Saturday, October 23, 2004


Well, my phine pheathered Phillie phan, I see the worm has turned on Delta Guru. Truthfully, I understand your prediction. Roger Clemens is a great pitcher. The difference lay in someone you mentioned - Phil Garner. Now, his double switch to gain one place in the batting order for his pitcher in Game 7 didn't come back to haunt him, and it could be argued that Orlando Palmeiro is a better outfielder than Biggio, but it is still a very questionable move. The previous night he doubled switched for Lance Berkman so that Brad Lidge could pitch longer. Lidge is awesome, but for Berkman? If Lidge had pitched less on Wednesday, would he have been available to come in to face Rolen? Not sure - but those are moves that a manager controls directly. However, most of the blame that managers get is just undeserved.

As a Cardinal fan, I hear about the return to small ball, Whitey ball, bunting and the hit and run. Dagnabit, if your manager isn't doing these things, then he isn't trying. He's just sitting there. Doing nothing. Let's fire the good for nothing guy. Bring back Herzog!

The role of the manager, while important, is vastly overrated. I would say that the role of the GM is the biggest part of the success of the team, followed by the players and lastly the manager. Yet, here in Kansas City, and most everywhere, the first person on the chopping block is the manager (in this case Tony Pena, after he was a Manager of the Year candidate last year) followed by star players like Mike Sweeney. Why is this backwards?

1. The manager is the visible head of the club. Everyone sees him as the leader of the team (the exception might be Oakland's GM Billy Beane) and therefore the head of the club. If the team/company is doing poorly, you fire the leader. Easy. Everyone does it. At work, if things aren't going well, we blame it our bosses, or our bosses' boss and on down the line. Why? Well, for one thing, we read comics like Dilbert, which have a lot of truth in them from the view of the employee. But, they also teach us that our bosses are not needed and that the world would be better if we all ran things ourselves. Talk radio reinforces this in the sports world by giving the everyman a chance to say, "Here is what I would have done in that situation, because I am a learned man of the game." What are those actions suggested by the armchair manager? Well, they boil down to two basic kinds of decisions - the pre-game decisions and the game decisions.

2. The manager's decisions are easy to evaluate in terms of success. Let's say we are looking at Phil Garner. He made some interesting decisions in his starting rotation during the playoffs. In the divisional series he started Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt on three days rest. There were a lot of questions on these decisions. He won - those questions were forgot. Questions about the rotation surfaced again, this time because he DIDN'T use Roger Clemens on short rest to pitch game 6 against the Cardinals and this time he lost - albeit in extra innings. So - this was a move that could be questioned. Why? The Astros lost. Easy to figure out if it was a success or not. Those successes and failures always seem to boil down to a single move or decision. (27 outs per side? I can't be expected to remember all of those. I just know the one out we did/didn't get that matters.)

Besides the starting pitcher, the manager is also responsible for the starting lineup. Who is in and in what order are open for questions. If a player hits extra base hits from a position in the lineup where there was no one on base in front of him - and he is not driven home - well then his spot in the lineup is wrong. You always put speed at the top of the order, power in the middle and your lesser hitters at the bottom of the order. If a manager deviates from this (Brian Downing leading off the game? Are you crazy?) well then fans can second guess the lineup. If a manager tries something new, he is open to the criticisms of talk radio - and so all managers conform nicely. Tony Womack has a 0.349 OBA? Well, he's fast, so put him at the top of the lineup. Case closed.

The manager's last pre-game responsibility is chemistry. Doesn't really have to do with playing the game, but I think you can look at the success of Joe Torre and the lack of success of Larry Bowa and see the importance of the perception of chemistry. Just like you can look at the A's of the 70s and fun loving Harvey Wall-banger Brewers of the late 70s and 80s and see how important chemistry is in winning championships.

So we move to game decisions. The fan can evaluate these at the drop of the hat. Grady Little didn't take out Pedro in time? He gave up a home run? Well, then it is Grady's fault obviously. The manager asked for a bunt and the batter wasn't successful in moving the runner to second? Well, everyone knows that you should swing away there and not give up an out. Man on first, no one out and the team doesn't score? Why don't you try the hit and run, Mr. Manager? My goodness, do something. We're not paying you to sit there and rock back and forth like Rain Man. Manage. Do anything, because if we don't win, it's your fault. Bring in a new pitcher. No, let him stay in - he's been great for us all year. He's a gamer.

So, there is an instant where we know if a manager is a success or not. Some decisions everyone seems to agree were wrong (see Grady Little.) But, I would say that most would have the honest viewing fan split down the middle. There are arguments to be made for leaving in Roger Clemens instead of going to a decimated bullpen, and there is the argument that once he gave up the double, it was obvious that he had lost his edge. We now know which one was right. There is no uncertainty principle like there is at that perfect moment before a manager makes his decision. But after, there is plenty of time to second guess, because we all knew in our heart what would, and eventually did, happen.

To get to the point, these decisions are important. No question. (My favorite sports response, by the way. "Did you think that the hit by Player A was important in starting the rally?" "Oh, there's no question." "Wait, didn't I just ask you a question?" "Oh, there's no question." I could go on for days.) I can't leave the manager completely blameless. But, there are more important factors.

1. The players that a manager gets to manage. I think we can safely say that before he got to New York, Joe Torre was viewed as an average manager. Now, he is a Hall of Fame candidate. If you get to manage some of the players he has managed, and they all perform up to their potential, then it looks fantastic. Yes, part is due to the fact that the Yankees have unlimited cash and are a big market team (I'll explore that next week) but also that they had a nice core nucleus and more in the minors to trade for talent to plug holes. They haven't won the World Series in a few years, but they have been in the playoffs. The general manager has to be able to get the team to the playoffs and hope that the players can win it all. Which is the last point......

2. The players have to perform. If Pedro gets an out, what happens? If Mariano Rivera doesn't blow a save in this year's post season, and is successful like in the majority of past years, what happens? Players are fallible (see that 33% success is deemed great in the history of hitting in the game) and are excused. Who else can do what Mariano Rivera has done? Didn't Pedro get us to that point in the game? Look at what Mulder, Zito and Hudson did all year. I couldn't do that. They are special individuals with special talents. However, I know enough to get them out of the game. I can see when they are tired, and that is all I need to see. Everyone can see that.

Managers aren't given a chance to make a mistake. We can do what they can do and talk about it by the water cooler or on the phone to our new friends at KFANS or whatever your local radio call letters are. They have to be perfect. If not, it is obviously their pre-game and game decisions that led to defeat. Not the players that we have - that's a given - you have to make do with what you have. Not the players performance - hey he's a great player, just having an off night, week, month or year.

I started the post by pointing out a couple of moves that Garner made that I thought were questionable. If the Astros would have won either of the last two games, they would have been irrelevant. Maybe they took the Astros out of a position to win the game. But, a 3-run HR would have solved the same problems in those games as they did in Game 5.

Remember what the players say whenever they accept an award - "I accept this award on behalf of the team, because it is a team effort." It is also a team effort to lose - and the manager is the last in line for both winning and losing.


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