Managerial Report Cards: AL Wild Card Losers

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

As I’ve done for the past few years, I’m going to be grading each eliminated postseason manager on their decision-making. We spend the year mostly ignoring managers’ on-field contributions, because to be honest, they’re pretty small. Using the wrong reliever in the eighth inning just doesn’t feel that bad on June 22; there are so many more games still coming, and the regular season is more about managing the grind than getting every possible edge every day. The playoffs aren’t like that; with so few games to separate wheat from chaff, every last ounce of win probability matters, and managers make personnel decisions accordingly. What better time to grade them?

My goal is to rank each manager in terms of process, not results. If you bring in your best pitcher to face their best hitter in a huge spot, that’s a good decision regardless of outcome. Try a triple steal with the bases loaded only to have the other team make four throwing errors to score three runs? I’m probably going to call that a blunder even though it worked out. Managers do plenty of other things – getting team buy-in for new strategies and unconventional bullpen usage behind closed doors is a skill I find particularly valuable – but as I have no insight into how that’s accomplished or how each manager differs, I can’t exactly assign grades for it.

I’m also purposefully avoiding vague qualitative concerns like “trusting your veterans because they’ve been there before.” Coverage of the Twins’ sweep of the Blue Jays focused on Carlos Correa’s crafty veteran playoff leadership, but Royce Lewis, Pablo López, and Jhoan Duran were key parts of Minnesota’s victory too. Forget trusting your veterans – the playoffs are about trusting your best players. Correa is important because he’s a great player and great leader, not because of the number of playoff series he’s appeared in. There’s nothing inherently good about having been around a long time; when I’m evaluating decisions, “but he’s a veteran” just doesn’t enter my thought process. Let’s get to it.

Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay Rays
Batting: A-
The Rays ran out an all-righty (or switch) lineup against Jordan Montgomery to start the series. That sounds like a great plan, but as Tom Tango pointed out, it’s not as simple as it seems. The data suggest that all-righty lineups haven’t fared as well against Montgomery as ones with three or four lefties. But that’s not really what ailed the Rays here. They didn’t use all these righties because they’re addicted to platooning, though you might have been able to level that charge against them in past years. They’re just out of lefties, and light on switch hitters. Wander Franco is on indefinite administrative leave. Brandon Lowe and Luke Raley are injured. Raimel Tapia and Jonathan Aranda aren’t in Cash’s regular rotation. It wasn’t so much a matter of sitting lefties; Josh Lowe was the only batter added to the starting lineup against righty Nathan Eovaldi in Game 2.

As such, Cash didn’t have many levers to pull. Another way of putting it? They had to claim Tapia, a guy who couldn’t find playing time on the Red Sox or Brewers, and he ended up on their playoff roster. To my eyes, Cash had only two or three reasonable pinch hitting choices: Junior Caminero, Aranda, and whichever of Jose Siri or Lowe didn’t start that day.

The flatness of the roster also made pinch hitting difficult. The pinch hitters were only clearly better than catcher René PintoTaylor Walls is right on the cusp, but you’d need a good spot to sub out a switch-hitting plus defender. In the first game of the series, Cash played it straight. When Pinto batted in a high-leverage spot in the seventh, he got pulled for Caminero. He likely would have been pulled in the fifth if he hadn’t batted with one out and none on. Then when Montgomery left the game after seven strong innings, Cash broke out the semi-platoons: Lowe hit for Siri and Aranda hit for Curtis Mead. It didn’t really work – the pinch hitters went 0-for-2 with a walk – but it was quite straightforward, and there just aren’t good enough pinch hitting options on the team these days to consider substituting out any part of the top of the order.

The second game was even more straightforward, because the Rangers only used righties. The first time a pinch hitter might have mattered was when Pinto led off the bottom of the sixth, but his spot was going to come up again, which means pinch hitting here would just swap a Pinto at-bat now for a Christian Bethancourt one later. Caminero pinch hit for Walls with two on and two out in the seventh, a perfectly logical place to do so. Pinto ended up batting for himself the next inning with the bases empty, and at this point saving Aranda isn’t an obvious choice, but I still think it’s okay. Contingent on the Rays tying the game, they’d be turning the lineup over again, and there would probably be a better spot to use Aranda given that. Overall, Cash didn’t have a lot of decisions to make.

Pitching: C+
Tyler Glasnow was shaky in the opener, giving up two runs in the first five innings, though his defense sure didn’t help matters. Cash sent him back out for the sixth – a marginal decision in my opinion – and he walked the first two batters. I didn’t love letting Glasnow face Marcus Semien a fourth time, but I don’t think this was an obvious one either way. With Corey Seager up and the game on the line, Cash brought in a righty. That sounds bad, but it was Chris Devenski, a changeup specialist with huge reverse splits. Seager hit a single to right on the first pitch he saw, and an error turned that into two runs, but I don’t mind the decision.

The next time that 9-1-2 part of the lineup came up, with two lefties and Semien, Cash used lefty Jake Diekman. Andrew Kittredge got the low-leverage ninth. Unless you would’ve pulled Glasnow earlier, there wasn’t much to critique about these decisions.

With their season on the line, the Rays came back with Zach Eflin in Game 2. He ran into trouble in the fourth inning, but not in a way where there was much chance to pull him in a big spot; he gave up a solo homer, a run-scoring triple, and then a two-run homer. Hey, sometimes your starters give up runs. I’m less enamored with leaving Eflin in for the whole fifth inning. Seager and Robbie Grossman both reached to start the frame, but Cash stuck with Eflin, and he gave up a run-scoring groundout to push things to 5-0. The Rays aren’t short on guys with huge strikeout rates; I would have liked to see one of them in the game instead of Eflin with a runner on third and less than two outs. Every run is of dire importance when you’re down 4-0.

Maybe it didn’t matter, though, because setup man Colin Poche came out the next inning and gave up two more runs. Shawn Armstrong and Zack Littell then pitched out the string. I can’t in good conscience say Cash did a good job in this game; somehow Pete Fairbanks and Robert Stephenson, two of the team’s top three relievers, didn’t pitch in a game where the team gave up seven runs. The game wasn’t close, so the decisions didn’t matter much, but it was strange to see the Rays ease up on the bullpen gas in a series where they probably needed it.

John Schneider, Toronto Blue Jays
Batting: B+
The Blue Jays came out with their standard lineup against Minnesota’s raft full of righties. Schneider was ready the first time he got a chance to bring in a righty pinch hitter against a lefty reliever; Whit Merrifield subbed in for Daulton Varsho against Caleb Thielbar. The bench thins out quickly after that, though – Davis Schneider has cooled off to the point of barely being involved, and Santiago Espinal is not a fearsome hitter – so Schneider didn’t overdo the lefty-swapping, leaving Brandon Belt in the game. Managerial moves weren’t the differentiator here; the Jays just couldn’t score with their best facing Minnesota’s best.

Now that we’ve established that Merrifield is Schneider’s favorite hitter off the bench, Game 2 seems confusing. Espinal replaced Kevin Kiermaier as soon as Thielbar entered the game. I’m not really sure why the roles were reversed, but to be honest, I don’t think there’s a meaningful difference between the two. By the ninth inning, Schneider was using Merrifield as a pinch runner (for Espinal of all people), but there’s just not much you can do managerially when the opposing team only uses a single lefty reliever. You can hide your lefty hitters against him, but that’s about it. The most disastrous Jays offensive move, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s fall-asleep pickoff play, mattered far more than all of Schneider’s maneuvering combined.

Pitching: D-
Let’s breeze through the first game, because the second game is what everyone wants to read about. The Jays clearly came into this series looking to leverage their bullpen. Kevin Gausman, a Cy Young candidate and clearly the best pitcher on the team, went only four innings and 73 pitches. The Jays replaced him with a string of situational relievers, and to their credit, their bullpen can eat innings in huge quantities. Erik Swanson gave way to Tim Mayza against a pocket of lefties, Chad Green came back in for the next group of righties, and then Génesis Cabrera entered to force the Twins to pinch hit for Edouard Julien. Jordan Hicks delivered a typically Hicks-ian inning — two baserunners but no runs — to finish Toronto’s bullpen day.

I don’t like pulling Gausman there in a vacuum, but he was laboring and was about to face the top of the order for a third time. Royce Lewis had already tagged him for two homers. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions when your pitcher doesn’t have it, and the Jays bullpen is so good that I understand this move even if I don’t agree with it.

Now, moves that I don’t understand or agree with? That’d be pulling José Berríos the next day. Berríos was rolling; he had five strikeouts through three innings. He then walked Lewis to lead off the fourth, and Schneider had seen enough; he went to Yusei Kikuchi out of the bullpen. The Twins had a bunch of lefties coming up, and Schneider wanted the platoon advantage.

Of course, he didn’t really get it. Max Kepler stayed in the game and singled. Donovan Solano replaced Alex Kirilloff, an easy change for the Twins, and walked. Carlos Correa singled home a run. The first actually tough decision for the Twins was Willi Castro pinch hitting for Matt Wallner. I think the Jays somehow got worse matchups by making the pitching change, and it’s not like Berríos was laboring; he hadn’t even gotten to 50 pitches. He’s been better than Kikuchi this year, and Kikuchi had to adjust to entering out of the bullpen with a runner on base, perhaps not easy for a guy with very particular habits.

It would be one thing if the Jays were trying to make the whole game out of bullpen. As I mentioned up above, their relief corps is among the best in baseball. But I’m not including Kikuchi in that unit; he’s their fourth starter, and hadn’t thrown a single pitch in relief this year. This was different than the previous day’s move to Swanson in the fifth; that came about because Schneider counted it out and realized that every remaining inning could feature a high-leverage reliever. This time, he gave up on a starter for some speculative relief options instead, a far less defensible plan.

It would be one thing if Kikuchi were clearly better than Berríos. It would be one thing if the Twins had only lefties and no other options. Berríos has large platoon splits in his career, but so does Kikuchi, and Kikuchi had to deal with three righties in his first four batters faced. It’s a risky move, and I don’t even think there was much reward. The Twins did a good job breaking up their lineup so that it wasn’t particularly easy to attack with lefty relief; for whatever reason, the Blue Jays tried anyway.

The weirdest part? If the Jays were truly intent on leaning more into the bullpen, they should have asked Berríos for more, not less. If he gave them five-plus innings, they’d be able to completely finish out the game with lockdown arms. They could even dip into the arms they’d used the previous day – Swanson pitched in both games, but no one else did – knowing that Chris Bassitt, the Game 3 starter, eats innings effectively.

The weird middle ground they opted for has the downsides of both approaches. They didn’t use a stable of lockdown relievers – they used Kikuchi, who’s a back-end starter. They didn’t save the bullpen for a final game, either; the first time a tough righty came up against Kikuchi after the three batter minimum was satisfied, Schneider went back to his relief corps. It just feels like they came up with an idea – get Kikuchi in there against some lefties – and then used it even though it didn’t make much sense in the context of the game.

I’m not here to tell you that Berríos would have continued throwing up scoreless innings if he’d stayed in the game. He’s been susceptible to lefties his entire career. He’s more good than great. How a pitcher is going in the first three innings isn’t strongly predictive of what will happen in the next three. But you won’t convince me that Berríos’s matchup would have been worse than Kikuchi’s. The Blue Jays picked Berríos to start the game for a reason — he’s better. They lost sight of that in trying to be cute, and it cost them. I’m not giving Schneider an F, because I thought his Game 1 decision-making was solid, but he made a hash of Game 2. Toronto didn’t score enough runs, and that’s why they’re going home, but they also made perhaps the most head-scratching decision we’ll see all October.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

51 Comments
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sadtrombonemember
7 months ago

Please answer True or False, and tell me why.
The decision to pull Berrios was worse than the Showalter not putting Britton in the game.

(For the record, I have no idea whether I think this is true or false, just that both were bad)

markakis21member
7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

True. Because ultimately, if Britton pitched that inning, sure it would have given the O’s another chance to hit, but then Ubaldo would have just come in the next inning and coughed up a lot of runs like he did. The O’s would have had a better chance by having that one last shot but not a good one.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
7 months ago
Reply to  markakis21

Unless Britton was in for the duration

baachou
7 months ago
Reply to  markakis21

In a do or die scenario, I think you leave Britton in for 2 innings if he threw less than 15 pitches his first one. So you get 2 chances to score runs. An average offense scores a run 70% of the time if given 2 innings to try. That’s something.

montrealmember
7 months ago
Reply to  baachou

100% accurate

Sultan of Say
7 months ago
Reply to  markakis21

I don’t understand the logic here. Let’s say Britton is guaranteed to go 1 inning without giving up a run and Ubaldo is guaranteed to go an inning and give up 2. There is definitely value in putting Britton in first. This gives the O’s another inning to score two/three runs and withstand the runs that Ubaldo will give up.

There is absolutely no defense to saving Britton.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The other memorable one was replacing Blake Snell with Nick Anderson

markakis21member
7 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

That was not a bad decision, I will maintain to this day.

hughduffy
7 months ago
Reply to  markakis21

Putting in Nick Anderson was a bad decision. Anderson gave up a run in every prior appearance in the series. And he gave up a run in that appearance.
It was like the Astros taking out Greinke in the seventh game of the 2019 World Series. An overthought decision.

joey
7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

false, because you could argue Showalter’s blunder lost the game for them, can’t really say that about Shneider’s,.. Jays lost cuz their bats got pulled, not their pitcher.

Twitchy
7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Showalter’s was worse given the Jays had EE up, 2 runners on, Jimenez pitching, and the Jays burned through all their high leverage arms. If Britton comes in and shuts down the Jays, they have very little chance of shutting down the O’s offence another inning. And if he gave up a run? At least you went down with Britton pitching, and there isn’t this “what would have happened if…” scenario.

The Berrios decision was absolutely dumb, but it’s not as bad by the smallest of margins.

montrealmember
7 months ago
Reply to  Twitchy

Good post. Very true.

dl80member
7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Now let’s compare it to Grady Little leaving Pedro in.

sadtrombonemember
7 months ago
Reply to  dl80

We should do the greatest hits for all the AL East teams.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
7 months ago
Reply to  dl80

I’ll never criticize someone for leaving in the best pitcher of his time. Randy Johnson pitched in relief after starting the previous day. That worked, but might not have. It’s less bold with Pedro.

Sleepy
7 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Johnson pitched in relief the following day, because Arizona had exactly two pitchers who weren’t total butt… and Schilling was already on the mound.

montrealmember
7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Wow That was EXACTLY what I was thinking. This dumb move reminded me of the Showalter refusal to use his ace closer for 11 innings. Glad you mentioned it. I call it a tie in stupidity.