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October 14, 2009

On the Beat

Closing Confidence Tests

by John Perrotto

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The most automatic managerial decision in today's game is to bring the closer in to pitch the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less. That is certainly the strategy Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Angels manager Mike Scioscia will employ in the American League Championship Series and what Dodgers manager Joe Torre will do against the Phillies in the National League Championship Series. When there is a save situation in the ninth inning, they will signal for their closers.

Girardi and Torre certainly can't be faulted for thinking that way. Girardi can summon Mariano Rivera, whose 6.149 WXRL led the major leagues this season. Torre has Jonathan Broxton, who was fifth at 5.032. You might question whether Scioscia should automatically go to Brian Fuentes, as the lefty was just 37th with 2.449 WXRL. Fuentes is second in WXRL among Angels left-handed relievers, as Darren Oliver had a 2.679 mark. However, Scioscia showed in the regular season that he is not afraid to call on Kevin Jepsen in the ninth if the situation dictates the use of a right-hander, although Scioscia only used Fuentes in save situations during the Angels' sweep of the Red Sox in the American League Division Series.

When the Phillies have a lead of three runs or less in the ninth, the decision is not so easy for Charlie Manuel. While Brad Lidge got the save in the final two victories of their win over the Rockies in the National League Division Series, Manuel showed he is willing to consider different options. Left-hander Scott Eyre got the final two outs of the ninth inning in the decisive Game Four before Lidge struck out Troy Tulowitzki to close out the 5-4 victory. Manuel also showed during the regular season that he won't necessarily bring in Lidge in save opportunities. In a 5-3 victory over the Nationals on September 8 at Nationals Park, Manuel pulled Lidge with one out in the ninth, the bases loaded, and the Phillies clinging to a two-run lead. Ryan Madson closed that game out and was the closest thing the Phillies had to a closer for the rest of the season.

Manuel is admittedly not a numbers guy and the Phillies have the only front office that does not employ a statistical analysis. However, you don't have to be Nate Silver to know Lidge has had a horrible year. The conventional statistics say that, as his 11 blown saves in the regular season led the major leagues. BP's advanced metrics confirm, as Lidge's -3.257 was easily the worst in the majors, more than doubling the second-least-effective reliever on the list, the Royals' Kyle Farnsworth (-1.562). Madson's 2.354 WXRL led the Phillies in the regular season. However, he blew both save opportunities against the Rockies and Manuel decided to go back to Lidge, hoping he was on the verge of recapturing his 2008 magic. Lidge was a combined 44-for-44 in save opportunities between the regular season and postseason as the Phillies won the World Series and also led the majors with 7.612 WXRL.

Manuel figures to go to Lidge as he closer in the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers that begins Thursday night, primarily because the manager feels the right-hander has the hot hand following some self-introspection. "Actually, about the last three times he's been out there, I think he's been good," Manuel said. "Also, sometime when you have a decent outing and then you take a break, I think that can be good for you and it has been for him. It gave him time to sit there and think. He is his best coach. I used to tell my hitters that all the time [when he was the Indians' hitting coach]: 'You're your best hitting instructor. You've got to learn yourself and know thyself.' It's the same for a pitcher. You have to study everything about yourself, what you've got and how you get people out. Lidge has been more relaxed and it's just a matter of time until he gets his confidence back. His stuff is still there. He's been a tremendous pitcher. Believe me, he'll still be as good as he ever was."

Lidge has had ups and downs throughout his career, dating back to his days with the Astros when he had a rocky postseason in 2005 and was then removed from the closer's role the next season. That is why Manuel has been extra careful in the way he has handled Lidge from a psychological standpoint, even when he removed him from the closer's job last month. "I've always stuck with him," Manuel said. "Actually, I started answering questions when he blew his first save. People would say, 'Who is your closer, closer, closer?' I kept saying, 'Lidge, Lidge, Lidge.' Finally, one night in Washington, I was sitting there and it hit me we weren't going to win the game, and I thought he was not going to do it. I had to do something, and I took him out.

"We ended up winning that game but it was hard for me to do that because I am a loyal person. At the same time, I'm a manager today because I don't let my heart overweigh the importance of the game. When I talk to my team, every time I talk to them, I tell them the most important thing, our first priority, is to win the game, and I never let that my heart overrule that. I think there came a time where I had to give him a break and sit him. At the same time, I never once gave up on him, because I've always known that he could get back to where he was at."

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Rockies manager Jim Tracy didn't have his best series against the Phillies, making numerous questionable decisions that were topped by allowing tired closer Huston Street to face Ryan Howard with the game on the line in the ninth inning of Game Four rather than bring in left-hander Joe Beimel. Howard hit a game-tying two-run double, and Jayson Werth followed with the game-winning single.

Keeping in mind that the ballots had to be cast before the postseason started, Tracy will certainly be the runaway winner for NL Manager of the Year. He guided the Rockies to a 74-42 finish after being promoted from bench coach on May 29 when Clint Hurdle was fired; the Rockies were 18-28 under Hurdle.

The contracts of both Tracy and general manager Dan O'Dowd expire at the end of the month. The Rockies are expected to sign O'Dowd to an extension in the coming days, and then work to bring Tracy back. However, Tracy followed his season-long pattern of not talking about his future when asked after his team's elimination by the Phillies: "When I told Danny on about the 29th of May that I would do this, I said I wanted no discussion whatsoever as far as the future was concerned," Tracy said. "I think there's plenty of time to sit down and talk about something like that and deal with that situation. But I wanted no conversation, I wanted no involvement whatsoever, to distort the focus from where it should have been, and that is on these players and their accomplishments over the course of this season."

The Rockies made it to the postseason for the second time in the last three years after getting to the playoffs just once in their first 15 seasons. The Rockies got to the World Series for the only time in their history in 2007, and Tracy believes they have what it takes to break through and win it all in the near future, stressing that to his players in a brief team meeting following the NLDS loss. "I talked to them about was the fact of the door of opportunity that's in front of you," Tracy said. "We knocked on it. We stuck our head in there. But the idea of being able to get all the way through it and play that last game of the year and win, you have to keep pounding on that door. You can't go away. You can't show up three or four years later and have it be real new to you again. You have to continue to push the envelope. Move forward and try to give yourself the opportunity to go back year after year after year, as many times as you can, until you go all the way through there and play that last game of the year and win."

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It seems the Yankees are the bane of every mid-market and small-market team in baseball. Whenever the Yankees have success, it seems people associated with those clubs and fans in those cities discredit it because of payroll issues. That was the case again in some circles when the Yankees swept the Twins in the ALDS. Much was made about the payroll disparities, as the Yankees started off the season at a major league-high $201 million, while the Twins were at $65 million, which ranked 24th among the 30 teams, though they made a number of late-season moves in adding shortstop Orlando Cabrera, right-hander Carl Pavano, right-hander reliever Jon Rauch, and left-handed reliever Ron Mahay.

Thus, it was refreshing to hear Twins manager Ron Gardenhire not use money as an excuse for his team getting TKO'd in the first round of the playoffs after their amazing late-season run to overtake the Tigers for the AL Central title. Counting the ALDS, the Yankees went 10-0 against the Twins this year. "They are professionals and they are baseball players," Gardenhire said of the Yankees and particularly their longtime stalwarts such as Rivera, left-hander Andy Pettitte, catcher Jorge Posada, and shortstop Derek Jeter.

"I know a lot of things get said about their payroll and all that stuff, but the bottom line is, they are just great baseball players. Aside from all the other stuff, they are very, very talented. That's why they make a lot of money, because they deserve it, because they have played the game for a long time, they know how to get it done and they play with class. I tip my hat to them. We had our chances. We played on the same field with those guys and had our chances a lot this year and they got us every time. It's just because they got a few more at-bats than we do in big situations and they know how to finish people off just a little bit better than we do."

---

The most interesting name on the Astros' list of 10 candidates they plan to interview for their manager's job is Phil Garner. That's because the Astros fired Garner in 2007, less than two years after he managed the franchise to its lone World Series appearance of their 48-year history, and replaced him with bench coach Cecil Cooper. Now the Astros are interested in Garner replacing Cooper.

What makes the whole story really strange is that Garner called Astros president of baseball operations Tal Smith to recommend Bob Melvin, his former bench coach with the Tigers, for the job. Smith saw Garner's name appear on his caller ID and asked if he were calling about becoming a candidate. "I decided to throw my hat in the ring, and they decided to take it," Garner said. "There are no special favors. I'm going through the vetting process like everyone else."

Garner lives in the Houston suburbs and is a popular figure in that city. Those around the Astros believe he has a legitimate chance to be rehired, though he is up against a strong field of candidates that includes six others who have at least some major league managerial experience in Manny Acta, Dave Clark, Pete Mackanin, Melvin, Al Pedrique, and Ned Yost. Rounding out the field are Red Sox coaches Tim Bogar and Brad Mills and Padres hitting coach Randy Ready.

"We're excited about the entire field of candidates," Astros GM Ed Wade told the Houston Chronicle's Jose de Jesus Ortiz. "All 10 candidates have a great deal of experience and are held in high regard throughout Major League Baseball."

Mills could wind up being a leading candidate for the manager's job with the Indians, as they have also received permission to talk with him. ESPN analyst and former big-league manager Bobby Valentine is expected to get an interview with the Tribe, but it seems the only way he would get the job is if president Paul Dolan orders GM Mark Shapiro to hire him in what would be a public relations move.

The Nationals have been extremely quiet about their managerial search. While there is some sentiment to retain interim manager Jim Riggleman, Melvin could emerge as a strong candidate, as he has the respect of GM Mike Rizzo from their days working together with the Diamondbacks.

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: While left fielder Jason Bay is saying he wants to re-sign with the Red Sox as a free agent, his admitting that he wants to test the market is taken by some as an indication he would really prefer to sign with a West Coast team in order to be closer to his Seattle home. The Cardinals will make a serious attempt to re-sign left fielder Matt Holliday as a free agent, but won't stay in the bidding if it surpasses $100 million. Twins insiders are optimistic the club will work out a long-term contract extension with catcher Joe Mauer in advance of the opening of Target Field in April. Friends of Red Sox left-handed reliever Billy Wagner expect that he will play in 2010 despite his comments to contrary, believing he will get the itch to continue his career during the winter months. The Tigers will only re-sign second baseman Placido Polanco if he is willing to take a steep pay cut. The Rockies are expected to trade right fielder Brad Hawpe, who was completely marginalized in the NLDS loss to the Phillies, in an attempt to balance their lineup with a right-handed power hitter. Bryan Price, who resigned from the Diamondbacks as their pitching coach when Melvin was fired as manager in May, will get interviews with both the Reds and Brewers for their pitching coach openings.

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

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