A battle between two very poor managersby Mitchel Lichtman
October 26, 2008
Warning: The following is especially harsh on the two World Series managers, Manuel and Maddon. If you have a weak stomach or are a friend or relative of theirs, use caution when reading this.
I don’t know about you, but as a baseball analyst and a cerebral person in general, to a fault, I am having a hard time watching a postseason which more and more is being decided based on the poor decision-making of the managers than the talents of the players.
It might just be my perception, but the likely winner of the AL manager of the year, Joe Maddon, and the NL manager who will probably receive a few votes, Charlie Manuel, are just butchering the game, on an almost inning-by-inning basis.
Let’s forget about the games in the past. They have been aptly analyzed by the good folks here and on other web sites. I’ll focus only on last night’s game, Game 3 of the World Series. That will give me plenty of fodder.
Let’s start in the AL manager’s office before the game, while he is sitting down and contemplating his lineup, or perhaps just throwing darts at the wall. Let’s see, a lefty pitcher on the mound in Jamie Moyer, who doesn’t have a huge career platoon split, but a conventional split nonetheless. Hmmm. Last game I started my right-handed batter Rocco Baldelli (I am not sure he should be playing at all – he does not look well to me, but that’s another story) against a right-handed starting pitcher, so what the heck, I’ll start my lefty batter against a lefty pitcher. It is better to be consistent than right, right? Don’t dare peek at Greg Gross' splits. You might be "Gross’d" out. He is positively anemic against lefty pitchers, not that he plays much against them—so you never know.
Now that Tampa has gotten off on the right foot by playing the wrong player in right field, I’ll mention something about the Philly lineup that has been beaten to death by columnists like Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus. Speaking of beaten to death, I suppose you would have to beat the Phillies’ manager to death in order to get him to split up his "lefty duo" of Utley and Howard, no matter how many times Maddon brings in one of his three very good lefty relievers to pitch to them in the later innings.
By the way, there you have two quintessential examples of both managers’ (poor) style of managing. One likes to think of himself as the unconventional genius, but more often makes the wrong decisions at the wrong times, and the other likes to think of himself as an old-school manager who pretty much does things by "The Book." Unfortunately, the "book" he uses is consistently wrong as well. Not to mention the fact that once Manuel has his mind made up (like batting Utley and Howard back to back) no amount of sound reason or logic is going to change his mind.
One more example of "Manuel think," even though I said that I wouldn’t rehash any past games (I lied): After game 2, in which he let Pedro Feliz, one of the worst hitters in his lineup, certainly versus a RHP (Wheeler had just come in the game for TB), bat, Manuel was asked why he didn’t use a pinch hitter, like Jenkins or Stairs. He responded, "Feliz has been getting some real big hits for us," he said, "I thought he’d been swinging OK." O.K is right, but with a different inflection.
Anyway, back to Game 3. Let’s see, where do I begin? Actually, nothing much happened, manager-wise, until the 5th or 6th innings. Then the floodgates opened. Let me start with a general commentary about postseason baseball.
You usually have a fresh and excellent bullpen at your disposal in the postseason. Unless you have an absolute ace starter on the mound, you should use your bullpen early and often. A fresh reliever is almost always better than a stale starter, no matter how well or poorly that starter is pitching. That is especially true since you can mix and match your right-handed and left-handed relievers.
And both of these teams have excellent bullpens. With the many off days (too many actually) during the World Series, not to mention the five months off after that, you generally don’t have to worry about over-working your pen. As well, using your bullpen early and often is an especially prudent strategy in the NL parks, since you can start by pinch hitting for your pitcher whenever he comes to bat, starting in the 5th inning or so, especially if you have a non-ace starter on the mound.
Speaking of non-ace starters, despite what Joe Buck said (that "Moyer is one of the best pitchers in the NL"), old-man Jamie is not even an average pitcher (sorry Joe). Even Matt Garza, while a very good pitcher, is not a great one. Almost any of the Tampa relievers are going to be better than Garza after the first 2 or 3 times though the order.
So with Garza coming to bat in the 5th inning, Maddon easily could have pinch hit for him. I’ll give Maddon a pass on that one though. But, in the 6th inning, with Utley and Howard leading off, and three very good lefties twiddling their thumbs in the bullpen? Joe, get off your duff and yank your ALCS MVP! That is clearly the correct thing to do. Now, I’m not playing the 20-20 hindsight game—I explained my reasoning in excruciating detail above—but what happens? Back-to-back HR’s by Utley and Howard. The difference between Garza facing those two lefties the third time through the order, and one of their lefties coming in fresh, is enormous.
That was probably not as bad as letting Moyer start the 7th inning after 90 pitches or so, when he is not all that good in the first place? That is criminal. But Manuel suffers from the same malady as most traditional managers—he won’t yank a starter who is pitching well unless he has a high pitch count. Until of course they start to blow the game. Then they try and close the barn door. I have said this a million times before: With a mediocre (which Moyer is) or poor pitcher on the mound: Be thankful for the 5 or 6 good innings you got and get them the heck out of there!
Then to add insult to injury, he brings in his worst pitcher to pitch in a now high-leverage situation with runners on 2nd and 3rd and no outs—Chad Durbin. But wait, Durbin had a 2.87 ERA this year! What do you mean "worst pitcher?" As most of you know, a pitcher’s expected performance is, or at least should be, based on his long-term historical performance, not his one-year stats. That is especially true of relievers who often throw only 50 or 60 innings or so per season—not nearly enough time for those stats to be representative of their true talent, and thus what we expect them to do at any time in the present or future. Durbin. 2.87 ERA in 87 IP this year. Durbin. 5.29 ERA in 552 career innings. Can you say, "Fluke season?" Anyway, he barely escapes the inning after allowing both runs to score to make it a one-run game.
Let’s fast forward to the bottom of the 8th inning. The leadoff batter, Werth, walks, and Utley comes to the plate. Even though Manuel does not like to bunt his good hitters (he is not allergic to the bunt in general, as Maddon is—to his team’s detriment, but that is also another story), it would not be a bad idea for Utley to drop down a regular old sacrifice in this situation. Not a bad idea at all. Especially if the defense is not sure what Utley is going to do and is not playing aggressively in (in anticipation of the bunt).
What happens next still makes my head spin. Maddon, in all of his unconventional wisdom, plays his infielders, including Longoria, all on the right side of the infield—his "Utley shift." Not only is a bunt not a bad idea if the defense were playing normally, now Utley can lay down a bunt and if he gets it anywhere on the left side of the field and the pitcher does not field it, he can crawl to first. As dumb as that defensive alignment is by the Rays, Manuel counters with an equally stupid move. He has Utley swinging away (or something—he appeared to fake bunt and take the one-strike pitch with Werth stealing). I could not believe what I was watching. Frick (Maddon) against frack (Manuel). Neither one with a clue, I am afraid.
Finally, we get to the bottom of the 9th, and Bruntlett gets hit by a pitch to lead off the inning. One wild pitch by Balfour and one throwing error by Navarro later, the Phillies have a runner on third and no outs. You have Victorino at bat with Dobbs on deck. You can pitch to Victorino with the infield (and outfield) in of course, trying to coax a strikeout or ground ball out of him. You can walk Victorino and bring in Price or Miller to face Dobbs (or a pinch hitter). Or you can walk the bases loaded and try and get Ruiz, arguably the worst hitter in the lineup, to strike out or hit a grounder.
The problem with walking the bases loaded is twofold: One, any batter’s batting average goes up with the bases juiced for obvious reasons. Two, Balfour does not have good control. In his career, he has walked or hit over five batters per 9 innings. He has a 13% chance to walk or hit a batter, not to mention another 20-something percent chance of allowing a hit. (Of course, versus Ruiz, he is likely to fare better than that.)
Some of you might be thinking, "He is walking the bases loaded to set up a force at home." That doesn’t make any sense. The chance of a home to first DP is remote, so let’s pretty much throw that out of the equation. You have to play the infield in, of course, whether you walk the bases loaded or pitch to Victorino or Dobbs (or whoever might pinch hit for him if you bring in a lefty reliever). With the infield in and a ground ball fielded by one of the infielders, the runner on third base stays put (most of the time) and you throw to first for the out. So what is the "force-out at home" advantage? There is never going to be a tag play at home. You either play the infield in with the base loaded and throw home for the force, or you play the infield in without the base loaded and throw to first for the force.
You know the rest of the story, so I’ll stop right here. All I can say is that I am really not looking forward to watching these two managers do their very best to give their team the least possible chance of winning the Series, with all of their blunders. Heck, I’ll still watch the games anyway, lest I be accused (again) of being a "stathead" who has never actually watched a game in his life.
Mitchel Lichtman is a professional sabermetrician and an advisor for a major league team. He is the co-author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, and resides in the Finger Lakes Region of Central New York.