There’s a trend on Twitter (and as a result, in the public discourse) of dunking on players that dare question their managers’ more analytical decisions. Last week, Tyler Mahle was the most recent victim after he had the gall to question why he was pulled in the fifth inning. Mahle’s full quote:
“I haven’t really got the chance to battle through a game, battle through six innings or whatever…Like tonight, especially after the last game when I get pulled at 77 pitches. This game, I know I had 90-something, but in my opinion, I deserve to at least get out of the fifth or get through five or see where that next batter ends up. I get a pop-up and I am one ground ball away. And I get taken out of the game. So, it’s getting pretty ridiculous at this point, but I just got to keep going.”
At the time of his early shower, Mahle had only given up two runs in the first. Runners were on first and second with the next three batters going lefty, switch, lefty. Wandy Peralta, the Reds lesser left-handed bullpenner, was brought in and promptly addressed the three batters by strike out, walk, and grand slam, essentially ending any hope for the Reds afternoon.
Doug Gray wrote after Mahle’s comments came to light about the game and their implications. I both fully support and agree with everything Doug wrote. However, Mahle had a point.
The point of using analytics as a manager is to make in-game decisions with the highest level of information so that your team can win. In other words, analytics allow for smarter managing, presumably in the pursuit of wins. I say Tyler Mahle was right because no manager with that much information at their disposal can bring in Wandy Peralta and still claim to be managing to win.
Just take the analytics: In his third time through the order so far this season, Mahle has allowed a slashline of .241/.302/.431 with an OPS of .733 this season. Not standout by any means, but also not that bad. Against lefties, those numbers are worse: .285/.338/.537 with an OPS of .875. Wandy Peralta, meanwhile, has a .256/.300/.488 with a .788 OPS against lefties this season. Peralta is better than Mahle against lefties yes, but also worse overall than Mahle is on his third time through. Essentially, it was a wash.
If David Bell brought in Amir Garrett in that situation, then I’m all for it. If Wandy Peralta had gotten the outs, then we aren’t having this conversation. But neither happened and Tyler Mahle has a fair gripe.
Since I wrote last week that the next two weeks were crunch time for the Reds and nothing less than a 9-3 record would prove them to be contenders, the Reds have gone 3-3. For them to meet my threshold, the Reds need to sweep the Astros and the Brewers. Even then, the Reds will only be at .500.
More likely than not, the Reds will not be a contender by the trade deadline. That’s okay: Most of us expected this team to be around .500 with a chance to overachieve anyway. But the thing about seasons without playoff aspirations is they still have to be used for something. If it’s not tanking to get a higher draft pick, then it should be letting young players have as many chances to succeed as possible. And part of that is letting Tyler Mahle go deep into games.
Pitchers get worse as they go deeper into games, yes, but battling deep is also a learned skill. The best pitchers across the league know how to adjust their approach for the third time through and rely on secondary pitches to still get outs. Watch Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander: Both guys know how to battle and save their reserves for the late innings.
That skill isn’t innate; it’s something that takes practice. If David Bell is managing to win, sure he should replace Mahle with Garrett or Michael Lorenzen or Robert Stephenson or David Hernandez. Any of the reliable, shutdown arms in the bullpen should do. Pulling Mahle for Wandy Peralta or Zach Duke however isn’t managing to win, it’s just hurting Mahle’s development.
Last night, David Bell managed his pitchers perfectly. When Raisel Iglesias struggled with his command in the ninth, Bell came with the hook, bringing on the Michael Lorenzen for the save. It was an unconventional move, and one that wasn’t necessarily supported by analytics either, but it worked. In that situation, David Bell managed to win. He knew Iglesias didn’t have it with the game on the line and pulled him for someone who could do the job.
In Mahle’s situation, it wasn’t quite that dire. Letting Mahle go another batter or two to see if he could escape the fifth is just the kind of low leverage adversity a young pitcher needs. If Mahle gives up the grand slam, then that’s on him and the result is the same. If he gets out of it, he and the Reds are both better for it.
All of the focus on Mahle’s quote understandably went to the end: “It’s getting pretty ridiculous at this point.” Deservedly, Mahle was chastised for insubordination. But the real focus should have been at the beginning: “I haven’t really gotten a chance to battle through a game.” He’s right, and that’s a failure of the Reds new rigidity to an analytical system. While avoiding third time through the order should be considered, as the rest of the season progresses, pitcher development should start to be prioritized more. After all, analytics can take you far, but in some situations, not in the right direction.