The unknowns in criticism: over-management

It’s a partly cloudy day in late June – hot out for a 7:05 game – and the Yankees had mounted a 3-1 lead over the Chicago White Sox. The big-bucks pack in the middle of the order, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and Alex Rodriguez, had done their jobs, setting up the supposed top-flight bullpen up to seal another win.

Ivan Nova had just retired Kevin Youkilis after allowing Alejandro De Aza two bases, one on a single and another on a wild pitch. His night was over. Joe Girardi strolled out, wearing his typical half-concerned, half-assuring face, and signaled for the lefty. Boone Logan, arguably the Yankees’ best reliever, was summoned to face Adam Dunn, whose struggles with lefties are well documented (during last year’s disastrous season in which he posted a .159/.292/.277 triple-slash line over 415 at-bats, he managed only six hits against lefties in 94 at-bats.) Sure enough, Logan retired Dunn without much fanfare – his fly-ball was far enough to advance De Aza to third, but Logan did what Girardi asked him to do…

…and not a single bit more. Which is all fine and dandy, you’ll say, because managers are there to manage, and one very simple facet of his work is to make decisions about when pitchers come in and stay out of the game. Girardi’s decision to pull Logan for Cody Eppley (who has, to date, a 1.25 strikeout to walk ratio, well below Logan’s 3.36 mark) ended up well– Eppley struck out one of the finest hitters in the game, Paul Konerko.

Seemingly content with his micro-managerial success in the eighth, Girardi stuck with Eppley to face Alex Rios, and promptly got behind in the count, yielding a leadoff single. “Bullocks, enough of that!” A surely frustrated Girardi turned to lefty Clay Rapada for the next batter, A.J. Pierzynski, who struggles slightly more against the southpaw than the right-hander, though not considerably.

Mind you, lefty Boone Logan could’ve stayed in the game, faced the righty Paul Konerko (who owns a .793 against LHP), instead of yielding to Cody Eppley, an inexperienced righty. After all, Konerko hits .355 against RHP and has an OPS upwards of a grand against their type. Logan could’ve then stayed on and faced Alex Rios, whose slightly worse against LHP than RHP this year and quite even against both over the last three years; then, Girardi could’ve skipped the maneuvering and side-stepping and had a lefty face A.J. Pierzynski when all was said and done. This assuming, of course, that Boone Logan could’ve retired the two batters. Referencing his sterling ratio stats (a sub 3 ERA, a sub 1.25 WHIP), I’d wager that he would’ve escaped unscathed.

They do say, though, that hindsight is 20/20. Rapada looked good for two pitches, and Pierzynski chopped a ball in front of home plate that was fielded by the pitcher. One botched double-play ball later and the White Sox were threatening with first and third and no outs, the go-ahead run at the plate in the form of a powerful young man by the name of Dayan Viciedo.

A couple of factors led up to this point, the first of which has been exhausted: Boone Logan was lifted for two – situation aside; objectively – inferior pitchers. Girardi went through three pitchers in four at-bats, and five total bases were allowed as a result. The pitcher who made the costly error (spoiler alert!), Clay Rapada, had already made an error in around 20 innings pitched this season – certainly forgivable, but not the defensive profile that lends itself to trust. Logan, on the other hand, had made one error since 2007 and is generally regarded as a solid defensive pitcher. Finally, the fact that Rios specifically reached certainly contributed to the error, as Rios is a speedy runner who clearly commanded far too much of Rapada’s attention as he went to field the ball.

Back to the action, though. Girardi, headstrong despite the failures of his hand-selected matchups, summoned David Robertson, perhaps the Yankees reliever with the most eye-popping skill-set. Robertson is not only a trusty, go-to-guy in Girardi’s pen, but his strikeout ability was no doubt desired against a free-hacker. Girardi surely felt like he would save face if Robertson performed as he normally does.

First pitch ball. Uh oh. One high fastball later, one that was crushed to left and well out of the park (it measured 410 feet; it registered as 500), and a trio of pitchers had ceded the Yankees two-run pad, with enough time left in the top of the ninth for White Sox closer Addison Reed to get adequate warm-up time. He shut the door on the Yankees in order, in case you were wondering.

While Girardi may have had little memory of Robertson giving up long-balls (having seen only two since 2010), maybe he should’ve considered that a hard-throwing fast baller throwing to a power-hitting hulk (230 pounds fit into a sub-6 foot frame) is a risky matchup, not an assured strikeout. Perhaps he did consider that.

I’m missing a lot here – the graphs Girardi was or was not looking at, what he knew about how his bullpen was feeling that day, and whether Boone Logan had leg cramps or a stomach virus or whether he was perfectly willing and excited to throw more pitches; I don’t know why Girardi trusts a 31 year-old journeyman reliever with shaky control when he has one of the game’s best lefties in his pen, and I also don’t know who was whispering in Joe’s ear dictating the matchups (it could be nobody). Maybe he saw a graph produced in the video room that supported his decision to use Eppley against Konerko, and maybe Robertson was specifically told to stick to the slider and low outside fastball to make Viciedo chase and ignored that instruction. Perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this if Robertson had done what he later did in the ninth inning, and retired on 14 pitches the next three batters. Perhaps Girardi is overthinking and overanalyzing, or perhaps the analysis he’s using isn’t up to winning standards – I have as much of a clue as anyone else.

But there’s potential in this story for more than just speculation about what or what not this writer or that writer – or this fan or that fan – may know. Maybe – just maybe – Girardi should trust his objectively superior pitchers over than the minor-league wash-ups who carve roles out in his bullpen (I say this with full knowledge that Boone Logan was once a LOOGY who carved out a prominent role in the pen, but the point of the 2012 bullpen is to preserve wins, not to develop talent), and maybe he should lengthen his leash a little bit. Perhaps he should just self-assess. Is he helping more than hurting by meticulously (so he thinks) playing the matchups?

To break it down a little more concretely, I see it like this: four pitchers were used to get five outs in a short, high-pressure time. These people aren’t robots, but good, breathing human beings like you and I – ones that have good days and bad days at work, ones who may not have gotten enough sleep at home, or perhaps ones who were late for clubhouse call. Perhaps one had a late night partying, another had a bat mitzvah service to attend that morning, or one stayed up too late watching T.V. In simpler terms, maybe one just wasn’t up for pitching that day, or didn’t bring his so-called “A” game.

These things happen: do you blame a home-run ceded by Robertson on pitch location, speed, location of impact on the bat, where Viciedo’s elbows were, the wind conditions, etc., or do you blame it on the unknown conditions that led him to throw it (say, his sleep last night, his warm-up routine, how quickly the manager demanded him out there, what else is on his mind, etc.)? There’s no right answer if you ask me, just a whole lot of gray. But while Joe Girardi doesn’t know any better than yourself or myself and shouldn’t be expected to consider the myriad of unknowns associated with each player’s playing of the game, he should recognize that very rarely, in this case, is more actually more. In my view, Girardi’s decision to turn the ball over four times could have contributed to the implosion in more ways than we – or he – knows. It certainly didn’t help the odds of finding a pitcher in the right mindset.

And while that may be dismissed as over analysis in and of itself, can one truly argue that player’s are in control of their lives in terms of the nitty-gritty in baseball (warm-up time, pitch count, batter matchups, etc.), or even the personal relationships (they only control one half, like everyone else)? Yes, they are professionals who are held to a standard that says that they must do their jobs and do their jobs well (or else they will lose their jobs), but that doesn’t take away the unknowns that Girardi gambles with every time he calls to the pen.

Most of the time, it’ll work out. Most of the time, I concede, there aren’t many going-ons that one can pinpoint that truly led to an outcome. Perhaps one day it was family issues, another it was warm-up time, another it was simply pitch location. There’s no measurement for any of the emotional in baseball, but that surely doesn’t mean it’s non-existent.

Next time I see Boone Logan enter the game and do his job quickly, efficiently, and impressively (three pitches, three strikes, one fly ball out!), I would expect to see more trust in the man who sports an 11.75 strikeout rate. But then again, I can’t see what’s on Girardi’s clipboard or in his head, or in his head or anyone else’s.

I’ll try not to overthink it. I hope he doesn’t, either.

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4 Responses to The unknowns in criticism: over-management

  1. mlblogsaugustine says:

    TERRIFIC Job, Nick…that was really well written. I'm a fan of Girardi but I can't argue his faults.

  2. Greg Corcoran says:

    Excellent article Nick. Surely these are the shortcomings of micromanaging. When you use this many relievers in one game, it's problematic. As you astutely pointed out, one of those pitchers is bound to leave their good stuff at home that day. The result is surrendering an important run, or more.

    That said, I actually think Girardi does a fantastic job managing his bullpens. Whatever the reason, he has been able to play to the strengths of his relievers and has taken many a wayward reliever and turned them into a sub 3.0 ERA guy. Whether it's Girardi or Larry Rothschild's ability to work with these guys, we may never know.

    The biggest mistake, IMO, was taking Logan out. He has had most of his success against left handed batters, but he has also been excellent against right handed hitters this season as well. When David Robertson or Soriano is in the game, they will face both lefties and righties. Is there something about being a lefty that makes it wrong to allow them to face righties, even though they have been effective against them? I don't know. I think Logan should be used less in a LOOGY capacity and more in a late inning, full inning manner.

    Once that decision was made, however, I can't argue with the other moves he's made. Micromanaging has it's pitfalls but it has really worked for the Yankees with Girardi at the helm. I think this short string of bad outcomes makes you wonder if Girardi's previous good luck is coming to an end, but I'd like to think that this is not the case.

  3. Stoogazzo says:

    Excellent article. It's about time someone took Retardi to task. Last night was another example of Retardi playing musical pitchers. However, we must realize that Retardi mico-manages entirely through his binder. He and that moron general manager Cashman are Sabermetric zealots.