Game Theory in the Late Innings

I can certainly say that a player striding to the plate as a pinch-hitter for the Twins hasn’t baffled me since Drew Butera stepped into the batters box in Citizens Bank Park.

The difference between that at-bat and Tuesday was that Butera was pinch-hitting for the pitcher, he was the last position player on the bench, and his pinch-hit ended with a go-ahead home run in the 10th inning off Chad Durbin. Tuesday, Matt Tolbert – coincidentally pinch-hitting for Butera – also faced a rather critical point in the game. However, his at-bat ended with a called third strike on a curveball from Texas closer Neftali Feliz.

As I just mentioned, the Butera and Tolbert pinch-hits were under different circumstances. I already said this above, but I’ll reiterate:

Butera

1. Last position player on bench.

2. Pinch-hitting for pitcher.

Whereas tonight…

Tolbert

1. Not the last position player on the bench.

2. Pinch-hitting for Drew Butera, which is pretty close to pinch-hitting for a pitcher.

Who were the other options that could have been used off the bench, and why weren’t they?

(a) Jim Thome

Thome hit for Alexi Casilla in the at-bat prior to Butera. He was clearly no longer available.

(b) Jason Repko

Repko came in to pinch-run for Thome after Thome was hit by a pitch.

(c) J.J. Hardy

Hardy was not used in the game, presumably because of his sore wrist.

(d) Matt Tolbert

Obviously, Tolbert came in to hit for Butera.

Now Gardy tends to be a traditional manager (i.e. ignores sabermetrics) and I have a hunch as to why Tolbert was sent to the plate. It’s a maddening thought, honestly. I bet Gardy sent Tolbert to the plate since he was a switch-hitter, and thus could bat lefthanded against the righthanded Feliz, rather then keeping the righthanded Butera in the game or using the righthanded Repko.

In analyzing the three possibilities here (I’m going to assume that Hardy was not available to hit), I won’t look at platoon splits. Instead, I’m going to focus on each player’s AVG/OBP/SLG (likelihood of doing something positive for the Twins), and their strikeout rate (since Feliz is a power pitcher and the possibility of avoiding Tolbert’s outcome).

Note: Statistics prior to Tuesday’s game, and career statistics were used.

Drew Butera

.210/.245/.330, 19.0% K

Jason Repko

.229/.300/.385, 26.5%

Matt Tolbert

.246/.307/.336, 18.2%

I must admit that I’m surprised to see Matt Tolbert was actually the best in terms of batting average and on base percentage (probably the two most important statistics I’ve posted in comparing who should have hit against Feliz), and his strikeout rate is basically equal to Butera’s, but his numbers are boosted by his .283/.322/.389 line in 2008. Since that year, Tolbert’s numbers have been .230/.300/.311. That’s practically Jason Repko’s AVG and OBP, with the worst SLG out of these three hitters.

If you remember the two at-bats prior to Jim Thome being plunked, both Delmon Young and Danny Valencia hit warning track line drives. This tweet by Phil Mackey of 1500 AM ESPN states that righthanded batters have actually fared better against Neftali Feliz, and with the hard outs by Young and Valencia, one (*cough* myself) could argue that Tolbert and Repko should have reversed their roles in Tuesday’s game, or Butera should have just stayed in the game.

Deep down, I think Repko might have been the best choice. Although he had the greatest chance of striking out against Feliz, he also had the best chance of getting a hit or walk, and has displayed the most power out of these three options. My second choice would have been to keep Butera in the game, but I bet that the fans would have complained that Ron Gardenhire did not have Repko or Hardy (before learning that he was unavailable*) bat, as they were better options than Butera. In the midst of a pennant race, it certainly appears that Gardenhire did not make the best decision Tuesday night.

* Again assuming he was unavailable.

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