Sandberg and Diekman: Lesson Not Learned?

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It was certainly an inauspicious Opening Day for the 2015 Philadelphia Phillies. The offense was shut down by Red Sox inconsistent starter Clay Buchholz. The Phils’ ace and biggest trade chip, Cole Hamels, laid an egg in his first start.

Naysayers will shout that this is a portent to the doom and gloom to come this season. It would be silly, of course, to make any determination for an entire season based on one game, no matter how poorly that team is projected to perform.

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However, there was one thing in particular about this game that worried me, and it’s something that should worry all Phillies fans as well – the managing of Ryne Sandberg.

Last year, it was widely accepted that Sandberg had a tough year in his first full season of managing in Major League Baseball. He called for bunting too often, mishandling his pitching staff, and generally was outmanaged by the guy in the opposing dugout far too frequently.

While it is difficult for a manager to be fully evaluated based off a performance in one season, especially on their first season, it certainly didn’t seem during yesterday’s game that Sandberg has learned much of anything from that rough 2014.

Monday, his old mishandling of the pitching staff crept up again. Hamels was finished after 5 innings work, and Sandberg turned to Luis Garcia, Jeanmar Gomez and Justin De Fratus (in that order) to work the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. They held the fort, so to speak, keeping the Phillies down just 4-0 through their work.

Phillies fans have to hope that Sandberg’s handling of Diekman on Opening Day 2015 is not a failure to learn lessons of the past.

(Photo Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Going into the ninth inning down by that 4-0 hole dug by Hamels, Sandberg then turned to Jake Diekman to basically mop up the game. He was due to face the pitcher’s spot, which would be filled by pinch-hitter Allen Craig, and then move on to face Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia.

Following those three batters would be Boston veteran sluggers Mike Napoli and Hanley Ramirez. What do all five of those Red Sox batters have in common? They are all right-handed hitters. Diekman is, of course, left-handed.

Sandberg’s mishandling of the pitching staff last year included his sending in a pitcher such as Diekman to face hitters who they shouldn’t be facing, and he did this far too often.

In 2014, for instance, Diekman was death on lefties, holding them to a .239/.273/.304 slash line, with 5 walks and 38 strikeouts in 100 plate appearances.

Facing righties, however, Diekman was less effective, yielding a slash line of .253/.363/.385, with 30 walks and 62 strikeouts in 213 plate appearances. The imbalance of plate appearances against right-handers can be explained away by opposition managers often pinch-hitting with a righty when Diekman was on the mound.

Looking at where he placed his pitches, Diekman struggled with serving up hittable pitches to right-handers. Against lefties, he usually kept the ball out of the middle of the plate:

However, when it came to righties, Diekman often would leave his pitches in the zone:

When he’s leaving pitches in the zone like this, no matter how fast they are thrown, major league hitters are going to do something with it. If you want to try using the “small sample size” argument, that would be tough, because this was over an entire season. And his 2013 performance was more or less the same.

What this demonstrates is that it’s probably time to seriously consider viewing Diekman as a pitcher who should probably be relegated to “Lefty One Out Guy” (LOOGY) duty.

The 2015 Phillies aren’t expected or likely to contend, so the 28-year old will be given every opportunity to turn around those numbers against righties. Many have argued that Diekman’s pure stuff is dominant enough to get both types of hitters out, and this is partially true. But from two seasons worth of data and scouting, it’s tough for this argument to hold up under close scrutiny.

Looking again at yesterday’s Opening Day blow-up, one might ask “who else was left to pitch?

Getting Diekman work is important, but not at the expense of facing batters that have historically knocked him around. All of the righties in the pen were spent, save for Ken Giles and Jonathan Papelbon. Sandberg’s rigidity in only using Papelbon in closing situations meant he wasn’t coming into that game.

Meanwhile, Giles clearly appears to be nursing an injury, thus meaning he wasn’t going to be used in a lost situation either. There was the recently acquired Dustin McGowan, but since he became a Phillie only Sunday, Sandberg probably wasn’t familiar enou….blah blah blah.

Diekman is one of the team’s more valuable relievers. His ability to hit upper-90’s on the radar gun from the left side is something very rare in the game today. Even though his exposure to righties should be limited, there is perhaps no better spot for him to try to get better against them than in this, the hopeless cause that the Phillies season appears to be for 2015.

Sandberg must be careful to put his best relievers in a position to succeed, not in one where the possibility for failure is exponentially greater. This was one of a number of problems for the Phillies skipper last year. Let’s hope that it’s just a one game snafu, and not something that will be trending throughout the season, again.