You need someone like me so you can point your finger and say "there's the bad guy." (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
In order to make 162 games seem interesting, we need disasters like the eighth inning on Tuesday night.
It's hard to get too excited about any particular game during a baseball season. Why get exorcised about a loss when there are 161 games just like it on the schedule? This juxtaposition has been especially strong for me this week, as I have spent my evenings flipping back and forth between the Braves-Yankees games and my recordings of Euro '12 matches (and with the Euros' solid TV ratings, I no longer have to apologize as if I'm the only American with interest in that event). The latter is a tournament where the winning team will play six matches and just one slip-up in the group stage can be fatal. (As Italy learned eight years ago and might learn again on Monday, a team can go home without losing a game.) Every game takes on major importance, which by contrast makes the process of getting myself excited for a Braves game even harder.
That said, the loss on Tuesday night provoked quite a reaction, both from me and from other Braves fans. It's one thing to lose a game. It's another to lose a game to the Yankees at home, setting off wild fits of joy among the thousands of transplants and bandwagon jumpers who populate the Ted when the Bronx Bombers arrive. It's still another to blow a game that the Braves led 4-0 going into the eighth inning. At that stage, the Braves had a 97% chance of winning. Mike Minor had pitched his best game of the year. On his 100th pitch, he gave up a ground ball single to Derek Jeter. That pitch was an 89 MPH fastball, which is barely below Minor's normal velocity. According to the Nasty Factor that MLB.com uses to grade pitches, the two that Minor threw to Jeter in the eighth inning were better than the two that he threw to Jeter in the first, when the Yankees' captain also singled.
It was at this stage that Fredi Gonzalez and his rule book happened. First of all, he looks to yank his pitchers after 100 pitches, especially the younger ones. Fredi removed Julio Teheran after only 74 pitches on Sunday, instead preferring to insert Livan Hernandez to throw gas on a small fire. (Remember when the Braves signed Hernandez, fans expressed concern about the move, and we were assured that he would only be used in low-leverage situations?)
Second, Fredi is a firm believer in the idea that closers pitch ninth innings. With Jonny Venters' obvious regression since Fredi pitched him into the ground last year (an occurrence that wasn't really Fredi's fault; the team played in a lot of close, low-scoring games, so an unhittable set-up man was always going to get a lot of work), the rational move would have been to bring in the team's best reliever: Craig Kimbrel. After all, if the Yankees were going to make up a four-run deficit, it would surely be with Jeter on base and their four best hitters lined up next. If Kimbrel could have negotiated that jam, then either he could have finished off the ninth (oh, the horrors of a closer pitching more than an inning, although to be fair, the Braves do have a bad history employing that strategy in home games against the Yankees) or the Braves could have brought another reliever into the game in the ninth to face the soft bottom of the Yankees' lineup. Instead, Fredi went by the book, brought in his struggling eighth inning guy, and watched the Yankees beat him while his best reliever - a closer who had not pitched in the last two games - was wasted sitting in the bullpen.
And then, to add insult to injury, Fredi replaced Venters with Cory Gerrin, a pitcher with a major righty/lefty split, to face switch-hitting Nick Swisher. Swisher took advantage of this latest misuse of resources by hitting his tenth homer of the season. That, in a nutshell, is how a 4-0 lead turns into a 6-4 deficit.
There is some debate as to how much a baseball manager really matters. Football coaches establish schemes, develop game plans, and call plays. Basketball coaches do the same. In comparison, baseball managers do very little, which is one reason why they are paid less than NFL coaches. So why is it that we spend so much energy ripping on their decisions? Braves fans criticize Fredi's decisions on a routine basis, hence the #Frediot tag on Twitter. On the Michigan message board that I check, a collection of posters spend every Tigers game savaging Jim Leyland. Baseball fans love moaning about their managers' decisions. The question is why.
A few explanations spring to mind immediately. One obvious one is that many fans are not aware of the general consensus that managers do not make a huge difference. If many fans still talk in terms of batting averages and RBI, then it would stand to reason that they would also think that a manager can make a ten- or twenty-game difference in the standings.
A second is that baseball has few moving parts, so it is easier to isolate and criticize a decision. If the Falcons make a bad play call and lose, then we can criticize Mike Mularkey (and G-d knows I did a lot of that), but there's always the question of whether his call would have worked against a certain defense, but he happened to signal a certain play against a defense that he could not have predicted and that functioned as paper to his rock. When Fredi brings a reliever into a game in the eighth inning, we know the situation, we almost always know who the reliever is going to face at the plate, and we can judge his decision with a greater degree of accuracy.
A third is that ripping on a manager gives us something to talk about over a 162-game season. At a certain point, the players are who they are. How many times could we say last year that O'Ventbrel was great or that Jason Heyward looked lost at the plate? The manager, on the other hand, can make six months go by quickly by being our personal pinata. So maybe Tuesday night was good after all. To quote Edward R. Rooney, between grief and nothing, I'll take grief.
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