Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan and I have a fair amount in common. We’re both native New Yorkers. We both live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (he has revealed this many times in chats, so no, I am not stalking him). We’re both Yankees fans. And we could both probably spend a little more time at the gym. Most pertinently, though, we’re both vigilant of and easily inflamed by bad bullpen management. Just as I’ve written piece after piece after piece about this broken part of the game, Sheehan has done the same many times over in his much higher-profile forum. I’m fairly certain that if we were to watch a baseball game together, we’d be able to communicate telepathically from the sixth inning onward.
In addition to sharing my beliefs about bullpen management, Sheehan is one hell of a baseball analyst. He’s wonderful at examining the nuances of player usage and identifying and tracking trends in performance, and he does both with a refreshing balance of conviction and humility. And, once in a while, he comes up with an eerily prescient nugget, much like this one from his October 6th column:
“Phillies fans love my opinions of Ryan Howard, so let’s just reduce the entire discussion to one line: .226/.310/.444 career, .207/.298/.356 in 2009. Jim Tracy has to bring that guy to the plate as often as possible in this series. Any time he allows the other guy, the .307/.409/.661 one, the one who hit .319/.395/.691 this year, to bat in a game-critical situation, he deserves to lose, because that guy is absolutely devastating. It really is that simple. Charlie Manuel isn’t going to take Howard out, so if Tracy elects to give up 450 points of OPS in any situation that matters, he’s just this side of throwing the game.”
The first two sets of numbers are Ryan Howard’s statistics against left-handed pitchers. The next set shows his performance against right-handed pitchers. As you can see, Howard has been pretty abysmal against southpaws since putting on a major league uniform, but this has been particularly true in 2009. These are the numbers (and this is the quote) that were running through my mind over and over again during the top of the ninth inning in last night’s Phillies-Rockies game. The Rockies were down 2-1 entering the bottom of the eighth inning. They had done nothing all night in their second go-round with Phillies’ starter Cliff Lee, and truth be told, they looked like they were cooked. Then, thanks to an improbable opposite field single by pinch-hitter Jason Giambi and a double from the punchless Yorvit Torrealba, the Rockies held a 4-2 lead. It was, at the time, a situation designed for the sort of push-button managing that is so prevalent in today’s game. Rockies’ manager Jim Tracy would insert closer Huston Street for the top of the ninth, he would get three outs, and there would be a fifth and final game in the series. That was the plan.
Street entered the game and promptly struck out pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs. Jimmy Rollins singled, but was then forced out at second on a Shane Victorino grounder. Street then walked Chase Utley, setting the stage for slugger Ryan Howard. I want to be absolutely clear about the situation here. Ryan Howard is up with two runners on and two outs. It’s a 4-2 game, and if the Rockies win, they force a deciding fifth game. If they lose (read: if Ryan Howard comes through in this situation), they are going home for the winter. So, with all that being the case, it would seem prudent for the Rockies to do everything in their power to neutralize Ryan Howard. Ryan Howard is the difference between advancing and the next major baseball event on the Rockies’ calendar being Spring Training 2010. We must be clear about this.
There is another thing we must be clear about. Ryan Howard had a .654 OPS against lefties in 2009, 1.088 against righties. Other players with a .654ish OPS include Jason Kendall, David Eckstein, and Kazuo Matsui. Howard is Jason Kendall, David Eckstein, and Kazuo Matsui against major league pitchers that throw with their left hand. On the other hand, players with a 1.088ish OPS include Albert Pujols. That’s it. Howard is Albert Pujols – the best hitter on the planet – against righties. Huston Street throws with his right hand. Something must be done about this.
I sat in front of the television with my friend, who is from Denver and a Rockies fan, and I said, disconsolately, “Tracy needs to pull Street for a lefty, but he won’t and this is going to be bad.” And so, needing only one out for a shot at the National League Championship Series, Rockies’ manager Jim Tracy allowed his right-handed closer, whose name did not rhyme with Shmariano Blivera, to pitch to best hitter of right-handed pitching in Major League Baseball. To the surprise of no one in possession of the facts, Howard creamed a double to right field, scoring both Victorino and Utley, tying the game at four. Jayson Werth then singled home Howard, and the Phillies took a 5-4 lead that they would not relinquish.
Last February, while editing this piece, I was questioned about my use of the word “incompetent” in describing MLB commissioner Bud Selig. My questioner wanted me to be absolutely sure that I knew “incompetent” was a strong word, and wanted to confirm that I was comfortable with its inclusion. I confirmed my belief in the word because I thought that Selig was incompetent, that he regularly failed to fulfill his duties as an honorable, fair, and forward-thinking caretaker of the game. Well, it turns out that I didn’t know the meaning of incompetence until Jim Tracy’s blunder last night. Tracy was confronted with one decision, and with stakes that can get only marginally higher: whether to face Albert Pujols, or David Eckstein. If Tracy wasn’t aware of Ryan Howard’s comical statistical split – the single most important piece of information that should go into making that choice – then he’s solidly incompetent. If he knew about the split, looked at it again in the ninth inning and said “eh, we’ll be fine,” then he should be fired. Because, I repeat, he chose to face Albert Pujols instead of David Eckstein with the season on the line.
There is also an insidious aspect to this egregious tactical blunder. As I mentioned earlier, the Rockies’ eighth inning rally set up the ninth inning perfectly for textbook, conventional bullpen management. With a two-run lead at home, every manager in baseball would put in their closer to get the final three outs. If the closer retires the side in order, then excellent, the manager put his reliever in his customary position, and he performed as expected. If the closer struggles or, in this case, runs into an overwhelmingly unfavorable matchup, managers still leave him in, because it protects the manager from blame. This aspect of bullpen management is a cover, a cop out, and a sham. Tracy’s decision to leave Street in despite his struggles and Howard’s dominance isn’t rooted in an unerring belief in his closer’s fortitude, and certainly isn’t rooted in the idea of putting the team in the best position to win the game. Rather, leaving Street out there was nothing more than a simple way to deflect blame if the game was lost. No one would ask (or has asked, as far as I can tell) why he left Street in the game. He is, after all, the closer, and closers close no matter what. But everyone would ask why Tracy pulled Street in favor of lefty Joe Beimel, even if Beimel retired Howard and the Rockies won. So, in the interest of avoiding questioning that would damage the storybook notion that Tracy reversed the Rockies’ fortunes with his grandfatherly pixie dust, he left Street out there to do something that he was incapable of doing, and cost his team dearly in the process. It makes me sick to read Street’s post-game quote: “I take full responsibility for there not being a Game 5 and not keeping us alive.”
Early in the game, my Coloradan friend and I had a long conversation about whether or not Jim Tracy was a good manager. Truth be told, despite the vociferousness of our arguments, neither of us was armed with great evidence. I had only seen nine or ten Rockies games this season, which is probably about as many as my friend had seen. It was hard to judge based on such limited observation. Ultimately, our discussion reduced itself to his fact and my belief: Tracy’s 74-42 record since taking over for Clint Hurdle, and the belief that most managers are idiots. It was a captivating debate, let me tell you.
Reasonable minds can differ, but I’ve made up my mind about Jim Tracy’s managerial ability. I don’t get his decision to sit catcher Chris Iannetta (.986 OPS against lefties like Game 4 starter Cliff Lee) in favor of the mediocre Yorvit Torrealba. I don’t get his decision to play Garrett Atkins (one of the worst players in the NL this season) over Ian Stewart who, while not amazing, will at least hit home runs. I don’t get his deployment of lefty Joe Beimel after the lead had been relinquished, when the absolute perfect time for his use was two batters earlier. I don’t get any of it. I’m not even a Rockies fan, but Tracy’s maneuvers offend me simply because I’m a fan of intelligence, objectivity, integrity, and merit-based acclaim. Tracy exhibited none of those qualities in the 2009 playoffs. And, worst of all, he chose to face the best hitter in the game (Ryan Howard against righties) over a utility infielder (Ryan Howard against lefties), all with the season on the line. It was a simple choice, one with clearly right and clearly wrong answers, and he chose poorly. If he can’t get that right, he should not be managing a professional baseball team.