Previously in this series:
Confessions of a Fake Manager: The Set Up
Confessions of a Fake Manager: April
Confessions of a Fake Manager: May
Confessions of a Fake Manager: June
Confessions of a Fake Manager: July
Confessions of a Fake Manager: August
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 133 (September 2) – at Pirates; Loss 4-5; Record: 73-60; 8.5 GB Division, 5.5 GB Wild Card
Ryan Dempster couldn’t hold down a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning. If this season really does die of dysentery, that will be its epitaph.
Game 136 (September 5) – at Cardinals; Loss 2-3; Record: 74-62; 8.5 GB Division, 5.5 GB Wild Card
The Cubs ended up dropping two of three games in Pittsburgh and came limping into St. Louis, still within 5.5 games thanks to the fact that the Marlins are scuffling too. And I’ve taken to checking the scoreboard on that matter. Anyone who says they aren’t is lying.
In the top of the ninth inning, I made a decision that I’m quite proud of. With the Cubs down 2-1, Michael Barrett singled with one out. Barrett has done many nice things for me this year, but I needed someone more fleet of foot on the basepaths in this case. I pinch-ran the speedy Eric Patterson. Unfortunately for me, Jeromy Burnitz grounded the ball to shortstop. According to the game narrative, Cardinals second baseman Mark Gruzi … Grudzelan … Gruzz … oh, you know who I’m talking about, was unable to turn a double play because Patterson had gotten up the line quickly enough to obstruct (but not in the legal sense) his throw.
The inning survived, and Burnitz became the runner at first base who was able to score when Jason Dubois doubled him in. After that, I patted myself on the back for knowing to pinch-run for a painfully slow catcher who represented the tying run in the ninth inning of a close game. Then Dempster gave up a run in the bottom of the ninth and the Cardinals won anyway.
With 26 games to play, I find myself with a tragic number (the opposite of a magic number) of 18 in the division race. Any combination of 18 wins by the Astros or losses by the Cubs would doom me. In the Wild Card race, the tragic number is 21. I am again confronted with the realization that if this were real life, I would be woefully unqualified to do what I would need to right now. I walked into this exercise, essentially with the conceit that if you gave me a league-average team, with the benefit of my sabermetric knowledge, I could turn them into a playoff team.
And for what it’s worth, the Cubs are still on the edges of contention, so maybe I am doing something right. It’ll probably take the Marlins having a bad week-and-a-half, but it’s at least still something I can dream about. Of course, the players on my (fake) team can read the standings page too, and they’d realize that the chances of pulling off a Wild Card miracle aren’t great. After 136 games, everyone is tired, and to have a chance at the playoffs I basically need to tell them that they are no more days off from here on out. Everyone plays every day, with the possible exception of Barrett, the catcher.
I’m also considering going to a four-day rotation, so that I can maximize the number of Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux starts. The schedule isn’t doing me any favors. Because of the rainout last month in New York and the rescheduled date for the game, the Cubs will play on 24 consecutive days from September 2 to September 25 before their next off day, which is also the last off day of the season. Even if they are motivated, raw fatigue is eventually going to take its toll.
The laws of behavioral economics are working against me, too. Right now, the Cubs do not have the Wild Card spot. The Marlins do. The Marlins have the fear of “losing” the (fake, electronic) Wild Card spot. If the Cubs “don’t get there,” then it just “slipped away.” It’s a lot easier to inspire someone with the fear of losing something than the idea of a long shot at a dream.
On top of all that, it’s not like I can just give one big, rousing speech to inspire my guys to sustain some insane level of performance for three hours and to win one game. It’s telling that all of the “great speech wins game and therefore season” examples come from football, where they only play 16 games, and one game really does mean a lot more. The human body can sustain a steady flow of increased cortisol and adrenaline for a short time, but not for weeks at a time. I need my guys to sustain it for a month. And even if they go 18-8 over the next 26 games, that means there will be eight nights, maybe two or three of them consecutively, where they will get all revved up and still have to taste the bitter sting of defeat. Someone might be tempted to give up. With chances that low, I don’t know how I’m going to sustain my belief.
I’m struck by how delicate what I’m proposing is. I’m asking people who are tired to sprint hard to chase something that–even if everything works–is still not a guarantee. I wonder how many of them would say–maybe not out loud or maybe just not to me–that it just isn’t worth doing. It’s not that they don’t have professional pride, but at some point, there’s no use in throwing good money after bad. Everyone has their breaking point. And when two or three people give up, it increases the incentive for everyone else to give up. If he’s not going all in, that just makes our job even harder, and so why should I bother.
There’s no sabermetric playbook for how to do this. My fancy Ph.D. thinkin’ can explain why it might happen, but how I then intervene to stop it from happening is another matter. In fact, I find myself not even thinking about strategy any more. Sure, I’m still doing all the saber-tricks that I’ve written about before, but I’m realizing that while that’s nice, it’s not what the team really needs right now. This team needs a leader. They need a reason to fight The Grind and not give up. If this were real life, I would be so screwed right now. I’ve brought a laptop to a knife fight.
Game 139 (September 8) – at Giants, Win 4-1; Record: 76-63; 8 GB Division, 6.5 GB Wild Card
Did I push Maddux to 115 pitches just so I could get him through the eighth inning, and therefore avoid using my bullpen, even though I’ve personally written about how it is a terrible idea to push starters past 110 pitches in an outing? Yes. I did. And it worked.
I’ve somehow gone 2-1 over the past few games and fallen even further behind the Marlins. The problem with trying to make up ground in a pennant race is that it’s not enough to say, “Well, if they play .500 ball, I need to play six games above .500 to catch them.” That’s a tall order unto itself. The Marlins (or any team leading in a playoff race) aren’t a .500 team, by definition. If they were, they wouldn’t be leading a playoff race. My Cubs have to play 6.5 games better than a playoff team over the next 23.
Game 142 (September 11) – at Giants, Win 3-1; Record: 79-63; 7 GB Division, 4.5 GB Wild Card
We just swept a four-game series over the lowly Giants, who are languishing in last place in the NL West. (That’s saying something. The Diamondbacks lead the West with a 70-74 record. My 79-63 record would be good for a nine-game lead. While we’re wallowing in self-pity for a moment, the Cubs would be tied for the AL Wild Card and would also lead the AL East by 6.5 games. Geography!)
But Mark Prior went down to injury in the first inning of this game. With few alternate options, I inserted Jose Mercedes into the game, and marveled as he pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings. Ricky Nolasco got through 3 2/3 and Mike Remlinger got the last out of the game.
Prior is listed as out for four weeks. Basically, the rest of the regular season. I had hopes that the tandem-starter model might make it easier for him to get through the season unhurt, and I have no idea where I even got that idea from. Maybe it did increase my odds, and I just got a bad roll of the dice. I’ll never know. But, in this mad dash, I’m basically just pushing ahead without him. Nolasco will take up the “starting” end of the tandem and partner with Sergio Mitre. Mercedes–whose last MLB pitching experience was five games in 2003 with the Expos–may have just become a key part of my bullpen.
Game 143 (September 12) – vs. Reds, Loss 4-10; Record: 79-64; 8 GB Division, 4.5 GB Wild Card
I sorta had it in my head that I was going to go on a 20-game streak like the Rockies did (will do?) in 2007.
Game 145 (September 13) – vs. Reds, Win 11-6; Record: 80-65; 9 GB Division, 3.5 GB Wild Card
With my 80th win, I can at least guarantee that my fake 2005 Cubs will do better than the real 2005 Cubs, who went 79-83. So, I guess that’s something. The Marlins have lost four games in a row, so we’ve been able to pick up some ground. I feel strangely hopeful. There’s a question that I can feel the rational side of my brain wanting to ask and the emotional side stridently avoiding. What are the chances that I’ll actually catch up to the Marlins, who are still in that Wild Card spot?
I happened to be poking around the OOTP menu and actually found that the program helpfully calculates that for me. It’s 6.7 percent. One in 15. I guess it’s better than being one of the teams that has an “e” next to their name, telling the world that they have already been eliminated. The number 162–the number of games in a regular season–is divisible by nine. (18 x 9 = 162). Therefore, every 18 games in a regular season is like one inning of a game. With Game 145, my Cubs have now entered the 9th inning.
Game 146 (September 14) – vs. Cardinals, Win 6-3; Record: 81-65; 2.5 GB Wild Card
I’ve mentally given up on the idea of winning the division. The Astros won’t slow down, and we’re still nine games back there. In some sense, it’s probably better if they do win the division. Looking ahead on the schedule, seven of the Cubs’ last nine games are against Houston. Maybe once they have the division in hand, they’ll politely stop trying. The Marlins, on the other hand, have now lost five straight, and I’m back to within shouting distance. But our opponents for the next three days, the Cardinals, are still in the mix. They came into this game in a virtual tie with the Cubs, and thanks to a sixth-inning home run by Scott McClain, they are now a game in back of us.
Game 147 (September 15) – vs. Cardinals, Win 5-4 (10); Record: 82-65; 1.5 GB Wild Card
September baseball. Against a rival. In the middle of a playoff chase. Even Dempster managed to pitch a scoreless inning.
In the fifth inning, the Cardinals went up 4-3. The official book says that when a team is losing, even by a run, they should be more willing to simply let the game slip away, especially as the game gets later and later. At least they shouldn’t be putting in the good relievers. It seems counter-intuitive, but a team should save its scarce resources to protect leads, rather than chase deficits. That’s what the math says. I could have brought in whoever happened to be at the end of the bullpen bench and hoped for the best.
But even though I am trying to be the Perfect Sabermanager™, as I put myself into that position, I felt something else. I’m asking these guys to sustain a breakneck pace. I need them to buy in. And yet, I’m going to make a move that says, “Yeah, I don’t think you guys are capable of getting a run to tie up the game.” Maybe that’s the sort of thinking that leads to my team being a bit more handicapped in the next two or three games, and it’s a net loser, but all I could think of in my head was that I needed to keep chasing, if only for the fact that if I effectively walked away from this one, I was the one telling my guys that it was OK to quit. I don’t even know if that’s the case or not, but I sure felt it.
When Dubois tied the game in the eighth inning with an RBI single, I felt like a genius. I think I’ve gone over to the Dark Side.
Game 148 (September 16) – vs. Cardinals, Win 2-1 (7); Record: 83-65; 0.5 GB Wild Card
In the bottom of the seventh inning of a 1-1 tie, Jerry Hairston Jr. stood on third base with Todd Walker at the plate. Walker hit a fly ball to left field, medium deep and near the line. As Cardinals left fielder John Rodriguez accepted the ball into his glove, the program asked me whether I wanted Hairston to try to score.
RUN, JERRY! RUN!
I’d say that there was a cloud of dust as the umpire called him safe, but the game was being played in the middle of a rain storm, so there was probably a giant mudsplash onto Yadier Molina. After a Derrek Lee walk, the umpires looked up at the sky over Waveland Ave. and decided that no further baseball would be played. I’m sure that the electronic Cardinals were furious to have a game with playoff implications called due to rain. I just kinda smiled. I got a close win without the terror of having to go to my bullpen.
And the Marlins lost again, their seventh in a row, and their eighth in nine games. We are half a game back.
Game 149 (September 17) – vs. Cardinals, Win 10-2; Record: 84-65; 0.5 Games Ahead Wild Card
I’m not sure which is more unbelievable, sweeping the Cardinals or the fact that the Marlins have lost eight consecutive games. After the game, I’m sure I gave a great speech to the guys in the clubhouse about the power of being determined to do something. The problem is that we’ve got another 13 games to survive.
Game 150 (September 18) – at Mets, Win 9-7 (10); Record: 85-65; 1 Game Ahead
I have to admit that I didn’t manage this game. This was a makeup game from a rainout last month and I hit the wrong button in OOTP and the game went ahead without me. After I realized what I had done, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. What is a team without its manager?
It turns out that the Cubs played this one sort of like they would have with me at the helm. I had already set the lineup and the day’s starter, Kerry Wood, was part of a tandem. The computer already knew that I had set a 55-pitch limit on him, and he was dutifully removed when he got to that point after 2 1/3 innings of rather mediocre results. He gave up three runs. Normally, I would have had him yield to Rich Hill, but the computer instead inserted Mercedes.
Mercedes got the Cubs through the fifth, giving up two more runs, and they found themselves on the bad end of a 5-0 score line. But in the sixth, they rallied for six runs, punctuated by a Nomar Garciaparra grand slam to take a 6-5 lead. I probably would have gone to Glendon Rusch at that point, but the computer instead started the progression of Remlinger (gave up the tying run in the sixth), Will Ohman (scoreless seventh), and Michael Wuertz (scoreless eighth and ninth). Then as the game glided into the 10th, and doubles by Brandon Sing and Todd Walker, and a bases loaded walk to Jeromy Burnitz gave the Cubs a 9-6 lead, the computer turned the game over to Dempster, who allowed a run to the Mets, but eventually closed the book on the game.
I guess the computer isn’t as afraid of my bullpen as I am.
Game 152 (September 21) – at Brewers; Win 6-3; Record: 87-65; 3 Games Ahead; Magic Number: 8
The Marlins just lost their 10th straight game. This game was the Cubs’ eighth straight win. I guess that’s one way to make up a lot of ground in a pennant race. Should I be taking credit for this? I certainly have no control over what the Marlins are doing, but I guess I bear some small amount of responsibility for having the Cubs at least performing consistently well enough so that when this opportunity came, I was ready.
Is that me, though? And frankly, if this collapses over the next week-and-a-half, will that also be my doing? If I’m going to claim this, do I not also have to claim whatever comes next? It’s too easy to take credit when things are going well.
Game 154 (September 23) – vs. Astros; Win 2-0; Record 89-65; 4 Games Ahead; Magic Number: 5
The Cubs win their 10th in a row, in a game that would have made 1994 proud. Greg Maddux battled Roger Clemens in a 2-0 duel, with both pitchers going the distance. Maddux needed 102 pitches to get it done. It looks like we’re going to the playoffs.
In other news, the Marlins finally won a game.
Game 157 (September 27) – vs. Pirates; Win 8-4; Record 92-65; Clinched the Wild Card!
After sweeping a three-game series from the Astros, the Cubs walked into this game with a win streak that had swelled to 12 and a Magic Number of 2. After a little scoreboard watching told me that the Marlins had lost 1-0 to the Nationals, it was a matter of putting this game away.
Before the game, I finally re-inserted Garciaparra back into the leadoff spot, a few months after he lost it. He responded by hitting his 28th home run of the year in the third inning to tie the game at 2-2. Tandem starters Wood (who is 1-10 on the year) and Hill (16-2) pitched well enough (a combined 6 1/3 innings, giving up four runs) that Barrett’s two home runs and five RBIs sent the Cubs home a winner, and their fans dreaming once again about October.
Technically, the division title is still a mathematical possibility, especially with the fact that the Cubs end the season against the Astros, but it’s pointless to push for that at this point. Time to get everyone some well-deserved rest. At the beginning of this month, I figured that I’d be writing about a season that came up just short.
Game 158 (September 28) – vs. Pirates; Win 8-2; Record: 93-65
I sent the JV squad out. My lineup card read:
I limited Maddux to five innings. Somehow, that lineup produced my 14th consecutive win. I’m now wondering if OOTP has some special code that makes the player feel special by having his team win a bunch of games in September.
The Cubs will finish the season with a meaningless four-game series in Houston. The Astros clinched the NL Central, and are three games behind the Phillies for the best record in the NL. It is likely that the Phillies will await me in the NLDS.