Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Overmanaging: The Unforgivable Crime of an AL Skipper


In 1973, the American League made the decision to adopt the designated hitter rule. Teams would now be allowed to place nine slugging bats in the order, replacing their weak-hitting pitcher with an aging, beer-bellied banger. The rule change was set in place largely because the AL had become worried about the pitching dominance that was taking the league by storm, and saw the DH as a way to combat this advantage and make games more exciting and fan-friendly. Whether they achieved this goal is debatable, and the pros and cons of the issue are still argued passionately to this day. (For the record, I am one of the leaders of the NO DH camp.) But one thing not up for discussion is the role of the American League manager, and how their potential impact on a game was slashed to pieces the minute that Ron Blomberg stepped in the box that night as the very first designated hitter in the game's history.

What decisions did they have to make now?

What would happen to the classic baseball conundrum when your team is locked in a tight, low-scoring game in the late innings and the starting pitcher is due up with the go-ahead run just 90 feet away? Managers no longer had to worry about that. Just scribble your best nine hitters on to a lineup card, send your hurler out to the hill, and find a cozy seat on the bench for the next three plus hours. Yet, as we saw tonight in New York, they still find a way to butcher the game somehow. I now bring to you a classic case of "Overmanaging, 101."

Overmanaging can be defined very simply. It occurs when a manager (usually in the AL, where thinking is rarely required of them) refuses to let his players simply win the game on their own and decides it is time for him to put his personal stamp on the contest so he can receive some of the credit later. Overmanaging is seen in several forms. Sometimes it's a skipper going to get a cruising starting pitcher with a low pitch count simply because it is time for the "closer" to now enter the game. Other times, a manager chooses a bizarre and completely inappropriate time to start fiddling with baserunners and gimmick plays simply because he desires a little on-air tummy rub from the Tim McCarvers and Joe Morgans of the world. Let us not forget the one game the Tigers dropped to the Yankees in the opening round of the 2006 playoffs.

Yankee ace Chien-Ming Wang was on the bump, and the Bengals started getting to him early. Magglio Ordóñez belted a double to start the 2nd. With Wang now out of the stretch, he issued a walk to Carlos Guillen, putting two on with nobody out. Perfect time for the Tigers to possibly put together a big inning and take command of the series in a hostile environment. Of course, in this scenario, there should not have been much for Jim Leyland to do.

Just let your next three hitters go up, take their best hacks at a now struggling Wang, and hope you can scratch out a couple of very important runs. But Leyland had other plans. Apparently he saw this as the perfect time for a hit-and-run. To this day, I just can't see where he was coming from on this. Ordóñez and Guillen broke on the 1-0 pitch to Pudge Rodriguez, and sure enough, it wasn't a great pitch to hit, and Pudge swung right through it. Jorge Posada fired the ball down to third and nailed Ordóñez by 30 feet.

Now Wang could finally breathe. Without really recording an out, he was generously donated one by Leyland and Co. Whereas he should have been forced to retire three straight hitters to escape this early jam, Leyland had now handed him a "Get Out of Jail Free" card, via his careless and inexplicable decision to put on the hit-and-run (especially with the lead runner being the slow-footed Ordóñez ). Pudge proceeded to strike out, Craig Monroe bounced harmlessly to Jeter, and the potential rally fizzled in the blink of an eye. Wouldn't you know it that the first batter in the next inning, Marcus Thames, the man that should have been at the plate with two on and two out the inning prior, came up and laced a double off Wang, bringing Leyland's overmanaging front and center. The Tigers could have staked Nate Robertson to a critical early lead, but instead, they had a goose egg, and would go on to lose the all-important series opener. Overmanaging at its finest.

Coincidentally, the beef I have tonight also takes place in the Bronx, only this time I will be throwing my stones at the Bombers' field general, Joe Girardi. The Yankees were entertaining the Texas Rangers, and found themselves trailing heading into the bottom of the 9th, 10-5. With longtime kerosene man Jason Grilli trying to finish things off for Texas, it was no surprise that things started to get interesting. Johnny Damon poked a single to open the frame. Mark Teixeira followed up with a walk. Rangers boss Ron Washington was not messing around, and decided to go ahead and bring in his closer, Frank Francisco, though his team still held a comfortable five run advantage. It only got worse from there. Francisco came in wild, and doled out a free pass to Alex Rodriguez, loading the bases with still nobody out in the inning.

In this situation, with the world caving in all around you, the team on defense will do absolutely anything for a single out. Just one out, so we can exhale and begin to see the light at the end of this tunnel. Great rallies generally occur when the first few guys reach base in the inning, as it causes immense panic and nervousness to set in for the other team. In this case, with the Rangers fighting every day to stay near the top of the Wild Card standings, that first out could not come soon enough. Unfortunately for them, Hideki Matsui was in no mood to oblige, and rapped a sharp single to right, scoring a run and moving everybody up a base. 10-6 now, bases still loaded, and again, nobody out. Jorge Posada was next in line. He got jammed badly on a Francisco heater, but hit it so softly and delicately down the third base line that by the time Michael Young charged in and barehanded the ball, all he could do was eat it and watch the 46,511 Yankee fans in attendance dance in their seats at this furious rally that still had not seen a single out recorded. The score was 10-7 now, the bases were still jammed, and Robinson Cano was next. The lefty Cano blooped the next Francisco offering perfectly the opposite way, scoring two runs this time, and bringing the deficit to just one.

Key stat: the Yankees had sent six hitters to the plate thus far in the inning, and every single one had reached base. Whether it be a walk, a clean base hit, or a cheap roller on the infield, everything was going right for the Yanks. The Rangers had to wonder how in the world they would now retire three full hitters before the Yankees scratched out those final couple runs. After all, they'd been on defense for close to 15 minutes, and had nothing to show for it. At that point, Ron Washington and his ballclub would most likely have sacrificed a human life, or paid a large sum of money, to somehow, someway, be awarded that elusive first out.

Enter Joe Girardi, overmanaging extraordinaire.

Girardi directed Nick Swisher, the next Yankee due up, to lay down a sacrifice. In other words, he was saying "I am aware that the Rangers have been unable to retire our last six batters, that we have one of our best rallies of the year going on right now, that the momentum could not possibly be more on our side. All I really need to do is sit right where I am and watch the game like every other fan here, but ahh, screw it, let's just hand them an out."

Girardi decided to tinker with the baseball gods and make himself a hero, but a little thing called karma came up and bit him right on the backside. Swisher, with a whopping seven sacrifices to his credit in close to 3,000 big league plate appearances, feebly aimed his bat at the ball and popped it up right to Young a few feet in foul territory. The Rangers had finally notched the ever-important first out of the inning, and the Yankees had nothing to show for it. So much for making them earn each of those last three outs, especially when they had proven so very difficult to come by in the half dozen batters preceding Swisher.

Now the Rangers could wind up getting right out of Dodge with a simple double play ball. Well, it didn't come in the traditional sense, but that's exactly what happened next. Melky Cabrera sliced a hard liner to short, the runner got caught a few feet off second, and the bang-bang play that ensued at the bag saw the umpire go up with his fist, driving a stake through the heart of this once-promising rally and confirming Joe Girardi as an overmanager in the worst way.

Would the Yankees have come back and tied or won this game had their manager not intervened with his "brilliant" call for a sac bunt? We don't know.

Maybe the Rangers would have wiggled out of it anyway, but the point is, after starting an inning down five runs, and putting your first six runners on base, you must make that opposing team earn every last one of those three outs.

One of my favorite managers of all-time, Earl Weaver, absolutely hated the sacrifice bunt. He believed that the 27 outs you were given at the beginning of a game should be cherished, and not handed out for free, unless a very specific situation called for such charity. Tonight was not one of those nights.

Joe Girardi's team was rolling, the stadium was rocking, and in all likelihood, had he just sat there and minded his own business, the game's outcome would have been very different. He might be listed officially in the Yankees Media Guide simply as the "Manager," but that's not quite right. He's an Over Manager, and tonight, this power trip cost his team a game. Next time, it might cost him his life...


Sure, the end of that story was a tad dramatic, but Overmanaging is a very serious offense, and the HSL is one to hold grudges. Drop a comment below, or feel free to contact me by e-mail at highsockslegend@gmail.com

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