Terrific to win a series in Pittsburgh. Even better to do it without using Johnny Cueto. The Pirates have the second-best record in the NL and had a 7-game winning streak at home. The Reds beat true ace Gerrit Cole on Wednesday and got contributions throughout the lineup for a dramatic 5-4, extra-inning win last night. The bullpen is showing signs of stabilizing. The team has won 11 of 17, including two walk-off losses to the Cubs. The Cincinnati Reds are only three games below .500 for the first time since the losing streak.

Warm fuzzies. That context should make this discussion go down easier.

Aroldis Chapman’s One Inning

My charter membership in the Free Aroldis club is no secret. The underutilization of Chapman’s arm during his years with the club is among the worst resource allocations – maybe the worst – since I’ve been following the Reds (who deserves the blame for that is beside the point, but it’s certainly shared). Despite statements of intention from him to the contrary, Bryan Price’s devotion to Closer Rules doesn’t vary one four-seamer from Dusty Baker’s. Somehow, Price’s team survived someone other than Chapman getting a save last night the last two nights.

Thursday night’s game provided another act in the Chapman tragedy. Although probably not quite for the reason you think.

Here’s the setting: Chapman hadn’t taken the mound in a game since Sunday and only once in the previous week. He was fresh and needed to pitch. If there was ever a time to consider using him for two innings – a series-deciding game against a division rival – this was it. One complicating factor was that Chapman had been on paternity leave Tuesday and Wednesday and had raced to arrive in Pittsburgh last night.

Late in the game, the Reds began the practice of warming up two pitchers for each inning, Chapman in the case the Reds got the lead, another pitcher in the event the game remained tied. If you’re thinking that’s a strange way to use up Chapman’s fresh arm, I’m with you. But that’s what Closer Rules dictate.

It turns out, the only reason Bryan Price used Chapman in the 11th inning in a tied game was his concern about the impact of getting Chapman up-and-down so many times. “It just seemed like getting him up and getting him up and getting him up, we’d inevitably get to the point where we couldn’t safely bring him in or comfortably feel like he’d have any bullets left in his arsenal,” Price said (Rosecrans).

To review: Aroldis Chapman had pitched once the previous week. In a big game, the Reds almost wore him out in the bullpen because their slavish devotion to the habits of Closer Rules dictated Chapman, and only Chapman, be used for a save. He became unavailable for the save. In English Lit class, that would be an excellent example of irony.

Aroldis Chapman pitched one inning and faced the Pirates 8-9-1 hitters. Contribution limited to seven pitches. Instead of allowing Chapman to pitch the 12th, Mike Leake pinch hit. Chapman could have hit for himself. While Leake is probably a better hitter than Chapman, that gap is smaller than the difference between Chapman and Pedro Villarreal facing the heart of Pittsburgh’s order in the 12th.

Price could have double-switched when Chapman came in, allowing him to pitch two innings before having to bat. Except Price was constrained by …

The Short Bench

Before Thursday’s game, the Reds sent Kristopher Negron to AAA to create a space on the 25-man roster for Chapman’s return from paternity leave. That meant the Reds were once again carrying 13 pitchers and 12 position players. With eight starters, that leaves four position players on the bench, one of whom is the backup catcher, a glass half-full to be broken only in an emergency. So Price began the game with three arrows in his quiver. Last night, the non-emergency, non-faux-position player bench was Ivan De Jesus, Chris Dominguez and Jay Bruce.

Price used De Jesus in the 7th inning to pinch hit for Skip Schumaker. Schumaker had started in RF in place of Jay Bruce (more on that in a second). With a left-handed reliever now in the game, Price played match-up and used up his first arrow. Then Price used Chris Dominguez to hit for Anthony DeSclafani.

So when Ivan De Jesus came to bat in the top of the ninth in a tied game, with two outs and two runners on base, Bryan Price was faced with the choice of leaving De Jesus in to face a right-handed pitcher, or bring in lefty Jay Bruce, who has been one of the best hitters in baseball in June. (Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had already used his two left-handed bullpen arms.) But using Bruce for De Jesus would have completely depleted the non-emergency bench leaving no regular position player to hit for the pitcher in the very next lineup spot. Bruce ended up batting for the pitcher in the 10th.

Getting back to Chapman, when he entered the game in the 11th inning, the reason Bryan Price didn’t double-switch is there was no one available on the bench to do that. By then, Price had used up all three available non-emergency pinch hitters.

So twice the short bench really constrained Bryan Price’s options – once when he couldn’t use Bruce for De Jesus and once when he couldn’t double-switch for Chapman. Price can often get away with the short bench because most games don’t go into extra innings. And the bench is usually so weak compared to the regulars that Price doesn’t use pinch-hitters for position players. But that wasn’t the case last night because of … 

Jay Bruce vs. A.J. Burnett

Bryan Price decided to play Skip Schumaker in right field instead of Jay Bruce. His stated reason was Bruce’s poor history batting against A.J. Burnett. The widely quoted stat was Bruce batting 3 for 31 against Burnett (for the record, Bruce also had three walks and two sacrifice-fly RBIs).

Price is certainly not the only manager who uses hitter-pitcher histories. But when you hear Price say that he used specific history for a decision, you should cringe a little. Because while he’s using data, it offers nothing but false confidence.

Individual batter-pitcher histories have been proven to be meaningless in predicting future outcomes of that match-up. Mountains of research (presumably available to the Reds’ analytics department and Bryan Price) demonstrate this. For example, Colin Wyers (Baseball Prospectus 2011) studied hitter-pitcher matchup data over sixty years of baseball history. He found that “ten, fifty or even a hundred plate appearances aren’t enough to tell us whether there’s a special edge or sample-size fluke.”

Tom Tango and Mitchel Lichtman (The Book: Playing Percentages in Baseball, Chapter 3) studied major league hitters and pitcher data from 1999-2002. They used 1999-2001 as the “before” period and 2002 as the “after” period. They stipulated the pitcher-hitter matchup had to take place at least 17 times before and at least nine times after. That let them identify 300 pairs of pitchers and hitters. Their findings: “We found thirty hitters with fabulous hitting records against thirty pitchers. And yet, given the chance to prove this skill in subsequent confrontations, they fail miserably.” Looking at the pitchers who “owned” certain hitters, “once again, the identity of the opponent was irrelevant. These pitchers didn’t own these hitters.”

Even if you want to bracket off Bruce’s June numbers (.275/.363/.538) for sample size reasons (91 PA), here is Jay Bruce’s split vs. right-handed starters: .236/.337/.431 (2015) and .255/.328/.468 (career). Skip Schumaker vs. right-handed starters: .213/.293/.303.

Skip Schumaker struck out three times against A.J. Burnett on 11 pitches. Maybe Bruce would have done the same. He did strike out in a role unfamiliar to him of pinch hitter.

Match-up histories give managers an easy statsy-sounding rationale when asked about a specific decision. Last night, it gave us Skip for that.

These are minor issues. Alone, they don’t make a broader case for firing a manager or general manager. Hey, part of being a fan of the national past time is second-guessing the management of your favorite team. Fans do it everywhere, to every manager and every general manager. But each time the Reds fail to grab every inch possible, that they make it that much harder to beat organizations like the Pirates who do. Last night, the Reds tried to beat the Pirates while giving Jay Bruce just one plate appearance and Aroldis Chapman three outs. And they limited themselves for dumb reasons.

Whatever, the Reds pulled it out. No better day to celebrate a big 5-4 win.