Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Managing Gutlessly And To Lose

  • Brewers 6-Pirates 5:
One of the reasons that Tony La Russa has been such a successful manager over the long
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term is that he isn't a slave to the supposed "book" that he's blamed for co-authoring. The push-button, computerized managerial handbook that exists only for those that aren't confident enough in their baseball savvy or are too paranoid to make a risky decision because it's just easier to explain to geniuses in the media and meddlesome owners why he did something that appeared to be correct, but didn't work.
La Russa, as much as he plays percentages, rolls the dice more than people realize. He's earned the right to chafe at having those decisions questioned by the press, but he's not making his moves based on safety-first because he's always been the same type of manager from when he took over the White Sox in 1979 at age 34, as he is now managing the Cardinals at age 63. I still remember one incident when there was an insider's profile on La Russa and he was being recorded as he managed; a young pitcher had just been recalled and it was a clear bunting situation, but La Russa called to the bullpen and just as the pitcher settled into the batter's box, La Russa asked urgently, "Can he hit?" after receiving the response which, presumably, was that they didn't know, La Russa said, "Well, he's swingin' now." I don't know what happened in the at bat, but how many managers would have had the nerve to pull something like that with a pitcher about whom they had no clue? The point to all of this is to illustrate the difference between a Hall of Fame manager like La Russa and what I was watching last night as the
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Brewers and Pirates held a managerial screw-up convention.
There were so many bizarre decisions made last night that they have to be compartmentalized. The decision of when and with whom to bunt shouldn't be all that hard especially for guys like Brewers manager Dale Sveum and Pirates manager John Russell, who played the game as fringe big leaguers and had to do everything they could to maintain a spot on the roster; and have also managed in the minor leagues.
First, there were the bunt plays. To me, getting a leadoff batter on and then bunting him to second is an iffy proposition unless the pitcher or a notoriously weak hitter is batting. A runner on second base isn't going to score unless one of the next two hitters gets a base hit or something strange happens. Staying out of the potential double-play is a consideration, but that's all the more reason to try something like a hit-and-run instead of ordering a straight sacrifice. In the eighth inning with the Pirates leading 5-4, J.J. Hardy singled to lead off the
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inning off of Pirates lefty John Grabow. Right-handed power hitter Corey Hart was batting and manager Sveum had him bunt Hardy to second base. The bunt is an explainable strategy; but to bunt with a batter who has 20 homers and 89 RBI against a lefty pitcher was just overmanaging in a panicky sort of way. Add in that Hart can run and the double play is only likely if he hits the ball right at someone. The bunt was successful and it ended up working because the light-hitting Jason Kendall doubled to tie the game, but it wasn't the right move. The power hitters are there to drive in runs and had Kendall not gotten that clutch, two-out hit, the Brewers would've lost.
Then it was Russell's turn to mess around with an unnecessary bunt. In the top of the ninth, after Nyjer Morgan reached on an infield single, Freddy Sanchez was batting. Sanchez squared around to bunt as if he were a starting pitcher sacrificing the runner to second and
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the Brewers were charging in from the corners and shifting their infield all over the place like it was the worst hitting pitcher in history trying to advance the runner. Why is it that managers are so entrenched in what's safe that they don't look at each situation individually? Sanchez is a former batting champion who rarely strikes out; Morgan runs like the wind; why not have him steal as the infield is moving all over the place? Why not have Sanchez square to bunt and chop at the ball to try and dribble it through the infield? Or why not put on a hit and run, having Morgan trying to steal the base as Sanchez chops at the ball? If they'd done that and Sanchez got the ball through the infield, Morgan might've been able to score from first base.
Then there were the pitching decisions. There's no way to give Sveum a hard time for using Guillermo Mota in the eighth inning; he's in the same situation as former Mets manager Willie Randolph was with Mota a year ago as Randolph kept using him despite his failures; the Brewers, like the Mets of 2007, don't have any alternatives other than to use Mota and hope for the best. As for the Pirates, Russell brought in T.J. Beam, a 27-year-old career minor league journeyman
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who might one day have some use as a long reliever. After Ryan Braun reached on an infield hit, Prince Fielder was at the plate. Russell walked out to the mound to talk to his pitcher and catcher about how to handle Fielder and with the first two pitches so far outside that it was clear that they wanted nothing to do with Fielder and were hoping that he'd be overanxious and chase a bad pitch, why didn't they just walk him after the second ball? And I don't want to hear about how you don't put the winning run on second base because just before I changed the channel, I saw the winning run score right before Fielder jumped into the circle of teammates waiting at home plate to greet him after his game-winning homer landed in the right-center field bleachers. I don't know about you, but I like the Beam-J.J. Hardy matchup better than I like seeing Beam throw anything anywhere close to the strike zone for Fielder to handle.
Of course it's easier to make the safety-first moves like bunting runners into scoring position or refusing to walk a winning run into scoring position, but that doesn't make it right for the manager or team to be so weak-minded that they're going to let concerns about what's going to be said about them dictate what decisions they make, even if the opposite of what they did would've been correct. They may have lost or won anyway, but that doesn't validate gutless, simple-minded adherence to a non-existent book of maneuvers.
  • Brewers should not pitch C.C. Sabathia again on short-rest, and Sabathia shouldn't agree to it:
Moving C.C. Sabathia up to pitch on three-days rest for the second time in a row is an
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understandable decision given the Brewers current predicament, their porous starting pitching and the injury to Ben Sheets, but Sabathia should think of himself as well as the team; and the Brewers should look at their situation and decide that one pitcher isn't going to be able to carry them through the post-season no matter how dominant he's been.
Sabathia is clearly tired. His stuff in his last two starts wasn't as sharp as it was since the trade to the Brewers and he has to, at some point, consider his own situation before risking injury as he's weeks before untold millions in free agency. To go out to the mound and run on fumes and guts to help save a sinking ship is admirable, but there comes a point where there are diminishing returns. Are the Brewers going to pay Sabathia if he gets hurt helping them try and save a playoff spot? They've squeezed every single pitch they possibly can out of the big lefty knowing that they're not going to have him after the season and Sabathia isn't the type to out-and-out say that he's concerned about his personal future at the expense of his current team's goals; but he should at least consider it before running this risk of overtaxing such a valuable commodity as his left arm.
The Brewers have to accept the fact that they're going to need to get winning performances from more than one starting pitcher if they're going to get to the playoffs. What good does it do to have Sabathia go out to the mound tired, diminish his stuff and get him at less than 100%, only to have to use one of their other pitchers in the coming days? They have to win
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after tonight one way or the other, why weaken the one strength out of desperation?
Sabathia and the Brewers have manhandled the Pirates this year and that Pirates lineup isn't exactly intimidating, but that's all the more reason to give Sabathia his full rest and pitch him on Thursday; add in that Paul Maholm is a pretty good pitcher and there's a real chance that the game's going to be close and Sabathia won't be able to pitch late into the game due to exhaustion; the Brewers bullpen will again be called upon to record key outs either way. It's a bad move all the way around, no matter what happens.
  • Yankees 3-Blue Jays 1:
Is the Blue Jays front office seeing reality yet? The reality that without the ten-game win streak in early September, they're a .500 team? That Scott Rolen has been a disaster while
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Troy Glaus is closing in on 100 RBI? That a team who has hot streaks once any chance of contention is gone is not a good team? That they're an also-ran year-after-year? Or are they going to move forward in a difficult decision with the same strategy and expect a different result?
Anyone home? Hello?
  • Twins 9-White Sox 3:
I understand what White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was doing when he issued a media-delivered challenge to last night's starter Javier Vazquez. Among other things, Guillen said
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Vazquez "hasn't been" a big game pitcher in his career. Guillen's off-the-wall rants are largely a matter of design in the hopes of making his players angry enough that they perform with a greater determination to prove him wrong; the problem is that these types of psychological ploys don't always work with certain personalities. Vazquez isn't the type of guy who seems to like having people screaming in his face.
In fairness to Guillen, Vazquez hasn't been very good in the few opportunities he's had to pitch in important games, but that doesn't justify hanging that reputation around his neck right before he's making a very important start against the closest division competitor to the White Sox on the road in Minnesota. These allegations are ignored by some players; taken as a challenge to others; and used as a reason to go out and perform timidly and badly by some who just don't like being challenged that way. Part of being a successful all-around manager is being able to read the players and respond to what they specifically need to perform; Guillen is a successful manager, but he misread his player in this case. Vazquez might've gotten shelled anyway, but Guillen's comments certainly didn't help.
  • Rangers 6-Athletics 4:
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No matter how the Rangers end this season, why do I get the feeling that team president, the cold, deliberating and ruthless Nolan Ryan is out in the shed sharpening his axe?

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