Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The first secret of armchair managing: Stay seated

The proof is in the eating, eh? Dave Cameron (of USS Mariner fame), writing for The Wall Street Journal, figures Cito Gaston is on to something by not pinch-hitting.
"Toronto has sent a pinch-hitter to the plate only five times this season, fewer than any club in the AL. Despite conventional wisdom that says managers should play the percentages (bat righties against lefties, etc.), Mr. Gaston prefers to stick with his starters. Rather than making a knee-jerk replacement of a lefty hitter like Lyle Overbay when the other manager brings in a left-handed pitcher, Mr. Gaston simply stands pat.

The numbers support Mr. Gaston's strategy. So far in 2009, AL pinch-hitters are batting a paltry .187 AVG/.275 OBP/.301 SLG, compared to the average AL starter that is batting .268/.340/.428. So when your local announcers are babbling about how hard it is to sit around for three hours and then be asked to pick up a bat and hit, they are actually making good sense.

"In fact, there appears to be a league-wide trend away from pinch-hitting."
Earl Weaver, who went to extremes with pinch-hitting, was of the belief that it can hurt the team if the manager doesn't make a move that everyone in the dugout realizes is begging to be made. Cameron's example would be such a situation, given Lyle Overbay's career platoon split, which includes a .118 average vs. left-handers this season. However, Cito Gaston is managing people, not actuarial tables.

Two games stand out in particular with regard to the way Gaston manages his roster, and this is not necessarily related to pinch-hitting. Last Saturday vs. the Chicago White Sox, José Bautista made a rare start vs. a right-handed starting pitcher, Bartolo Colón, as he filled in for the veteran Scott Rolen. Bautista, a righty, historically, has OPS'd about 130 points better vs. lefty pitching.

Gaston ended up having Kevin Millar replace lefty Travis Snider against a left-handed reliever in the bottom of the seventh and the Jays down by one run. Millar struck out, but as Mike Wilner noted, he stayed in the game at an unfamiliar defensive position:
"My guess is that Cito: A - really wanted to give (Scott) Rolen the whole day off, and 2 - didn’t want (John) McDonald coming up to bat in the 8th or 9th in a big situation. But wow - it was Millar's first action at third base since 2002, when he played all of 11 innings there with the Marlins. For some strange reason, Alexei Ramirez didn't drop a bunt down the third-base line leading off the 8th. Millar didn't wind up making a play, with (pitcher Robert) Ray throwing a 3-up, 3-down inning on two fly balls and a strikeout.

"Rolen wound up coming in to watch the 9th, anyway, having as busy an inning as Millar did. So this may well be our only chance to say that Kevin Millar and Scott Rolen were defensive equals at third base in the same game."
And what happened? Bautista ended up getting the game-winning hit, off a right-hander, no less. Rolen, refreshed and recharged after one inning as a defensive replacement, made about three highlight-reel plays over the final two games of the Chicago series. One of them was critical, since it came one batter before Chicago's Scott Podsednik hit a triple.

The other example came a month ago, an eventual extra-inning win vs. Texas on April 22. That is more remembered as the night B.J. Ryan lost the closer job after coughing up a three-run lead in the top half of the ninth inning and Darren O'Day made his major league debut while wearing Kason Gabbard's jersey (and Gabbard was traded the next day).

After Ryan blew the save, Rolen and Millar were due up second and third in the bottom of the ninth. It seemed quite possible that Gaston would have Overbay pinch-hit. Instead, he burned Travis Snider by using him a pinch-runner for Adam Lind, and left Millar in the game. It was a major tooth-gnasher, since that move amounted to having a slightly faster runner forced out at second base when Millar rapped into an inning-ending double play.

Of course, you know the rest of the story: Two innings later, Vernon Wells cadged a leadoff walk, was bunted ahead to second base by Snider. After an intentional walk, Millar came up with the winning run in scoring position. There was no chance of seeing Overbay. Millar promptly drove in the game-winning run, off a right-hander.

Point being, Gaston's way of trusting players to do a job seems to have some wisdom. It ma only seem brilliant because the Jays are winning right now.

Toronto's Secret Strategy: Don't Pinch Hit (The Wall Street Journal)
Cito Gaston realizes that less is more (Craig Calcaterra, Circling the Bases)

1 comment:

eyebleaf said...

The Cito Effect.