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Rob Thomson picked the wrong time to have a questionable game

He’s been very good this whole season, but last night was rough

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

He has endeared himself to the city with his personality that seems so comfortable, so relaxed. The direct opposite of his predecessor, he has been exactly what this team has needed in order to go as far as they have this postseason. His moves have been almost perfect, a solid mixture of logical and aggressive all postseason long. But last night, in a game the Phillies had to have as they move on back to Houston, Rob Thomson made two critical mistakes that need to be discussed more in depth.

Noah Syndergaard and a leash too long

The team knew that it was going to be a bullpen game last night. As much as we like having a traditional starter to give the team five, six, maybe seven innings each time he goes to the rubber, the Phillies, at this point in the season, are grasping for anything that can work. With the rainout earlier in the week and an off day scheduled for the day after, the team decided that it was the perfect time to utilize the bullpen for much of game five. They would begin with Noah Syndergaard, having him go three innings before handing the ball over to the pen and let them finish the job.

It’s a good plan. The bullpen, once a much maligned anchor on the team, has morphed into a strength, one capable of shutting down even the most potent of offenses, something it has done all October and continues to do so in the World Series. Yet Syndergaard looked rather good through three innings. His first four pitches could have gone better, a triple and a single that gave Houston a 1-0 lead before one could finish figuring out how to get both TVs working for the Phillies and Eagles games. Yet, perhaps unexpectedly, Syndergaard settled in. Aided by a “strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out” double play, he escaped the first inning jam, then cruised quite easily through the second and third innings. His job completed and the game tied at one, it would have been the right time to go to the bullpen and let them do their thing rather than risk the top of the lineup seeing Syndergaard once more.

But as the fourth inning began, out came Syndergaard from the dugout to begin the inning on the mound. Moments later, he was departing, having hung a breaking ball over the plate that Jeremy Pena did not miss on.

Why was Syndergaard allowed to start that inning?

We don’t know the exact plan, but from bits of information gleaned from various interviews, along with past precedent demonstrated by the team, three innings felt like the right number to expect from Syndergaard. He pitched well, maybe even a little better than was expected, yet for some reason, the team deviated from the plan. Were they trying to “steal innings” as the announcers discussed, any extra out he could have given them one less the bullpen had to cover? Did they really believe that Syndergaard was the best option to face Pena again?

The most frustrating part of the move was that it felt like something we had seen from the opposing dugout already in this series. Dusty Baker left Lance McCullers in for far too long in game three and effectively ended his team’s chances of catching up. One could argue he did the same in game one with Justin Verlander, so to see Thomson go too long with Syndergaard felt surprising, especially considering how aggressive he’s been in using his bullpen during the playoffs. The slow hook on Syndergaard wasn’t the death knell for the Phillies last night, but it sure didn’t help them.

Brandon Marsh was allowed to hit

Marsh has had himself a postseason. He has had moments where he has shone (his game three home run was a bright spot) and he has had moments where he has disappeared (all of the NLCS). It felt like he might have been getting back on track with his home run against McCullers, but in games four and five, he looked very bad at the plate. With runners on first and third and one out in the eighth inning, the momentum (as much as you believe in it) was clearly swung back to the Phillies’ side of the ledger. Ryan Pressly was being summoned by the Astros to lock down a five out save, something he hadn’t done yet this year.....

.....and Brandon Marsh was sent up to face him.

Thomson has spoken many times about not panicking during a game. He has not changed his lineup yet in these playoffs, even when a little shakeup might have worked. He has defined roles for the bullpen and stuck to them, almost no matter what the situation is. Most times, that’s a good thing. Players like to know where they’ll be in a lineup, in what role during a game, especially during the playoffs when the stress levels for everybody involved are at an all-time high. Yet sometimes, maybe something different will be the thing that works out most often.

There has been mention of the fact that if Marsh was going to stay in, maybe a different tactic could have been tried.

A suicide squeeze.

A safety squeeze!

But one thing that never crossed Thomson’s mind was having someone else bat for Marsh. They had options available on the bench, but picking at those options, you can start to see his thought process.

Nick Maton - .130/.149/.217 against breaking pitches this season in an admittedly small sample
Matt Vierling - .217/.275/.305 against right handed pitchers
Garrett Stubbs - unfortunately, you need to hold onto the backup catcher in the playoffs
Edmundo Sosa - .223/.275/.309 against right handed pitchers

As you can see, the choices to hit for Marsh aren’t great. Using one of the three actually available options would have been akin to trying to get lightning in a bottle, but there are times when that might be the right move. I’m not sure I can criticize Thomson for leaving Marsh in the game totally, but wondering why he was allowed to swing the bat instead of some kind of squeeze play is something one can quibble with. A squeeze, even if unsuccessful in that situation, still leaves a runner in scoring position should it not work out. Does it affect the outcome of the game that much? Well, we have a tool to help with that in the Fangraphs WPA Inquirer.

Let’s set the stage a bit. The Phillies were down one, with one out in the bottom of the eighth with men on the corners. In that situation, the Phillies were expected to win 49% of the time. Here is how things would have turned out if a squeeze play were successful vs. unsuccessful:

Bunt or not to bunt

Bunt success? Outs Men on base Score Phillies win probability WPA
Bunt success? Outs Men on base Score Phillies win probability WPA
(current state before Marsh) 1 1st and 3rd down 1 49.0% 0%
yes! 1 1st and 2nd tied 67.0% 18.0%
yes, but out at home 2 1st and 2nd down 1 28.4% -20.6%
yes, but out at first 2 2nd tied 58.0% 9.0%
strikeout :( 2 1st and 3rd down 1 30.4% -18.6%

It’s a difficult thing to pull off, but there is a statistical argument for having Marsh bunt in the situation. Had Marsh bunted successfully, the Phillies’ chances of winning go up significantly. What’s interesting to me is that the difference between Marsh bunting and having the runner thrown out at home and what actually happened on the play (his striking out) have basically the same end result: the Phillies’ chances of winning go down at roughly the same rate. Did they have this information available at the time? Probably not, but it’s something to consider putting in the binder for the next time this situation were to happen.

Look, Thomson has been great. He’s deserved all of the accolades he’s gotten for how far he has taken this team. Almost every string he has pulled has worked in the Phillies’ favor since he took the reins in June. But these decisions, as much as one can rationalize them, feel like critical errors at a time when the team could ill afford to have any.