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October 9, 2013

The Lineup Card

8 Memorable Manager Decisions in the Playoffs

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Joe Girardi Trusts the Binder in Game Three of the 2009 ALCS
Poor Joe Girardi. He’s really a good manager most of the time, but incidents like his late-game decisions in Game Three of the 2009 ALCS will probably cement his legacy among critics as a robotic micro-manager with no feel for the game. “Binder Joe,” my Yankee fan friends call him, mocking his obedience to a binder filled with matchup and scouting data that he often consults. There’s even a parody Twitter account.

In Game Three, the Yankees were tied in the 11th inning after Mariano Rivera got the Bombers out of a huge jam the previous inning. David Robertson came in to pitch. Robertson, although in his first postseason, had impressed in the ALDS by pitching out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam in the top of the 11th. He also got four outs in Game Two against Anaheim without surrendering a run.

In the 11th of Game Three, Robertson got two outs and was set to face Howie Kendrick—who had already tripled and homered in the game. Robertson was lifted in favor of Alfredo Aceves. A few pitches later, the game ended as Kendrick scored the winning run.

What could have prompted Girardi to remove a right-handed relief pitcher in the middle of an inning with nobody on base and replace him with another right-handed relief pitcher? Surely it wasn’t based on matchup history. Robertson had faced Kendrick twice and Aceves zero times; no meaningful comparisons can be made on that basis. (Girardi has even said he likes a minimum of 25 at-bats before making direct comparisons.) Here’s Girardi’s explanation for the Aceves move: “It’s just different stuff against those hitters. We have all the matchups and all the scouting reports, and we felt that it was a better matchup for us.”

In a sense, I admire Girardi for identifying a strategy—don’t get beaten by Kendrick again—and trying to execute it. But sabermetricians and traditionalists alike can muster compelling logic that Robertson was the better man for the job. His stuff is better suited to short, high-leverage outings, while Aceves is comparatively better in long relief. History certainly sides with the Girardi skeptics, given the direction of Robertson’s and Aceves’s careers since 2009. And given that it was the 11th inning, wouldn’t you try to stretch Robertson regardless, in case the game went on?

It didn’t matter in the end because the Yankees won the World Series that year. But it got Binder Joe a good roasting from the New York press and bolstered his reputation for needless micro-managing.

P.S. Ironically, Girardi was criticized for overusing Robertson in the 2010 ALCS. Managing is hard. —Dan Rozenson

2. Bob Brenly Rides Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in the 2001 World Series
For whatever deficiency Brenly had as a manager (he was fired two-and-a-half years after winning a championship), he knew this about his 2001 Diamondbacks pitching staff in his first year: it had two Hall of Famers and a whole mess of men with motor skills. To put this in perspective, their third-best pitcher was Byung-Hyun Kim, and we remember how that worked out. Johnson and Schilling finished a runaway one-two in the Cy Young Award voting. This was all they had, and they were up against the Yankees.

Brenly’s original plan was a conservative rotation of Schilling, Johnson, Brian Anderson, and Miguel Batista. Yet after the Yankees won Game Three, despite a 2-1 series lead, Brenly heel-turned and threw Schilling out there for Game Four. They didn’t win, but he pitched well and set himself up to return for Game Seven instead of Anderson.

Johnson, meanwhile, cruised as expected in Games Two and Six. Unit was still questionably pitching in Game Six when the score was 15-0 after five innings and the peanut gallery could have taken it from there, but Johnson went seven regardless. When they needed relief late in Game Seven down a run, Brenly said nerts to matchups and called upon his best pitchers: Batista for one batter, then Johnson for a perfect 1⅓-inning outing. It’s as if Brenly rented Little Big League.

All for the mere chance to score two runs against Mariano Rivera. Luis Gonzalez doesn’t jump like a gleeful kid on Your December Religious Holiday Of Choice without two all-world pitchers used every chance possible. Johnson and Schilling threw nearly 60 percent of the D’backs innings in the World Series. —Matt Sussman

3. Mike Hargrove Taps Jose Mesa in Game Seven of the 1997 World Series
It’s not uncommon for a pitcher to implode under the pressure of the playoffs. Just this week, Braves pitcher David Carpenter hung a fateful slider to Juan Uribe, propelling the Dodgers to an NLCS berth and the Braves to a very quiet flight home. Rough stuff, sure, but let’s not forget: this team won 14 straight division titles not too long ago. And, in all likelihood, they’ll be back in a similar position next year, eyes set on more impressive hardware. The Braves and their fans are hurting, but they’ll soon recover.

When a pitcher implodes in front of a fan base that hasn’t sniffed a World Series title in, oh, 49 years… well, you get much rougher stuff. Enter the Cleveland Indians, the 1997 World Series, and one Jose Mesa.

Solid through the previous two seasons, Mesa hit some turbulence early in ’97, posting a 6.43 ERA through May. His line from there on, though, is enough to make the Riveras and Kimbrels of the world jealous: Mesa limited opponents to a .555 OPS while allowing just nine earned runs over the rest of the season.

So with Mesa riding into the ’97 playoffs on a bolt of lightning, is Mike Hargrove really at fault for relying on Mesa in the waning moments of the ’97 Series? Well, at least a little bit. A large part of Mesa’s late-season resurgence was a steadily declining BABIP against, disguising decent-but-not-great pitching with Hall of Fame numbers. Significant, too, are Mesa’s struggles earlier in that same postseason. He tallied a 3.75 ERA in just 12 innings in addition to blowing two saves against Baltimore in the ALCS. And, if you’re one to put stock into reliever usage, Mesa pitched in the previous two games. So when Hargrove called on Mesa in Game Seven to secure a championship for the Indians, he was banking on anything but a sure thing.

In fact, Brian Anderson, who recorded only one out before being lifted for Mesa, had had a much more effective postseason run. In this case, hindsight isn’t a perfect 20/20, but it’s still interesting—or masochistic, depending on your allegiance—to think about what might’ve been if Hargrove had stuck with Anderson.

It’s hard to quantify the emotional impact of a sports disaster like this, but if anything can come close, it’s this:

If you want to make a Red Sox fan one part wistful and one part angry, bring up Bill Buckner. For an Indians fan, bring up Jose Mesa... Pardon me, I need to do some soul-searching as to why when asked for my "favorite" starter-reliever conversion, I picked the guy who massively let me down.

My heart goes out to you, Russell. —Nick Bacarella

4. Joe Maddon Entrusts Matt Moore with Game One of the 2011 ALDS
After using James Shields and David Price in an effort to make the postseason, the Rays entered the playoffs without their best starters available. Rather than turn to their third- or fourth-best arm, the Rays gambled and used rookie Matt Moore to start Game One in Texas. Moore had previously started one game and handled it well enough to earn the club's trust. It was a risky and unusual decision, but one that nonetheless resulted in a win—their only in the series. —R.J. Anderson

5. Davey Johnson Sticks with Dwight Gooden in Game Four of the 1988 NLCS
Maybe it’s just my East Coast bias speaking, but the 25th anniversary of the Dodgers' 1988 World Series title seemed to pass this year with little fanfare. Everyone remembers Kirk Gibson’s Game One World Series heroics and the inevitability of a team that won the series in five games. Few remember the fact that the Mets were three outs away from winning Game Four of the National League Championship Series and taking a commanding 3-1 lead.

Gooden was a solid pitcher in 1988 and certainly was no slouch. And his performance in Game Four—while not masterful—was solid, and good enough to give the Mets a 4-2 lead heading into the ninth. But Gooden had already thrown 117 pitches heading into the frame. He had thrown more pitches than that in more than a few games in 1988, but now he had 255 1/3 innings of wear and tear on his arm. He looked tired.

Closer Randy Myers was coming off of a lights-out year. Yes, he had pitched the day before, but only a third of an inning and 11 pitches. He was available, and a fresh Myers could have come in for the save.

Manager Davey Johnson decided to stick with Gooden. Doc walked John Shelby after an eight-pitch battle and then Mike Scioscia came to the plate. Scioscia hit the first pitch he saw from Gooden into the seats. Tie game. Myers came in two batters later to finish the inning and preserve the tie, but the damage was done.

The game continued into the 12th inning. Gibson provided heroics that would be forgotten once he hit his epic World Series home run, socking a two out dinger off of Roger McDowell. The Mets loaded the bases in the bottom of the frame, but Tommy Lasorda brought Orel Hershisher in to nail down a one-out save. It was an epic game, but could have been an anticlimactic Mets win if Johnson had gone with Myers instead of sticking with Gooden. The Dodgers won the series in seven, but the Mets could have won in six and avoided facing Hershiser in a winner-take-all game. —Mike Gianella

6. Grady Little Stubbornly Stays with Pedro Martinez in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS
When I saw the topic for this week’s Lineup Card only one instance came to mind. And so I decided not to contribute. “Don’t want to go back and relive that,” I thought. Then the call came out again. “Please contribute!” Nope. No chance. Not doing it. Go away. Then the call came out a third time and here I am. I’m such a dope.

When we talk about questionable manager decisions in the playoffs, this one sets the standard. This blows right past questionable, right past fireable, and into “your name is now synonymous with being a huge idiot.” I speak of Grady Little’s decision to leave in Pedro Martinez during Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

The Red Sox had beaten the Yankees to take the series to a seventh game. The Red Sox held a commanding 5-2 lead in Game Seven going into the bottom of the eighth inning. The World Series was in sight. The Red Sox hadn’t won it since 1918 and Red Sox fans everywhere were starting to believe it might be possible. Despite throwing well over 100 pitches (118, I believe), starter Pedro Martinez came back out for the eighth inning. After getting Nick Johnson to pop out, Derek Jeter doubled. That seemed like a reasonable place to pull Martinez, given that the Red Sox bullpen had given up two runs over their last 27 innings, but no. Little left him in. The next batter, Bernie Williams, hit a line drive single scoring Jeter to make it 5-3, Boston. Again, another chance to bring in someone rested. But no. Little left him in. The next batter, Hideki Matsui, hit a ground rule double, putting runners at second and third with one out. At this point all of New England was screaming in unison, “TAKE HIM OUT WHAT ARE YOU DOING” but Little left him in. The next batter, Jorge Posada, did what everyone knew he would do: he doubled, scoring both runners. Like that the lead was gone. Only then did Grady Little emerge from the dugout to remove his beleaguered starter. The Red Sox would never hold the lead again (even though the bullpen got out of that inning just fine), losing on a walk-off home run by Aaron Boone in the bottom of the eleventh inning.

The thing about Little’s decision was that, well it was horrible, but it really wasn’t one decision. It was five decisions, and each one got increasingly horrible. It’s at least defensible to let Pedro start the eighth inning, and after getting the first hitter, you leave him in to face Jeter. But after Jeter doubles convincingly, with the heart of the Yankees order due up and the Red Sox bullpen in full shut-down mode, that was the obvious time to take him out. Little even went to the mound, but left him in. Then single (nothing), double (nothing), double (nothing), lead gone. It’s still baffling to me to this day.

So thanks, BP, for letting me relive that hideous day. Next time I get an email in my inbox asking for a piece about the “Worst Postseason Walk-Off Homers By People Who’s Names Rhyme With ‘Spoon’” you won’t hear back from me. Unless you ask nicely and at least three times. —Matt Kory

7. Fredi Gonzalez Leaves Craig Kimbrel in the Bullpen in Game Four of the 2013 NLDS
In honor of the Pirates’ long awaited return to the post-season, I wanted to choose Jim Leyland replacing Doug Drabek with Stan Belinda in the ninth inning of game seven of the 1992 NLCS. He should have left Doug Drabek in there, I tried to insist, except that a) the bases were loaded with no one out and b) Drabek, working his third game of the series, had thrown 129 pitches to that point. That number was actually not unusual for Drabek (or perhaps Leyland, it might be better to say). He had thrown 129 or more pitches in six of his regular-season starts, and had been especially overworked toward the end of the summer. At one point, Drabek pitched eight or nine innings in 10 straight starts (and 14 of 16!) after the All-Star break, capping the run with four consecutive complete-game victories in September. (The days of pitcher abuse are not that far behind us.) But did that heavy use have any bearing on Drabek’s failure to reach 100 pitches or get out of the fifth inning in games one and four of the ’92 NLCS? He took three of the Pirates’ four losses in the series.

In any case, Belinda was Leyland’s fire chief, with a team-leading 18 saves. He was rested, it was the ninth inning, and it was the right call to use him. The only quibble one might make was that Leyland should have gone to Belinda to start the inning rather than let Drabek get into trouble first. (But that trouble owed much to Jose Lind’s unlikely error, and Drabek had been working on a five-hit shutout through eight innings.) That it went wrong, with so many ironies attached (e.g. Sid Bream had been Pittsburgh’s regular first baseman just a few years earlier), is one of the reasons the game is so famous, and so infamous for the Bucs: they did the right things and lost anyway.

So, instead I’m going with a much, much more recent managerial decision—so recent, people are still debating it. It involved the Braves, too, but it cost them a series rather than help them win one. I’m choosing Fredi Gonzalez’s decision to stick with David Carpenter over Craig Kimbrel on Monday night, and not only because Craig Kimbrel—who showed and apparently uttered his disagreement; thanks to Paul Sporer for GIF and Deadspin link—has probably been baseball’s best reliever over the last two seasons. More to my point, the prompt for this Lineup Card edition came before Gonzalez’s fateful decision was made. The timing is not prescient, although it may seem so. Instead, it simply shows that skippers find so many moments in which to make questionable decisions in the playoffs that you’re never very far away from yet another one. This is to a large degree because our attention is heightened in October and we subject every single decision to intense scrutiny. We see more (and more frequent) dubious decisions because we’re readier to pounce on them, and because their consequences are so much more drastic, i.e., they can end a team’s season. But it’s also because managers do seem to overthink and overmanage in the post-season, as Joe Posnanski pointed out just yesterday while writing about a questionable-decision-making manager:

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.

And Posnanski wasn’t even talking about Gonzalez. He was talking about John Farrell’s tactics against Tampa Bay on Monday night. Like I said, you’re never very far away… —Adam Sobsey

8. Joe Torre Brings in Jeff Weaver in Game Four of the 2003 World Series
When a small-time crook named Joe Chill shot Thomas and Martha Wayne while a young Bruce watched, he created a lifelong crime fighter. When Joe Torre brought in Jeff Weaver while a young Ben Lindbergh watched, he created a lifelong enemy of save-based bullpen usage.

Weaver was a league-average starter in 2003, so he wasn’t the worst pitcher Torre could’ve picked to come out of the pen with World Series Game Four tied 3-3 in extras. The righty actually pitched a 1-2-3 11th before giving up a walk-off, series-evening homer to Alex Gonzalez to start the 12th. But Torre had another option: Mariano Rivera, the best reliever and postseason pitcher of all time. Rivera hadn’t appeared in the first two games of the series, and though he had gone two innings in Game Three the previous night, he was available for Game Four. “Never lose a playoff game because you were saving your best arm for a save situation” is one of the classic blunders, right up there with, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia” and “Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.” Many a manager has been guilty of making this mistake, but the Weaver-Rivera-Torre triangle will always be the most memorable instance for me. —Ben Lindbergh

Related Content:  Playoffs,  Managers,  Tactics

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