Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 16, 2010

Playing The Odds

On the one hand, it’s not a bad job, if one can get it. It pays on average more than $1.25 million per year. The top earners in the position will make three times that number, and even the newest hire is likely to be paid half a million. On the other hand, there are only thirty positions available, spread out across North America. The job involves a great deal of travel, limited job security, and some days even the best at what they do must feel like everyone they encounter thinks they’re entitled to be his boss. Such is the life of the major league manager.

The vast majority of what a big league skipper does is either invisible or nearly so. Massaging the egos of twenty-five young men (and even the grizzled veterans are, for the most part, still young men), maintaining a positive, winning attitude in the clubhouse, balancing the demands for playing time with the need for rest through the longest season in sports, determining what lineup and batting order provides the best chance for victory against today’s opponent, handling the twelve fragile elbows, shoulders and wrists of the pitching staff; the work that goes into doing all of these things is done mostly out of public view. Of course, the result of all this work is very much on public display, 162 times a year.

Which brings me to Friday night in the Bronx. I was on hand for the first game of a three game set between the Yankees and the Minnesota Twins, a rematch between last year’s AL Division Series opponents. Both squads are led by successful managers; Ron Gardenhire for the Twins and Joe Girardi for the Yankees. Both know what they’re doing; though that certainly doesn’t stop any number of amateur experts from suggesting otherwise on sports talk radio and blog comment pages. But that’s the case in thirty cities across the land.

Through 2009, in Gardenhire’s eight seasons at the helm, the Twins have had only one losing campaign, and have gone to the post-season five times. October play has proven more difficult, as Minnesota has lost four times in the opening Division Series round (three of those times to the Yankees), advancing to the ALCS only in Gardenhire’s first year, when they lost to the A’s. Still, five post-season appearances and only one losing record in eight years is not bad for a small market team that was a candidate for contraction during Gardenhire’s first year as skipper.

As a rookie manager of the Florida Marlins in 2006, Girardi led the low-budget team to a Wild Card berth. But a rancorous relationship with the team owner meant that such success wasn’t enough to keep him from being fired as soon as the Marlins were eliminated from the post-season. After a season away from the game, Girardi returned to the team with which he had spent most of his playing career, becoming the Yankees manager before the 2008 season. A difficult first campaign in which the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in twelve years led to a consciously looser, less tightly wound Girardi arriving at 2009 Spring Training. The result as everyone knows was a 103-win campaign and the Yankees first World Championship since 2000.

On a warm evening in New York, the two teams engaged in a close contest despite a marked difference in their pitching. Through six innings the Twins’ Scott Baker was painting the corners of the plate, while the Yankees’ A.J. Burnett was just trying to find it. The final box score would record that both starters threw 100 pitches; 72 of Baker’s were strikes compared to an anemic 51 of Burnett’s. But through six innings, with both starters still working, the Yankees led 3-2, proof that statistics can be deceiving. Both managers relearned that old lesson in the seventh.

In the top half Girardi opted to bring in left-handed reliever Damaso Marte to face the Twins powerful lefty hitters Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Statistically speaking, lefty on lefty favors the pitcher; and in the first match-up, Girardi was doubtless also aware that the All-Star Mauer had a .222 lifetime average against Marte. I mean if they are showing that fact on one of the three giant screens in center, I’m going to guess that the manager may have been aware of it. The result was a single to tie the game and a double to put the Twins ahead. Oops.

But then in the bottom half of the seventh Gardenhire opted not just to play the percentages, but to “tug on Superman’s cape” while doing so. With runners on second and third and one out, the Twins manager gave the order to intentionally walk Mark Teixeira in order to load the bases.

Statistically speaking (again), this move makes sense. The ways that Teixeira could hurt the Twins were the same ways that the next batter, a fellow known as A-Rod could. But walking Teixeira created a force at any base, thus increasing the likelihood of an out or even a double play from the next hitter. Still I have to think that if I were one of the premier sluggers in the game, batting cleanup, I would feel a wee bit dissed to watch the batter in front of me given an intentional pass. Who knows if that gave Alex Rodriguez a little extra incentive? Who knows if it meant anything at all? What we all know is that the third pitch to him got deposited into the left field seats for a grand slam, and the Yankees went on to win 8-4. Much bigger oops.

A good and interesting game. As it got late, both managers played the odds, and in the end both got bit. But I left feeling that Girardi was just playing the odds, while Gardenhire was asking to get bit. Of course, if A-Rod had grounded into an inning-ending double-play, he would have been a genius.

Such is the life of a major league manager.

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Responses

  1. Hi, realistically, though, when facing the Yankees formidable lineup, even the smartest manager doesn’t get to go out there and actually pitch the ball. Sometimes, there just aren’t any good choices for a manager, just a bunch of bad ones. Nice post, though, Bill


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