The Sense Behind Ripping the Manager

The whole division-series round went just two games more than the minimum. The last team eliminated, of course, was the Yankees, who lost Game 4 to the Red Sox on Tuesday. There’s a whole host of reasons why the Yankees lost the game, and why the Yankees lost the series. But I’m going to remember one or two moments. There was the Eduardo Nunez throw to an outstretched Steve Pearce to record the very final out. I wasn’t at any point convinced Nunez had it in him. And there was also what happened mere minutes before. Craig Kimbrel faced Gary Sanchez with one out and the bases loaded in a two-run game. The count ran full. The call was for a high fastball.

The pitch selection wasn’t surprising. Kimbrel throws a bunch of high fastballs. Sanchez had already swung through two high fastballs. When Kimbrel works in two-strike counts, he throws either a fastball high or a breaking ball low. That’s what Kimbrel always tries to do. Against Sanchez, he didn’t execute. Against Sanchez, he threw one of the worst Kimbrel fastballs imaginable.

Granted, even a bad Kimbrel fastball still gets up there really fast. But Sanchez was ready. A two-strike count is a swinging count. Sanchez made contact and hit the ball in the air. It came off his bat at 107 miles per hour.

The ball settled into an outfielder’s glove. The glove was somewhere over the middle of the track.

Gary Sanchez came that close to an all-time rivalry moment. He came that close to the best moment of this year’s young playoffs. The ball looked almost like a pop-up off the bat, but what happened is a testament to Sanchez’s strength. He very nearly popped a walk-off grand slam.

The launch angle was tracked at 46 degrees. The ball came a few feet short of a homer. At, say, 43 degrees, we’re all having a very different conversation today. The Yankees are alive, and people wonder whether the Red Sox can trust their one shutdown reliever. People wonder what Chris Sale can give in Game 5, after pitching in relief in Game 4. Such a difference in launch angle is just about negligible. Sanchez is responsible for the contact he makes, but Kimbrel is also responsible for the pitches he throws. The Red Sox can consider themselves lucky.

That’s a baseball event. That’s an on-field play, and games turn on just-barely plays all the time. Plays like that stick in my memory, so I won’t soon forget Gary Sanchez almost going deep. But for such a big crowd, there’s another conversation taking place, another story that’s already blown up. As the Yankees pack up and retreat to their homes for the long baseball winter, fans and writers alike are confused by Aaron Boone. In the last two games in particular, Boone made a smattering of curious decisions, and curious decisions don’t go un-critiqued when they happen on the losing side. Especially in New York.

Jay Jaffe wrote here about what happened in Game 3. He also wrote here about what happened in Game 4. The problems were strikingly similar: In both games, Boone seemed to wait too long to go to his deep and dominant bullpen. To make matters worse, in Game 3, the first guy out of the pen was Lance Lynn for some reason. The Yankees roster was built a certain way. The bullpen looked to be a huge October advantage. It wasn’t used accordingly, and, here we are, and the Yankees are done playing. They didn’t hit enough, but who’s to say what happens under different circumstances?

I’ve long been someone who didn’t think about managers too much. Part of that is because I’ve removed myself from team fandom. Part of that is because so much of what managers do is hidden from us. And part of that is because strategic decisions tend to barely move the needle. Fans frequently get on a guy for how he handles a bullpen, and fans frequently get on a guy for when he calls for a bunt, or for how he builds a lineup, but it all makes such a small difference in the odds. Short of conceding a random forfeit, a manager can’t blow a game. Realistically, a manager can’t move the win expectancy more than a small handful of percentage points. Everything is ultimately up to the players. It’s the players who have to execute. It’s the players who determine the outcomes. Every single player in the majors is good. The per-inning difference between one reliever and a slightly worse one is remarkably small.

I’ve long tried to keep the focus on the players. I’ve long tried to steer clear of manager-blaming hyperbole. At the end of the day, I’m most interested in the on-field baseball. I think managers catch too much shit. But I’m starting to come around a little bit. I can see the sense in why managers so often get ripped. I apologize if this is nothing new to you, because this is hardly an earth-shattering perspective. It all comes down to the concept of the unforced error.

It’s true that, by and large, managers can’t affect the game all that much. Not if we’re being realistic. There’s no would-be managerial candidate out there who would constantly bunt with Aaron Judge, or bring in a backup shortstop to be the closer. Managers all make pretty similar strategic decisions. There’s not that much of an opportunity to make a difference.

But the talent on the field — it’s usually close. Especially in the playoffs, when only strong teams remain. And once a game is underway, there’s not much anyone can do about how the players execute. A swing might be timed well, or timed poorly. A pitcher might hit a spot, or miss it. Good plays and bad plays happen. The differences between them are razor-thin. So much can ultimately be chalked up to luck. There was an element of luck in Kimbrel so badly missing with his full-count fastball. There was an element of luck in Sanchez getting just underneath it. Execution is the most important part of the game, of course, and better players execute more often than inferior players, but when a game is going, it’s like it has a mind of its own. The execution is out of the manager’s hands.

What the manager is there to do is put his players in position to have the most success. A game might effectively be decided by a flip of a coin. When a manager makes a bad or questionable decision, that can’t be written off like on-field execution. It’s not about reflexes or muscle memory. It’s not about catching a spike in the dirt. Strategy is consciously decided. As far as pitching changes are concerned, those things are often mapped out hours ahead of time. In the case of this ALDS, Aaron Boone didn’t let a breaking ball get away from him. Nothing slipped. Boone has known for months he has a great bullpen. He let Luis Severino go too long, with Lance Lynn puzzlingly behind him. Then he let CC Sabathia go too long. Boone could’ve and should’ve had a plan for this in advance. He committed entirely unforced errors, hurting the Yankees without having to. No, he didn’t kill the Yankees’ chances by himself. That’s not the point. You expect that a roster will be utilized properly. The Yankees’ players weren’t put in the best positions to have success.

It all could’ve been so easily avoided. And maybe the Yankees lose in four games anyhow. Again, managers don’t swing the odds that much. But when they swing the odds against their own teams, they have to be held accountable for that. The Yankees’ players weren’t given the best chance to win. It’s fundamentally a game of on-field execution, but sometimes a good player is just outplayed by his opponent. Players have good and bad days. Managerial strategy can largely be planned in advance. So there’s no good reason for leaning too long on CC Sabathia. That didn’t have to happen, and Boone deserved to be questioned about it.

It doesn’t have to mean Aaron Boone is, overall, a bad manager. It doesn’t have to mean that at all. The Yankees this year were wildly successful, and this was only Boone’s first season. Maybe, over the course of seven-plus months, he did a lot of work in the background to help keep everybody together. But the job in the playoffs is to press the right buttons. There is no self-destruct button — there are only buttons that move the odds a percentage point or two. Yet if that’s all the difference that can be made, managers should be measured against it. Aaron Boone didn’t do his team many favors. His errors were entirely of his own doing. The luck is all out on the field.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Not looking so bad any more, is he?

Mick Dee
Mick Dee

Never looked bad to me. I thought it was the wrong move then and I haven’t seen anything from Boone to change my mind.