if he’s on or if he’s not. We know they’ve been tough to score against.” It’s high praise for the 22-year-old Wacha for the opposing manager to admit to changing strategy to a plan more suited for Sandy Koufax. It might be even bigger praise that Phillips — who is fairly adept at going the other way — was apparently on his own in terms of how to advance the runner and chose the easy way out.

Recency bias doesn’t necessary mean that the view is wrong. In this case, Price was right in expecting another pitchers’ duel. After all, Cingrani and Wacha’s scoreless standoff in Game #2 of the season was hardly a fluke: Cingrani projects to have a 3.70ish FIP this year, while Wacha projects at around a 3.50 FIP. The problem was that the sac bunting strategy is almost always suboptimal in the first inning of a game. That’s because the implicit tradeoff is increasing the likelihood of scoring one run, while decreasing the likelihood of scoring multiple runs. Unless you’re absolutely certain that you’re not going to need more than one run (which you might be in the eighth or ninth innings), you run the risk of shortchanging your run total and losing the game. As stingy as Wacha is, his projected FIP is something higher than Koufax’s.

For Mike Matheny and Cardinals’ part, they chose a different path in their half of the first. Matt Carpenter rapped a leadoff single, bringing up Peter Bourjos, whom Matheny promoted to the second spot in an effort to gig his performance. With a notably less potent batter — Bourjos’s career wOBA (.307) is 18 points less than Phillips’s (.325) — Matheny had his #2 batter swing away. The result — a single to center, which led to Yadier Molina‘s three-run double — doesn’t validate the decision, just as a different outcome from Votto or Bruce would’ve justified Price’s. Whether Matheny had Bourjos swing away as a sign of trust or because he better understands when to optimize on single run chances, the Cardinals played smarter — not smaller –ball in their home opener. It’s not often that first-inning strategy determines the outcome of a game, but the differing ways in which the teams’ two managers played the first inning was the difference in the Cardinals’ home opener Monday.

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