Red Sox Review: Questioning the decision to pinch-hit with Sandy Leon

ST PETERSBURG, FL - MARCH 29: Manager Alex Cora #20 of the Boston Red Sox looks on before a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Opening Day at Tropicana Field on March 29, 2018 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, FL - MARCH 29: Manager Alex Cora #20 of the Boston Red Sox looks on before a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Opening Day at Tropicana Field on March 29, 2018 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /

Sending Sandy Leon to the plate to pinch-hit in the bottom of the ninth didn’t pan out. Did Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora have better options?

Questioning the manager’s late-game decision making is a tradition that has lasted as long as baseball has existed. That goes double for a rookie manager. Alex Cora hasn’t given many reasons to doubt him in his first year at the helm of the Boston Red Sox dugout with the team racing to a 9-1 start. Now he’ll face his first taste of skepticism in the wake of a loss packed with drama at the hands of the New York Yankees.

Here’s the scenario. Boston entered the ninth inning trailing by four runs. Not willing to leave anything to chance in an emotional game highlighted by an on-field brawl, the Yankees turned to closer Aroldis Chapman to finish off their archrivals.

The flame-throwing lefty ranks among the elite closers in baseball but the Red Sox are one of the few teams with a track record of success against him. Chapman has two losses to the Red Sox on his resume and owns a 5.68 ERA against them over 13 appearances. A comeback from a four-run deficit was improbable but this team warrants feeling as comfortable as anyone can be facing a pitcher of this caliber.

Jackie Bradley led off the inning with a base hit, followed by a Christian Vazquez double to put a pair in scoring position with nobody out. Boston had Chapman on the ropes!

That’s when the plan went awry. Brock Holt was up next but his 1-for-13 start to the season inspired little confidence. He’s 0-for-4 in his career against Chapman and provides little pop in his bat to produce a big hit in this situation. Pinch-hitting for the lefty against a hard-throwing southpaw was the right move.

Cora’s decision to use Sandy Leon is what leaves us wondering what the manager was thinking. We were already questioning him before Leon popped out to right field on the first pitch he saw. Chapman was unraveling before our eyes and Cora let him off the hook by sending the worst hitter on the team up to face him?

Leon certainly has value to this team, primarily from his defense and game-calling behind the plate. We remember his Cinderella breakout with the bat in 2016 but this is still a career .241 hitter. He’s coming off a season in which he regressed to a .225 average and he’s 1-for-10 at the plate to begin this year.

Was there really no better option to turn to? For what it’s worth, the switch-hitting Leon has been far more successful against lefties. He’s hitting .260/.325/.409 from that side of the plate in his career. Let’s see if any other bats on the bench have fared better.

The seemingly obvious choice was Andrew Benintendi, who had the night off to rest. Cora has put an early emphasis on keeping players fresh but one plate appearance wasn’t going to add too much wear and tear on a 23-year old.

The case against Benintendi is that he’s hitting only .209 with a .566 OPS in his brief career against lefties. Few left-handers are tougher than Chapman, against whom Benny is 0-for-4 in his career. The numbers against lefties certainly give Leon the edge but that may be getting too cute with matchups. The emerging star warrants more trust than the light-hitting backup catcher.

If Cora wanted to stay away from Benintendi in that situation he could have called on Tzu-Wei Lin. The infielder joined the team when Xander Bogaerts landed on the DL. He could easily slide into Holt’s spot at shortstop had the game gone to extra innings. Lin has a minuscule track record in the big leagues but he’s 2-for-6 with a triple against lefties. He also bats left-handed though so it’s understandable if Cora didn’t trust this small sample. Especially since Lin hasn’t had much success against southpaws in the minors.

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The best option appears to be the switch-hitting Blake Swihart. He hasn’t been quite as good against lefties in his career, batting .253 with a .649 OPS against them. Leon has been better. However, Swihart is clearly the better all-around hitter and raked during spring training.

Chapman doesn’t have severe lefty-righty splits. He’s lights out against everyone. The odds were stacked against anyone Cora sent to face the Yankees closer. We should also note that Leon made only the first out of the inning. Chapman followed that by striking out Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers. Cora’s decision didn’t cost the Red Sox the game and they most likely would have fallen short no matter what the manager did.

That being said, the Red Sox still had a chance, however slim. They were rallying, only for their momentum to stall with a quick out. They may have lost anyway but you have to at least like their odds more with the bat in the hands of a more established hitter. Leon is not on this team for his bat.

Next: Keys to a dominant Red Sox season

There was nothing wrong with the decision to pinch-hit for Holt in that spot. Cora just picked the wrong switch-hitting backup catcher.