Ron Washington vs. Tony La Russa: not the mismatch everyone’s making it out to be

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One thing that keeps popping up as I talk to fans and radio hosts and stuff this week is the notion that Tony La Russa gives the Cardinals an edge because he’s going to manage circles around Ron Washington.  I get why people say this, but I think it gets the story way wrong, and does a disservice to Washington.

At the outset, let me be clear: La Russa is an exceptional manager. Probably the best in the past 50 years and there’s an argument for going back further. I and others take swipes at him all of the time because we don’t much care for his style or demeanor, but you can’t argue with his greatness and success. It’s ridiculous that the Hall of Fame is going to make him wait until he retires to get his plaque.

2011 may go down as La Russa’s best year ever. He took a team that was out-of-synch for much of the season and made them hum just when they had to hum lest their season end.  He angered all the prospect fanboys in driving Colby Rasmus out of town, but that and its attendant moves ended up working, at least for now. He took what was an atrocious bullpen in the first half of the season and made all kinds of adjustments on the fly to where that weakness is now a clear strength. What’s more, he did it without Dave Duncan who was with his sick wife down the stretch. Oh, and he had that case of shingles or pink eye or whatever it was and fought through it too.  Just crazy-impressive by every measure.

But at the same time, as a lot of Cardinals fans will tell you, La Russa can over think things. Anyone who thinks deeply about things is prone to that, actually.  For all of the moves that work, he’s just as capable of making moves that don’t work, such as intentionally walking a guy when it makes little sense, going too crazy with pitching changes or double switches to gain a platoon advantage when the advantage is far outweighed by the loss of the players he has burned through or — as was the case in this random game in September — doing all of those things at once.

The point here is that, while La Russa is often called a genius, it’s more accurate, I think, to call him a gambler. A smart one who understands the game he plays very, very well, but a gambler all the same. And even the best gamblers lose sometimes. La Russa loses sometimes too, and when he does, it’s often a product of the same sort of decision making process that helps him win all of those other times.

Ron Washington is a totally different kettle of fish.  He’s not the tactical manager La Russa is — no one is — but he gets more criticism for the buttons he pushes or doesn’t push than he deserves.  This is mostly because most people’s exposure to Washington’s style came in last year’s World Series when, no, he didn’t deploy his bullpen in optimal fashion, finding himself unwilling to use relievers when the situation — as opposed to the inning — dictated.

source: Getty ImagesBut that has changed as his roster has changed. Last year his pen was relatively thin, with Neftali Feliz being the only true shutdown guy he had. This year Washington has an embarrassment of bullpen riches at his disposal, and the freedom that kind of talent has given him has loosened him up considerably.  Rarely has he made a misstep this postseason, and if he does so in the World Series it will be because he had to move Heaven and Earth to do it. Feliz, Mike Adams and Alexi Ogando give a guy a hell of a lot of margin for error.

There have been managers who have achieved great success throughout history by laying the heck off and leaving the tactical games to others.  Washington is one of those guys.  He’s aggressive with base running, but it’s probably just because he has a lot of decent base runners who, when they steal, do so at a respectable success rate.  Otherwise: he more or less lets his men play.  He doesn’t walk guys or sacrifice to excess.  He’s willing to let some defense go — say, behind the plate — to make sure the best bats make it into the lineup.  Put simply: Washington doesn’t meddle that much. He lets his players play and he has a lot of good players.

If Washington and La Russa were given robot teams to manage, each with equal talent and outcomes that were predictable to a 99% degree of probability, sure, I’d take La Russa because then the tactics might make a difference. But we don’t have that here. Yes, La Russa may gain some advantages here or there with a genius move, but Washington knows when to get the hell out of the way, and that limits the downside of a tactical mistake. And, it seems, he has more of a margin for error to begin with because he has the slightly more-talented roster.

A managerial mismatch? No way. At least not one that will determine the course of this World Series.

2017 Preview: San Francisco Giants

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The San Francisco Giants.

On a cold autumn night in San Francisco, with a three-run lead in the top of the ninth inning and a three-game deficit to reclaim in the NLDS, the Giants laid their even-year narrative to rest. Short of another championship title, it was the best outcome for a season that had seen massive ups and downs, from the early successes of the first half of the season to the collapse of a beleaguered bullpen and injured lineup down the stretch.

The Giants of 2017 will enter the season with a clean slate and, hopefully, a new narrative to write. They addressed two of their biggest weaknesses — a fragile bullpen and even more fragile left field corner — in the offseason while making little to no improvements in their lineup. On the heels of Angel Pagan’s departure, left fielder Jarrett Parker seems primed to take over the outfield corner, though his .236/.358/.394 batting line and .751 OPS in 2016 leaves a little to be desired.

When it comes to contending, however, the Giants are known for their pitching. AT&T Park is infamous for its appetite for hard-hit fly balls and warning track catches, and on some level it makes sense that the Giants would play to their strengths and double down on elite pitching. It worked for them in 2010 and 2012 with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and it’s continued to work for them with Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto heading the rotation in recent years.

Bumgarner will lead the Giants’ pitching staff again in 2017, with Cueto, Matt Moore and Jeff Samardzija behind him. Jake Peavy, who was beset with back pain and effectively replaced in the rotation by Moore last year, will not return to the club. In his stead, Matt Cain and Ty Blach will vie for the fifth and final starting role. At 32 years old, Cain isn’t the hard-tossing spring chicken he used to be, and his middling numbers and poor health have compromised his position on the team, even with another $20 million still left on his contract. Blach, while younger, healthier and more dominant in camp, could double as a long reliever in the bullpen and might not secure a starting role until Cain hangs up his mitt for good.

Even an extreme pitcher’s park couldn’t disguise how poorly the Giants’ bullpen pitched in 2016. Santiago Casilla faded over the summer, nearly doubling his ERA during the second half of the season and blowing a career-high nine saves. Sergio Romo missed 84 days with a flexor strain, sidestepping Tommy John surgery but delivering just 30 2/3 innings during the regular season and blowing a save in Game 3 of the NLDS. Losing that pivotal Game 4 of the NLDS was a group effort: Derek Law, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Will Smith and Hunter Strickland set the stage for the Cubs’ four-run comeback in the ninth and eventual Division Series win.

The problem was finally addressed over the offseason, when the Giants cut ties with Casilla, Romo and Lopez and signed closer Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million deal. The 32-year-old right-hander split his 2016 season between the Pirates and Nationals, delivering a combined 1.64 ERA, 1.5 BB/9 and 8.2 SO/9 and recording 47 saves over 71 1/3 innings.

With Melancon anchoring the back end of the bullpen, Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy should be able to abandon his closer-by-committee approach, though a bit of bullpen tinkering may be in order after left-hander Will Smith undergoes Tommy John surgery this week. With both Javier Lopez and Will Smith out of the picture for 2017, the Giants don’t have a viable lefty left in the bullpen. A midseason acquisition might be one possibility, but until then, Bochy is reportedly expected to utilize left-handed candidates Josh Osich or Steven Okert, leaving Derek Law and Hunter Strickland as potential set-up relievers for Melancon.

On the field, not much looks different in San Francisco. Buster Posey is still the league’s No. 1 performer behind the dish, and even though he regressed with a .288/.362/.434 slash line and just 14 home runs in 2016, he still profiles as one of the Giants’ top hitters entering the 2017 season. Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford and Eduardo Nunez round out the rest of the club’s infield, and if Crawford’s antics in the World Baseball Classic are any indication, he’s poised for a monster season at the plate as well.

Hunter Pence and Denard Span will return to right and center field, respectively, while veteran defender Jarrett Parker takes over for Angel Pagan in left field. Last year, Pagan’s offensive output was the best it’s been since 2014, but debilitating back soreness cut into his playing time and eventually forced him off the roster. Rumor has it he’s in talks with several major league clubs, one of whom could be the Giants, but his return to the team would likely come in the form of a bench spot rather than a starting role.

The same question haunts every team that emerges from the long, dark stretch of the offseason: Have we done enough? Is this team fundamentally better than the last one that took the field, more capable of enduring another 162 games to improve its record, capture a title, sustain a franchise? For the Giants, the answer appears to be ‘yes.’ Mark Melancon isn’t the club’s only ticket to reclaiming the NL West, but he’s an integral part of the younger, healthier bullpen the Giants so desperately needed. With a fully functioning pitching staff, these Giants stand a chance of improving on their 28-27 record in one-run games, and perhaps even edging out the competition in close playoff races as well.

Whether that will be enough to overtake the division-leading Dodgers remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: Whatever success the Giants build on in 2017, they won’t need any odd-year magic to do it.

Prediction: 2nd place in NL West.

Mets closer Jeurys Familia receives a 15-game suspension for domestic violence

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Mets closer Jeurys Familia has received a 15-game suspension for domestic violence.

Familia was arrested in October following an incident at his home. Criminal charges were dropped in December. As we know, however, MLB’s domestic violence policy does not require criminal proceedings to be commenced, let alone completed, before the leveling of league punishment. MLB has been investigating the incident for the past several months.

Familia saved 51 games for the Mets last year while posting a 2.55 ERA. The Mets are expecting Addison Reed to fill in at closer until he returns.

Familia has released a statement:

Today, I accepted a 15-game suspension from Major League Baseball resulting from my inappropriate behavior on October 31, 2016. With all that has been written and discussed regarding this matter, it is important that it be known that I never physically touched, harmed or threatened my wife that evening. I did,however, act in an unacceptable manner and am terribly disappointed in myself. I am alone to blame for the problems of that evening.

My wife and I cooperated fully with Major League Baseball’s investigation, and I’ve taken meaningful steps to assure that nothing like this will ever happen again. I have learned from this experience, and have grown as a husband, a father, and a man.

I apologize to the Mets’ organization, my teammates, and all my fans. I look forward to rejoining the Mets and being part of another World Series run. Out of respect for my teammates and my family, I will have no further comment.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has a statement as well:

My office has completed its investigation into the events leading up to Jeurys Familia’s arrest on October 31, 2016.  Mr. Familia and his wife cooperated fully throughout the investigation, including submitting to in-person interviews with MLB’s Department of Investigations.  My office also received cooperation from the Fort Lee Municipal Prosecutor.  The evidence reviewed by my office does not support a determination that Mr. Familia physically assaulted his wife, or threatened her or others with physical force or harm, on October 31, 2016.  Nevertheless, I have concluded that Mr. Familia’s overall conduct that night was inappropriate, violated the Policy, and warrants discipline.

It is clear that Mr. Familia regrets what transpired that night and takes full responsibility for his actions.  Mr. Familia already has undergone 12 ninety-minute counseling sessions with an approved counselor specializing in the area of domestic violence, and received a favorable evaluation from the counselor regarding his willingness to take concrete steps to ensure that he is not involved in another incident of this type.  Further, he has agreed to speak to other players about what he has learned through this process, and to donate time and money to local organizations aimed at the prevention of, and the treatment of victims of, domestic violence.