The San Francisco Giants have a host of problems that could lead them to a franchise record for losses (previous mark: 100, set in 1985) this year. They cannot score, their aging defense will allow many extra hits, and outside of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, they don’t have the pitching to work around these issues.
What we learned last night is that they aren’t going to win many games from the dugout, either. Bruce Bochy, whose tactical failings were a common complaint of Padres fans during his time in San Diego, made the kind of small move–the wrong one–that shows a lack of understanding of how to manage your 25 pieces in a way that gives your team the best chance to win a baseball game.
Let me explain. Last night, the Giants had a 2-1 lead over the Padres headed into the ninth inning. Protecting the lead, Bochy put Rajai Davis into left field for Dan Ortmeier, batting seventh, to improve his defense. That’s not the problem. The Padres, thanks to a great at-bat by Tony Clark that ended in a single, tied the game. In the bottom of the ninth, Jose Castillo roped a two-out, bases-empty double, giving Bochy the opportunity to make a huge mistake. With Davis due up and Brian Bocock on deck, Bochy sent Fred Lewis up to hit for Davis. Cringing yet? Bud Black couldn’t put four fingers up fast enough, sending Lewis down to first and bringing Bocock to the plate against Heath Bell. Five pitches later, the game headed to extra innings.
Say what you want about stat geeks and table-game dorks, but there’s not a halfway decent Strat player on Earth who would have wasted a player in that situation. Bochy went from Rajai Davis against Heath Bell needing a single to Brian Bocock against Heath Bell needing a single, and wasted a player for the privilege. Davis is nothing special, but he’s a damn sight better than Bocock, whose offensive approach is a bit like Lance Blankenship’s without all the contact and power. Sending up Lewis for Davis was a ridiculous decision, because there was no way in creation Lewis was going to be allowed to bat, and there was no cost at all to walking him. The run was meaningless, and in fact, putting Lewis on created forces at second and third, taking some pressure off of the defense. Bochy flat-out wasted a player and pushed his worst hitter into the highest-leverage situation of the game.
Given that Davis is a much better hitter than Bocock, although both are righthanded, there’s some small chance that Black would have had Bell pitch around Davis anyway. Had that happened, Bochy would have had Lewis available to hit for Bocock (I note that this would have forced Eugenio Velez or Rich Aurilia to shortstop in any extra innings). Even if Davis had made the out to end the inning, Bochy would have still had a good defensive left fielder in the game and Lewis on the bench. Instead, he burned Lewis, then because he wanted to avoid having the pitcher bat third in the ninth inning, he burned Clay Timpner, putting him in the game in left field so that Brad Hennessey could bat in the seven spot.
Sum it up: Bochy cost himself two players, Davis and Lewis, for the benefit of having an inferior hitter bat in a game-critical situation, and made his defense worse in extra innings to boot. He gave Black an easy out–walking the best hitter Bochy had left–and a clear path out of the inning through the worst hitter on the roster. That’s terrible. I mean, that’s just this side of managing to lose. For Bochy to send up Lewis in that situation, and not be able to see what that would create, is incompetence. We can talk about managers being leaders of men, and barriers between the team and the front office, and liaisons with the media, but if you can’t avoid self-destructing in the ninth inning of a tied game, none of that other stuff matters.
You may think this is a small thing I’m blowing up into a big one, 500 words on a decision that won’t mean much in the big picture. However, if you make a decision like Bochy’s once every two weeks, that’s 13 games you’re actively hurting your team in. I submit that managers across baseball make decisions like this–inexplicable tactical decisions that hurt their teams–a hell of a lot more often than that. Whether it’s wasting a lefty reliever on a hitter who won’t hurt you no matter who’s pitching, or building a lineup that invites tactical hammering from the opposition, or choosing the wrong pinch-hitter for the situation, managers routinely show weakness in this area, an area of the game that should be second nature.
Bill James said it 20 years ago, and I’ll keep harping on it today: if you’re going to hire someone to run your $200 million operation on a daily basis, make sure he’s mastered the control panel first. Make him play a couple hundred games of Strat, or whatever simulation you choose. Sims aren’t perfect replications of baseball, but the things they do teach are important, and applicable every single day in every single game. Bruce Bochy could have used that kind of experience last night. The Giants won in spite of him.