September 24, 2010
Last night, watching Madison Bumgarner mow down the Cubs from a perch in the press box, it was easy to dissociate from that bloodbath and turn my mind to happier exercises. Chiefly, I started thinking about the assorted rotation possibilities of the different playoff teams, a topic I'll be writing a bit more about next week. It's already easy to anticipate an upset in the Bronx, because the vincibility of the Yankees in a short series if Andy Pettitte isn't entirely right seems fairly obvious.
But expand that question to the other likelies: What do the Rays do with James Shields? Or the Reds, as I noted in TA today, with Bronson Arroyo? Will the temptation be to go with staff leaders, defined either in terms of workloads or experience or some more subjective criterion like charisma, and will that trump performance, or even potentially favorable matchups?
Kevin always likes to chime in that players aren't Strat cards, which is true... but at what point does a skipper abdicate his responsibility to doing his best in terms of achieving the team's best shot at success? I take the observation that the postseason is a crapshoot as a truth, but only up to a point--it shouldn't also be taken as cause to abdicate agency. A skipper is responsible for his club's success, and sometimes that has to involve telling a full-season contributor he's being skipped, or left off the post-season roster entirely. The exercise is not and cannot be a popularity contest. When Lou Piniella left Jason Marquis off the Cubs' post-season roster, for example, that wasn't a utter dismissal of Marquis' value as a contributor, as a pitcher, or as a teammate. It was a sensible operational decision.
Which is the other thing that Bumgarner's dominance got me to thinking about last night, the other half of the argument, the "soft" factor of decision-making, of treating a useful player with the dignity he might understandably expect. At what point has a pitcher "earned" his post-season starts? Storm Davis' plaintive cry over being passed over for a World Series start in the quake-punctuated '89 series wasn't just an instance of selective memory--Storm got blown over pretty badly twice in the A's fan horror show of '88, after all. It was also a comment on his having paid his dues to help generate the team's getting there in the first place. Was that selfish of him? Maybe a little, not that you can blame him, not as a matter of identifying himself as an element of the team's success, however much Davis might be something of a sabermetric punchline these days.
But bringing this back to last night's action and looking at the Giants, if or when Madison Bumgarner bumps Barry Zito for an LDS or LCS start, how should you expect Zito to react? Maybe that's the chance for Zito to play the role Bud Black did for the Royals in '85, or David Cone in 2000, the veteran starter bumped by those better and younger, but still able to serve a purpose to achieve ultimate success.