Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com.
The favorite sport of many who call themselves fans of the Houston Astros does not appear to be baseball. Their favorite sport seems to be “Jimy-bashing,” and it looks like a very easy game to master. To be an accomplished practitioner, one has to take note of decisions or moves Jimy Williams makes during games, keep absolutely silent if the decisions work and, in the most strident tones possible, rail at or ridicule the ones that do not work. There is no way the Jimy-basher can be wrong because he or she only points out decisions that have not turned out well for the Astros. The refrain is if Jimy had only … everything would have been different and better. Jimy-bashers have raised second-guessing to an art form and are infallible. To confirm this, just ask them. Jimy Williams gets bashed in Texas and other Astros environs, but second-guessing a baseball manager or coach is part of our national fabric. Astros fans have seen the two extremes in managing style in the last two years. Larry Dierker, the skipper in 2001 and the previous four seasons, was the epitome of a set lineup, let ’em play manager. Dierker rarely changed lineups or made decisions that were visible from the stands or armchairs at home, and he seemingly attended many games as a spectator from his great seat in the dugout. Jimy Williams, in vivid contrast, uses many lineups and all his players, and he manages the games very actively. No one can ever accuse Williams of merely watching the games, and many of his decisions are readily apparent to even the casual fan. Because Williams is so much more active than Dierker during games, there is much more vocal criticism of the manager when things are not going well. Virtually every Williams decision that does not work is second-guessed mercilessly, and some fans have blamed losses directly on Williams’ decisions.
So, what does a manager do to win or lose a game all by himself? Absolutely nothing because he cannot execute his decisions. Players make the manager’s decisions look brilliant or stupid by their ability or inability to perform in the situations he puts them. If a player performs poorly, he should be held responsible for his failure, but all too often, fans blame the manager for a “dumb” decision to use the player who failed or to call for a play that does not work. Unless, however, a manager calls for something foolish, such as a two-out squeeze bunt, or uses a player who simply cannot, as opposed to does not, handle the situation, the players are responsible for the result on the field, not the manager.
A manager can, of course, have an effect on games and often does by his decisions throughout the course of a game. His first opportunity to affect the game occurs when he fills out the lineup card. Selecting a lineup and batting order is part statistical analysis, part observation and memory and part divine inspiration. Each manager may have his own ideas about how to determine a batting order, but there are more or less universal principles governing this decision: the 1-2 positions are get-on-base, “table setter” slots, the 3-4-5-6 slots are for the best hitters and run producers, the 7 position is for the next best hitter, and the 8 hole hitter must be able to get on base enough to avoid, as much as possible, the pitcher’s having to lead off an inning.
Matching the talents of his available players with the requirements of the various batting positions is the trick, and an effective batting order requires the manager’s knowledge of his players’ abilities, consideration of who is hot and who is not, and review of historical matchup statistics for each hitter against the opposing pitcher. A professional manager has more flexibility in setting a lineup and a batting order than a high school or college coach because he has more guys on his roster who really can play. For me as a high school coach, the batting order was set in stone once I decided on the lineup; the batting order just fell into place, and I did not change the order unless someone was injured or going so bad that I had to replace him. Some professional managers use the same lineup and batting order day in and day out, too, but many others move hitters in and out of the lineup and change the order from game to game. There is no “right” way to do it, but both methods require getting hitters into the best position to be productive.
A delicate task for the professional manager is to play his bench players enough to keep them sharp and to keep his regulars rested. He must change the lineup for this purpose without bruising the egos of the regulars who expect to play every day, and this juggling act will require the manager to be both a diplomat and a dictator. High school and college coaches do not have this problem often because they do not have games every day and there is a more clear disparity between the ability of the regulars and of the bench players. When bench players are in the lineup, the batting order becomes more important and more difficult to determine. Filling out the lineup card each day is an important managerial function that requires baseball erudition and some diplomacy, not just adequate penmanship.
During games there are countless ways for a manager to affect a game, but seldom, if ever, will a manager be guilty of losing a game solely because his decision does not work. Every base runner gives the manager of the offensive team an opportunity to make a decision: take sign or hit away, steal or do not run, hit and run, sacrifice, bunt and run, fake bunt and steal, fake bunt and hit away, double steal, start the runner, squeeze bunt-what should he call or should he do nothing? A game’s score and the inning will have a significant impact on a manager’s thinking, and so will the talent available to him. In any given situation, several of these choices will be reasonable and sound, and all may succeed or fail. These decisions must be made during the interval between pitches, under the stress, pressure and excitement of the specific game, and in time to relay a signal to a base coach to be relayed to the players. Once made, the decisions become irrevocable when the pitcher begins his windup. In addition, the best managers are thinking several hitters ahead, not just several pitches ahead.
A manager of the defensive team also has many decisions to make, and he has the same amount of time in which to make them: infield up or back, shade the hitter to pull or hit late, what pitch to call, intentional walk or pitch around, pitch out, wheel play, double steal defense, who covers second, hold the runner at first or play behind him, pickoff plays, bunt defense, throw home or get two-what should the defense do? Some situations call for multiple decisions to be made at once in the interval between pitches. For example, with runners at first and third and one out in the late innings of a tie game, the manager must decide when he wants his infielders to throw home and when to go for the double play, whether to bring the infield in or leave them back, how to defend a possible double steal, how to defend the squeeze play, whether to pitch out, how deep to have his outfielders, whether his fielders should shade one side of the diamond or the other, how to pitch to the hitter and whether to change pitchers. If the runner at first steals second, then the required decisions change.
A manager must be aware of all of the possible situations that can occur if the ball is put in play, and he must try to have his players in position to make the proper play no matter where the ball is hit. A manager can do everything “right,” but his decision still is at the mercy of his players’ execution and also is at the mercy of the opponents’ execution. If a manager calls for a squeeze bunt and catches the opponent completely off guard but his hitter pops up the bunt or his opponents pitch out, fans will call for the manager’s head. If his player misses the ball, throws it away or to the wrong base or otherwise screws up the play or if the hitter simply gets a clutch hit, the manager’s brilliance is to no avail. Did Joe Torre lose the seventh game of the 2001 World Series by having his infield play in or did Luis Gonzales win it by fighting off Riveria’s tough cut fastball and fisting it over the infield? Jimy-bashers would say the former, but the infield up or back decision became a simple one only after Gonzales hit the ball.
No decision inspires more livid second-guessing than the decision to change pitchers. Unlike the decisions made from the dugout through signals, words and gestures, many of which go unnoticed, the decision to change pitchers is made in the center of the diamond with all eyes on the manager. When a manager changes pitchers, the ultimate decision is a result of many smaller ones and a mental review of considerable information. He needs to consider historical matchup statistics for available pitchers against the hitters they may face, who is hot and who is not in his pen, what the bullpen coach tells him about the pitchers who are warming up, possible pinch hitters after the pitching change, who has warmed up already in the game and how many times, when and how many recent outings available pitchers have made, and the likelihood of the current pitcher’s escaping the present jam.
Only after weighing all of this information, can the manager make the best decision on a pitching change. Sometimes this decision is made for him by the current pitcher’s ineptitude or his frank admission that he is done, but the manager still must consider the relevant information to choose which reliever to bring in. After all is said and done, however, the relief pitcher must do the job, and one cannot forget that the hitter is trying his best to do his job at the same time. Blaming the manager for a relief pitcher’s poor performance or for the opposing hitter’s superior performance is the worst sort of 20-20 hindsight, ignores the ultimate responsibility that the players have for the outcome of games and disregards the effort of opponents.
Managers do not win games or lose games. The best a manager can do is to put players in a position to win games, but even the best baseball tactician is limited by the talent on hand, and success or failure of his decision completely depends upon his players’ performance. A manager will have many reasonable decisions available to him in most situations, and any of these decisions can be right or wrong in fans’ eyes depending on the result on the field. The defining moment of the Astros’ 2001 playoff series with the Braves provides a good illustration. Ahead 2-1 late in the game, Larry Dierker decided to remove his starter, but he brought in Mike Jackson instead of Octavio Dotel. Jackson coughed up the lead, and the Astros lost not only the game but also the psychological advantage of winning the first game of a playoff series. To paraphrase Bum Phillips, Dierker caught more hell than a little bit over this decision because it failed; the decision and his reaction to media criticism of it likely were major factors resulting in his forced “retirement.”
The criticism certainly was understandable because Dotel had been dominant as a setup man for most of the season, but was Dierker’s decision “wrong” in the sense that he did not consider the relevant information and come to a reasonable conclusion? Dierker had valid baseball reasons for using Jackson. Dotel’s recent outings included some shaky ones, and Jackson also had been reliable as a late inning reliever. Dotel was in his first season as a dominant pitcher, and Jackson was a veteran with many years’ successful experience in tight situations. Dotel was the more popular choice and might have been a better choice, in retrospect, but had Jackson shut out the Braves and turned the game over to Billy Wagner with a lead, there would have been no fan or media criticism at all.
Scorn and derision rained down on Dierker solely because Mike Jackson did not do his job when called upon or because the Braves’ hitters made the most of their opportunity to do theirs. Second-guessing presupposes that there is only one “right” decision in any given baseball situation, but that simply is not true. Criticism of Dierker’s decision is fair because there were other reasonable options; saying Dierker lost the game is unfair and untrue.
So what then can or should fans expect from their team’s manager or, put differently, what makes a manager or a coach great? Certainly a great manager will understand “inside baseball” completely; he will be an excellent strategist and tactician, and he will be willing to adapt his style of managing to the individual skills of the players available to him from year to year. He will not stubbornly wait for the three-run home run if his team has no power, and he will not recklessly run his team into easy outs if his team has no speed.
The great manager will be able to handle 25 men, and that does not require them to like him. He must gain their confidence in his knowledge of baseball, he must be able to motivate them to do their best, which is not easy to do with professional ballplayers, and he must have sufficient discipline so that the players accept that he is running the team and respect his authority. Winning creates team “chemistry” so the manager must maximize the team’s opportunities to win games by intelligent use of his players, by making sound game decisions that are based upon the information and talent available to him and by seizing the occasional opportunity in a game in which his decision can truly make a difference. After that, it is up to the players to win the games. All fans should expect from the manager is that he gets the players into position to win the games and does not hinder their ability to do so.
There is no absolute right or wrong for decisions of managers or coaches during baseball games. More than one decision is fundamentally sound in terms of baseball strategy for most situations, and as long as a decision does not put players in an impossible situation, then there are many choices that may succeed. Since time immemorial, however, decisions that do not succeed have been decried as “dumb” or “stupid” or worse, and second-guessing seems to be at an all-time high. Every parent in the stands at a Little League or high school game claims to know far more than the coach, and the proliferation of fantasy baseball leagues has made many armchair managers think they are superior in baseball acumen to Casey Stengel or John McGraw in their primes. Fans simply cannot expect managers to win games, and fans should not blame managers for losses. Players are responsible for hits and errors, home runs and strikeouts, and wins and losses.
Try to make a manager’s decisions yourself between pitches at the next game you attend. Is it any wonder that some managers take the “let ’em play” approach? Making decisions pitch by pitch is hard work that requires alertness and quick thinking, and the bottom line is that even the most brilliant decisions possible still must be executed by the players. If players fail to execute, the decision does not work, and the opponent wins that particular skirmish. Does that failure make the manager’s decision dumb? Of course not, but all too often the manager receives the blame for a player’s failure to execute.
Think along with the manager at the next game, but decide what to do BEFORE the next pitch. It is not easy, is it? Do managers make wrong decisions? If “wrong” is judged by whether the decision works, then most managers will admit to being “wrong.” That should not be the standard for the thinking fan, however, and what the fan should demand is that his manager make a sound baseball decision, within the limits of his players’ abilities, that is reasonable under the circumstances of the game situation. Many decisions may work and many may not, but only unreasonable, unrealistic or unsound decisions should be ridiculed. Jimy-bashing is in vogue, but it is no more than 20-20 hindsight and second-guessing at its worst. Examine the various decisions that are possible during games, and analyze the manager’s available options and the reasoning behind them. That is a far more enjoyable way to watch and discuss this great game.