Awhile back, someone told me a story involving a major-league team’s in-house statistician. The stat guy went to the team’s manager to inform him that the 3-hole hitter had horrible numbers against that night’s opposing pitcher. The stat guy thought the 3-hole hitter should be benched that night. The manager said, “Great, you go tell him.” The stat guy declined the opportunity.
OK, funny story, but why didn’t the manager follow the statistician’s recommendation? To begin with, it’s unlikely the manager was unaware of how his 3-hole hitter had done against that particular pitcher — managers pay attention to matchup numbers. But that still doesn’t answer the question: Why send a hitter to the plate when his odds of succeeding aren’t good?
The human element.
Solving one problem, while causing a bunch of new problems, is not good managing. Say you do bench your 3-hole hitter. That solves one problem: A bad matchup in one game. Now let’s look at the new problems you’ve created:
Your 3-hole hitter is your 3-hole hitter because, overall, he’s the best hitter you have. Let’s say every fifth day he runs into a pitcher he doesn’t handle well, but rakes against the other four pitchers. Now your best hitter is thinking that if he doesn’t do well against those other four guys, he’ll be benched. You’ve shot a hole in the confidence of your best hitter.
If you benched your 3-hole hitter, someone else has to hit in that spot. If you think moving one or two spots in the lineup is no big deal, you’ve never played the game. A hitter who was fine in the 5 hole can become a head case in the 3 hole. No matter what you tell them, some hitters will attempt to change their game to match being in the 3 hole (I need to be the best hitter on the team) or 4 hole (I need to hit with power). So now benching the 3-hole hitter has messed with two players’ heads.
If your 3-hole hitter is sitting down, someone else is playing. That bench player is now thinking if he does really well that night, maybe he’ll get into the lineup on a more regular basis. He’s putting more pressure on himself. You’ve now changed the mental approach of three players.
Your 3-hole hitter is now in the unfamiliar role of being a pinch hitter. Pinch hitters have routines they follow in order to prepare for their one at-bat. You now have a less-than-optimal pinch hitter. So let’s count that 3-hole hitter twice; you’ve now screwed around with the confidence of four players.
Three-hole hitters tend to be team leaders. They’re the guys everyone counts on in the clutch. You’ve now got everybody thinking maybe that 3-hole hitter isn’t as good as they thought. You’ve also hurt his standing in the clubhouse: His absence from the lineup might be interpreted as “ducking” a tough pitcher. So you’ve now messed with the entire team in a way that will have repercussions throughout the season in order to gain an advantage in four at-bats. Is that good managing?
Even though this story did not come from the Royals, we can learn from it. Baseball players try to find a mental approach that allows them to perform at their best, and it doesn’t take much to upset that mental equilibrium.
Now let’s look at an example closer to home.
One of our very smart readers wondered if reliever Greg Holland had a low pitch count in the eighth inning, why not leave him in the game to close out the ninth? I think the answer lies in the first example.
If you change horses in the middle of the stream and leave Holland in for the ninth, you create chaos in the bullpen. Now when Holland pitches, he’s not sure how many outs he’s required to get. That might change his approach. Does he let it all go in the eighth inning or save something in case he pitches the ninth? Does he start worrying about keeping his pitch count low so he can stick around for a save?
You’ve also messed with Joakim Soria’s head. Now when Soria warms up, he doesn’t really know if he’s going to be used to close out the game. You’ve changed the way your best reliever prepares. You’ve also got the entire team wondering how the pen is going to be used to close out games. As in the first example, solving one problem creates new ones. Good managers don’t make short-term moves that have long-term drawbacks.
This doesn’t mean that managers should ignore numbers. They can’t keep running a guy out there who isn’t producing just because it’s good for his confidence. If the 3-hole hitter we’ve been talking about doesn’t put up overall numbers that justify keeping him in the lineup, a good manager has to make a move. But managers should be more patient than the average fan.
As I’ve said repeatedly, numbers are important, but they don’t tell you everything. Handling people, knowing who can be moved in the lineup without problems, who can handle more than one position, who has the right mind-set to pinch hit or close a game, is also a big part of managing.
So next time Ned Yost or any other manager makes a move that you don’t understand, a move that isn’t supported by the numbers, remember: Numbers are important, but they aren’t everything.
There’s also the human element.
A thank you
Earlier this week, the Associated Press Sports Editors named “Judging the Royals” one of the top 10 multimedia projects in the country for 2011. While I’d like to grab all the credit I can, there are some other people who deserve recognition. Let’s start at the top: Star editor Mike Fannin. After listening to me drone on and on about baseball, he came up with the idea for an online project that studied the Royals. Nicole Poell, who edits my copy and makes sure I don’t make an even bigger horse’s ass out of myself than I already have. Tim Baxter and Jason Goldstein, the computer wizards who keep the site up and running. Photographer John Sleezer, who shoots most of the photos and videos that appear on the site. And Tim Bogar, the Boston Red Sox bench coach who gave me invaluable advice on approaching players and the direction the site should take. And while we’re at it, the players and coaches who have spent hours patiently explaining their craft.
And finally, the readers…without you, there’s no point in doing this. Thanks.