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
Confessions of a Fake Manager: September
Confessions of a Fake Manager: October
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.
I didn’t really manage a baseball team. I didn’t have to switch cities twice a week. I never had to miss one of my kids having a major life event because I was at an away game. I didn’t have to deal with the media. If I wanted to take a night off, I could. I didn’t have to sustain a relentless focus on one thing for three hours a night, and six months of a year. I could knock out a couple of games here and there, and when it suited me, I could tell the computer to just skip to the end of the half-inning (and I did once in a while).
I didn’t have to live with telling a few white lies to cover for my guys when the media came hounding around. I didn’t have to explain my choices to the players, especially when it affected them. I didn’t have to worry about a clubhouse revolt. I didn’t have to break someone’s heart by telling him that he’d been DFA’d. I didn’t have to call pitches. I didn’t have to prepare for endless meetings. I didn’t have to yell at my GM when he wouldn’t make a roster move after a bullpen blowout game. I didn’t have to pull a guy aside and chew him out or convince him to believe in himself, or both. I didn’t have to live with the gnawing feeling in my stomach that goes with all the uncertainty inherent in the job of being a manager.
I am a fake manager. All I really did was to play a video game. But despite all that, I learned a few things.
My inexperience was costly.
Any experiment of this type is going to be an exercise in humility. If I’m being honest, I made a few decisions that were just dumb. Not “good on paper, just came up snake eyes when I rolled the dice.” Just wrong decisions. There were games when I should have had a reliever up sooner or sent out a pinch-hitter, but it didn’t occur to me until after the game was over.
I never quite got the hang of balancing “I need to get nine outs and have four usable pitchers … and the game could also extra innings, so maybe I need 12 or 15 outs” and “I could really use a lefty here, but I’d have to take him out right away, so I’d burn him for just one batter.” I ended up living (and managing) in fear of extra innings. I found myself thinking a lot about how long I could hold out if the game went to a 12th or 13th or 20th inning, even though it’s rare that a game would go that long. I also got stuck in a rut where I’d think about which reliever would handle which inning, but didn’t think creatively about how I could mix and match pitchers within innings. As much as it annoys everyone else, it is legal to insert a pitcher mid-inning, and sometimes it’s a good strategy.
I never did figure out the running game. Not only was calling for a stolen base terrifying, but the nature of the break-even point on the stolen base occurred to me. In 2016, there were 3,538 stolen base attempts (with a 71.7 percent success rate). Twenty players, all of them very fast, accounted for nearly a quarter of those attempts. When I realized that a sample weighted toward the fast players was only safe at about a break-even rate, I only started feeling comfortable with attempting a stolen base when a fast runner was on first, and even then the anxiety made me say, “I’ll do it next time, this time I’ll let Player X hit.” There were cases where I had a better-than-break-even chance to steal a base, and should have hit the button. I left those runs on the field. I’m not sure if I needed a tutorial in how to better identify stolen base opportunities or in how to deal with the anxiety of taking a big (but sometimes justified) risk.
There are probably a bunch of other mistakes that I made without even realizing it in the moment, or now, but a real manager who audited my entire performance would have picked up on. With more time at the helm, maybe I’d eventually learn these things, but they are also the sorts of things that a real manager has mastered through repetition. Yes, sometimes managers make mistakes, maybe different mistakes than I would have made. But I made some howlers too.
There’s a difference between anxiety and stubbornness, and it matters.
There were a couple of official SaberStrategies™ that I was easily able to maintain and a few where I fell off the wagon. And there was a nice, bright dividing line between the two. I made a commitment before the year began that I would use Derrek Lee in the second spot in the lineup, because that’s where the best hitter on a team should hit. I kept to that promise the entire season. Aside from a stretch where Lee was injured, and a few sporadic off days, his name appeared in the two-spot every day. I had no troubles with this one at all.
On the other hand, I had promised that, while most managers prioritize late-inning situations in which they are winning by one, two, or three runs to use their really good relievers, I would shift my priorities from three-run leads to tie games. It’s not that three-run leads don’t have some leverage attached to them. It’s that tie games are more important, and if you can only cover one or the other, you pick the one that means the most. I kept half of my promise. I still held tie games in high esteem and used my best available relievers when I got into them, it’s just that I also found myself saying, “Well, I could also protect this three-run lead here.” In some cases, it made sense. If there hadn’t been a close game in a few days, those guys needed to pitch anyway. But sometimes, it didn’t make sense. I just got burned by losing a few leads here and there, and I hated the thought of losing another one. The result was that I over-extended the bullpen when I shouldn’t have.
There’s a bright line between those two decisions. One is made before the game and before the emotions start rolling. It’s made when the score is 0-0 and there are nine innings left to play. Once the umpire yells “play ball!” even if I was having second thoughts about Lee hitting in the second spot, I can’t undo it, so I just have to live with it. It also helps that hitting Lee second (versus third or fourth or ninth) has almost no carry-over effect to tomorrow’s game. He’ll probably still be in the lineup just the same.
The decision about those relievers, though, has to be made in the heat of a close game, with only a short time left to play and in the context of the heartbreak of losing close games earlier that month and the uncertainty of what’s to come tomorrow. Yes, I probably did act irrationally (or sub-optimally) at times, but if you haven’t noticed from the BP byline, I’m not exactly a sabermetric denier. If you want to yell at me for sub-optimal behavior, that’s fine. If you want to actually change my behavior next time, then you need to understand why I did it.
I fell victim to my own emotions. I know that I wasn’t supposed to, but I did. It didn’t take the form of being overwhelmed by them, but instead of being willing to slide down the slippery slope of “I’ll do it this one time, but I won’t make a habit of it.” We don’t pledge allegiance to our faults. They get us because there are times when we don’t mind that they are around and it’s convenient to us.
For those of us who write about what managers should be doing, we get to make all of those recommendations before any games start in the context of a cold look at the numbers and 2,000 words of intellectual positing (and posturing). In the same sense that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the nose, everyone has a plan until they sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” I felt it, and I wasn’t even doing it for real.
You have to consider how strategies will be implemented behaviorally.
I stuck to the tandem-starter model, where I had two starters who pitched like “regular” starters (Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux), and two teams of two pitchers (Kerry Wood and Rich Hill, Mark Prior and Ricky Nolasco) who each threw about 50 pitches (and pitch more frequently). I was tempted to go back to a more traditional five-man rotation, but I saw it through to the end mostly to prove a point to myself. I don’t think that the 2005 Cubs were actually the best team, personnel-wise, with which to try the tandem model, but I can imagine that somewhere out there, a team could be constructed where it did make sense. I wanted to see if it could work, even if just mechanically.
The idea is that it takes the 600 innings normally pitched by three starters (or their injury replacements) and re-distributes them so that the four “tandem” guys each get 120, two relievers who would have otherwise pitched 70 innings instead get to 120, and maybe 20 more innings re-distributed to the top two pitchers in the rotation, who start every fifth day instead of every fifth game. In the National League, it also means that you can sometimes pinch-hit for the pitcher early in the game, because he was going to come out anyway. It spreads the workload around a bit more and allows pitchers to throw shorter outings where he can go max effort.
That’s how it works in theory. My father always told me “everything works in theory.”
A lot of it did happen for me. Zambrano (217 innings) and Maddux (223) were healthy all season. I don’t really know what I would have done if one of them had gone down to injury. Wood, Hill, Prior, Nolasco, and Glendon Rusch each pitched between 120 and 140 innings. I’ll never know whether I would have been better off with a more traditional model of pitcher use (Wood had a 5.51 ERA and Prior checked in at 3.88), but at least the tandems themselves worked out.
But whatever benefits the strategy had, some of them got swallowed up in ways that I wouldn’t have predicted. For one, having six pitchers who were essentially in “the rotation” meant only six spots for the bullpen. I had figured that two of those bullpeners being guys who could go multiple innings would solve the issue, but it didn’t. Having one fewer body in the bullpen meant fewer guys to play left-right switcharoo. Plus, there’s a little secret about relievers that no one ever talks about. Even if a pitcher is “just a LOOGY,” he is still a major-league pitcher and still capable throwing three innings of at least reasonable quality. You probably don’t want to do that in a high-leverage situation, but any reliever can become a long reliever in a pinch. When you have more bodies in the pen, you have more guys who can pick up the slack if you just need some length. Plus, if you need/want to push someone to two innings and they aren’t available the next day, there are more pitchers around who are available.
I thought that having the multi-inning guys around would help solve for that, but the problem was that because I was counting on them to go multiple innings and had to use them like that, it meant that the next day I was working with an even shorter bullpen. Lacking the resources (and the inclination) to do a lot of platooning, I found myself using my relievers in one- or two-inning bursts, and afraid to take them out mid-inning because I often didn’t have a lot of pitchers available, and I wanted to get them through the inning. It drove up pitch counts and more often meant pitchers in “only if you must” mode. That cycle fed on itself. Having fewer relievers available made me use the ones that I did have in ways that made them not available the next day, which meant that I again had a smaller stable of guys. Had I simply gone back to a five-man rotation, I would have had more bullpen resources to work with and probably would have managed my bullpen differently. It’s a line I never would have drawn on my own.
I also fell prey to another trap. I found myself obsessed with getting each of my tandems through three innings. I had allotted them 50 pitches each to get that done, and sometimes that was enough, sometimes it wasn’t. But what to do when a guy got to 53 pitches and was one out away from getting through three innings? Or what happens when his spot was due up next in the next inning? One of the benefits of having the tandem model was that you got to pinch-hit for the pitcher more often, but if I went to the other tandem starter there, I would have to let him bat. I found myself pushing my tandems for one. more. batter. It was so tempting to say, “I’ll just push a little bit harder” and it probably bled away a lot of the value that the strategy was supposed to produce in the first place.
Had I implemented the strategy perfectly, I might have been better off. But people don’t implement strategies perfectly and according to logic. They find all sorts of emotional cues in them and you have to consider that.
I’m not as brave as I thought I was.
If there’s a conceit of every fan-splaining article (or saber-splaining in my case) about what managers should be doing, it’s the scarecrow who sought a brain. Implicitly, we are saying that if only managers were a little bit smarter, they’d be better at their jobs. But if there’s one thing I noticed about myself throughout this whole process, it’s that what I really needed from the Wizard of Oz was courage. I found it emotionally harder to hit a button that my brain knew I should hit. Video games are forgiving of this weakness. I could take a minute and think over my decision before hitting the button. That doesn’t work in real-time. Even for something like a pinch-hitting decision, where the ball isn’t in play, it’s not like they let you take two minutes while you figure out which batter will climb into the box next.
The anxiety that I felt putting into practice strategies—even ones that I knew were sound—is real. In fact, there’s anxiety that goes with making any decision, because a lot of the time the answer isn’t obvious and even if there is a strategy that makes sense, it’s usually one that has a 40 percent failure rate rather than a 50 percent rate. As a manager, you have to be willing to not only live with that anxiety, but to make decisions with that anxiety right there next to you. I could take 60 seconds to quell that anxiety rather than the three seconds that actual managers get, and sometimes, I wasn’t even able to follow my own rules. Maybe the super-power that managers have—and the one that makes the biggest difference in their ability to do their jobs—is the willingness to make the decision in the first place. Good or bad, someone has to pick something (and be willing to get yelled at when, inevitably, one of those decisions “doesn’t work.”)
Some of that comes from the repetition of having done this for a long time, both tactically (being able to size up the situation more quickly) and emotionally (having dealt with failure before and knowing that it’s not the end of the world). I didn’t realize how hard it would be to follow that part of the yellow brick road.
I must have done something right. I’m just not sure what it was.
I did make the playoffs. My Cubs won 94 games while Dusty Baker’s real Cubs won only 79. I suppose I could take the credit for all 15 wins.
There’s no possible way that my strategies made the Cubs 15 wins better.
I don’t think that the tandem-starter strategy was a smashing success. I platooned where I could, but it’s not like platoons are some great sabermetric revelation. I got some good breakout performances from rookies like Jason Dubois, Rich Hill, and Ricky Nolasco, but I don’t know that I can really chalk that up to anything other than good luck.
What is it that I actually did that made even a bit of difference? I think there are three places:
- I hit Derrek Lee second in my lineup and didn’t fall prey to the tyranny of putting Corey Patterson in the leadoff spot because he’s fast.
- Using Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux on every fifth day, rather than every fifth game, probably bought them each an extra start or two. It was relatively easy to do, because like the lineup, it was a decision made before the game, rather than during the game.
- Out of necessity, I reinvented the multi-inning fireman/closer with Glendon Rusch. When no one else in the bullpen seemed able to lock down a save, and Rusch was consistently throwing 2-3 scoreless innings at a time, I figured I might as well go with it. Oddly enough, it means that probably my greatest success as a Sabermanager™ wasn’t being 20 years ahead of everyone, but being 20 years behind everyone else.
Looking back, I don’t know that even these strategies were worth all that much, and when you add in the places where I screwed up, I don’t know that I was actually a better manager (even tactically) than Baker. I think I just had a luckier team.
If there’s something to which I can compare this experience, it’s being a parent. Or at least what I thought being a parent would be like compared to what it was actually like when I finally had kids of my own. Anyone who envisions being a parent will begin with a set of assumptions about how they will act. And while this will fall flat on the ears of some of the readership (the ones who don’t have kids), any resemblance between that plan and reality is purely coincidental.
I can honestly say that before I had kids, I had my assumptions and some of them I’ve kept to. But then there’s the one about how you’re going to hold the line on screen time and not let the kids have too much. That one lasts until the day when you are over-stimulated and desperately need an hour to yourself, and when the kids ask if they can watch another episode of Daniel Tiger, you stop for a moment and think, “Well, he’s gonna teach them about sharing or dealing with anxiety or some other theoretically important thing” and the kids will think I’m an awesome parent, rather than an adult bordering on a breakdown with no backup.
“Just this once.”
I held to some of the stuff I said I was going to do with my Cubs, but some of it I left to the side. Life looks a little different from the first-person point of view.
I must confess one more thing, Dr. Freud. I wanted very much to win the approval of my dadd … I mean, the writers (even if they are fake writers). I simmed the game to the point where they handed out the Manager of the Year award, because I wanted to see if it was me. Before it got there, my computerized GM, now free to make trades, informed me that he had sent a package of prospects (including Nolasco) to the Mariners for Ichiro Suzuki. And now I’m sitting here wondering if he had his eye on this deal during the season. In 2005, Ichiro in center field was a reasonable idea and that would have been an amazing piece to fit into the Cubs lineup. What if trades hadn’t been (effectively) turned off at the deadline? Would I have been walking into the playoffs with Ichiro in center, plugging my biggest lineup hole? There are thousands of moments within a season where things could have turned it in one direction or another, and every one of them is a landmine waiting to explode with regret.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel won (fake) National League Manager of the Year for his work with the eventual World Series winners. It makes sense. Charlie is a real manager. I’m a fake one.