"Fifty percent of the time, you're right all of the time." - Abraham Lincoln
Kevin Plawecki's single in the Bottom of the 7th on Tuesday moved Juan Lagares - who had walked - to third base in a game where the Cincinnati Reds led the New York Mets 3-0 at the time. Brandon Finnegan was on the mound for the Reds, and to that point he'd been nothing short of brilliant. The just-turned 23 year old had kept the reigning National League champs on their heels, to that point having allowed just four hits. But as he's been wont to do early in his career, Finnegan had thrown a pile of pitches to reach that point, his 106th offering having been turned around by Plawecki for said single.
Bryan Price had a decision to make, both regarding his starter having thrown nearly a full-load of pitches and concerning which decision the Mets would make (given that it was the pitcher's spot coming to bat at that point in time).
The Enquirer's Zach Buchanan spoke with Price after the game last night, and the scenario was spelled out in detail. Price knew the two likely options the Mets would look to were Yoenis Cespedes and Lucas Duda, a pair of sluggers who combined to bonk 62 dingers in 2015 alone. Available to Price in the bullpen were both Tony Cingrani and Caleb Cotham, but since he'd come out to talk to Finnegan first, the Mets would ultimately get to choose which matchup they liked the best.
If Price pulled Finnegan for the righty Cotham, odds are Terry Collins would've sent Duda - whose career OPS against righties (.840) dwarfs that against lefties (.669). If Price opted to bring in Cingrani, Collins would've likely turned to Cespedes - but Cingrani had walked as many batters (8) as he'd completed innings in 2016 (8), and another baserunner would've brought the game-winning run to the plate.
Or, he could stick with Finnegan, who has been one of the two to three only effective pitchers on the roster so far in 2016.
Finnegan, you'll remember, isn't exactly a shy kind of guy, either. He emphasized after being traded to the Reds last year that the Kansas City Royals "kind of screwed [him] over" in the way they rushed him to the bullpen to aid their World Series run, and he's consistently spoken about how he's deserving of a starting spot despite many druthers suggesting he's destined to be a reliever. So when Price went to talk to him after that 106th pitch, it's easy to think Finnegan felt confident that he could go after whichever player was sent to the plate, even if it was likely to be the dangerous Cespedes.
(Keep in mind Cespedes has hit righties better than lefties in his career, with a sizable .173 point OPS gap between the two just last season.)
Also going through the minds of Price and Finnegan were two things, almost assuredly. First, both knew that Finnegan and Cespedes had already faced each other four times in the lefty's young career, and that all four times Cespedes had been retired. Small sample size? Absolutely, but when a former pitcher coach turned manager is in charge of the development of a 23 year old starter, emboldening them is every bit as important as playing matchups in these situations. Secondly, both certainly were aware that the Reds' bullpen has been a gasoline-fueled dumpster fire since day one of the season, and that when Finnegan took a no-hitter into the 7th inning against the best offense in the league earlier this season (the Chicago Cubs), a bullpen implosion not only flushed that from many memories but also lost the Reds the game.
So, Price rolled the dice, kept Finnegan in, and watched Cespedes launch a laser of a 3-run dinger to tie the game.
It was never as simple as "WHY DID PRICE KEEP FINNEGAN IN TO FACE CESPEDES?!?!" It was equally not as simple as "WHY DID PRICE THINK A 4 PA SAMPLE SIZE WAS BIG ENOUGH TO MAKE THAT DECISION?!?!" It was, as National League baseball beautifully is, a view into the strategy it takes to make even the decisions managers wish they didn't have to make.
And, of course, it didn't work out. The bullpen didn't work out, either, as Cingrani came in after the Cespedes dinger and promptly showed why Price didn't have faith in turning to him earlier to begin with. It also didn't result in some sort of mind-branding confidence disaster for Finnegan, as despite the WPA-proud dinger he still allowed just 3 ER in 6.1 IP and was far from why the Reds lost the game in the first place. If anything, it was an example of Price saying to his young starter, "win, lose, or draw right now doesn't really matter in a season that's not going to get us anywhere with the roster we've got behind and around you. But you - you're the kind of guy who is both good enough and deserving enough to face a guy like Yoenis Cespedes right here and right now, since that's what big time starting pitchers do. So, go do it, and know that I know it's something you can pull off whether it works out now or not."
Be it from the baseball Gods or a different roll of the dice, yes, the 2016 Cincinnati Reds could sit at 10-11 after this game. Tony Cingrani could've induced an inning-ending double play from Cespedes, and the team could've somehow managed two more innings of relief without allowing 3 runs. Would that have really done more to help develop Brandon Finnegan for the long-haul, though? Bryan Price, a pitching coach with a resume few can match, didn't think so, and while it didn't work out on a Tuesday night in April in a year that doesn't matter, it just might mean plenty down the road.