Monday, October 6, 2008

Most Overrated: Cubs, Torre Or Francona?

The baseball playoffs are not exactly going as I had hoped. For one thing, Omar Minaya is ruining my life and the Mets are not in the playoffs. For another, the only teams I don't like keep winning.

Although there are two sides to the coin that was the Dodgers-Cubs series. On the one hand, the freaking Dodgers (who let's face it, are a crappy team having a good week) won the series and are in the NLCS. This makes me sad because it has been fun getting to tease obnoxious Dodger fans by saying, "At least the Mets have won a series in the last two decades." No more fun there. On the other hand, I can now pretty much expect to stop reading and hearing about the Mets "collapse" this year because of what the Cubs have done. Sure the Mets led the East by a few games and were out of the Wild Card race entering September. Sure the Phillies went nuts and passed the Mets, while the Mets ran down the Brewers before tiring at the end and getting passed up in the last two days. But the Cubs had the best record in the league and were a sure thing to make the World Series since Spring Training. Thank you Cubbies!

Joe Torre is getting a ton of credit for the Dodgers' late success, as he always got in New York, and while I like Torre a lot, I think it is pretty unfounded that he is considered such a managerial genius. His records on teams that did not have the highest payroll that year (including this year) is pretty poor. When he won in New York, he had the perfect teams: youth/experience/defense/pitching/chemistry all rolled together. As his payrolls grew, his players got more talented, his chemistry waned and his teams couldn't win it all.

So he came to L.A. and took over an extraordinarily average team. They were inconsequential for most of the season and reports started to leak out that he and third base coach Larry Bowa were not happy with the Dodgers because the team stunk. Apparently they were unaware that it was their job to do something about it. Then they got Manny Ramirez (and Casey Blake) dumped into their laps and the team suddenly surges, with Torre suddenly a genius again. The common denominator between their pathetic first half and their torrid September was Torre and the everyone but Manny basically. So why is Torre getting credit for the change?

I think managers get far too much credit when things go well. Really what do they do besides get out of the way of guys who get hot? Pitching coaches and hitting coaches deserve credit/blame more often than managers because they tinkering with people's games. They are instructing. How many managers actually do anything during the course of a game that is not by the book? Pitching changes, pinch-hitters, when to steal, etc. It is all predetermined and everyone in the building knows when they're coming. But managers can make unusual decisions which either make them lucky geniuses or get them fired.

In Game 3 of the Angels-Red Sox series Terry Francona made a very strange move. Francona is considered a great manager, but he has also benefited by spectacular pitching and Manny Ramirez/David Ortiz in their primes. A horse could have managed these teams. The score was tied in the eleventh, and Ortiz was on first base. The series-winning run was 270 feet from home in the form of a nearly 300-pound man. Clearly the right move was to pinch-run, then you can either steal second and score on a single (like how the Sox beat the Yanks in THE series), or bunt him over and score on a single, which was less likely since their had the heart of their line-up up, and for some strange reason, logical decision-making is thrown out the window when the guy hitting has a 1 in 15 chance of hitting a homer (and incidentally, a 3 in 4 chance of making an out). Even if you do not steal or bunt, a pinch-runner could go first-to-third on a base hit, and Ortiz could not.

But Francona didn't pinch run for the portly Ortiz. Maybe he didn't have a deep enough bench left. Then it was first and second with two outs...certainly you pinch run for him in this scenario! Screw the bench, the game ends with a speedy runner on second and any hit...what is the bench being saved for if not a game-winning hit!? But no pinch runner came on.

Then Mike Lowell walked and the bases were loaded with Ortiz at third with two outs. Not much need for a pinch-runner for Ortiz now. Even he could score from third on a ball into the outfield. So out comes a pinch-runner...for the guy on first!

I understand that Lowell is slow and has a bad hip so he's really slow, and having a speedy runner there makes it harder for the Angels to have an easy out at second on a ball in the infield. That is not a bad play. But can a fast guy at first really be expected to beat out a ball to the short-stop? And if he does, won't they just throw to first for an easy out anyway? And why was Ortiz running for himself all that time if you had a pinch-runner to waste all along?

With speed on first, the pitcher has to respect it and worry about it and throw over and be distracted. With Ortiz there, no problem. With speed on second, the pitcher is even more stressed because he knows any base hit means the series is over.

You can't say it actually cost the Sox the game because Ortiz did not get thrown out at the plate, or make a base-running blunder to end the inning. But it definitely changed the situation for the pitcher and made it easier for him to relax and focus on the guy at the plate. Terrible move by Francona and the Sox eventually lost in the next inning.

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