Early last week, three of my sixth graders and I played a game of Apples to Apples. One of them, whom I shall call “Freddy,” had to pick which red card matched up best with the green card featuring the word “best.” I forget what all three red card submissions were, but one of them was “home runs.” After some careful thought, Freddy chose the “home runs” card, which predictably incited a small riot amongst his peers (baseball is not their favorite sport). The riot soon died down, but my curiosity endured. “Why did you think ‘home runs’ went with ‘best’?” I asked.
“Because hitting a home run is the best thing you can do to help your team,” said Freddy.
Quite honestly, I was stunned by the intelligence of his response. Not that Freddy isn’t a smart kid, because he is. But given that all of my students had a minimal or non-existent interest in baseball, it was a remarkably incisive and – most importantly – accurate assessment. Despite what you might hear from current and former players, analysts and reporters, home runs are not “rally killers” or in any way less valuable than walks or a series of base hits. They are the single best thing a hitter can do, and conversely, the single worst thing a pitcher can allow. That may seem obvious to you or me or even Freddy, but it’s not always obvious to mainstream media and fans.
I’m telling you this because I find that Freddy’s intuition stands in stark contrast to the popular beliefs and practices present within baseball today. This kid is more or less totally cut off from the game of baseball. He doesn’t watch it, doesn’t play it, doesn’t have any interest whatsoever in it. But what he is interested in is winning. Most of my kids are ferociously competitive, and Freddy is no different. He couldn’t care less about the actual or unwritten rules of the competition, but he sure as hell wants to win it. And because of that desire and because he’s generally a smart cookie, he understands the value of things like home runs. To Freddy, they are a key to victory, which is the ultimate goal.
When you compare Freddy’s outlook to that of major league managers, it paints a pretty bleak picture for the latter group. Managers will uniformly tell you that they want to win today’s game. Maybe not at all costs, because they do have a difficult job in that they must balance the importance of present and future victories. But they say they want to do whatever they can to win today’s game because, after all, tomorrow it might rain. That’s what they say.
But if actions are any indicator of true intent, then it’s pretty clear that someone like Freddy is more serious about winning than a major league manager. Take today’s game between the Indians and the Yankees. The Yankees had a 10-5 lead in the top of the 7th inning with David Robertson entering to pitch. He gave up a run, making it 10-6 Yankees. Not a huge cause for alarm just yet. Then, after a trainwreck of managing by Joe Girardi that I’m not even going to try to describe, Joba Chamberlain enters the game with the score still 10-6. He clearly had nothing, and the score is soon 10-7 with plenty of runners on base. Now Michael Kay is wondering how the Yankees bullpen is going to get to Mariano Rivera in the 9th inning, since the unit is currently decimated by injuries and recent use. Meanwhile, I’m wondering how the Yankees are going to get out of this situation right now (three-run lead, bases loaded, ineffective reliever on the mound).
It is at this juncture in the game when I would rather have Freddy managing my team than literally any manager in baseball. Freddy, in his oversized baseball uniform because he’s 12 years old, would turn to Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland and say “who is our best reliever?” Eiland would surely reply “Mariano Rivera,” and Freddy would equally surely say “put him in the game.” And if Eiland questioned him, Freddy would probably tell him to shut up because he’s the boss. Conversely, every other manager in baseball would look to their pitching coach and ask “who is the best reliever to use right now, excluding our absolute best reliever, because it’s not yet the 9th inning?” And the pitching coach would offer his suggestion, which would be someone other than the team’s best reliever, because we all know that that reliever doesn’t pitch unless the team has a relatively small lead in the 9th inning. But Freddy wouldn’t care about this, because Freddy just wants to win the ballgame and go home and play Xbox.
Whimsical example aside, I am entirely serious about this. In-game management has evolved to a point where winning the game more than occasionally becomes secondary to preserving roles and appeasing egos. Managers can’t see this, because they’re in too deep at this point. They are the ones brushing shoulders with the players whose roles they are trying to cement and whose egos they’re trying to leave undisturbed. And the result is often similar to the result of the Indians-Yankees contest, where a struggling second-tier reliever is left in the game to protect a small lead in a hugely important situation simply because “the book” says that the best relievers don’t pitch until the 9th inning. In this particular example, Chamberlain was left in until the score was 12-10 Indians. Now, with the highest-leverage moment over and the lead totally relinquished, there is virtually no chance that Rivera will be seeing any action. This situation happens every day in baseball, and it is gross mismanagement that reflects little seriousness about the goal of winning the game.
Freddy may have no idea what a double-switch is, or how to call for a pitchout, but at least he knows what factors contribute to wins and losses.