Managers can never really win. The only time a skipper can escape blame is if he wins a World Series, but even then there will be critics who will point out all the managerial mistakes. They’ll mention the bad pitching changes, confusing lineups, favoritism of one player over a better one, stupid pinch-hitting, ridiculous replay challenges, and every other form of minutiae associated with being the ultimate decision-maker. And it usually only takes a three-game losing streak during the season for the lunatic fringe to call for his firing or attempt to cause it by forming a social media slur campaign. You want to be in charge? You better know what’s coming your way.
Managing beyond the numbers
No manager, like no person, is perfect. In the course of a 162-game season, there are dozens of minor and major decisions which are made on a daily basis. The first one is the lineup, and they’re never made out willy-nilly. In today’s modern, Bill James world of baseball, you can find statistical information on any player under any circumstance. There exists new stats which need explaining because they are so bizarre and seemingly useless. But the fact of the matter is, managing by gut feel is a rare method in 2015.
Yet sometimes a manager can be too married to his stats. If all it took was math analysis and playing with probables, then any science nerd could be a manager. You still need to be able to talk to your players, look them in their eyes, and know what state of mind they’re in that day. You need to know when to give guys a rest. You have to suss out which players need an arm around their shoulder or a kick up the backside. There is no data for such subjective variables. This is why managers are former big league players. They understand the pressure of the crowd, the grind of a long season of travel, and dealing with failure. Beyond that, most managers will look at the pitcher they are facing that day, and will write a lineup consisting of bats to counter the pitcher’s throwing arm. Lefty pitcher? Stack the order with right-handed batters, and vice-versa. It’s the platoon system. Now, there are usually two to four everyday players who will be automatically in the lineup regardless of pitcher. And sometimes a player might have good numbers against that pitcher, despite batting from the “wrong” side of the plate. Pretty simple? Not at all.
A’s skipper has a solid record, but isn’t perfect
Bob Melvin’s critics point to his abject adherence to the platoon system. This is not always true, however. He will often continue to bat a hitter who doesn’t fit when that player is red hot, as he did with Mark Canha earlier this year. Also, there often aren’t enough players where you can stack a lineup with all righties or all lefties. But for the most part, Melvin will stick with platooning. You might remember the 2012 playoffs with Detroit, where Seth Smith started every game instead of Jonny Gomes. Many fans called for their Nor Cal hero to get a few at-bats, but Melvin did not relent in his beliefs. All the Tiger starters were right-handed, so Smith would get all the starts. Gomes finally got one pinch-hitting appearance late in Game 5, but by then the A’s were down 6-0. I had no problem with Smith over Gomes – it was the right call.
But I do have a problem when the platoon system pulls bats out of a lineup too early. You wouldn’t want to remove a guy like Brandon Moss in the sixth inning, right? Well, that’s why managers get paid the big bucks. Bringing in a pinch-runner for Billy Butler in the seventh removes his bat for the rest of the game – is it worth it? Only if you win, and Melvin has played the percentages in his favor very well since June 9, 2011, when he became Oakland manager. He’s gone 338-282 for a winning percentage of .545, which any manager would take. The A’s have also made the playoffs in each of Melvin’s first three full seasons, despite having a miserly ownership group and a GM who changes the roster more often than his socks.
This doesn’t mean Melvin is beyond reproach. Yesterday at the Coliseum, the A’s had a good chance to win their first series in forever when they sent Sonny Gray to the mound against a struggling Red Sox team featuring Wade Miley, a starter with a line of 1-4, 6.91. Yet Melvin felt it would be a good time to give catcher Stephen Vogt a day off (technically two days off, because the A’s are off today). I understand that if anyone needs a little rest, it would be a catcher who just caught the night before and had started most of the games behind the plate this season.
There’s only one problem: Vogt is leading the league in RBI with 30 and is fifth in hitting with a .337 average. How can you remove a smoldering bat like that from your lineup? Even if you just wanted to DH him, you could have put Butler at first and left Canha on the bench. This was extremely frustrating as the A’s went 0-for-14 with men in scoring position, and Sonny Gray received his first loss of the year. Vogt finally got up in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, and he proceeded to walk. Too late. It reminded me of the Wild Card Game last September: Melvin pinch-hit lefty Nick Punto instead of lefty slugger Adam Dunn versus the Royals. The A’s lost in extra innings, and Dunn retired having never actually played in a postseason game. So while Bob Melvin is a good manager, he still has some head-scratchers now and then.