Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Easier Done Than Said

In Moneyball, a big deal is made of the ineffectiveness of traditional small ball strategies, and the hypothesis is floated that managers bunt, hit and run and steal because the familiarity of these strategies will save the manager from public humiliation.

Well, Terry Francona is a post-Moneyball manager, and so I suspect he has a different fear. Private humiliation. Tito seems too embarrassed to tell his players that they can't do what the player thinks they can do. Apparently, for Francona, underperforming is like performing in underwear. Decline is awkward.

This is obvious with Varitek, whose nonexistent bat baited the boobirds in Game 3. Supposedly, the Sox are carrying three catchers on the playoff roster so that Varitek can be pinch hit for early enough in the game so that Kevin Cash can be pinch hit for too. Yet Tek has continually hit in crucial spots during the 7th innings of this series. So I can only imagine that the 3 catchers idea was Theo's, and the keeping Tek in there was Francona's. Keeping Tek in is not the safe move for Francona publicly- fans are fickle and feel no loyalty at the expense of postseason results (color me that kind of fickle as well), given that a Tek AB is bound to fail, but it avoids the private confrontation. Loyalty, and dignity for Tek, rather than a confrontation with the inevitable, even in the apparent safety of the clubhouse.

Game 2 was not a highlight for Francona. He left Beckett over and over again, to see the former ace squander three separate leads, embarrassing himself and his postseason record with a 9 hit, 8 run, 3 HR performance in just 4 and a third. This wasn't a matter of simply missing spots- Beckett induced only 4 swings and misses all night. The stuff wasn't there. In a tie game threatening extras, he removed former starter Masterson after only 2/3 of an inning, depleting the bullpen. Javier Lopez threw as many pitches as he made appearances. Francona brought in Timlin, rather than Byrd, to pitch the 11th. This on a day when Maddon had burned his two best relievers- Balfour and Howell- by the 6th inning, and was vulnerable. And Ellsbury continues to bat leadoff.

All these moves simply reinforce the preestablished roles for these players. Beckett is the ace, he should stay in. Varitek is the captain, he should stay in. Papelbon is the closer, he should pitch the 9th. Lopez is the lefty specialist, he should throw one pitch. Timlin is the veteran reliever, he should pitch before a starting is thrust into the unfamiliar role of reliever. Ellsbury is fast, he should hit leadoff.

Confronting the players would create the dissonance of casted role and performance, of expectation and fact. It would require distinguishing the pre-programmed from the pragmatic, what should be from what is. Facing reality can be uncomfortable, and downright embarrassing. But its Francona's job to not be complacent, to do whatever it takes to win. Even something unconventional, risky, or even humbling or humiliating to his favorite players. Tito can't hide out in the open, he can't lose himself in the crowd to avoid that intimate conversation. A players' manager yes, but a team's manager too. A team that's down 2 games to win and needs to win.

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