In an effort to become the perfect SaberManager™, I'm taking over the 2005 Cubs and leading them through a simulated season in Out of the Park. I'll do all of the things that I've told managers they should be doing, while paying attention both to how feasible strategies are in isolation and within the context of a baseball team playing a baseball season. For more details and a full explanation of why and how I've chosen to do this—and with 2005 Cubs of all teams—click here.
Game 81 (July 3) – vs. Nationals; Win 5-1; Record: 45-36
I guess this is a landmark. I’ve “managed” exactly halfway through a season. The real 2005 Cubs were 40-41 after 81 games, so I must be doing something right. In fact, because OOTP comes pre-loaded with the real-life schedule that the Cubs played in 2005, I can follow along game by game. (The real 2005 Cubs lost their July 3 game against the Nationals, 5-4 in 12 innings.)
Strangely, this is the first time I’ve bothered to look at it.
Game 86 (July 8) – at Marlins; Loss 5-6; Record: 47-39
After splitting a four-game set in Atlanta, the Cubs headed down I-75 to Miami. Funny enough, it’s actually a shorter trip to go north on I-75 to Cincinnati, but that’s not how our brains work.
The first game was one of ups and downs. Carlos Zambrano started, and at the end of six innings the game was tied 1-1. In the bottom of the seventh, Carlos Delgado’s two-run single gave the teal fish warriors the lead, and I could feel the game slipping away. But in the top of the eighth, solo home runs by Scott McClain, Jeromy Burnitz, and Jason Dubois meant that the Cubs climbed back into the driver’s seat. But in the bottom of the eighth, Michael Wuertz gave up a solo shot to Paul Lo Duca, and we were back to tied. Undaunted, in the top of the ninth, a McClain (single), Burnitz (walk), Derrek Lee (single) rally with two outs pushed across another run for the Cubs, who took a 5-4 lead into the ninth.
Here’s where things fell apart, and it was my fault. I have already written about the Cubs' closer struggles, but with the Marlins scheduled to send up Juan Pierre (left), Josh Willingham (right), and Carlos Delgado (left), I opted to send lefty Will Ohman out to close things down. Pierre popped up to first and Willingham struck out swinging. With the Marlins down to their last out, I had the lefty-lefty matchup I wanted against Delgado. I probably should have had Ryan Dempster or Jaret Wright already warming in the bullpen, in case Ohman wasn’t able to get Delgado out, because on deck was Miguel Cabrera. I should have had a righty ready, just in case.
Delgado poked a single through the right side of the infield, meaning that Ohman would have to get through Cabrera. Maybe I should have walked Cabrera (Mike Lowell would have been next), though the idea of pushing the potential tying run to second base didn’t sound like a great one. It didn’t matter. Cabrera pushed Delgado all the way home by pushing the ball over the fence.
A real manager probably would have had a righty up. I didn’t. And I would have yelled at myself on Twitter for having done that. It may have just cost me a game.
Game 87 (July 9) – at Marlins; Loss 8-9; Record: 47-40
On the real July 9, 2005, I was busy doing this:
Down 6-3 going into the bottom of the eighth, I had the feeling that this game was out of reach. Wright was due to go out for his second inning of work, so I sent him out there, figuring I would just let him ride out the inning. The Marlins scored three more runs, making the game a 9-3 laugher. Maybe I should have had someone warming in the pen in case Wright collapsed, but it seemed like a waste of resources.
In the top of the ninth, with one out, Neifi Perez reached on an error, and I sent Jerry Hairston Jr. to pinch-hit for Wright, and didn’t bother to get anyone up. Hairston hit a home run, although that just made it 9-5. Meh.
Michael Barrett flied out for the second out in the inning, but Derrek Lee walked and Jason Dubois hit the second two-run home run of the inning. Suddenly, Mike Remlinger and Dempster started playing catch out in the bullpen. New Marlins pitcher Jason Vargas induced Nomar Garciaparra to tap one back to the mound and it looked like the little rally would all be in vain, but Vargas threw the ball into the stands, and Nomar got to second base. Eric Patterson then hit a catchable fly ball to right-center that clanked off the glove of Juan Pierre, scoring Garciaparra and putting the tying run on second in the person of Patterson.
With a lefty on the mound and Corey Patterson due up, I sent Ronny Cedeno out to pinch-hit. There comes a point in your life where you realize that you are pinning your hopes on Ronny Cedeno and wonder where you went wrong, but with a single, Cedeno could improbably tie this game and give me a Wedding Day present I would not soon forget. Ronny Cedeno grounded to first.
After the game, the rosters for the upcoming All-Star game were announced, with Michael Barrett and Derrek Lee getting nods to join the National League elite squad.
Game 88 (July 10) – at Marlins; Win 3-2; Record: 48-40
The last game before the All-Star break ends with a one-run win, and a Dempster save. My Cubs finish the “first half” (someone’s not so good at #GoryMath) in fourth place in the NL Central, 4.5 games behind the Pirates for first place and four games behind the Astros for second. I think it’s finally at the point where I can say things like that and it doesn’t sound silly. But when I thought about that, I had a nagging question that popped into my head. I know that the real 2005 Cubs finished just below .500, so assuming that the game is simulating reality in any sort of reasonable fashion, I at least know that I don’t have an amazing team on my hands. Right now, I am eight games over .500, but floundering a bit in the playoff race. Should I feel good about my performance or not?
On one hand, my Cubs are doing fairly well, but on the other, if the season ended today there would be no playoff joy in Wrigleyville. I might break .500, but the regular season has a binary outcome, and right now I’m on the wrong side of that binary. Is it enough to just overachieve a little? I imagine that there comes a point for a lot of managers within a season where they realize that the playoffs just aren’t likely. Maybe some hold onto the sliver of hope represented in the word “likely” but at some point, a manager must find himself in a strange position. Most people have experienced the disappointment of making a long trip and finding that the thing at the other end of that trip wasn’t actually worth it. What do you do when you realize that it wasn’t worth it before the end of the trip, but you also know that you are contractually obligated to finish the drive?
What happens if, on August 15, the team is 10 games out? I’m not at that point yet, but if I get there, I’m not sure how I would personally will myself to show up at work each day. Maybe it’s the thrill of working on things for next year (if I’m still around). Maybe it’s just professional pride. Maybe some guys are just baseball junkies, and frankly, what else are you gonna do with your day? Maybe some have an existential dread in the dugout that they are doing something that is not only meaningless because it’s just a game and games are meaningless within the grand scheme of things, but also that what they are doing isn’t even going to help things within the context of the game.
I’ve noticed that my own approach to these games has changed since the beginning of the season. I’ve settled into a rhythm and each game has its own routine. I set out to be “the perfect saber manager,” but the reality is that I have my own “book” that differs a bit from all the other managers and I’ve worked out the kinks in following that book. I can pretty much do it on auto-pilot. This is, at once, a blessing and a curse. There’s the oft-repeated line about not getting too high or too low on any given night. Don’t manage emotionally. The fact that I have a plan and am following it insulates against that emotionality.
But at the same time, since I’m not managing emotionally or really experiencing much emotion at all, the games tend to run together. It gets tedious after a while. I think I might be experiencing my own version of The Grind. It’s a little different than I expected. I figured that it would feel more like a constant drain than anything. Like I’d want to sustain some emotional investment, but I lacked the energy to do it. Instead, I could probably make the emotional investment, but I don’t want to. That would sap the energy that I do have. So, it’s better to play in a mindset that is no fun, because the alternative is probably not being able to sustain anything. And there’s work to do.
All-Star Game (July 12) – at Comerica Park; Loss 3-4
Michael Barrett went 2-for-2 with an RBI. Derrek Lee went 0-for-2.
Game 91 (July 17) – vs. Pirates; Win 14-7; Record: 51-40
Game 92 (July 17) – vs. Pirates; Win 9-8 (10); Record: 52-40
In the first game back from the All-Star break, the Cubs welcomed back Todd Walker and walked over the Pirates, 10-2. The next day it rained, meaning that the teams played a doubleheader the following day. In the opener, the Cubs built a 14-2 lead on the back of a nine-run second inning, and then held on the win 14-7. It took a lot out of the Pirates' bullpen (not that mine was looking all that much better), and there was another game still to play.
The second game was tighter. By the end of the sixth inning, the score was tied 1-1, and while Pirates starter David Williams was out after four innings, Greg Maddux was still going strong for me. If this game turned into a war of attrition, I was in a better place than the Pirates. The problem was that in the seventh, Maddux gave up four runs and it looked like the Pirates were going to pull away. By the top of the ninth, the score was 7-3, and with a tired bullpen the proper thing would have been to warm up 13th pitcher/backup catcher Henry Blanco.
But I knew I had an advantage. The Pirates had an even more worn out bullpen. Maybe preserving a four-run deficit was worth it. Remlinger pitched a scoreless frame. In the bottom of the inning, Burnitz and Walker walked, and Barrett singled the bases loaded, bringing up pinch-hitter Garciaparra against Pirates closer Jose Mesa. Garciaparra, the cause of so much heartache during the year, hooked a ball down the left field line and out. The game was tied.
Even though Glendon Rusch gave up a run in the top of the 10th, it was Jose Mesa back out there for the Pirates because he was the last man standing. Neifi Perez’s two-run single won the game. The Cubs had swept the doubleheader and the series. But there was a bit of a casualty. The rainout caused some problems because of my rather unorthodox pitching rotation.
On Saturday, when the rain came, the Mark Prior/Ricky Nolasco tandem was scheduled to start. The rain pushed them back to Sunday, and Greg Maddux started Game 2. The next day, Monday, would have been the day for Kerry Wood/Rich Hill to start, and then Prior and Nolasco would have gone on Tuesday on two days’ rest. The rainout pushed it so that they would only have one day of rest. Or, alternately, I would have to start Carlos Zambrano on three days’ rest. A normal team would have been carrying a long man who could have made a spot start in there somewhere to balance things out. I recognized this before the game and tried to keep Prior and Nolasco’s pitch counts down, but it didn’t really work, and Zambrano had to make a start on three days’ rest. He lasted three innings in that start.
Game 95 (July 21) – at Reds; Win 12-7; Record:54-41
I finally did it. With a 12-4 lead going into the ninth inning, I let Henry Blanco pitch to protect a lead. He gave up three runs, but hey, I had eight to play with!
Game 97 (July 23) – at Cardinals; Win 6-5 (12); Record: 56-41
The story of how it got to be 6-5 in the 12th inning is interesting enough. It involves Perez hitting a game-tying three-run home run (his sixth homer of the year!?), but that’s not what struck me about this game. In the bottom of the 12th, Rusch was out there (again) facing off against the Cardinals in his second inning of work. (He was all that was left.)
Cardinals third baseman John Mabry singled, but Jim Edmonds struck out, leaving me with a runner on first, one out, a one run lead … and Albert Pujols (back in the days when that meant “the best hitter ever”) at the plate. Rusch, a lefty, could look over to the on-deck circle and see the left-handed-hitting Larry Walker. It occurred to me that walking Pujols might be a good idea. It would at least set up a lefty-lefty matchup, even if Walker was no pushover, but it would also push the game-tying run to second and put Pujols as the game-winning run on first.
I have to admit, I paused for a good five minutes. I wouldn’t have that luxury in real life, but I took my time making this decision. I could almost taste the home run that would turn a valiant effort and a lead into a loss. In real life, I would have been standing there paralyzed by fear. In other words, I would have failed in my job. Pujols grounded into a 6-4-3 double play.
(Epilogue: I have gone 8-1 since the All-Star break and somehow only picked up half a game in the standings. Sometimes, life isn’t fair.)
Game 100 (July 26) – vs. Giants; Win 8-3; Record 57-43
The game itself wasn’t important. The fact that I’ve reached 100 games is nice, but also not the reason that I wanted to write today. I’m becoming very aware of the calendar. The trading deadline is in five days. My Cubs are four games back in the division race behind the Astros and a game back (equal on wins, but two behind in the loss column) of the Marlins for the Wild Card. The Cubs have an honest chance to break their nearly century-long World Series drought this year.
Since I’m playing the game in “manager only” mode, I don’t have control over whether my GM will be sending reinforcements my way. I could probably use a bullpen arm or two that aren’t Dempster. Maybe a center fielder to take the place of the three-headed monster of Hairston, Patterson, and Calvin Murray. But it’s also a tenuous shot. The Cubs could end up trading prospects (not that I mind, since I’m only in it for this year) and not end up making the playoffs. This isn’t a situation where I’m in first place by seven games, and it’s just a matter of loading up for a guaranteed October run.
There’s probably a nice way to make that calculation of whether to go for it or not that takes into account the franchise’s long-term health balanced against the odds of actually making it this year. Right now, I’m not feeling very swayed by that. The conceit of a baseball sim like OOTP is that in this situation, I can trade away all of my team’s prospects for two or three over-priced bats and go for the World Series, and then at the end of the season, simply hit the reset button and those prospects are magically placed back where they were. That’s what the fan in me wants to do, and maybe there’s even a certain logic to it.
If I were a real manager, even if I were a good one, I might only get 10 years to actually manage a team. As of this writing, there are only two managers (Bruce Bochy and Mike Scioscia) who have been in their current chairs for more than 10 years (Joe Girardi will finish his 10th season at the end of 2017.) A few other current managers have had previous gigs and have logged more than 10 years total, but it’s not like you get 100 chances at this. Some of those years are spent with teams “rebuilding” and you know in spring training that they’re not going anywhere. So, if I were a real manager, this might be one of the few times that I will have a chance at the playoffs.
The same sort of logic goes for the players, too. Baseball managers don’t live forever. We talk about “the human element” of the game. People remember moments, even if they should be thinking in decades. What if you have a good career, but always land on teams that say “we should wait for next year”? What does that mean for a player or a manager as he looks back over the story of his life. I can see now why it’s such a big deal for players when management makes a move at the trade deadline. It might not work in the long run, but at least you’re not getting the message that management is foreclosing on your shot before you even have a chance to take it.
Playing as “manager only” in OOTP means that I don’t get to make the decision on whether to go all-in on this season. I now sit and wait (and play games) wondering if “it” will happen. I’m guessing around this time of year, real managers have a few sleepless nights thinking the same thoughts.
Game 104 (July 30) – vs. Diamondbacks; Win 5-4; Record: 60-44
The Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth down 5-1. After pushing one run across, they loaded the bases against Diamondbacks closer Jose Valverde. Murray, who was in the game because he’d been double-switched in came to the plate and hit a bases-clearing, game-winning double. (And the crowd goes wild!) In a move only a computer could make, following the game, Ben Grieve came off the disabled list after nearly two months away. My computerized GM looked at the roster and figured that to make room, an outfielder should go back to Triple-A. Murray’s reward for a game-winning hit was a bus ticket to Iowa. Once again, I suppose there’s a sane hyper-rational rationale for making the move right then, but … really? I thought I was supposed to be the unfeeling robot.
Tomorrow is also the trading deadline. The Cubs are now in the Wild Card spot, one game ahead of the Marlins and only four games back of the first-place Astros. Still nothing.
Game 105 (July 31) – vs. Diamondbacks; Loss 3-9; Record 60-45
(I need to step out of character for a moment. It was a little weird that my computerized “GM” hadn’t made any trades, so I decided to at least see what other trades had been made around the league. It turns out that the answer was “none.” I went into the game settings and was confused when I saw that “allow trades” was checked. The problem was that there was an option below it for “frequency of trades” which was set to “very low.” Apparently, the computer took that to mean, “no trades at all.”
I reset it to allow an average number of trades–whatever that means–but now I have to hope that the game is programmed to still allow waiver wire trades in August. I don’t think that what I wrote above is invalid. It was my honest emotional reaction to what I perceived to be the events around me as the “manager” and so I will leave it. Now, I just have the additional knowledge that I was running an un-witting experiment in what would happen if baseball didn’t allow trades.