This interview was conducted in July, and originally ran on the site then – it is being re-posted now that Porter has been hired to be the manager of the Houston Astros.
Bo Porter is in his second season as the Washington Nationals third base coach. It might be his last. The 40-year-old has already been considered for a couple big-league managerial positions, and that opportunity is likely to come again this winter. Highly regarded for his leadership skills, Porter has a degree in communications studies from the University of Iowa, where he was All-Big 10 in two sports.
Porter talked about the approach he’d bring to the manager’s job — and his willingness to go against conventional wisdom — when the Nationals visited Fenway Park in June.
Porter on defensive positioning and shifts: “It all starts with the guy you have on the mound. Based on your pitcher and the hitter’s history, you factor in the probability of the ball being hit to a particular area of the field. You always have to defend that area first, and go from there.
‘Sometimes managers don’t shift because they don’t want to give up a portion of the field. But why not give up a portion of the field if the probability of the ball being hit there is one percent?
“I think my football background has a lot to do with my approach to the game and my thought process. As coach Fry would say, ‘You have to scratch where it itches.’ Playing football for Hayden Fry at the University of Iowa, you learned that if someone shows you something that you can take advantage of — whether it’s conventional or not — you’re doing your team an injustice by not taking advantage of it.”
On lineup construction: “At the end of the day, the game is about scoring runs and stopping the other team from scoring. In order to score runs you have to get on base. Yes, you want the top of your lineup to possess speed, so that when the hitters in the middle of the lineup drive the ball into the gaps, those guys can score from first base on a double. But at the same time, they have to be on base to score on that double.
“In a perfect world, your number-two guy can hit-and-run, bunt and move runners. But I want to make sure that the guys at the top of the lineup are able to get on base at a high percentage.
In a National League lineup, I like to have speed in the seventh spot, because you get into situations where the seven-hole hitter gets on with two out. If he has the capability of stealing a base, you now put the other manager in a position where he has to decide to either pitch to the eight-hole hitter with a man in scoring position, or intentionally walk him. That gives you a chance to roll the lineup over.
“In the American League, it’s a huge advantage when you have a nine-hole guy who is like a second lead-off guy — a high on-base-percentage guy — because now you have three on-base guys in front of your three- and four-hole hitters.
“The idea of hitting your pitcher eighth has always made sense to me. I talked to Tony LaRussa about it when I was in Florida and he was managing the St. Louis Cardinals. You want your best hitter to hit third, and his reasoning was that he wanted an extra everyday hitter in front of Albert Pujols. Instead of having the pitcher in the nine-spot, he had a position player. Once the lineup got rolling, it was almost like [Pujols] was hitting fourth, but still was guaranteed to hit in the first inning.”
On the sacrifice bunt: “It depends on the situation. If you’re facing a Roy Halladay, a Stephen Strasburg or a Justin Verlander, any opportunity you have to push a run across, you want to take full advantage that. It could be one of those days where you have a 1-0 or 2-1 ballgame.
“There are other opportunities, especially early in the game, where I like to play for the big inning. Get that big inning and get their bullpen into play as early as possible. Give us an advantage as that game goes on and as the series goes on.
“It also depends on the hitters who are coming up behind the guy I’m asking to sacrifice bunt. And does the other manager have a match-up in the bullpen that gives him an advantage if I do sacrifice? The batters impact what you do, as does where you’re at in the game.
“Let’s say we have a man on first base and decide to sacrifice bunt. They then decide to intentionally walk Adam LaRoche. Well, we’re probably better off letting that guy swing the bat, because LaRoche may be able to drive the guy in from first base. You usually don’t want to take the bat out of the hands of one of your run producers.
“You only get 27 outs, so you don’t want to give them away. If you do give them away, it should be because the next play is a huge advantage for you.”
On pitching and pitch counts: “A manager’s biggest decision is when to take the pitcher out of the game. That being said, in the National League, that decision is sometimes made for you. Let’s say the score is 2-1 and you have runners on first and second with two out in the seventh inning. In the American League, you’re not dealing with having the pitcher hit, so you don’t have to decide if this is maybe your best chance to get back into the game.
“The pitcher will tell you when he’s tired. The ball will start to get elevated, the breaking stuff won’t be as sharp, and even though he might only be at 80 pitches, it may have been a strenuous 80 pitches. He could be fatigued in the fifth inning. You could also have a guy who is at 105 pitches in the seventh inning, but he hasn’t had any strain in any of his innings. He’s probably fine.
“I’m always wary of the fourth time through the lineup for a starter, and how he has handled the lineup to that point. We had a situation recently — Davey Johnson and I talked about this — where Edwin Jackson went through the lineup three times. He had given us a solid outing and we had a one-run lead, so do we send him back out there? We weighed factors like the scoreboard, where he was in his pitch count, how he had handled the lineup the first three times through and who was coming up. The numbers play a part in that type of decision. They tell you enough to let you know what the decision should be, and the feel — your baseball gut — will tell you exactly what you should do in that moment.”
On using data: “We use it a lot, but we also have really good baseball people. It’s almost like we coexist with the information that statistical analysis can give us. We take into consideration the player’s ability to perform. The statistical analysis gives you information, but once you get into the flow of the game, that flow dictates how you use the information. I love the strategic side of the game. It’s something that really drives me and excites me.”
On what his managerial style will be: “When people ask what kind of manager I’ll be, I always tell them, ‘Give me a roster and then I’ll tell you how I’m going to manage that ball club.’ You can say you’re going to be an aggressive manager and that we’re going to steal bases and hit-and-run, but if you have six guys in your lineup that can hit 25 home runs, it’s probably not a good idea to take too many chances of giving away outs. Conversely, if you have a team that doesn’t have a lot of power — but you do have guys who put the ball in play — you can put runners in motion.
“You want to take advantage of the ability that your players have. How you manage shouldn’t be etched in stone. You have to play to your strengths and at the same time you have to look at your opponent. If there are things the other team doesn’t do well, you want to put your players in a position to take advantage of that. A big part of this game is recognizing advantages, whether you do that with data or with your own eyes.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.