jimmy dugan

Over-managing playoff managers and bunts that “work”


If I ever owned a baseball team, I’d want to hire Jimmy Dugan from “A League of their Own” as my manager. This isn’t only because he dislikes the bunt, though that helps — you probably remember the scene where he finally notices what’s happening on the field and calls off Geena Davis’ bunt sign (“We want a big inning here”). It’s also because, especially early in his career as manager of the Rockford Peaches, he had a tendency to fall asleep in the dugout.

Managers, it seems to me, could afford to do that a bit more often. If I was an owner, I’d put pillows in there.

I have long believed that managers hurt their teams as much or more than they help when they decide, as Bugs Bunny once did, that a moment calls for a little strategy. They will give away outs, they will intentionally put opponents on base, they will sit their best players for some short-term gain, they will call for that special lefty out of the pen for that special situation, they will try daring base-running exploits all in order to bewilder their opponents into blinding defeat. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it works when the other way would have worked too. Sometimes it fails and it wouldn’t have worked the other way. Sometimes it fails and it would have worked the other … you know what it’s like? It’s like switching lanes in heavy traffic. It might speed you up. It might slow you down. In the end, you’ll probable realize the futility of it all.

Monday night, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays played a game that lasted — spitballing here — approximately 59 hours. This is in part because Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz apparently gets paid by the hour, in part because the two managers used 11 stinking pitchers in a 5-4 game, and in part because the two teams hit a lot of foul balls. There were more than 300 pitches thrown in the game. OK, well, that’s baseball in 2013.

The game was 3-3 going into the eighth inning. And now we’ll climb into the mind of Boston manager John Farrell. I like Farrell. His Bostonians don’t sacrifice much, and they steal bases at a very high percentage, and they intentionally walk fewer hitters than any team in baseball. He tends to let the game go, tends to stay out of the way most of the time, tends to let players win and lose games. I wish there were more like him.

But, this was a playoff game, meaning it was important, and the more important the situation the more it this tests the will of people to stay the bleep out. We as human beings have an overwhelming aversion toward doing nothing. It goes against every impulse we have. Think how often in movies if the hero would just NOT do something, the movie would end happily an hour before it actually ends.

So, eighth inning, and David Ortiz leads off with a walk. It’s well known that David Ortiz is slow. It’s also well known that David Ortiz is the best hitter on the Boston Red Sox. What to do? Farrell decided — and I think most managers would decide this — to pinch-run Quintin Berry for Ortiz. The logic behind the move is pretty simple. It’s the eighth inning, so it’s possible — probable even — that Ortiz’s spot will not come up again. Quintin Berry, in his major league career, had stolen 24 bases without ever being caught; pinch-running was the WHOLE REASON he was on the roster. And, obviously, with the score tied this late in the game, one run could win the game. The pinch-run was the move.

Here’s what happened: Berry stole second base like planned. He was actually out, but the umpire missed the call. Then, a groundout, an intentional walk, a strikeout and foul-pop-up and the inning ended.

Now, what happens if Farrell goes Jimmy Dugan and falls asleep? Mike Napoli was the one who grounded out to short, so if that happened you would have had a double play. But we don’t know what would have happened. Obviously, there would not have been an intentional walk to Jonny Gomes. It would have been a different inning. But, remember, David Ortiz would have still been in the game.

The Rays scored a run in the bottom of the eighth in what was a Joe Maddon concerto. I like Maddon a lot too — everybody does — but, whew, he does love to get in the middle of things. In the eighth, there was a walk, a bunt that worked for a hit, another bunt that didn’t work at all, an infield single, and a run-scoring groundout, pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, pinch me I’m dreaming. So the Red Sox trailed by a run going into the ninth.

And that meant facing Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney. He has a good fastball and a great change-up. Last year, Rodney gave up nine runs in 74 innings and did not blow a save all year. This year, Rodney walked five batters per nine innings gave up 27 runs in 66 innings. This is how it goes for relievers. When you look at Rodney, last year was really an outlier — he has, throughout his career, been a bit of a wildcard, a guy who is hard to hit, and a guy who walks a lot of guys and, largely because of that, gives up his share of runs.

And, as if to prove the point, he immediately walked Will Middlebrooks on five pitches. Pinch runner Xander Begaerts came in. Rodney then threw two straight balls to Jacoby Ellsbury and on the third Ellsbury hit a little pop-up that dropped in a triangle made up of the Rays’ third baseman, shortstop and left-fielder. Bogaerts apparently is faster than Middlbrooks but did not get a great read on the ball and so stopped at second base. First and second, nobody out, and here were the next three batters:

Shane Victorino

Dustin Pedroia

Quintin Berry

Ah yes, the third of those … it might have been David Ortiz. It might not, the whole situation might have been different if Ortiz had run for himself. But Ortiz’s spot was coming up, and Ortiz was not, and so goes the strategy. Runners on first and second, nobody out, the TBS announcers were now PLEADING for a sacrifice bunt. It was staggering how much John Smoltz and company lobbied throughout the game for managers to make moves, but in this situation they seemed utterly panic-stricken that the Red Sox might not bunt with Victorino.

The bunt here is not a bad strategic move. Let me say that first. By Fangraphs, a successful bunt would very slightly increase the Red Sox win probability — making it a better decision than most bunts. But it seems to me there are things to consider.

1. You have a pitcher on the mound who, like usual, is having trouble throwing strikes.

2. You have a hitter, Shane Victorino, who very rarely hits into double players. This year, he hit into five double plays in 101 opportunities, less than 5% of the time.

3. You have one of your best hitters in Victorino followed by another of your best hitters in Pedroia followed by Quintin Berry or a pinch hitter of some sort. So, you have two good hitters followed by a total wildcard — would you really want to give up an out AND take the bat out of one of those two good hitters?

4. While the bunt does slightly add to win probability, which is the more important metric, it does slightly decrease run expectation. Teams score more runs with runners on first and second with nobody out than with runners on second and third with one out. I think you could put it this way: Your chance of scoring one run goes up slightly. Your chance of scoring two runs or more goes down slightly. More on this in a second.

Farrell decided yes, he would sacrifice, and Victorino bunted much to joy of TBS and the part of the nation that loves small ball. It was a successful bunt, moving the runners to second and third. The rest was predictable enough. Pedroia grounded out, which scored the tying run. Pinch-hitter Mike Carp struck out looking. A one-run inning.

OK, well, the Red Sox tied the game. They lost it in the bottom of the ninth when Jose Lobaton hit a walk-off homer. But the point here is not win or lose. The point here is a question: Did the bunt work? I think most people would say: Yes, it did. The Red Sox scored the tying run. That was the most important thing, right? it worked, right?

I don’t think so. The run expectation with runners on first and second with nobody out is 1.4 runs. That means teams, when you average it all out, score MORE than one run in general when they have runners on first and second and nobody out. This obviously includes every strategy, every situation, every kind of pitcher, and I’m not trying to make too much out of it. I’m just saying that if teams score 0 or 1 run, they have scored BELOW the expectation. If they score two or more, they have scored MORE than the expectation.

So, to me, the bunt did not work. Put it another way: If someone is a 70 percent free throw shooter, and the team trails by one, and he gets two free throws, the is expected to make 1.4 free throws. If he makes one of two, I don’t think anyone would consider that a successful trip to the free throw line. Admittedly, it might be harder to score two runs against a closer like Rodney. Then again, you don’t often have two hitters as good as Victorino and Pedroia coming up (not to mention Ortiz, if he had been in the game).

A lot of smart people, much smarter than me, think the bunt was not only right call but the only call. I personally think the Red Sox would have had a better shot to win Monday’s game if Farrell had taken a little Jimmy Dugan nap.

Leave Steve Bartman Alone

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 16: A general view on June 16,  2015 at Wrigley Field during the fifth inning of a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
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The Cubs are up 3-2 in the NLCS and are heading back to Wrigley Field in an effort to punch their first World Series ticket since 1945. For Cubs fans it’s a dream come true. For Dodgers fans it’s nail-biting time. For most of the players involved it’s the biggest test of their professional lives.

For many in the baseball media, however, it’ll be an opportunity to throw gleeful, thoughtless punches at a man who doesn’t want or deserve the attention:

We all know the story of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS which, yes, began with the Cubs leading the series 3-2 and needing only one win in two games at home to go to the World Series. Bartman, like many other fans in his section that night and like countless other fans at countless other baseball games before and since, went for a foul ball coming his way. The fielder — Moises Alou — probably had a chance to catch it (I say “probably” because Alou himself has changed his stance at that on numerous occasions over the past 13 years). Either way, the ball was not caught, the Florida Marlins mounted a huge eighth inning rally, went on to win Game 7 and, eventually, the World Series.

The game was played on a Tuesday night. It became known forever as “the Steve Bartman Game” before the sun rose on Wednesday morning. It could’ve been called “The Mike Everitt Game” after the umpire who didn’t call fan interference on the play. It could’ve been called “The Alex Gonzalez Game” after the would-be inning-ending double play the Cubs shortstop booted, prolonging the Marlins’ rally. Or “The Mark Prior Game” for Prior’s subsequent walk of Luis Castillo or “The Dusty Baker Game” for Baker leaving Prior in too long. When a team blows a huge lead in fantastic fashion they NEVER blame it on one single player or one single play, but the entire 2003 NLCS and the Cubs’ subsequent struggles after that have always, to greater or lesser degrees, been hung on Bartman.

This despite the fact that, the next morning, he apologized. In doing so, he noted that he was already feeling the heat of an entire fan base’s blowback:

To Moises Alou, the Chicago Cubs organization, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, and Cub fans everywhere I am so truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan’s broken heart. I ask that Cub fans everywhere redirect the negative energy that has been vented towards my family, my friends, and myself into the usual positive support for our beloved team on their way to being National League champs.

That didn’t happen, of course. The blowback continued and continues to this day. Just this week ESPN did a segment lumping Bartman in with fans who have thrown beer cans at players or who have otherwise interfered with games with malice.

For the most part, though, it’s less rancorous now than it used to be. It’s occasionally tinged with humor. As demonstrated in those tweets above it’s often just rote. When the Cubs are on the brink of anything one is apparently obligated to mention it, just like one mentions Billy Goats or the Curse of the Bambino or any number of other bits of baseball lore. Bartman references are, at turns, laments of futility or signaling of one’s grasp of baseball history. Before those tweets were composed, the author’s synapses fired: “hey, this is like that one time that thing happened so I am obligated to mention that thing.” Joe Buck and John Smoltz will likely have a discussion about it on Saturday night. Fox’s production team is likely splicing together the video as we speak. Some deep-thinking longform writer is probably composing yet another turgid “Searching for Bartman” piece, the sort of which we get every few years.

But there’s a difference between Steve Bartman on the one hand and Billy Goats and curses on the other. Steve Bartman is a human being. One who was jeered and who had his friends and family attacked. One who, apparently, has felt it necessary to disappear from public view in order to protect his privacy and identity so as to not be scapegoated anew every time the Cubs threaten to do anything in the postseason. In this day and age even the justifiably infamous will make great efforts to capitalize on their infamy. They’ll give interviews or print up t-shirts or write a quickie book or any number of other things to prolong their 15 minutes of fame. Then we, as a society, tend to leave them alone. Bartman has done everything he can to be left alone, but we simply cannot do that, apparently. No one wants to leave him alone, his wishes to be left alone be damned.

We should let it go. Not because it’s not a genuinely interesting bit of baseball history — it is — but because there’s a human being at the center of it who had his life negatively altered as a result. He can’t go to the games of his favorite team anymore. If he still lives in or visits Chicago he likely worries about being recognized. His name is pretty distinct. How many job interviews or customer service telephone calls or exchanges of credit cards and checks at a restaurant have resulted in an awkward conversation in which he is immediately presumed to be infamous? Think of how bad you feel on those rare occasions when someone, rightly or wrongly, assumes the ethical high ground over you. Then realize that every single person with even a moderate knowledge of baseball does that, intentionally or otherwise, with Steve Bartman every time he ventures out into the world. The only way he could avoid that would be to change his name. Imagine if you were forced to change your name because people won’t stop reminding you of your unwarranted infamy.

I’ve seen some people suggest that, should the Cubs win one of the next two games, the club or someone representing it and/or its fans should make a public proclamation of forgiveness to Bartman. Maybe Bill Murray takes a microphone and says something Bill Murray-esque about how “Cubs Nation forgives you, ya knucklehead, come on home!” I wouldn’t be terribly impressed if that happened. Forgiveness, if any was even warranted in this case, should’ve come on October 15, 2003 when Bartman offered a sincere and heartfelt apology. Forgiveness should always be contingent on one’s sincere remorse. It should not be contingent on the Cubs finally getting their act together after long stretches of futility. To be honest, if there is any forgiveness to be granted here it’s Bartman forgiving everyone responsible for turning him into a punchline, not the other way around.

Let it go, baseball fans. Let it go, baseball media. Let’s try to spend today’s off day, tomorrow’s Game 6 and, if necessary, Sunday’s Game 7 without forcing the Steve Bartman narrative. Given the storylines of the 2016 NLCS — two interesting teams, several interesting players and the great starting pitchers the Cubs and Dodgers are going to feature in the next one or two games — it’d be superfluous as it is. But given that, at the heart of that narrative, is a man who has done nothing to deserve either the attention or the scorn he has received over the years, pushing it is even less justifiable than it would be if all things were equal.

Leave Steve Bartman alone. We’ve put him through enough already.

Concerns over Jon Lester’s throwing ability much ado about nothing

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20: Jon Lester #34 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)
Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Going into Thursday night’s NLCS Game 5, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts planned to have his team be annoying and distracting on the base paths for Cubs starter Jon Lester. Lester, you see, has a hard time making throws when he’s not pitching from the rubber, as seen here.

The Dodgers got an immediate opportunity to test their strategy, as Enrique Hernandez drew a four-pitch walk to start the game in the bottom of the first inning. Hernandez was taking leads between 15 and 25 feet, just taunting Lester to throw over to first base. Lester never did. And despite being given the luxury of such a large lead, Hernandez never attempted to steal second base.

It ended up costing the Dodgers a run. After Justin Turner struck out, Corey Seager lined a single to center field. Hernandez, large lead and all, should’ve been well on his way to third base, but he settled for staying at second base. Carlos Ruiz then flied out to right field on what should’ve been a sacrifice fly. Hernandez instead just advanced to third. Howie Kendrick grounded out to end the inning with the Dodgers having scored no runs.

In the bottom of the second inning with two outs, Joc Pederson dropped down a bunt, but Lester was able to field it and make a bounce-throw to Anthony Rizzo at first base to end the inning. Lester stared angrily into the Dodgers’ dugout as he walked off the field. If it were me, I’d have been glaring angrily not because the opposing team was attempting to exploit my weakness, but because the strategy is so poor.

The bunting would continue in the seventh inning as first baseman and noted power hitter Adrian Gonzalez tried to sneak a bunt past Lester on the right side of the infield. Second baseman Javier Baez was able to scoop it up and fire to first. Gonzalez was initially ruled safe, but the call was overturned upon replay review.

Lester countered the Dodgers’ bunting and greedy lead-taking by just pitching his game. He went seven innings, allowing just one run on five hits and a walk with six strikeouts on 108 pitches. The Cubs went on to win 8-4, taking a 3-2 lead in the NLCS. A worthy consideration for the National League Cy Young Award based on his regular season performance, Lester now has a 0.86 ERA in 21 innings spanning three starts this postseason. Turns out, the yips isn’t debilitating if you’re really good at your main job.