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October 16, 2003

Season on the Brink

A Study in Managerial Contrasts

by Rany Jazayerli

A lot has happened since last we met. I've completed my residency, started a new job, passed my boards, and moved to Chicago. Which, given my proven attraction to lost causes, meant that it was only a matter of time before I became a Cubs fan.

My allegiance to this team may only be three months old, spanning less than 0.5% of the time since their last World Series appearance. But thanks to Dusty Baker, my patience is already wearing thin.

After a Game Seven performance that would make Jim Frey look like a tactical genius, the hope here is that a couple chinks may be starting to form on Baker's Teflon coating. His failings are well-covered, here and elsewhere, but indulge me in this quick synopsis nonetheless.

Kerry Wood was laboring from the first pitch, and by the fifth inning he was gassed. Beginning with two outs in the fourth, the next eight batters included three walks, a double, a single, two deep flyballs, and a hard grounder that Eric Karros made a nifty play on. He had also coughed up a 5-3 lead with his second three-spot of the game. Even after he finally struck out Mike Lowell to end the fifth, the only question that we--I like to lump myself in with my fellow Cub fan buddies as "we"--were asking about Wood was who would replace him to start the sixth, Mike Remlinger or Kyle Farnsworth (both of whom were spotted warming up in the fifth).

The fear in the room when Wood appeared on the screen was palpable; it was the first moment that we realized that we really were going to lose this game. Wood had approximately nothing left, giving up sharp singles to Jeff Conine and Juan Pierre before he was finally pulled. Farnsworth let a comeback from Luis Castillo bounce off his glove, and the lead doubled.

The decision to let Wood start the sixth, while clearly the wrong move, was neither inexplicable nor necessarily fatal. Those adjectives are reserved for Dusty's decision, an inning later, to pull Farnsworth with two on and two out, in favor of Dave Veres.

Quick: it's Game Seven. Your team is three innings away from being eliminated, you're still only down by two runs, but two men are on base. This is an absolute must-stop-this-rally-now moment... who do you bring in to pitch? If you're Dusty Baker, you bring in Veres, who on a normal day might be the Cubs' fifth-best reliever, and this clearly wasn't a normal day.

In the heat of the moment, I tried to be the voice of calm--hey, I'm still new to this Cub fandom thing--and in trying to find the rationale that no one else in the room could come up with, I pointed out that Veres was in to face just one batter, since the pitcher's spot in the lineup was due up in the bottom of the inning. I figured that since the batter was Alex Gonzalez, that Veres must have had tremendous success against right-handed batters this season, and only a massive platoon split inflated his ERA to the lofty heights that it had attained.

Well, he had a massive platoon split, alright. Right-handed hitters--like, say, Alex Gonzalez--batted .359/.379/.538 against Veres this year (lefties hit .174/.184/.326). And this was no sample size fluke; in nearly 200 innings between 2000 and 2002, Veres had more success against left-handed hitters than right-handers.

I did not have this information in front of me when Veres came in. Dusty did, and if he didn't, he should have. And if he didn't, he at least should have had this nugget of wisdom at his disposal: YOU DON'T BRING IN YOUR NINTH-BEST PITCHER WITH THE SEASON ON THE LINE.

Veres gave up a bloop that Kenny Lofton nobly dove for, compensating for not catching the ball by swatting it so that Moises Alou couldn't field it cleanly either. Two runs scored. Ballgame.

Not wanting to leave anything to chance, though, Dusty then torpedoed his team's chances of making a miraculous comeback. Down four runs in the seventh, with one out and no one on, he pinch hit for Damian Miller with Tom Goodwin. The marginal difference in OBP here could not possibly make up for the fact that you were blowing one of your few left-handed pinch-hitting options (Troy O'Leary was already on-deck to bat for the pitcher) in a game that still had eight outs to go, against a team whose closer and set-up men are all right-handed. Furthermore, it meant that the Cubs were then committed to Paul Bako for the rest of the game.

This would abort a possible ninth-inning rally before it even started, as Bako was scheduled to bat fourth should anyone get on. And when Aramis Ramirez did just that by walking to start the inning, Baker screwed the pooch one final time when he used his last bullet off the bench, Randall Simon, to pinch-hit for Eric Karros. Instead of saving his best pinch-hitter, who had already hit a clutch home run in the series, for the pitcher's spot in the lineup--due up fifth--Baker used Simon to pinch-hit for his other first baseman, using one of the most hacktastic hitters in the game in a situation that cries out for a baserunner. Mercifully, Simon whiffed, as did Alex Gonzalez, and Bako made the final out, saving Cub fans from the insanity of rooting for a pinch-hit, game-tying, three-run homer off the bat of... Ramon Martinez. (No, not the pitcher. But would it have mattered if it was?)

For all the dim-witted moves that Dusty made, though, it was the non-move that hung over the mood of the last half of the game the most. Matt Clement--who had three days' rest, and as a sinkerball pitcher was an excellent candidate to pitch on short rest--was nowhere to be seen. This was especially galling given that Jack McKeon got four innings out of Josh Beckett, and while Beckett was hardly dominant--there were half a dozen DF9s in his four innings--he gave up just one run in four innings of work, and that was the difference in this ballgame.

McKeon's job has quietly becoming the most compelling story about these Marlins, if not the entire postseason. Here we have a 72-year-old man, who first managed in 1973, making it to the playoffs for the first time. And instead of retreating to the ultraconservative style that is allegedly the hallmark of his age group, McKeon is managing circles around his opponents. It's as if, after waiting through thousands of regular season games to get to this point, he's unleashing every aggressive impulse that he's stored up over the past three decades. McKeon gets the most basic point of the postseason, a notion that's still lost on so many of his colleagues, Baker included: win today. Hold nothing back for tomorrow.

While Baker is screwing around with Dave Veres in a season-defining moment, McKeon has run his team throughout the playoffs as if he had an eight-man pitching staff. The irony of this is that when McKeon broke in as a manager in the '70s, most teams relied on just eight or nine men to throw 90% of their innings. Actually, it's not ironic at all. McKeon's experience in a time when bullpens were structured differently (back in those Neanderthal times, managers actually had the gall to use their best relievers in key situations before the ninth inning--imagine that!) is one of the reasons he's so successful.

Even in the regular season, McKeon's old-school methods in running a bullpen have set him apart from the group. In Baseball Prospectus 2000, we wrote about his great job managing the Williamson/Graves bullpen in Cincinnati to within one game of the playoffs, making the point that McKeon was the rare case of a manager helped, not hurt, by his adherence to old concepts--because in this case, the old concept of bullpen usage was better than the new one.

Even in the regular season, McKeon has more respect for the importance of a close game in the seventh inning than Dusty Baker had last night. But in his first postseason, he's taking this principle to a level not seen in my lifetime. He's used Carl Pavano, Brad Penny, Josh Beckett, and Dontrelle Willis out of the bullpen in the last two weeks--basically, every starter on this team except for Mark Redman. He got four innings out of Beckett last night on two days' rest, while Baker was too fraidy-cat to turn to Clement on three days.

This goes beyond even 1970s-style managing, when starters frequently worked on three days' rest, but were rarely used in relief. McKeon's idea of using starters in relief is state-of-the-art--or at least it was in 1936. It worked back then, and McKeon seems to be right in thinking that three generations is just not enough time for evolution to eliminate that annoying, vestigial ability for starting pitchers to throw short stints in between starts. (Personally, I'd like to see the appendix eliminated first. But that's just me.)

I don't know about you, but I half-expect Lefty Grove to come out of his bullpen in the World Series. And I fully-expect Jack McKeon to pull a few more surprises out of his bag of tricks. Maybe you can't teach an old dog new tricks. But as McKeon has proven in two straight playoff series, sometimes the old tricks were better all along.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Dusty Baker,  Managers Of The Year

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