September 13, 2017
Confessions of a Fake Manager: The Set Up
I hate Freud. I’m probably saying that because I love Freud so much. My column here at BP is called Baseball Therapy because I am, by training, a clinical psychologist. I didn’t train in the Freudian model of therapy (and I don’t see patients any more), but Freud is hard to escape in the world of psychology. Freud is hard to escape even outside the world of psychology.
In some sense, Freud is a threat to my logical self. CBT—short for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the type of therapy that I did train in—starts with the idea that people can be treated if they examine the thought patterns that lead to symptoms, understand that those thoughts are illogical, correct them, and practice that process over and over again until it becomes routine. What a wonderfully rational model of human behavior! Freud, on the other hand ... Freud is messy. Freud begins with the assumption that our behavior is a manifestation of two unseen forces battling it out, the hyper-rational superego and the base-impulse id. Maybe I’m just a little too in love with my own superego. It’s scary to believe that the human id could be so powerful, perhaps even over my own life. It would go against this whole hyper-rational baseball fan thing I’m supposed to have going here.
While I never really took to Freud’s full model of therapy, there are kernels of truth in just about everything. In Freud’s work, one of those kernels for me was the idea of transference, and more importantly, counter-transference. In the Freudian model, mental health symptoms come from unresolved conflicts within a person that they often don’t want to think about. This is where the idea of suppressed thoughts come from (and the “Freudian slip” where you mean to say one thing, but instead say your mother. According to Freud, it’s one of those unacknowledged thoughts breaking through for a moment.)
Freud believed that part of the healing process was for the patient to transfer the feelings or unresolved issues that the patient had with someone else to Freud himself in the role of therapist. This offered the patient the chance to talk through those issues in a non-threatening setting. There might even be cases where this is exactly what Herr Doctor ordered. But then Freud, in his own self-examination, realized something. While his patients seemed to be transferring their own problematic relationships onto him, he found himself taking on the role of the antagonist more fully than he realized that he should.
Rather than providing a neutral, non-judgmental space for the person to process their concerns—the caricature of the therapist who simply nods and says “tell me more” as the patient pours out their heart comes from this Freudian model of the therapist as a neutral player in the game—Freud would become the father figure with whom the patient was trying to resolve their relationship. This is the essence of counter-transference. What’s odd is that, despite the fact that none of my training was in the Freudian model, we talked about counter-transference all the time. It was a call to be aware of my own emotional reactions in the therapy room. While the goal of CBT is to promote a rational approach to thinking in a patient, I am also human and given to occasional bouts of irrationality, even if I’m in the chair marked “theralyst.”
It’s probably not coincidental that I began my sabermetric career while I was still in graduate school and learning about CBT. CBT is a very left-brained and rational approach to the human condition. If I could only teach people to be more rational in their thoughts about life (and in my spare time, about baseball), then I could solve all the problems of the world (and game). Perhaps I could get Ned Yost himself on the couch and talk him through the scary feelings that made him call for the bunt so much. I think I’m drawn both to CBT and to sabermetrics for the same reason.
But maybe it’s time I took a page out of the Freudian playbook. It’s common for students who are training in the Freudian model to undergo their own Freudian analysis. That is, they become patients. Within that Freudian frame of reference, it’s probably better for them to unearth any suppressed thoughts that they have prior to becoming therapists themselves and being responsible for the well-being of real live patients. If nothing else, it probably builds a bit of empathy around being a patient. A little empathy never hurt anyone. Maybe Ned Yost should analyze me instead.
I am a keyboard warrior when it comes to baseball. I write plenty of words about what managers should be doing, despite the fact that after I hit “publish” I get to go back to mowing my front lawn, rather than actually having to carry out whatever crazy plan I put together. I don’t have to live it out in real life. I don’t have to live with the mess that it creates. I never have to actually get my hands dirty and live within that milieu. So, I decided to become a major-league manager. Sorta. I won’t actually be prowling around the dugout of your favorite stadium anytime soon. I’m going to be doing the computer version of managing. That’s the same thing, right?
OK, fine. Playing Out of the Park isn’t actually the same thing as managing a baseball team. I don’t have to survive a three-hour game of heavy concentration night after night. I don’t have to do any of the interpersonal stuff. I don’t have to look anyone in the eye and tell them that they’re being sent to Triple-A. My ability to provide for my family doesn’t actually depend on the decisions that I make. I don’t even have to leave my comfy chair. But, I wanted to try this as an experiment for my own personal growth.
I wanted to do all of the things that I (and others) have told managers they should be doing, and I want to pay attention both to how feasible all these strategies are not in isolation, but within the context of a baseball team playing a baseball season. And I wanted to pay attention to my own emotional reactions as I push the relevant buttons (literally). I wanted to pay attention to my own counter-transference. So, I picked a team and decided to become not just a manager, but the perfect SaberManager™.
I didn’t want a ready-made team for this exercise, one where all the pieces already fit together. I thought about using the fantasy draft option to custom-build a team for my purposes, but decided against it. I also didn’t want to manage a World Series-winning team, because where’s the fun in that? I was looking for a team that finished around .500. As a measure of self-control, I wanted someone else to pick the team, so that my own subconscious biases weren’t played out in the pick.
I approached a few friends here at BP. It’s strange, because if you ask someone to name their favorite team season, they usually come up with a playoff team. No one remembers the middle-of-the-pack finishers. Finally, Jeff Long suggested that I should instead pick a year that was meaningful to me and then pick a team that finished .500 in that season. The first thing that popped into my head was that I got married in 2005 (wonder what that says about me), so I looked into the 2005 standings. Around .500 that year were the Blue Jays (80-82), Twins (83-79), Rangers (79-83), Marlins (83-79), Mets (83-79), Brewers (81-81), Cubs (79-83), and the NL West champion Padres (82-80). In 2005, I lived in Chicago, and my new wife and I had just moved into a Lakeview apartment. The Cubs it was!
The 2004 Cubs had won 89 games, though they missed the playoffs, due to being in the same division as the 105-57 Cardinals and the 92-70 Astros. The year before that in 200 ... 200 ... for some reason, I can’t bring myself to type the number 3 after that. I think there’s a memory there that I’m suppressing. There were high hopes for that 2005 team, although they were never realized. Perhaps they just needed someone a little more saber-oriented than Dusty Baker.
The Set Up: Pitchers
OOTP allows you to play only in “manager mode,” which means that the composition of my roster was beyond my control. That’s not exactly how it works in MLB (the manager and GM collaborate on the issue), but sometimes the manager loses that discussion. My first lesson in managing was that I was going to have to deal with it. I was going to have to work with whatever roster my computerized GM handed me.
It wasn’t an awful roster. Carlos Zambrano lined up to be my “ace” starter, and while Big Z may have occasionally needed some anger management tips, he had finished fifth in the 2004 Cy Young voting. Plus, if needed, he was a switch-hitting bat off the bench with a little power. Greg Maddux, then 39, had come (back) to the Cubs the year before, putting aside what was a promising career in being a sound technician. And then, I saw Mark Prior and Kerry Wood sitting in the bullpen.
We can perhaps skip over the story of Prior and Wood and how they became code words for the dangers of overly-aggressive pitcher usage (I plan on limiting Big Z and Mad Dog to 110 pitches per start, each), but I had something up my sleeve for them. In fact, my entire “starting rotation” was going to look strange. In a traditional rotation, there are five pitchers who all dutifully take turns at trying to throw six or seven innings. The problem is that there are never enough good starters to go around.
Instead, I’m going to have only two “traditional” starters, Zambrano and Maddux. Wood and Prior will get “starts,” but they will be limited to 50(ish) pitches each, when they will be relieved by one of four guys, who will go for another 50 pitches. In the case of the 2005 Cubs, that will be one of Sergio Mitre, Ricky Nolasco, Rich Hill, and Glendon Rusch. With two lefties and two righties, I can mix and match based on the opponent.
The “rotation” will look something like this:
Day 1: Zambrano
Our two “regular” starters have their regular spacing, while Prior and Wood get two or three days between each “start,” although they are only throwing 50 pitches each time. I’m also going to start Maddux and Zambrano on a five-day rotation, rather than a five-game rotation. If there’s an off day, it will be used as often as possible to bump one of the tandem pairs. Research shows that (at least in the real world) starting pitchers don’t do any better or worse, nor suffer more injuries, when pitching with an extra day of rest.
A few notes, as I step out of character for a moment. I’m sure Wood and Prior would be secretly fuming at me. One of the luxuries of this exercise is that I don’t have to look them in the eye to tell them that I’m putting them in this weird new role, and that they’ll probably never get a win, because they’ll be out of the game most of the time before they get through the fifth inning. Honestly, I don’t know that this is the right roster to try this strategy with. I’ve advocated for the use of these shorter-run starters in the past, and I’m more interested in evaluating the strategy than anything. One hidden benefit of the strategy (something which Tom Tango pointed out many years ago) is that in the National League, tandem starters usually mean that a manager (me) can use a pinch-hitter in the third or fourth inning, taking an at-bat from a pitcher and giving it to an actual hitter.
Going back to our four-man shed of long relievers, above, I specifically paired Rich Hill with Kerry Wood, and Mark Prior with Ricky Nolasco. I don’t know if I’ll be quite that rigid, but if I am, it leaves Glendon Rusch and Sergio Mitre as relievers who are specifically slated to throw 2-3 innings each. I’m envisioning that their roles will be to pick up lower-leverage innings, where possible.
With two “starters” and six guys who are slated to throw 2-3 innings each, that leaves me with four relievers who will probably see time in a more traditional one-inning role (Ryan Dempster, Michael Wuertz, LaTroy Hawkins, and Mike Remlinger.) As these are my good tactical relievers, I will specifically prioritize their work into the situations which the numbers tell us are most important, namely the seventh inning or later with the score either tied or the Cubs up by a run or two. I will specifically be assigning three-run ninth inning “save” situations to lower-leverage relievers. I’d rather save the good relievers for the tied ninth innings.
Finally, there’s my 13th pitcher: backup catcher Henry Blanco. The numbers tell us that when a team is pitching in the ninth inning and is losing by even four runs, win probability is less than one percent. Sure, there might be guys in “need to pitch” scenarios, but I won’t be shy about having one of my position players soak up an inning.
The Set Up: Hitters
On the offensive side, the Cubs had a decent infield in 2005, although with a small problem. In 2004, they had traded for Nomar Garciaparra, then still nominally a shortstop, although soon to become a corner infielder. Garciaparra had hit a combined .308/.365/.477 the year before, between Fenway and Wrigley. While never amazing with the glove, he was showing signs of needing to move off the position, which also happens to be the most important one on the field. Sitting on my bench was Neifi Perez, a player who always came pre-installed with a reputation as a slick fielder, despite the fact that his advanced fielding stats tell the story instead of a guy who was merely pretty good.
In an ideal world, I’d move Garciaparra off short to one of the corners, except for the fact that on this team, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, undoubtedly the two best hitters, already had dibs on those spots. The real 2005 Cubs started the season with Garciaparra as their shortstop, until he tore his groin. As someone who appreciates the value of good shortstop defense (and a well-functioning groin), I have to admit that I was tempted to go with Perez, but Garciaparra got the nod instead.
The real 2005 Cubs did not exactly run the most saber-friendly lineup. That year, the Cubs’ most-common leadoff hitters were Jerry Hairston Jr., Corey Patterson, and Neifi Perez(!!!), with Perez, Todd Walker, and Patterson appearing most often in the second spot. Ugh. Some of that was prompted by injury, but I’m going to try to keep a lineup for the Cubs where I mostly just try to put the better hitters up at the top, even if they aren’t fast.
There’s also the question of whether to hit the pitcher eighth. The strategy does make for a (slightly) more potent offense, but also means a few more times per year where the pitcher’s spot comes up in that situation, where the game is still close in the fifth or sixth inning, and the starter could go another frame or so, but we really need an actual hitter in this spot. Either you have to get an extra inning out of the bullpen that day or you have to let the pitcher hit in a tight spot. Neither is a good choice.
One of the nice things about the tandem starter model is that we are less worried about this moment. We’re going to want to pinch-hit for the pitcher anyway. So, on a tandem day, the pitcher’s spot will hit eighth. Sorry to Corey Patterson and Jerry Hairston Jr., who will likely be annoyed at having to hit behind the pitcher.
And so, here we go. I have no idea if any of this is going to work, or whether I will give up on it halfway through, but I’m going to try this (and a few other things). Come sit on the couch with me and watch what happens. I’m going to write observations from my travels along the way, in real time. As I experience the game, if it’s worth writing about, I will. Kinda like therapy notes, but for myself. The notes will appear as a serial here at BP.
If you want to know what happens to the Fake 2005 Cubs and their fake “manager,” you’ll just have to read along, mommy.