In last night’s 4-1 win over the Cubs, the game really turned in a three-run sixth inning. Tied at one entering the inning, Chase Utley, Adrian Gonzalez, and Justin Turner all reached base, making it a 2-1 Dodgers lead with no outs and men on the corners when Joe Maddon came out to replace Jason Hammel with lefty Travis Wood.
Don Mattingly pinch-hit Scott Van Slyke for Andre Ethier, which was indisputably the right call. I don’t need to bother looking up Ethier’s numbers against lefties for you to remember I’ve been begging the team to platoon him since at least 2009. Van Slyke is a little underrated against righties, but you know he exists mostly to crush lefties. You probably don’t know Wood, who has been kicking around since 2010, but he’s got himself a bit of a split himself, allowing a .251/.326/.423 line to righties and a lesser .216/.288/.333 to lefties.
Van Slyke grounded into a double play, scoring Gonzalez, but he did his job. I know how insane that sounds — he hit into a double play! — but his job isn’t to “get a hit,” it’s to “hit the ball hard and hope for the best.” He did that, lining the first pitch right back up the middle, but second baseman Starlin Castro was shifted perfectly, teaming with shortstop Addison Russell to turn the double play. Enrique Hernandez would single home the fourth run later in the inning, giving the Dodgers the 4-1 lead they’d hang on to.
So why are we talking about this now? After Van Slyke’s plate appearance, I saw a non-specific complaint about Mattingly in the comments, and couldn’t even comprehend what the issue was. Another commenter who regularly kills the manager couldn’t understand what the issue was, either.
And then, based on some tweets sent to Eric Stephen of TrueBlueLA, I began to see what the problem was. There were real, actual people upset that Mattingly had hit Van Slyke for Ethier.
What a stupid substitution. Why not leave Ethier in there? He’s batting over .300 against wood. @truebluela explain that one to me
— Steven Gomez (@Bleeedblue_) August 29, 2015
— Ro32 (@Ra8ers32) August 29, 2015
Nothing personal to any of those guys, of course, as those are just a few tweets used to illustrate the objection I saw in the comments. Yes, Ethier was “batting over .300 against Wood,” but you know well that hitter-vs-pitcher stats are totally meaningless (with the exceptions of Van Slyke vs. Wade Miley or Paul Goldschmidt vs. Tim Lincecum). Even if they weren’t, that’s based entirely on three hits Ethier had more than four years ago, at a point in Wood’s career where he was five days away from being sent back to the minors. Since then, Ethier had faced Wood eight times and come away with zero hits (though he’d walked twice).
This was almost the most no-brainer of moves, really, and it’s something I don’t think we would have seen in years past. With men on the corners and none out in the sixth inning of a one-run game, you take the opportunity to blow it open by bringing in a power-hitting lefty (who is no worse than equal on defense to Ethier, and arguably a slight upgrade) rather than hoping a full decade of Ethier’s ineptitude against lefties would magically turn around right then and there. You could maybe argue for using Van Slyke to hit for Carl Crawford next rather than Ethier, but who knows what the situation would have been then. You had runners on the corners, and you go for it. Mattingly did. It was the right call, and it worked.
Mattingly’s not perfect, obviously. I’ve had more than a few complaints about how he’s used the bullpen, especially non-usage of Kenley Jansen because it’s not a “save situation.” I don’t love his batting orders (Jimmy Rollins leading off, mostly), or the bunts, though generally he’s been better this year.
But, man. The manager of a first-place team that just won its fourth game in a row made a decision that was obvious and right and obviously right, and there’s still complaints about it. The lesson, as always: Even when the manager is right, he’s still wrong. Always, always wrong.