Last night’s 4-1 win over the White Sox had everything. A strong Francisco Liriano start. A great effort by the bullpen to preserve a lead. Timely hitting by Ben Revere and Joe Mauer. And a terrible managerial decision by Ron Gardenhire.
That decision did not end up costing Minnesota, but it was such a kick to the groin of common sense that it cannot be ignored, especially by a website devoted to nitpicking the Twins. In the seventh inning of a close game, with two outs and the bases loaded, catcher Drew Butera was due up to face White Sox right-hander Nate Jones. Ryan Doumit, a much better hitter who plays the same position as Butera, was on the bench and available to pinch hit. But Gardenhire chose to stick with Butera, who grounded out to third base to end the inning.
One can imagine that Gardenhire’s reluctance to use Doumit stemmed from the fact that if Doumit had replaced Butera and then gotten injured, the Twins would be without a true catcher. First-string catcher Joe Mauer was the DH, so if he had to sub for Doumit, the Twins would have been without a DH for the last inning or two of the game. Also, Mauer is recovering from a hamstring injury, so he might not have been available to squat for an inning, which would have forced former catcher Josh Willingham to take on the role. The fans at Target Field would no doubt have been highly amused by that turn of events, but apparently Gardenhire was not.
So maybe there was a reason not to use Doumit, but how valid was that reason?
It’s easy to calculate how much Doumit could have added to the Twins, because with the bases loaded and two outs, getting on base equals success, and making an out equals failure. Any method of reaching base would lead to runs, and any out would end the scoring threat. Butera, a defense-oriented righty, has a .235 career on-base percentage against right-handed pitchers. Doumit, a switch-hitter who does better from the left side, has a .338 career OBP when batting left-handed against righty pitchers. So Butera’s career would indicate he had about a 24% chance of succeeding in the seventh inning last night, while Doumit’s chance of success would have been around 34%. For those of you who aren’t so good at math, that’s a 10 percentage point difference. In other words, there was a 10% chance that Doumit would have done better than Butera in that situation.
Now what are the odds that Doumit would have been hurt in the last two innings of the game (or in extra innings if the Sox had somehow tied it up), thus forcing the Twins to insert a gimpy Mauer or an emergency catcher into the game? Hard to say for sure, but if we use some reasonable assumptions we discover that the odds are tiny. Consider that many teams go entire seasons without their catchers experiencing a significant injury that requires removal from a game. More realistically, we might assume that the average team suffers one or two injuries to catchers over the course of a 162 game season. We’ll say it’s two just to be conservative. Divide those two injuries by 162, and we have a 1 in 81 chance that a Twins catcher would get hurt in this game, or a 1.23% chance. Then let’s multiply that figure by 2/9, since there were only two innings left in the game, and we have just a 0.27% chance of the move failing. Let’s call that 0.3% to account for the slim possibility of an injury to Doumit in extra innings.
To sum up: a 10% chance of significant benefit versus a 0.3% chance of significant inconvenience. Sure, that latter number is an estimate, but the difference is so great that it should be obvious what the right move is.
Even if we ignore the exact numbers of the situation, this move brings up a major question: why do the Twins even bother carrying three catchers on the roster if they are not going to use them in situations like this? They could certainly use one of those roster slots for another bench player or a relief pitcher, or even a spot starter, given the horrid state of the rotation. How many catchers do the Twins need in order to be able to execute basic baseball strategy? Four? Five? Let’s get Chris Herrmann and Danny Lehmannn on the phone immediately, because there is a catcher crisis on this team!