June 1, 2011
The BP Broadside
Those Who Refuse to Learn From the Past are Condemned to Become Joe Girardi
Forgive me if this rant seems ill-timed; the Yankees won their game last night by a score of 10-3, so the tactic I’m about to rail against didn’t have any effect on the outcome of the game. Yet, whenever a manager demonstrates a complete inability to learn, I get immensely frustrated. Whitey Herzog didn’t ask Vince Coleman to swing for the fences. Miller Huggins didn’t beg Babe Ruth to poke the ball to the opposite field. Sparky Anderson never told Big Daddy Cecil Fielder to steal a base.
A manager’s job is to know his players, and by extension his team, well enough that he only calls on them to do those things that they are capable of doing. If you need a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, don’t pinch-hit with Tom Lawless. If you need to retire Miguel Cabrera in a tight spot, don’t call Buddy Groom in from the bullpen. Yet, there are managers who go through whole seasons without learning what they have and what they don’t. Like a football coach who preaches a run-first offense when he has a strong-armed quarterback, two good wide receivers, a halfback with no legs, and a fullback that thinks he’s a chicken, the deaf-blind manager just keeps pushing his ideas regardless of the outcome.
Did you know that in the postwar years there have been nine teams that attempted over 100 stolen bases, yet only broken even—or worse?
Perhaps if you were an Indians manager in the 1970s you felt so desperate that forcing things was all you could do. The 1972 Indians hit .234/.293/.330, and it was just as bad as it sounds, even then. Thus the stolen base roulette is almost understandable—once. That Apsromonte came back the next year and did it again is harder to countenance. Buddy Bell, a good hitter but a slow right-hander who retired with the 16th-most GDPs in history, was allowed to make 11 steal attempts as a rookie in 1972. Lesson learned, right? Wrong. In 1973 he was allowed to make 22 attempts. He was thrown on 15 of them. He was thrown out by Bill Freehan, thrown out by Carlton Fisk… He was even thrown out by Fran Healy. By 1974, Aspromonte had made a little progress with Bell—he had Buddy down to just four attempts—but the rest of the team kept running, stealing only 79 bases in 147 attempts. Parenthetically, Ozzie Guillen is trying hard to join this list: his White Sox have stolen 25 bases in 50 attempts so far this year.
At least these teams had relatively few attempts. Special opprobrium should be reserved for Vern Rapp, the infamous manager of the 1977 Cardinals, who allowed his team to attempt 246 steals despite a success rate of just 54 percent. In the last 65 years there have been 201 teams to attempt over 200 steals. Just three of them had success rates under 60 percent. The Cardinals were the worst. Ted Simmons went 2-6; Garry Templeton was 28-24; Lou Brock was 35-24; Jerry Mumphrey was 22-15. It must have been exciting to watch all the sliding.
Today, managers seem to have learned a bit more about stealing (except for Ozzie), but counterproductive bunting still remains a popular pastime. Through Tuesday’s games, non-pitchers had attempted 542 bunts this year and had successfully dropped one down 81 percent of the time. The Yankees had tried 20 and gotten away with it 11 times, or 55 percent of their attempts. However, it is important to note that if you remove Brett Gardner from the equation, they are actually 6-for-9. Gardner had been asked to make 11 attempts and actually moved his man over just five times. Four main points here:
1. Gardner is a little fast guy who you would think would be able to bunt, but can’t. Between 2010 and 1011 he is only 10-for-23 in sacrifice attempts, or 43 percent—about half what the average position player does when asked to drop one down. Girardi refuses to catch on.
2. Although Gardner hits a lot of ground balls, he doesn’t hit into many double plays. If Girardi is bunting to avoid the DP, he’s off the mark. If he’s bunting to increase his chances of scoring, he’s still off target, because he’s shrinking his chances of scoring, not increasing them. You could look it up.
3. The Yankees have problems on offense, like their used-up DH Jorge Posada, who looks like he just wandered out of the Plants vs. Zombies game, but they are still leading the league in runs per game and home runs by a healthy margin. All the small-ball stuff is completely unnecessary.
4. That 6-for-9 from the rest of the Yankees ain’t good either. Derek Jeter is dragging down the average by going 0-for-3. Here’s the thing about the old Captain: although he’s always been overeager to bunt, his career success rate is only 63 percent.
The Yankees led 3-1in the fourth inning at Oakland on Tuesday. Nick Swisher singled with one out, and Andruw Jones followed with another single, chasing him to third. Gardner came to the plate. Suddenly, the squeeze signal went out, like the Bat Signal, only with clenched buttocks. This was strange on so many levels: the Yankees had the lead, Brett Anderson appeared to have nothing and would shortly prove to have nothing, Gardner has hit well in May (.313/.385/.388), and if Girardi didn’t believe that Gardner could hit Anderson, why have him in the game in the first place? Finally, as we have already established, Gardner cannot do this.
If you saw the game, you know what happened next. Gardner bunted and missed, Swisher got caught in a rundown. The Yankees eventually scored anyway as Gardner was subsequently hit by a pitch, and Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson followed with singles. However, what irks is the unnecessary act of managerial ostentation, this utterly unnecessary tactical fillip that had the dual distinction of being of dubious benefit and unlikely to succeed.
There is something compulsive about the need of some managers to make themselves felt even when neither the need nor the tools are present. Every team has a finite number of sacrifice opportunities. In this age, no manager is compulsive enough to bunt on even ten percent of them, though Guillen and Jim Leyland come close. At the other end of the spectrum are Terry Francona and Charlie Manuel, who largely don’t bother their position players with such trivialities. The Yankees are bunting about six percent of the time, which actually makes them a little above-average in bunt frequency, too high for a team with their offensive capabilities.
I like Girardi. He’s an intelligent man whose level of preparation and desire to win are both abundantly clear. And yet, I am frequently frustrated by his compulsivity—the manic bullpen moves in the postseason, the bunting, the reserving of the closer for those extra-inning leads he’ll never get to protect (in this last he is like every other manager). As I said at the outset, his little adventure last night didn’t hurt the Yankees in any important way, but it’s just a matter of time before his inability to keep his hands to himself damages the team in an important spot.
One suspects that what he is really expressing, in addition to his own desperate need to try to control the action by inserting himself into it, is a lack of faith in Gardner. On the surface, that seems unlikely, because Girardi has always publicly advocated for Gardner. Yet, actions speak louder than words. Perhaps it is the case that when a man is working at cross-purposes to his own secret desires, he does uncharacteristically unintelligent things. Girardi is the one writing out the lineup card, but somewhere inside he is second-guessing his decisions, then compounding theoretical errors with actual misjudgments.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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