Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The most important inning of the Mets season began and ended with strategic intrigue -- hardly unusual for the Mickey Callaway era, which has been marked by curious managerial moves.
In this case, however, the primary issue -- whether Callaway should have allowed Zack Wheeler to begin the eighth -- is shaded by nuance.
Wheeler had pitched the game of his life, grinding his way out of tense situations in both the sixth and seventh innings. In the sixth, he struck out MVP candidate Cody Bellinger with a runner on second and two outs. In the seventh, he stranded two runners by striking out Matt Beaty with his 97th pitch.
Callaway opted to begin the eighth with Justin Wilson, one of his most reliable relievers during the team's recent run. Wilson issued a leadoff walk, balked, threw a wild pitch and surrendered the lead on a Chris Taylor base hit.
The manager then summoned Seth Lugo, who ended the threat in the eighth, but allowed the Dodgers to score the winning run in the ninth.
The immediate question was, why not push Wheeler a bit further? He didn't appear to be tiring, at least from what we could see.
We spoke last night and this morning to a few veteran baseball folks about this decision, and heard the following points:
A pitcher will often tell his manager or pitching coach that he's tired or finished for the night, and the manager will protect the player in the postgame news conference
It's not known if this happened on Sunday, but we can confidently tell you that Wheeler has always been one of those pitchers willing to be honest when his night is over. There's nothing wrong with this; it's better to know oneself than to push it and lose the game.
Wheeler has always understood this, and will say when he's done. These are the small dugout moments that almost never become public.
Teams use analytics to script bullpen moves before the game begins
Modern front offices will collaborate with their managers and pitching coaches to script games. The Mets are no exception. It's typical to say "If Wheeler is still in the game and the top of the lineup comes up in the eighth, that's the spot for Wilson."
It would be nice if more managers allowed their observations and instincts to override these plans while they are watching games, but that approach is increasingly rare.
An uncomfortable truth is that teams sometimes push pitchers farther if not in their future plans
Wheeler is a free agent this winter, and will have plenty of options and offers. But both he and the Mets plan to stay in touch, and see if a reunion is possible.
As one veteran baseball person speculated, perhaps the team's Wheeler usage on Sunday hinted at their desire to keep the pitcher. No one likes to spell this out, but it's true that many teams are more likely to exhaust pitchers who they know will be elsewhere in the near future.
Callaway's Lugo usage was actually more questionable
As one baseball person put it on Monday, "I was more surprised that he used Lugo for multiple innings than that he brought in Wilson." Indeed, this was the first time this season that Callaway has used Lugo back-to-back when the second outing was multiple innings.
Who, we asked this baseball person, should Callaway have used instead? That person suggested that Edwin Diaz should have been tasked with getting at least one out, but added that Callaway's unwillingness to use Diaz for the past week would have made that difficult.
That discussion underscored the manager's lack of palatable options -- which, despite all the factors listed above, might have motivated him to push Wheeler to 100, 115 pitches. Unless Wheeler knew he was done.
Like we said, it's complicated.