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August 13, 2012

Out of Left Field

The Choices of Riggleman

by Matthew Kory

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About 25 years ago a friend’s dad met a man with a business idea. The man was looking for investors. My friend’s dad was interested so the man explained his idea. They went over the whole business plan, finances, everything in detail. At the end the man asked what my friend’s dad thought. My friend’s dad was quiet for a while then said, “I just can’t imagine a world where people go to a store just to buy a cup of coffee.” My friend’s dad didn’t invest with the man, but Starbucks ended up doing just fine anyway.

I love that example because the coffee shop is so ubiquitous now. Just about every town has one and just about every city has one per block. This meeting boiled down to this: could you imagine it? If so you’re a millionaire.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mistakes. We all make them. They are inevitable. There are too many decisions to be made and often not enough time with which to accurately assess the choices involved. Things happen quickly. You come to a fork in the road and, as Yogi Berra supposedly said, you take it. That can mean rash decision-making and that can mean bad decisions.

Baseball requires lots of decisions. Some of them come after months or years of planning. Some must be made in split seconds.

Question 1: You are a third base coach. What do you if two runners are rounding third base at the same time?
On Saturday, the Red Sox had the bases loaded and Adrian Gonzalez up. Gonzalez hit a ball off the top of the wall. The runner on third held up to see what was going to happen. The runner on second jogged to third and the runner on first put his head down and indiscriminately ran. That’s how it happened that three runners left third base one after the other and that’s how it happened that they all reached home plate split seconds apart. The first runner was easily safe. The second runner was safe but without a step to spare and the third runner was easily out. The announcer remarked that the play had put the third base coach into an impossible situation. He couldn’t waive one runner around third and put the stop sign up a split second later. Things were happening too quickly for him to react. The result of the play was a mistake, but given the circumstances it was an understandable one.

Answer 1: Shove the last runner in the back while he rounds third hoping this this gets him in ahead of the tag, and none of the 30,000 people in the ballpark notice.

 * * *

Question 2: You are a general manager. You have that season’s future MVP on your team. You also have an older replacement level player. You choose to play the older replacement level player. Why?
Contrary to what Jim Leyland says, Mike Trout is the favorite to win the American League MVP award. If you’re reading this you likely know that Trout is 21 years old and was called up from Triple-A Salt Lake City in late April where he was hitting .326/.414/.544 in 93 plate appearances. Wait, that’s wrong. That’s what Trout did in Double-A last year as a 19-year-old. This year, Trout hit .403/.467/.623 in Triple-A. Got the 93 plate appearances right though.

Trout was called up and made his season debut on April 28. That is early in the season to call up a 20-year-old (Trout had yet to turn 21 at the time), even one hitting as well as Trout was. But consider these pieces of information.

The first: Trout was a highly touted prospect, one whom great things were expected based on his success in the minor leagues. It wouldn’t have been fair if the Angels expected Trout to play like an MVP in the majors, but considering what he’d done in the minors to that point it wasn’t a ridiculous notion that he was the best option. Oh, and that brings us to piece of information number two: the Angels ‘other options.

The player whom Trout was expected to replace was the highly compensated Vernon Wells. At the time Trout arrived Wells was hitting .230/.250/.446. This after hitting .218/.248/.412 the year before. The Angels had just spent $317.5 million to sign both Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson over the offseason, yet they were 6-14, nine games behind Texas already. So after a putrid year, Wells was, again, putrid, the Angels were falling apart and some were speculating that after a single month they’d be reduced to playing for a spot in the Wild Card play-in game if they ever got their heads above water in the first place. You could see the desperation setting in.

It took the Angels 20 games to bring up the AL MVP from Triple-A. Were they too slow to act? To date (91 games) Trout has been worth 58.3 BVORP, the most in baseball by 6.6 over Andrew McCutchen. But Trout missed 20 games setting the Pacific Coast League on fire. Had he maintained that level of play throughout those 20 Major League games he missed, he’d have been worth another 12.8 BVORP. That doesn’t account for his defense, either, which I won’t attempt to quantify here, but which is generally considered excellent. Had he played for Vernon Wells, his 12.8 would have replaced Wells’, which is just below replacement level. Anyway, this exceedingly rudimentary analysis seems to say Trout would have added another one or two wins for the Angels over that time.

The Angels are eight games back of the Rangers right now, but only a game and a half out of the Wild Card. We can’t know for sure but it’s possible that by not starting the season with Mike Trout in the lineup, the Angels may have cost themselves a playoff berth.

But even after reading all that, you can still reasonably side with the Angels on their decision to go with Wells over Trout. And that’s what I find so amazing. Design a scenario where a the following parameters are met:

1) A given team has both one of the worst players in baseball and one of the very best.

2) That team opts to play one of the worst players in baseball instead of one of the best.

#) It’s OK.

This is that scenario. The end result might have been a mistake, but it’s hard to dock the Angels for making the call that they did. It was an understandable choice, even if the end result was playing one of the worst players in the American League over one of the best.

Answer 2: Because you spent your formative years as a baseball executive in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and you therefore find failure hilarious.

 * * *

Then there are mistakes that are far more difficult to understand even without the benefit of hindsight. The maker of these kinds of mistakes possesses both enough time and enough information to come up with the correct answer, but screws it up anyway.

Question 3: You are a manager of an up-and-coming team. The team has talent and is expected to contend in the next two seasons. So you quit. Why?
On June 23, 2011, the Washington Nationals scored a run in Seattle. There were two outs when that run scored. It was the bottom of the ninth and that run was the only run scored in the game. It was the Nationals’ 11th win in 12 games, and a walk-off at that. Manager Jim Riggleman took that opportunity to quit. Why? Because he wanted the team to pick up the option year on his contract, but the team wasn’t willing to discuss it yet. So he walked out. Riggleman wanted to be the manager of the Nationals in 2012, but because the Nationals weren’t willing to guarantee that, Riggleman made sure that he wouldn’t be the manager of the Nationals in 2012. Or ever.

By quitting, Riggleman ensured that what he wanted would never happen. He committed the cardinal sin of placing too much stock in his own value as manager.

The part of this that is particularly amusing is that Riggleman isn’t much of a manager. ESPN’s David Schoenfield says it best:

In his career he's 662-824, a .445 winning percentage. Among the 86 managers who have managed at least 1,400 games in the majors, that winning percentage ranks 84th, ahead of only Patsy Donovan, who was born in Ireland and managed five clubs around the turn of the century, and Billy Barnie, who managed in the 1800s and was nicknamed Bald Billy.

The Nationals hired him in the middle of the 2009 season and kept him on. During Riggleman’s tenure the Nationals brought in Jayson Werth and Michael Morse, brought up Ian Desmond, and drafted both Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Had Riggleman not made what can probably fairly be called a stupid decision, he would have been allowed to at least finish the year and make a case for himself as the best guy to manage at team on the rise. But looking over Riggleman’s managerial record, good decisions aren’t really his forte.

Answer 3: You simultaneously possess the most self-destructive streak known to man and an ego so huge you routinely announce you have the biggest ego in the room immediately after entering. 

Question 4: You were a manager of an up-and-coming team. The team has talent and is expected to contend in the next two seasons. You quit. What do you do?

Answer: A drink.

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  Mike Trout,  Vernon Wells,  Jim Riggleman

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