Sunday, April 27, 2008

Good moves, bad moves, you know he's made his share

It sounds like the days of John Gibbons as the manager of record for the Toronto Blue Jays may be numbered. Consider the opening paragraphs of Jeff Blair's Globe column after today's 5-2 win over Kansas City:

"John Gibbons had to do something because, let's be honest, there will come a time when the decision making is taken out of his hands.
He knows it, and has become increasingly open about how much longer he will or won't have to manage the Toronto Blue Jays. He's down to the short strokes, in other words, so it was only right and proper that he pull off a massive lineup shuffle Sunday."

This time, the lineup shuffle worked, the Jays came through with some key hits and the Royals gave them the game with several terrible errors. Thus, Gibbons may stick around for a while longer, but you can bet he's still on a short leash. I'm not entirely convinced firing him would make a huge difference, though.

Granted, Gibbons has made several very questionable moves lately. Refusing to use John McDonald, the appropriately-named Prime Minister of Defense (thanks Drunk Jays Fans) as a late-innings defensive replacement for David "Short and Scrappy" Eckstein is certainly one of them. Benching Frank Thomas for a slow start in order to use a stellar Rod Barajas at DH (which, of course led to the inevitable parting of the ways with Frank the Tank) is another, although there are questions about how much of that was contract-related pressure from above. Similar questions abound on the subject of Adam Lind's extended time in the minors after Thomas's departure, and whether it was a managerial move by Gibbons or a contract-related decision by J.P. Ricciardi.

We haven't gotten to one of the worst yet, though: Friday's decision to have Scott Downs intentionally walk Tony Pena Jr., he of the .156/.179/.203 numbers this season, to pitch to David DeJesus (.364/.405/.455) and set up a lefty/lefty matchup. DeJesus is actually hitting for a better average against lefties than righties this year (.412 vs .313), but his OPS drops from .921 against righties to .801 against lefties This is a small sample size, so let's look at his career numbers: .266/.343/.380 against southpaws versus .290/.366/.430 against right-handers. Sure, there's a drop there, but it isn't that huge. Pena, on the other hand, has hit slightly better against lefties than righties (.257/.276/.341 versus .251/.270/.338) over his career.

On the surface, both players seem to show that they follow the conventional wisdom of left-handers hitting better off righties and vice versa. Even with that, though, DeJesus is still hitting .266/.343/.380 against lefties over his career, compared to Pena's .257/.276/.341. Using the stats from this season, the discrepancy is even more glaring: Pena is hitting .125/.167/.188 against southpaws, while DeJesus has put up .412/.389/.412 numbers against LHP. Thus, Gibbons walked a guy with a .354 OPS against LHP this year to pitch to someone whose OBP and SLG numbers are both better than that! As Joe Posnanski wrote, "And finally, I’d say most of the intentional walks I see are INCREDIBLY STUPID strategic moves. The kind that make my teeth hurt. I’ve never seen a more offensive walk than Friday night. Never."

This one is pretty bad. It's overthinking on the level of Mr. Burns removing Darryl Strawberry to pinch-hit Homer Simpson instead, despite Strawberry's nine home runs ("It's called playing the percentages!"). Incidentally, Neate, Tyler and I agreed the other day that "Homer at the Bat" is one of the greatest Simpsons episodes ever, so apparently the universe can survive agreement between Tyler and myself (as long as it's only on minor points). Posnanski went on to say that he would have fired Gibbons on the spot: "I’m just telling you … I’d have fired somebody. I’m just telling you that intentionally walking Tony Pena Jr. or any other light-hitting middle infielder hitting .150 would be a fireable offense on my team. I’d have that written on a clubhouse sign."

(Brain Massage Images)

However, I'm not of a mind to fire Gibbons yet. Sure, he's made some bad decisions, but he's also made some very good ones. I liked the hit-and-run calls today to force the issue, and one had the nice side effect of snapping Vernon Wells out of a slump. As Darrin Fletcher (the baseball player and Sportsnet commentator, not the Manchester United winger) pointed out on today's broadcast, you don't usually call a hit and run with someone like Wells at the plate, but when they're in an 0 for 15 slump, it sometimes makes sense. I know from my own playing days that you're often overthinking and trying to do too much when you get into a protracted slump, and the manager creating a situation where you're aiming to just get contact (and have pressure on you to do so) seems like an inventive slump-breaker in my books.

As Blair points out, there are some good things about the new lineup as well: Alex Rios did very well out of the leadoff spot, and Scott Rolen turned in a great performance batting third. Gibbons also can't really be blamed for many of the team's struggles to this point, which, as Mike Wilner points out, have had much more to do with their terrible batting performance with runners in scoring position. Better minds than I, including Blair, Wilner and Dustin Parkes have come to the conclusion that Gibbons isn't at fault and shouldn't be fired yet, so I'm inclined to agree. Managers make a hell of a lot of decisions every day: some work out brilliantly, some are passable, and some are horrendous failures. Gibbons might need some more brain massaging to avoid moves like walking Tony Pena Jr., but unlike Posnanski, I wouldn't fire him purely for that. Until we see far more managerial moves in the "horrendous failure" category, firing Gibbons would be a move that's purely for show and highly unlikely to right the ship.

As an aside: Alex Rios proved today why speed and good decision-making on the basepaths are still valuable assets, as he managed to score from first on a Scott Rolen single when Jose Guillen threw to second base. It was a great call by third-base coach Marty Pevey, but he doesn't even have the chance to make that call if someone slower, say Matt Stairs, is on first base, as they might not even get past second on that hit. Speed isn't the be-all and end-all, but it's a nice tool to have. Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver made a strong case for the value of speed a while back, so I'll leave the summary to him.

"The last question, of course, is how much baserunning really matters. And the general rule of thumb is that it can make about a win’s worth of difference at the extremes: a really fast/skilled baserunner will produce about 8-10 extra runs for his team on a going-forward basis as compared with a really slow/terrible baserunner. Or, if you prefer, a great baserunner will produce about an extra half-win for his team (4-5 runs) per season versus an average baserunner.

This is nothing to sneeze at. Baserunning is another in that category of things that might be overrated by the mainstream media, but has nevertheless been underrated by sabermetricians. "

Couldn't have said it better myself.

1 comment:

  1. nice post. tough stretch for the Jays, hopefully yesterday's win can send them back on the right track.

    and how bout Rolen? dude looks fly in a Jays uniform.

    It's a long season. Tampa just swept the Red Sox. it happens to everyone.

    go jays.