The Unintended Consequence
Regular readers of this Blog know that baseball is a recurring theme here. Given the furor in Flushing, New York, over the past few days, as well as Monday night’s Yankee bullpen meltdown by relief pitcher Jonathan Holder, it seems an apt time to take a look at how the New York City baseball clubs are being managed, and general managed, as the season’s mid-point approaches.
To truly appreciate where baseball, in general, stands in late June, 2019 --- and New York baseball, in particular --- we need to time-travel back to the turn of the Millennium and the Oakland Athletics’ General Manager, Billy Beane’s then-unique approach to running his team. All of that was well documented in Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball, as well as the 2011 Brad Pitt film of the same name. As noted in Wikipedia, the book’s focus:
is the team's analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team despite Oakland's small budget.
If you are not familiar with the term “sabermetric,” it refers to analysis of empirical data to measure player performance, developed by the Society for American Baseball Research (“SABR”) and coined by Bill James, the Godfather of sabermetricians. Breaking from a century of conventional wisdom where scouts, coaches, managers, and general managers assessed player potential based on batting averages, runs batted in, and how many “tools” (running, hitting for average, hitting for power, fielding, and arm strength) the player had, sabermetrics illustrated that on base percentage and slugging percentage (which calculates the kind of hit --- single, double, triple, home run --- in relation to at bats --- not counting sacrifices, walks, or hit by pitches) were more successful in predicting Major League success. Because of the success of the low payroll Oakland franchise year after year, sabermetrics slowly but surely gained sway among savvy owners and general managers and now dominates baseball --- sometimes to a maddeningly nerdish degree (exit velocity, “pop rate,” spin rate, etc.).
The Saga of Brian and Brodie
What sabermetrics has led to, by 2019, is that General Managers have become baseball’s Showrunners. Managers are still in the dugout but nowadays most of them get their marching orders from the G.M. Yes, the Managers make a number of decisions during the game but those decisions are often made within guidelines and strictures issued by the General Manager. If you don’t think that’s the case, here’s some recent New York City baseball history that reflects the General Manager Moneyball norm.
The Mets are not having a great season, despite predictions to the contrary from General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen. Van Wagenen, of course, is a first-year G.M. who was formerly an agent (for two of the Mets highest paid players: Yoenis Cespedes & Jacob DeGrom). Van Wagenen made a big splash over the winter executing a trade with the Seattle Mariners that sent two of New York’s prime prospects to the West Coast for a young closer, Edwin Diaz, and a very expensive old player, Robinson Cano. Diaz was what they wanted but this past weekend illustrates how baseball has changed in the Moneyball era. As players have developed more specialized skills and roles (as a result of sabermetrics) General Managers instruct Managers on how those players should be used. So, over the weekend the Mets were in a situation where they needed five outs to win their game. It seems that Mickey Callaway, the Mets barely competent Manager, has been told in no uncertain terms that Edwn Diaz cannot be used for more than FOUR outs. Toeing the company line, Callaway did not bring in Diaz to get five outs and, before you knew it, the Met bullpen gave up the winning runs to their opponent. In the aftermath both Callaway and pitcher Jason Vargas verbally attacked a reporter (receiving fines from MLB for their actions). Truth be told, Callaway and Vargas may well have been angry with Van Wagenen, who exhibits a malignant narcissistic need to be the center of attention always. At the root of the problem --- and the Mets poor season (so far) --- is the new Moneyball approach. In this case we have a former Stanford outfielder-cum agent- cum-rookie G.M., Van Wagenen, running a team that is helmed by a proven model of incompetence, Mickey Callaway. And poor Met fans, remembering their World Series appearance in 2015, fear spiraling into the abyss of the playoff desert.
The Yankees, of course, have Brian Cashman as their General Manager, a man who sports 4 World Series rings and a playoff run that is the best among current G.M.’s. Upon further review, however, we see that Cashman fired Joe Girardi after that Manager not only led the Yankees to the playoffs in 2017 but also came within one game of going to the World Series. But Girardi, apparently, failed to buy into Cashman’s notions of how the team should be run and, after the 2017 season, bye-bye Joe. I was not, and am not, a fan of Joe Girardi, despite his World Series win in 2009 and the great playoff run of 2017. His replacement, however, has, in one and a half seasons, shown himself to be a true dimwit. Aaron Boone has a Major League pedigree --- his grandfather, father, and brother all played Major League baseball with some distinction. Boone is a Yankee fan favorite for his playoff game-winning 10th inning home run against the Red Sox in 2003. As a manager, however, Boone is a slug --- but a slug who clearly executes Cashman’s game plan night after night. This is particularly --- and excruciatingly --- evident as he mis-uses the bullpen. Because he clearly has orders from Cashman as to “how to” employ his relievers, Boone continues to leave pitchers in too long, The last two nights are prime examples.
Monday night, with the Yanks sporting a comfortable 10-2 lead against the Toronto Blue Jays, Boone brought in the struggling young reliever, Jonathan Holder for the 7th inning. Holder’s last few outings had been disasters. Nonetheless, it was 10-2. Boone is clearly under orders to not over-use his “high leverage” relievers (Green, Ottavino, Kahnle, Britton, Chapman). Holder proceeded to give up a home run to his first batter, then two straight singles, at which point any manager with a brain would have at least made a mound visit and gotten someone up in the bullpen. Not Boone. Holder gives up another single and the bases are now loaded. No mound visit, no one up in the bullpen. The next hitter: Grand Slam Home Run. Five batter, five hits, five runs. Now it’s a 10-7 game. Nice job, Aaron Boone. The Yankees ultimately won the game, despite their puppet manager.
Last night the Yanks used the “Opener” strategy, an idea created by the Tampa Bay Rays last season. The “Opener” is a relief pitcher who starts a game and faces three or six batters. He is then followed by a “long” reliever (a pitcher who can go 3,4,5 innings, but is not good enough to be a starting pitcher). The plan is that the “Openers” get you to the 6th or, ideally, 7th inning and then your “high leverage” guys take over and win the game. The Yankees “opener’ strategy has been very successful (6-0) by employing Chad Green for two innings and Nestor Cortes, Jr. for four innings. The “high leverage” guys then clean up 7, 8, 9. Last night, though, because Boone had to use Green the night before to bail Holder out, Chad could only pitch one inning. Nonetheless, Boone, sticking to his script, wanted Cortes, Jr. to get through the 6th inning --- despite the fact that he has shown he’s not very good after four innings. So, Cortes pitches into the 6th and is roughed up for 2 runs and Boone now has to use his “high leverage” guys for the rest of the game. That means he has an over-used bullpen for the Wednesday afternoon game where the notoriously erratic James Paxton is the starting pitcher.
Is the mismanagement Boone’s fault? Without a doubt (just as it is Callaway’s with the Mets). BUT because these managers are on very short leashes with their Moneyball General Managers calling the shots, it’s not totally their fault. Are Boone and Callaway barely competent Major League Managers? Yes, with an emphasis on barely. Are their General Managers responsible for how their teams are doing? Yes. In Cashman’s case, he is good enough evaluator of talent (we won’t talk about Jacoby Ellsbury or the last years of A-Rod’s horrendous contract) that this team could win with almost anyone in the dugout making out the lineup card. Poor Callaway is clearly in over his depth and will probably be fired before or just after the All-Star break.
Make no mistake, this is the world Moneyball has ushered in. Appreciate guys like Joe Maddon in Chicago and Bruce Bochy in San Francisco. They are a vanishing breed of Major League manager. The age of the General Manager is upon us, along with sabermetrics. Baseball has always evolved and changed. This is simply the latest iteration.