Twins manager Paul Molitor pinch hit for Byron Buxton with two outs in the ninth in a 5-4 game Thursday, opting for light-hitting catcher Chris Herrmann in a move that amounted, basically, to a gut instinct. Said Molitor after the game: “I thought the best chance was to get someone else up there and give him some swings, given the way his night had gone.”
Indeed, Buxton to that point was 0-for-4 with four strikeouts — a raw statistical line that doesn’t even quite capture the depth of how bad the rookie looked at the plate in those four at bats.
Still, the dominant reaction on Twitter at the time it was happening was that Molitor was making a mistake (this is the polite version). When Herrmann struck out to end the game, it added fuel to the fire. With more than 12 hours passed since that finish, I wanted to take one more look at the decision because it’s one of those decisions that can be examined from a lot of angles.
*Buxton is a right-handed batter, and he was set to face a right-handed pitcher, Brad Boxberger. In his brief MLB career, Buxton has had better success against righties (13-for-50) than lefties (3-for-21), but in his minor league career Buxton does hit lefties better. In 2014-15 combined, Buxton is 32-for-90 (.356) against lefties and 86-for-326 (.264) against righties.
*Herrmann is a lefty, which plays into a traditional right-lefty matchup advantage for the Twins. And while Herrmann’s career major league splits are pretty bad against both righties and lefties, he does hit righties better. However, Boxberger is actually much tougher on lefties than he is on righties. In his career, Boxberger has faced both sides almost equally (351 PAs vs. righties, 329 vs. lefties) and allowed a .730 OPS to righties as opposed to pretty stingy .577 against lefties — quite possibly because he throws a lot of changeups, which dive down and away to lefties but flow back into the swing of righties.
*Boxberger has also allowed 77 walks in 164.1 career innings, with 46 of them coming to righties. Buxton doesn’t walk much, but in their minor league careers Buxton and Herrmann have pretty similar walk rates. Herrmann runs well for a catcher; Buxton is one of the fastest baserunners I’ve ever seen. If either gets on base, Buxton is the one that’s more dangerous when it comes to stealing and/or scoring. Herrmann, a fringe major leaguer, had a career minor league slugging percentage of .384; Buxton’s is .489. Buxton has slugged a paltry .296 in his brief major league career, but that’s almost the same as Herrmann’s .294.
*So in the long view, Buxton lacks major league experience but can still be considered a more accomplished hitter who has a better chance of getting an extra base hit or of turning a single/walk into a run than Herrmann, and he would have been hitting against a pitcher who struggles more against righties than lefties.
*But the move was not made in the long view. If given the choice between Buxton and Herrmann in a vacuum, you take Buxton 100 out of 100 times. The ninth inning of a one-run game in which Buxton has struck out four times, however, is not a vacuum. It’s real life, and it’s a small sample size with relevance. When pitchers have bad games — even great ones — they get taken out. We wouldn’t groan (at least most of us wouldn’t) if a scuffling Kyle Gibson was removed in favor of a healthy J.R. Graham, even though in a vacuum we all know who the more accomplished pitcher is.
Buxton looked completely lost at the plate (the four strikeouts took just 17 pitches), and pinch-hitting for him had merit. The biggest issue is that Herrmann was the replacement; given his lack of options, Molitor might have just stuck with Buxton or tried righty Eduardo Nunez. All that said, it came down to a matter of gut, feel for the game and Buxton’s earlier struggles. Molitor’s moves have been pretty savvy most of the year, so if there’s a benefit of the doubt he has earned it — though in this case, he also earned the criticism.