September 26, 2017
Confessions of a Fake Manager: June
In an effort to become the perfect SaberManager™, I'm taking over the 2005 Cubs and leading them through a simulated season in Out of the Park. I'll do all of the things that I've told managers they should be doing, while paying attention both to how feasible strategies are in isolation and within the context of a baseball team playing a baseball season. For more details and a full explanation of why and how I've chosen to do this—and with 2005 Cubs of all teams—click here.
Game 52 (June 1) – at Dodgers; Win 11-1; Record: 29-23
I probably shouldn’t have anything bad to say about this game. It was as easy as the score makes it look. Mark Prior and Ricky Nolasco gave me seven strong innings, and by the fourth inning it was 8-0. But in the bottom of the fourth inning, I had to make a call that was emblematic of what I’ve come to understand managing to be. Prior entered the bottom of the fourth with a pitch count of 39. As a tandem starter, I generally try to limit his pitch count to 50 or so. My hope was that he could make short work of the Dodgers in the fourth. His lineup spot was due up third in the next inning, and this was going to be his last stand anyway. If he could get through the fourth, I could pinch-hit for his spot and inject a little more offense into the game.
Prior began the inning with a five-pitch strikeout of J.D. Drew, but had to throw 10 pitches before Hee-Seop Choi grounded a ball back to the mound for the second out. Now at 54 pitches and Jayson Werth standing between him and a complete inning, I had a choice to make on Mr. Prior’s behalf. I could let Prior face Werth, hopefully retire him, and then pinch-hit for Prior in the top of the fifth. But that came with the risk of driving up his pitch count, and perhaps not working. Nolasco was ready in the bullpen, but bringing him in here either meant a double-switch (there was no obvious double-switch candidate) or having Nolasco take the at-bat in the pitcher’s spot. As I mentioned, it was 8-0 at the time, so this was hardly The Lady or The Tiger, but the decision had to be made. (I went out to the mound and got Prior. It’s not like I needed the extra offense at that point.)
In writing about baseball managers, we focus on the decisions that might make or break a game. That’s great from a strategic analysis point of view, but it ignores the fact that a lot of decisions I found myself making as a “manager” were decisions between inconveniences. In this case, it wasn’t likely that either decision would actually tip the balance in either direction. There might be a technically correct answer, but with so many of these decisions to make, is it a good idea to really belabor that answer? The neurons in the brain’s decision-making centers can become tired. If there’s a really important decision to make later on, perhaps it’s better if those cortexes aren’t burned out. While we have the fantasy of the manager who is always listening to that logical part of his brain, maybe he’s being rationally efficient in rationing his inefficiencies.
Nolasco did get me through the bottom of the seventh inning, and with the score 11-1, I mostly just needed two innings to get to the postgame spread. Who should pitch them? When I began this exercise, I said that I would not be shy about using my team’s “13th pitcher” to save the bullpen. To this point in my season, five different position players had made a total of nine appearances for me, throwing eight innings and giving up 16 runs, with all of them coming in games that were essentially lost causes. Emphasis on “lost.” Now, I found myself in a different position.
A few years ago, former BP writer Zachary Levine mused on why it is that teams don’t use position players to pitch when they are winning by a large margin. Sure, position players don’t make great pitchers, but they generally aren’t that bad. I looked and saw that my position players were giving up two runs per inning when they pitched. Even if they pitched to that standard, I had a 10-run lead and only two innings to go, and not to get all Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead! on y’all, but that leaves six runs to spare. Plus, if things got really hairy, I could simply warm up a real pitcher. The logical thing for me to do would be to save my bullpen and just have Corey Patterson pitch a couple of innings.
Glendon Rusch finished off the game for me. He threw two scoreless and ultimately meaningless frames.
Game 55 (June 4) – at Padres; Loss 3-4 (10); Record: 30-25
Where to start ...
First off, the Cubs lost this game in heartbreaking fashion. They ran into Jake Peavy to the tune of 11 strikeouts and limped into the ninth inning down 2-0, but a three-run rally put them up going into the bottom of the ninth. I faced a sudden decision on how to handle the bottom of the ninth. Ryan Dempster, my primary closer, had pitched the day before, although he was still OK. Michael Wuertz, who had been my primary setup man, was more rested. Who should get the call? For a moment, I was paralyzed. This was a game in the balance. I went with Dempster, praying that I hadn’t made the wrong call. The Padres tied the game in the ninth. Wuertz came on in the 10th and gave up the winning run. It seems that I could comfort myself with the thought that neither decision would have been the right one. It’s cold comfort.
But in the middle of the game, Derrek Lee, worth 2.7 WAR to this point in the season, came up with a bad back. After the game, the team doctor diagnosed him as having a pinched nerve. He was out for three weeks. I’ve estimated that a good manager, with all of the saber-tricks that he can try, could add about a win of value to his team. And that can all be undone by the words “Derrek Lee will be out for three weeks.” At the end of every season, someone wins the Manager of the Year award in each league, and it’s usually the guy whose team does better than its pre-season projection. I can’t even tell you who won the award last year off hand, but I’m struck by how much of it comes down to things like this over which the manager has almost no control.
Positives ... positives ... well ... I can again shift Nomar Garciaparra further down the defensive spectrum, having him move from third to first, where he can do less damage. And the computer seems to think that the Cubs' best prospect right now is Eric Patterson (seriously?), whom I’ve been trying to get some regular at-bats. He can slot in at third.
Game 56 (June 5) – at Padres; Loss 3-5 (11); Record: 30-26
I have to make a small confession here. This should technically be a 3-2 loss (in nine innings). When I was “playing” the game, I was playing it with one foot out the door (y’know, real life) and the final play of the game was Eric Patterson making his second error of the ninth inning, which allowed the Padres to push across the winning run. Garciaparra had allowed the Padres to tie the game by committing an error earlier in the game. These were same two guys that I tried to sell myself on as the silver lining of the Lee injury. But, since I didn’t click “leave game” and my computer for some reason re-started, that game never happened.
It's an odd feeling to replay a game, because that doesn’t happen in the real world. We think of a game as a fixed point in time, that of course couldn’t have possibly happened in any other way. This game, of course, unfolded in a completely different way than the one that got erased. The Cubs found a different particularly maddening way to lose. Despite seven strong innings from Carlos Zambrano and the now seemingly automatic Rusch special of three shutout innings on 26 pitches, the Cubs gutted into the 11th inning tied 3-3. Wuertz gave up a two-run home run to Angel Pena, who prior to this year had last been seen in MLB in 2001 with the Dodgers.
Despite the fact that my Cubs are now 5.5 games out in the division, I find myself sitting here and staring at my hand—I mean, have you ever really looked at your hand—and thinking about how the same game between the same two teams with the same rosters could turn out so differently. (Given that my wife and I just welcomed a set of fraternal twins into the world, this probably shouldn’t make me wonder as much as it has.)
Game 58 (June 7 – vs. Blue Jays; Loss 5-7; Record: 30-28
After enduring a five-hit shutout by Josh Towers the day before, the Cubs were back in action, and for once things were going right. Prior and Nolasco filled seven innings, and a three-run rally in the bottom of the sixth had put the Cubs up 5-3. Wuertz had a good eighth inning, and turned it over to Dempster in the ninth to close things out.
Vernon Wells hit a three-run homerun.
Ugh. A four-game losing streak has dropped us to third in the NL Central, 5.5 games back.
Game 59 (June 8) – vs. Blue Jays; Win 6-2; Record 31-28
And, of course, the next day we beat Roy Halladay. I realize I’ve also slipped into saying “we.”
Game 60 (June 10) – vs. Red Sox; Win 5-2; Record 32-28
This box score has just about everything.
The tandem-starter system worked to perfection, with Kerry Wood going three innings, and being lifted for pinch-hitter (and sabermetric darling) Matt Murton. It’s the neat little extra bump that a team running the tandem-starter system gets. It was Murton, rather than Wood, up with runners at first and third and none out in the bottom of the third, with the Cubs down two runs. And he was on base when second-spot hitter Michael Barrett—no one’s idea of a two-hole hitter (he’s a catcher!), but with the loss of Lee, one of the best hitters I have left—hit a three-run homer to put the Cubs up by two.
It was followed by a Waxahatchee Swap, with Wuertz relieving Rich Hill to face Manny Ramirez (and getting him to pop out) and then going to left field while Mike Remlinger faced switch-hitting Jason Varitek and got him to fly out (to Wuertz!) to end the seventh, followed eventually by left-handed-hitting Trot Nixon to open up the eighth (pop up to second). Wuertz eventually finished off the eighth. And because the lead was three runs, I didn’t use the closer, but instead let Will Ohman finish off the game and get the save.
And it all worked.
Game 62 (June 12) – vs. Red Sox; Win 6-5; Record 34-28
I just want to say that I never ever doubted Garciaparra. In today’s game, he hit two home runs. One in the first inning to open the day’s scoring for the Cubs and one in the ninth to end it. The Cubs are on a four-game winning streak. Suddenly, things don’t feel so bad.
Game 68 (June 19) – at Yankees; Loss 2-3 (10); Record 36-32
I need to talk about my bullpen.
At the beginning of the year, I had identified Dempster, Wuertz, LaTroy Hawkins, and Remlinger as my four high-leverage relievers. Hawkins was so bad that he was designated for assignment earlier in the year (walking about seven guys per nine innings will do that to you.) Remlinger and Wuertz are sporting ERAs of 4.71 and 4.76, respectively, while Dempster is sitting at 6.61. There are strikeouts all around with this Cubs team, but Remlinger is the only one with a respectable walk rate (3.4 per nine).
Rusch has become the comfortable sweatshirt that I run to put on as soon as it comes out the dryer, but he can’t pitch all of my relief innings. (He’s already at 54.) I tremble when I go to warm someone up in the bullpen. I find myself early on hoping that it’s a 9-3 game by the seventh inning, in either direction. That way, I don’t have to worry about it.
The logical part of me knows the evidence shows that (other than the fact that we lost a game) there are no long-term effects of losing walk-off games. At least there’s no deviation in player performance. But, well, I’ve noticed a change in myself. They hurt, and I’m struggling to find ways to fix it. Sometimes that takes the form of thinking that I’ll go a little further into the game than I should with my starter. Or thinking of ways that I can clone Rusch.
I’m managing scared.
There’s a weird asymmetry in the way that walk-off games happen. I’ve won a few walk-off games in this season as well. Hell, I had Wood hit a walk-off home run. The fact that even happened in a video game should be news on ESPN. When a team loses one, it was the manager who decided to put in the poor sap who threw the pitch that lost the game. It was the magic of the lineup roulette wheel that picked the guy who hit the home run. After winning a game like that, it’s nice, but there’s little actionable intelligence to draw from it. After a walk-off loss, you have that moment where you evaluate the entire career of the goat based on the fact that you’re grumpy after a bad loss. Maybe the correct response is to change the bullpen strategy. Maybe it’s to stay the course. Maybe the natural desire to over-correct is the real thing that eats away at a team that has a few walk-off losses.
Game 69 (June 20) – at Brewers, Win 9-3; Record 37-32
The game itself went well, but Todd Walker tore a thumb ligament. At the beginning of the year, I marveled at the fact that the Cubs had a pretty good-hitting infield. Currently, three-quarters of that infield (Lee, Walker, and Aramis Ramirez) are on the disabled list. My Opening Day center field platoon of Corey Patterson and Jerry Hairston Jr. is out of commission. My “standard lineup” screen (and the Opening Day lineup counterparts currently look like this:
Game 70 (June 21t) – at Brewers, Win 1-0; Record 38-32
Game 71 (June 22) – at Brewers, Win 3-2; Record 39-32
Game 72 (June 23) – at Brewers, Win 8-7 (20… yes, twenty innings); Record 40-32
Game 73 (June 24) – at White Sox, Win 2-1; Record 41-32
Yeah, that was the logical place to start a five-game winning streak. The 20-inning game was as insane as it sounds. The Brewers scored five runs off Nolasco in the fifth inning, and I figured the game was over. But, two in the sixth and three in the seventh tied the game for the Cardiac Cubs. As he was wont to do, Dempster came on and gave up the un-tying run in the bottom of the eighth. Down to my last strike, with two outs and an 0-2 count in the top of the ninth, Jason Dubois hit a 410-foot shot to knot the game at six. In the top of the 10th, Blanco, whom I had dreaded starting, knocked in Eric Patterson and the Cubs led 7-6.
I turned the ball over to my security blanket, Rusch. He retired Russell Branyan and Kenny Holmberg, and it looked like the Cubs would cheat death. Chad Moeller—who like Bucky Dent has a most unfortunate middle name—hit a home run to re-tie the game at seven. The two teams then played an entire regulation game (innings 11-19) in which they did not score. It wasn’t until the 20th when singles by Eric Patterson and Neifi Perez, combined with walks by Blanco and Scott McClain, forced in a run. Both teams ended the game with only 12 hits. There were 27 Cubs strikeouts during the game.
The following pitchers saw action in this game for the Cubs:
By the end of the game, the only Cubs pitchers in uniform who hadn’t pitched were Wuertz (whom the game listed as “exhausted”), Zambrano (who had started the day before), and Wood (who had started two days earlier). By the end of the game, I was considering the merits of using any of those three for an inning, and deciding how long I would wait until I would pick one of the other eight guys on the field (it probably would have been outfielder Felix Pie) to take over on the mound.
As fans, we say we love these marathon games, but I have to say that now that I’ve managed one, it becomes a bit of a farce. By the end, you’re not dealing with brave warriors battling for glory. You’re making decisions like “if I put Felix Pie on the mound, I still have to figure out where to put Maddux in the field.” I had no position players left, and eventually, you realize that a real, live game might come down to two position players pitching against each other and all of the work put into getting the game to this point would become meaningless. It’s like playing 120 minutes of soccer and then having some gimmicky shoot-out settle the ... oh right, they do that.
I’m one of those fans who has always maintained that I love these marathons because they feel like post-apocalyptic survivalist fiction. Now that I was the “manager” I had to survey the tattered remains of what was once a proud civilization. I guess nuclear war is more fun when there haven’t been any actual nuclear weapons detonated near you. I figured that my general manager would shuffle someone off to Iowa to bring some sort of length into the bullpen. He did not. The game was supposed to be a getaway special, but since it took six-and-a-half hours to play, a 2:00 start time, meant an 8:30 end time.
Thankfully, the only trip we were taking was the 90-minute drive across the Cheddar Curtain from Milwaukee to the South Side of Chicago, but the White Sox thought it would be funny to have all the inter-league intra-city games at their park as day games. Because, y’know, Wrigley and ... oh nevermind.
Wood gutted through four shutout innings. Rusch, sensing my undying love for him, volunteered to pitch as the other part of the tandem (as Hill had been used the night before) and got through three innings. Wuertz and Ohman closed the door, with Ohman getting the save thanks to the fact that the White Sox put three lefties in a row in their lineup, and they all happened to be coming up in the bottom of the ninth.
I assume all bullpen blowout hangovers are this easy. Right?
Game 77 (June 30) – vs. Brewers; Loss 3-6; Record: 43-34
The game itself wasn’t as important as the news that I got before it. Not only did Derrek Lee come off the disabled list (and promptly went 0-for-4), but reports on Aramis Ramirez’s recovery were positive. There is a possibility that he will be available for September. Dare I allow myself to hope? This is the Cubs after all.