“The choices you make are half chance. So are everybody else’s.” –Cheesy song.
In the ninth inning of the fifth (and potentially decisive) game of the World Series, Terry Collins was in a position where he had to choose between his ace and his closer. The closer was warm. The ace was dominating, and if he got in trouble the closer would back him up. The lead was two. The situation was pretty sweet. Either way, he was likely to win. There was no wrong answer.
Fifteen minutes later, Eric Hosmer was in a position where he had to choose between staying at third base with two outs—and, representing the tying run, in need of a teammate’s hit to get him home—or making a dash for home on a routine groundout, and potentially ending a World Series game on a baserunning boner. It was not nearly clear that he was fast enough to get home on anything but a defensive miscue. The gamble was extremely perilous. One way or the other, the Royals were unlikely to win this game. There was no right answer.
Collins found the wrong answer, and Hosmer found a right one, and in one of the most memorable ninth innings of recent World Series history, the Royals erased a two-run deficit and set up an extra-innings dogpile.
Let’s take these one at a time.
Terry Collins was only 31 when he started managing, younger than David Wright is now. That was in 1981, and he managed in A-Ball, then Triple-A, and he managed in the Mexican Pacific League, and he managed the famous Tigres de Licey in the Caribbean Series, and he managed in the majors for a long time, and he managed in Japan. Along the way, he twice “lost” clubhouses and in one case he got fired in a pretty humiliating fashion, but that was more than 15 years ago, and one can make the case that experience with failure is far better than inexperience. Collins has managed off and on for about as long as I’ve been alive, which was long enough for me to master about a billion things—eating with forks and chopsticks, catching flies against the windowpanes, finding shortcuts through neighborhoods, making sweet potato hashbrowns, hose-watering plants without displacing all the soil and exposing the roots, putting a crying baby to sleep, etc. It was, then surely long enough for Collins to master, as much as one can, managing. Terry Collins is as good as he’s going to get, and I believe he’s probably pretty damned good. At least as good as my sweet potato hashbrowns, which are pretty damned good.
Collins’ job is to make decisions, and he made one. He knew that Matt Harvey would be upset about this when he made the decision—he’s not new, after all—and as anybody who has had to make decisions that affect people knows, the reaction (particularly the dreaded reaction) is in your mind the entire time. Indeed, part of making the right decision is backgrounding what you know that reaction will be, so that you’re considering the implications of that reaction but not letting the anticipation of objections hold you hostage. There is no chance that Terry Collins thought that Matt Harvey wouldn’t argue this move. Maybe Jacob deGrom wouldn’t. Maybe Steven Matz wouldn’t. This is Matt Harvey. This is red-ass Matt Harvey, the guy flipping off the camera from his hospital bed, the guy declaring his own innings limit in the middle of a pennant race, the guy who seems so desperate in everything he does to be New York’s new Joe Namath or Reggie Jackson. You can’t predict baseball, but you can predict baseball players, especially when they repeat themselves as often as Matt Harvey has.
There’s a case for deciding to leave Matt Harvey in. There’s not a case for letting Matt Harvey talk you into leaving him in, because everything Matt Harvey says to you was already in your head when you were making the decision. Matt Harvey coming over to object is the “yeah, but still” of arguments. There is no new information in this argument.
And, at the same time, it’s entirely predictable that Collins did change his mind. Collins has been a manager longer than Harvey has been alive. He has, or should have, as much authority as a manager can get. He’s a manager who just took a team from which nothing was expected all the way to the World Series, and he can’t be more than five years away from hanging the uniform up anyway. He’s got all the freedom of a lame duck and all the power of a politician with 90 percent approval ratings. And he’s got 35 years of experience. And still…
There’s a book about the reporters covering the 1972 political campaign called The Boys On The Bus. The author, Timothy Crouse, writes about a reporter’s boast of asking Nixon’s press secretary some disrespectful question about Richard Nixon’s erection. Crouse raises his eyebrows and says, wow, after that you must not have gotten anything, and the erection questioner says that’s irrelevant: "You delude yourself into thinking: 'Well, if I get on the bad side of these guys, then I'm not gonna get all that good stuff.' But pretty soon the realization hits that there isn't any good stuff and there isn't gonna be any good stuff. Nobody's getting anything that you're not getting, and if they do it's just more of the same bullshit."
It's the same with managerial authority. Thirty-five years of experience or three years, players' manager or authoritarian, it doesn’t really matter: They're going to complain, they're going to argue, they're going to think you're wrong. There's no moment when you have the authority and the players say, "well, shoot, guess he knows better than I do, I'm only 25 and I was never that smart to begin with!" It’s the players’ game. And in that moment when little Terry Collins was staring up at big Matt Harvey, and Harvey was saying “no,” and Collins had that terrible feeling that comes when you’re staring at a guy and you know that the other guy is meaner, more violent, less rational than you, and that the only two options with a guy looking to fight (this is all metaphorical here, by the way) are to kick his ass or concede, and that he’s always going to win because he’s not following the same rules that you do, the decision was made. A huge percentage of the “wrong” moves in baseball are made because the players are convinced they're running the show, and sometimes appeasement is how you build a partnership. Terry Collins lost two clubhouses 15 years ago, and so he learned how not to lose this one. “I try to pride myself is putting my trust in players,” he told Ken Rosenthal on television after the game. “This kid looked me in the eye and said, I gotta have this, I gotta have it, I want this game.”
And it could have worked. The sport is positively littered with complete game shutouts, thousands of them even. Harvey was incredible before that ninth inning, and as much as I know about TTO penalties and gassed pitchers I also know he’s a good pitcher capable of getting three outs without allowing two runs more often than not. But Harvey was amped. He sprinted out to the mound, then proceeded to miss every target and overthrow his fastball. He walked the leadoff man, and somehow Collins still didn’t pull him. He allowed a double, and finally Collins did. This didn’t happen because Harvey was destined to fail or because Collins’ decision had to happen. As Jeff Sullivan put it,
I think Terry Collins made a human decision and then the Mets and the Royals played two at-bats of baseball
— Jeff Sullivan (@based_ball) November 2, 2015
To goose this whole thing with a little extra irony, the Ned Yost World Championship Managerial Model that was revealed this October was a manager who trusts his players so much he doesn’t even really tell them what to do, like ever. I’m about 93 percent certain that Yost would have left Harvey in in that situation. He left Edinson Volquez in, earlier in the game, with a far more egregiously long leash, and got bailed out (sort of) primarily because Yoenis Cespedes destroyed his own leg with a foul ball. There’s a case against every move, and once you accept that fact then there’s a pretty good case to the move that makes the most players the most happy. The whole sport makes a lot more sense once you realize a) it’s their game and b) they’re almost all crazy. At least as crazy as the rest of us are.
Of course, if Collins had thought about it, he might have realized that Jeurys Familia wanted it, too. He might have realized that Familia was probably pretty disappointed, if not pissed off, truthfully. And there are probably 23 other Mets who, at this point, aren’t that happy either. You lose a clubhouse a lot of different ways.
But what's especially sad is this: Matt Harvey wanted to win this game using his skills, so he agitated and fought and he got it. But he did it at the expense of Terry Collins, who, in what will likely be the defining game of his career, didn't get to win this game using his skills. Collins forfeited his managerial decision-making to Harvey. A guy who spent 35 years preparing to make this decision didn't get to.
More Collins on the 9th: "I know better than that. I know that he wants the ball. He never wants to come out … This was my fault." #mets
— Mike Vorkunov (@Mike_Vorkunov) November 2, 2015
Managing’s tough. Failure’s endearing. I like Terry Collins more than ever.
A few batters later, Hosmer had his own choice, and he decided to go home. Third baseman David Wright fielded a groundball with one out, looked at Hosmer, but with third base unoccupied (Wilmer Flores somewhat sheepishly ran over to cover, but he was going to be far too late to matter) Hosmer was able to hold his pretty-good lead off the bag and leave as soon as Wright fired to first. It was going to be close. Lucas Duda misfired. The throw wasn’t caught. Hosmer scored. “Brilliant baserunning!” Joe Buck said.
· Was it?
· Does it matter?
To the first question: I guess what we’re trying to answer is whether he “should” have been safe, or if he was bailed out by Lucas Duda’s bad throw. I’m not the only one who will do this analysis today, but I’m the one you’re reading right this very second, so I’ve got some pictures.
What we’ve got here are frames of Eric Hosmer coming home against the throw, and frames of Kirk Nieuwenhuis coming home against a throw from Adrian Gonzalez earlier this year. You remember this play: It ended Zack Greinke’s scoreless innings streak at 45, and was generally considered a “poor” decision by Gonzalez but for the incentive to try to protect Greinke’s near-record streak. In other words: Nieuwenhuis was going to be safe all along, so he gives us a benchmark for a runner who can expect to be safe.
First, the frames when the first basemen are about to release the ball. That's Gonzalez (on the right) a few feet in on the grass and about 20 feet off the line.
Nieuwenhuis is about even with the mound as Gonzalez gets ready to throw; Hosmer is a step or so shy. But Gonzalez is throwing from a better angle, is probably a few feet closer to the plate, and Hosmer runs a little better than Nieuwenhuis.
As the throw reaches the catchers' grasps, Hosmer is a step behind, and preparing for a headfirst dive (to Nieuwenhuis' feet-first slide). There's a clear, but still just one-step, advantage to Nieuwenhuis here. (It's also, perhaps, possible that Duda has made up ground by rushing the throw, and that the wildness of it and the timing of it's arrival at home plate are not independent of each other.)
The throw from Adrian Gonzalez was not perfect, but considering Gonzalez is generally regarded as a very skilled first baseman, let's say it's the median expected throw:
It clearly "beats" Nieuwenhuis, but the catcher is in the awkward position of receiving the ball and then swiping toward a runner who is all the way behind him and out of the catcher's immediate vision. The runner, meanwhile, has the benefit of being able to see all this, and can divert his slide if necessary. Also, the catcher is wearing a catcher's mitt.
The play is not, by tag-play standards, close.
So, Hosmer knows that he's dealing with Duda, not Gonzalez, and that the throw is coming from an even more awkward angle. And we might conclude from this that, even if the throw is executed as well as Gonzalez's was, that it's going to be exceptionally close at home–a coin flip? And a perfect throw gets him (but that's unlikely) and a wild throw removes all tension (but that's unlikely). Was it right to go?
If he doesn't, the Royals are around 9 percent likely to win this game. If he goes and he's safe, they're about 38 percent likely to. Of course, if he goes and he's out, they're done for the day, back out on Tuesday trying to stop the Mets' momentum. He's only got to be safe about a third of the time for the math to work out. It seems like the right move. Perhaps–perhaps!–more important is the fact that Hosmer, after playing under non-meddling Ned for these years, felt empowered to make that decision, to risk the Royals' season on a hunch. Perhaps Ned was preparing him for that moment all along, Owen Meany style. Perhaps there's a fine line between letting the inmates run the asylum and empowering them to. Whatever Ned Yost is, genius or otherwise, will take about 18 more generations of statheads to solve.
Now, does it matter whether Hosmer made the "right" move? Not really! The right move last year cost the Royals the World Series; the wrong move three offseasons ago, trading Wil Myers, put them in the World Series twice and in a parade once. It's dangerous to go down the shrug route too many times, because eventually we're all nihilists. But I think we can say this: To the extent that it's our job to say which is the right and which is the wrong decision, our importance recedes to nothing after the World Series has been decided and the champion crowned. Yeah, some of that was luck. Some of that was chance. Some of that was unpredictable. Some of that we were wrong about. It's a stew, and in the end they're all playing hunches and making assumptions and guessing what matters and pretending that it's science. So are we.
Thank you for reading
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