Billy Martin said (it was in one of his books that he’d had ghostwritten) that when he managed against Gene Mauch, all he would do is sit back and wait for Mauch to make a mistake due to overmanaging—bunting, pitching changes, some control-freak maneuver that would backfire.
In 1986, the Red Sox benefited from one such mistake in game 5 of the ALCS in Anaheim. The Angels were ahead 3 games to 1 and leading in game 5 by the score of 5-2 when Don Baylor homered off starter Mike Witt with one out and a runner on in the top of the ninth inning to make the score 5-4. Witt got Dwight Evans to pop up for the second out; with Rich Gedman batting, Mauch pulled his starter in favor of veteran lefty Gary Lucas. Witt later said that not only could Baylor not have hit the low and outside pitch out of the park again, he couldn’t have hit it at all; Witt also said he regretted not fighting harder to stay in the game.
Lucas, who wasn’t the Angels closer, had pitched to Gedman three times in his career and struck him out each time. Gedman was 3 for 3 that day at the time and had homered off Witt earlier in the game.
There was an argument to go with the percentages and yank Witt for Lucas; there was also an argument that his staff ace Witt could handle a hitter whom he’d dominated to the tune of an .095 batting average in the regular season before that playoff series.
Lucas drilled Gedman with the first and only pitch he threw.
The Red Sox went on to win the game and the series.
In retrospect it was a ghastly mistake; in practice, it was an arguable decision.
But Mauch was a slave to the numbers and it exploded in his face.
It’s easier to go by the stats; it’s easier to have an numerical explanation for why a manager does what he does than to trust his instincts and his players and do what could be criticized later.
Mauch managed nearly 4000 games in the big leagues without making it to the World Series in part because he had some bad teams; and in part because he panicked and squeezed when he should’ve let up.
Last night as Chris Carpenter was pitching a gem against the Phillies to lead his Cardinals into the NLCS against the Brewers, there were calls on Twitter for him to be yanked as the Cardinals led 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth with Chase Utley, Hunter Pence and Ryan Howard due to bat.
Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa—oft-criticized for overmanaging and using 5 relievers to get 5 outs—left Carpenter in the game in part because he doesn’t have a dominating closer; in part because it was his horse pitching and pitching brilliantly.
The pitcher that was supposed to come into the game in the eyes of many was Marc Rzepczynski. The reasoning for this was Howard’s 4th trip to the plate against Carpenter and that Howard is awful against lefties.
It was stat-based; it had reasoning behind it; and it was ludicrous.
What those who are so invested in the numbers don’t seem to quite understand is that baseball is not a strictly scientific endeavor in which you mix the formula and achieve the desired result. For LaRussa to take Carpenter out of the game at any point in the ninth inning as it transpired would’ve been maniacally controlling and borderline deranged.
If he had a Mariano Rivera-style closer, then okay; but he didn’t. He had Arthur Rhodes and Rzepczynski; the rest of the Cardinals bullpen consists of pitchers who have all been interchangeable in the role of late-inning reliever and should not be given precedence Carpenter—a Cy Young Award winner and one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past 7 years.
Utley hit a rocket to the warning track in center field; Pence grounded out; and Howard grounded to second base and collapsed in a heap between home and first with an achilles injury.
The Cardinals won.
But that’s secondary to the premise of there being a nuance to managing that the hardest of the hard-core stat people simply do not get. They don’t know the history; they don’t understand people; and they adhere to the numbers because they don’t have a grasp of humanity to allow them to do something against their vaunted books and calculations.
The same was true when Howard came to the plate in the seventh inning as Carpenter ran the count to 3-0 and Howard swung at the pitch, just missed hitting it out of the park, and flew to right field.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was apparently supposed to tell his number 4 hitter and biggest RBI man that he should be taking on 3-0 and trying to walk.
That’s not what got the Phillies where they were; that’s not why Manuel is respected by his players; and that’s not how Howard accumulated the resume to get the massive contract he signed.
The players are there to play; you have to put the game in the hands of the players; if you don’t, you’d be amazed how fast the turn on you; how easily and quickly they can and will get you fired.
The enduring image from that 1986 ALCS isn’t what happened on the field in game 5 nor how the Red Sox came back to win the series; it’s Mauch standing in the corner of the dugout, waiting for the final out to be recorded to win his first pennant after so many years on the precipice; with Reggie Jackson standing next to Mauch in part to celebrate with his manager, in part to make sure he was on camera.
It was an out that Mauch had waited for 25 years to be recorded.
It was an out that never came.