September 22, 2009
The Missing Man
Fred Lewis was the lead in the AP game story about the Giants' 5-4 win over the Diamondbacks last night. Pinch-hitting with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth, Lewis hit a ground ball to second base that well could have been an inning-ending double play. He beat out the relay throw to first, however, which allowed the go-ahead run to score. The Giants' bullpen held onto the lead over the last six outs, moving the team to four games behind the wild-card leading Rockies with 12 games to play.
It's a nice story and a good moment for a player who I like a lot, who I've written about before, pushing for him to play. My question is: Why the hell was he available for use as a pinch-hitter? Why wasn't he starting?
Bruce Bochy's decision-making with his outfielders this year has left a lot to be desired, and in no case is that more obvious than his decision to bury Lewis in favor of Nate Schierholtz, and to a lesser extent Eugenio Velez, back in June. Lewis is the third-best offensive player on the Giants, behind Pablo Sandoval and, oddly, Juan Uribe. He is the only regular other than Sandoval with an above-average OBP, making him water for an offense thirsty for baserunners. Yet Lewis has started just 20 games, about twice a week, since June 9, a time during which the Giants as a team have an execrable .305 OBP.
Lewis opened the season not only as the starting left fielder, but as the #3 hitter. A hot two weeks (.429/.545/.571) got him promoted, in a way, to the leadoff spot, at which point he caught the other end of the variance (.215/.311/.262) for his time atop the lineup. Bruce Bochy took exactly the wrong lesson from this sequence; instead of looking at Lewis as one of his best players, with a season OBP of .398 and the only Giant willing to work a walk, he dropped Lewis to seventh, saying, "We're just going to lighten it up for Freddy a little bit by dropping him down and see if that helps." (Mychael Urban, MLB.com)
Lewis proceeded to play well over the next month, batting .254/.329/.492 while starting 17 of 19 games, and settling into the #5 and #6 slots in the lineup. His season line at that point was .276/.372/.417-he was basically the only Giant other than Sandoval doing anything helpful. It seems, though, that Bochy looked not at Lewis' OBP, which his team desperately needed, but his RBI count: eight. Lewis wasn't driving in runs, but then again, how exactly do you drive in runs behind two of the slowest players in baseball (Bengie Molina and Sandoval), one of whom is never on base? Prior to that, he'd batted third behind guys who weren't getting on base and leadoff behind the bottom of a terrible lineup. Lewis was doing a perfectly fine job, but his manager couldn't see past Harry Chadwick's worst invention.
In any case, Bochy began messing with Lewis' playing time, using Andres Torres and Schierholtz in the outfield, even playing Velez, a middle infielder by trade, in left when the latter came back in late July. Through June 5, Lewis was hitting .269/.365/.407 as more or less the everyday left fielder, with 46 starts in 53 games. He was a significant contributor to the Giants, if a misplaced one, an OBP guy without great power batting behind the productive bats with no speed and ahead of the terrible bottom of the lineup. Since then, Lewis has started consecutive games just three times and has just two starts since August 17. Schierholtz and his half-empty batting average have gotten most of the inherited time since June 11; he's hitting .282/.320/.435 since that date, not as good as Lewis, but with the kind of line that accumulates RBI. Velez has also played a lot at Lewis' expense, when the team would have been better off using him at either middle infield spot in place of Edgar Renteria, who's been awful, or in lieu of trading for Freddy Sanchez.
In a season in which his team desperately needed baserunners, Bruce Bochy took a .398 OBP guy out of the leadoff spot. In a season when he usually started seven guys with below-average OBPs, Bochy benched one of his only OBP guys because he fixated on RBIs, and beyond that, couldn't recognize that Lewis' lack of them wasn't as much a failure on his part as a lack of opportunity. Bochy exacerbated the OBP issue by taking Lewis' playing time and giving it to players who didn't get on base as much, from Schierholtz to Velez (or the middle infielders he could have been replacing) and Randy Winn, the veteran having a lousy year.
Bochy simply didn't use Lewis properly. He had the right idea at the start of the season, using him in the top three spots in the lineup, so that he could be on base for what power exists on the Giants. But Bochy overreacted to small-sample performances, moving Lewis to leadoff after two good weeks and then down to sixth after three bad ones. If he'd simply evaluated Lewis based on the body of work to that date-a .398 OBP on the season and a .359 career mark coming into 2009-he would have left the outfielder at or near the top of the lineup. Instead, he then made the mistake of batting him where his skills would be the least valuable, the six hole, and finally, demoted him to the bench for not driving in runs despite having had precious few opportunities to do so in the season's first two months.
The Giants are going to miss the postseason by a small amount of wins. Bruce Bochy's decision to bench Fred Lewis will be significant part of the gap between playing into October and not, and when you look back at the process, you can see that it's an embarrassing display of incompetence. A good manager would have made use of Lewis' skills, skills unique on the Giants' roster. Instead, Bochy jerked the player around and then used bad performance analysis to bury him. The Giants and their fans deserve better than that kind of incompetence.