Baseball Toaster Cub Town
Help
How Dusty Failed
2004-10-01 01:55
by alex ciepley

(Note: this column goes out under Alex's byline, but Christian wrote the second half of it.)

[Alex:] The number one culprit in yesterday's loss was the offense, which failed Mark Prior in a way only Randy Johnson can sympathize with. Dusty Baker, however, did his best in extra-innings to make the task of winning more difficult for his team. Here's why.

CINCINNATI 10TH
With two out in the 10th inning, Jason LaRue singles off Ryan Dempster and is pinch-run for by Ryan Freel. Not only would Freel's threat to steal be lessened with a lefty on the mound, but Andy Machado, who is at the plate, has two at-bats against lefties the entire year. Mike Remlinger has finished warming up, and is ready in the bullpen. Freel promptly steals second and Machado walks, something we're getting awful used to with Dempster (who, let's face it, has always walked way too many people to be a good pitcher). Barry Larkin steps up. Larkin has hit .368 in his career against Dempster, but Baker leaves the matchup as-is. Baker gets away with it, as Larkin grounds out.

CHICAGO 10TH
The most important thing the Cubs need at this moment is a run. It would certainly help things to get the leadoff man on. Tom Goodwin is brought in as the inning's first batter. Unfortunately, Goodwin has a .254 OBP this season, the lowest among every regular on the bench. This would have been a perfect opportunity to bring in Ben Grieve (who has a .360 OBP this season, just below his lifetime mark of .367), whose primary skill is to get on base. Dusty seems to think that Grieve should be reserved to drive in runs, despite having a pedestrian .419 SLG percentage. It apparently doesn't dawn on Dusty that you can pinch run for a slow baserunner, but you have to have the baserunner to begin with.

Goodwin, of course, promptly strikes out.

CINCINNATI 11TH
Mike Remlinger has been brought in and quickly gets two outs. At this point, however, it makes no sense to leave him in to face Sean Casey. Baker must think that Remlinger, a lefty, should be at an advantage against another lefty. Lefties, of course, have pounded Remy this year (806 OPS against lefties, 527 OPS against righties), as they do every year (from 2001-2003, 789 OPS against lefties, 570 versus righties). But even with Dusty ignoring these trends, you'd think he'd notice that Casey is batting a cool .500 against Remlinger (6 for 12) in his career. Baker escapes again, though, and Casey grounds out.

CHICAGO 11TH
With two outs, the Cubs are threatening. They have Sosa at third and Grudz at first with Lee at the plate. Casey is playing behind Grudz, and the Reds are conceding second base. You want to take second, as it eliminates the force out. No one notices this on the Cubs' side for a couple pitches. Whether this is Grudzielanek's fault for not paying attention or the coaching staff's fault for not relaying information, it is inexcusable that Mark doesn't immediately take second. He finally does midway through Lee's at bat. Lee walks and Barrett strikes out on three pitches.

CINCINNATI 12TH
Unfathomably, Remlinger is left in to face lefty slugger Adam Dunn. We've already gone over Remlinger's unsuccessful splits versus lefties in general, but Adam Dunn is batting 833/875/1.333 in his career against Remy! It is pure folly to leave this matchup in the game, and this time Baker pays for it. Remlinger gives up a single to center. Farnsworth (against whom Dunn is 1 for 8 in his career, though that one hit was a home run) is brought in to face Kearns. Kearns strikes out, but Dunn easily steals second and advances to third on a groundout. Javier Valentin drives in Dunn with a double, and the Reds have taken the lead.

CHICAGO 12TH
Given another chance to pinch-hit with Grieve to lead off the inning, Baker chooses out-master Jose Macias to lead off. Again, the lead off hitter is supposed to reach base, and Macias has an OBP of .286. It was the wrong choice, but it works out for Baker as Macias immediately singles.

Then comes the most idiotic part of the game. I'll let asking Patterson to sacrifice slide, since Corey has been no better than a pitcher at the plate this month anyhow. But when Patterson fails and there is now one out and Macias still on first, Nomar Garciaparra tries to sacrifice Macias to second. Nomar enters the game with four sacrifice hits in his entire career. This number is so low because he has a lifetime OPS of .919, the highest OPS of anyone in the Cubs' lineup. Nomar grumbled something or another after the game that it was his idea to bunt, but to me it seemed like he was trying to cover someone else's tracks. It should have been made clear to him that the Cubs needed a big hit at that moment, not an advancement of the runner in exchange for the out.

I'll ask James Click, one of the wise souls over at Baseball Prospectus, to take over from here. James clarified the math in an email:

While I don't like analyzing individual decisions like this, considering how often managers go to matchup sheets, let me offer my own.

Given a runner on first with one out, Nomar then Aramis coming up, and playing for one run, the Cubbies had a roughly 47% chance of scoring if Nomar had swung away. If he attempts to sacrifice, that drops to 43.5%. HOWEVER, if the opposition then chooses to intentionally walk Aramis, then that drops to 40.3%.

In effect, Dusty cost the Cubbies a 6.7% chance to tie the game. That may not sound like much, but it's a lot.

Well guess what. Nomar "successfully" sacrifices Macias to second, Aramis walks, and it all doesn't work out as Alou flies out to end the game.

***

It isn't that the Cubs would have won the game had Baker not made bad decision after bad decision in extra innings. It's that Baker consistently went against the odds, making it all that much harder for his team to win. The Cubs must have known when they hired him that Dusty never has been a good in-game manager, though having Barry Bonds around for a decade helps to cover a lot of failings. The thing of it is, Dusty's shortcomings are supposed to be compensated for by his ability to motivate players and create positive attitudes. He is a "winner" who gets the best out of his players.

So I ask you, as we watch a "motivated" Cubs team collapse on the verge of securing the Wild Card and listen as the Cubs adopt a new attitude characterized by in-your-face arguments and whimpering whines, has the trade-off in in-game management skills really paid off?

[Christian:] If, as has been reported, it was Nomar's idea to bunt, then that seals the question of "should the Cubs bring Nomar back next year" for me. I don't want a player on my team who, with four career sacrifice bunts, thinks that the twelfth inning, with a man on first and one out is the right time to try to lay one down.

(Note -- the next seven paragraphs veer very sharply into theoretical territory. If you're not interested in that, check back in where I say "Given the fact.")

By every measure, it was a bad choice. Lots of people have done lots of studies about how many runs you can expect to score in a specific situation, what the chances of scoring at least one run are, etc. Let's look at three of them:

1. Net Expected Run Values: By going back through previous play-by-play data, we can determine how many runs can be expected to score based on the 24 possible baserunner/out combinations. Depending on what set of data you use, the numbers change slightly, but they are always approximately the same.

With a runner on first and one out, the expected run value for the inning is 0.544 runs. With a runner on second and two out, the expected run value for the inning is 0.347 runs. So even a successful sacrifice bunt decreases the expected run value by 36%.

2. Tangotiger, one of the shining stars of mathematical baseball analysis, has examined the 24 baserunner/out combinations from a couple of different perspectives. One is called "Win Expectancy". Check the website for more info, but basically it's the chance a team has of winning, based on the 24 baserunner/out combinations and the inning of the game. With a runner on first and one out, down by one run, the WE of the home team in the bottom of the ninth (or beyond) 20.8%. With a runner on second and two out, the WE is 14.3%. So, a successful bunt in this situation lowers the chance of winning by 6.5%.

3. Another way to look at this situation is "what are the chances of scoring one or more runs from this point forward"? This is the only way of looking at this where a successful bunt in that situation doesn't hurt the team's chances. The chances of scoring exactly one run with a runner on first and one out is 12.3%, while the chances of scoring exactly one run with a runner on second and two out is 14.7%. So, a successful bunt increases the chance of tying the game slightly, by 2.4%.

But. While the chance of scoring exactly one run goes up, the chance of scoring one or more runs goes down, from 28.4% to 22.2%, a 6.2% drop. Playing for one run in that situation makes a little bit of sense, I guess, but it increasing your chances of tying the game, at the expense of your chances of winning the game, is not good strategy.

The aforementioned James Click had a long, well-researched series published on Baseball Prospectus where he took an in-depth look at sacrificing, in order to determine when (and by whom) it was a good strategic decision. In part three, he endeavored to find out how bad of a hitter you have to be in order for a sacrifice to be a good choice. What he found was that, with a runner on first and one out, anybody better than 199/224/174 is better off swinging away. He said, "Only pitchers should sacrifice a man from first to second in any circumstances. Even then, certain pitchers who are decent hitters should swing away." He also said "When the probability of scoring at least one run is paramount (late in a close game, in a low run-scoring environment, or facing a dominating pitcher, etc)...only pitchers should sacrifice a man from first. Given that a pitcher would likely rarely be batting in this situation where runs are at a premium, this situation is likely to never occur. " Nomar is way, way, waaay too good of a hitter to be bunting in this situation.

*****

Given the fact that Nomar and Dusty have both said Nomar was bunting on his own, I'm willing to give Dusty a pass on what turned out to be the worst decision of the game. The other faults that Alex outlined, however, fall squarely on Dusty's shoulders.

The suspect history of Dusty Baker as a manager in the post-season, and in post-season type regular season games, is well-documented. When I wrote my pro/con article (I know, I keep going back to it -- I had no idea it would turn out to be such a touchstone) about Baker's hiring in November, 2002, I said the following:

For Cubs fans, the prospect of even having to think about who to DH in the World Series is hard to fathom. Seriously, Dusty may not be the best in-game manager, but for the most part that only becomes an issue in the playoffs, and just like millions of other Cubs fans, Iíd love the opportunity to second-guess Bakerís decisions in a Cubs playoff game...Iím not too worried about this, at least for the next few years. If Baker does what everyone hoped he can, the Cubs will face a dilemma come Ď05 or so ó do they stick with the manager who got them to the playoffs, or ditch him for someone who is a better in-game tactician? I hope thatís a decision theyíll need to make."
I don't know if I've ever been so wrong and so right in the same paragraph before. I really didn't think Baker would have the Cubs contending in his first and second seasons at the helm. What I expected was that, by now, the Cubs would have a foundation in place that would allow them to contend in 2005 and beyond. That he has done what he has done (gotten the Cubs to the playoffs one year and to the brink of them the next) is a tremendous achievement. He also deserves credit for apparently changing the attitude of the team. I don't actually like the attitude he appears to have instilled in the players, but I will certainly admit that it is different than the "lovable loser" mentality that seemed to dog them in the past.

Given that he has done what he has done, though, the time frame I laid out turns out to be prescient. The Cubs have cast their lot with a guy who can motivate the hell out of his players, but his game decisions fall apart under scrutiny. In addition, he seems to carry an air of inflexibility that hamstrings him. There's another manager in the game today who often gets labelled as a bad tactician -- Bobby Cox. Perhaps not coincidentally, Cox has presided over a decade of high-talent teams that seem to have a hard time taking the final step. One area in which Baker and Cox differ, however, is that Cox adapts his managerial style to fit the players he has, rather than trying to shoehorn players into a particular paradigm. He's won his division with good hitting and good pitching; he won it with great pitching and mediocre hitting; and he's won it with mediocre pitching and great hitting. Whatever team John Schuerholz has given him, he's found a way to make them win. In eight years of watching Dusty Baker manager, I haven't seen in him a willingness to adapt his style to that of his players. After that long, I don't think he's going to suddenly start doing it, either.

So it's dilemma time for the Cubs. Actually, let me re-phrase that -- it's dilemma time for Cubs fans. Dusty isn't going anywhere. He has two years left on his contract, and he has led the Cubs to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in thirty years (and, rending of garments aside, there's still a chance he'll lead them to back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in nearly a century). Plenty of people in Cub Fan Nation are saying things like, "well, he might not make smart decisions, but he's changed the way things are done in Chicago, and it's worth overlooking the game management problems."

I disagree. For the entire time I've been a Cubs fan, my hopes for the team have been the same: to see them win a World Series. It has been a vain hope for a very long time, but it's been the ultimate goal just the same. To celebrate Baker because he's changed the Cubs from a team which can't get close to that goal to a team that can get close but can't seal the deal is a fool's errand. I'm not gonna throw my weight behind a guy just because he's taught the Cubs how to lose a different way.

For the last two years, it has been Dusty's world, and we've just been living in it. I understand that, and I understand that it isn't suddenly going to become someone else's world. But there's room for disagreement in Dusty's world, despite what Dusty thinks. I mean, if there isn't, what the hell is the point of doing what we're doing here?

Comment status: comments have been closed. Baseball Toaster is now out of business.