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Tigers should have used Jarrod Saltalamacchia in 9th inning vs. Twins

Seeing James McCann hit in the ninth inning left Tigers fans feeling salty.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers
Here’s something we did not get to see on Tuesday evening.
Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has been a lightning rod for criticism ever since he took over for former skipper Jim Leyland in 2014. He has been maligned for his in-game decision-making from day one, and his job has seemingly been in jeopardy for nearly a full calendar year.

Decisions like Tuesday’s are a big reason why. With two runners on base and one out in the ninth inning of the Tigers’ eventual 6-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins, Ausmus allowed Mike Aviles to bat against Twins closer Brandon Kintzler. Aviles is hitting .205/.260/.262 this season. Following him was James McCann, who has a lowly .413 OPS against right-handed pitching. On the bench was catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has an .835 OPS against righthanders this season. Simple math dictates that Ausmus should have pinch hit for one of those players with Saltalamacchia. Simple math did not happen on Tuesday, and the Tigers lost.

Before we get too far, it’s important to point out how unlikely the chances were that the Tigers would actually come back to win this game. After Justin Upton singled, the Tigers’ win expectancy was just 4.2 percent. After Aviles’ infield hit loaded the bases, their win expectancy was only 10.4 percent. Eighty-nine percent of the time, the Tigers lose that game. Six-run comebacks are not the norm, and even the correct decision likely results in a loss.

But, given the numbers, it becomes even more important that Brad Ausmus optimizes his team’s chances of winning. Sending Aviles or McCann to the plate against a right-handed pitcher, albeit one with reverse splits, was the wrong move. Keeping Jarrod Saltalamacchia on the bench was the wrong move. Even allowing Jose Iglesias to hit with two outs was the wrong move.

Kintzler’s pesky reverse splits may have been to blame, though.

Even if you buy Kintzler’s reverse splits in this small of a sample — he has pitched just 208 2/3 innings in seven major league seasons — the Tigers were sending two of the worst hitters in baseball to the plate. Among MLB hitters with at least 130 plate appearances this season, Aviles’ 39 wRC+ is fifth-lowest. McCann, a 45 wRC+, ranks eighth on this dubious list.

Then there’s Saltalamacchia. While no superstar, he is considered an above-average hitter thanks to a 104 wRC+. That figure only gets higher if you look at his splits against right-handed pitching. He has a 122 wRC+ against righties, the fourth-highest mark on the team. His on-base percentage against righties — perhaps best described in this situation as the probability that a hitter does not make an out — is 146 points higher than McCann’s.

Decision making like this has cost the Tigers on multiple occasions during Brad Ausmus’ tenure. Even in situations where a win was not likely, such as this game, the Tigers’ skipper has proven himself unable to use the talent at his disposal to fully optimize his team’s chances of winning.