“At times, it’s about trying to win a ballgame.”—Ron Gardenhire. “At times,” he says . . .
Regardless of their teams’ seasons from beginning to end and all stations in between, today’s managers don’t seem as witty as their historic predecessors. You couldn’t possibly imagine the Pirates’ new manager or the Tigers’ incumbent going to the mound with Casey Stengel’s kind of insouciant wit.
Managing the hapless Original Mets in 1962, Stengel visited Roger Craig at the mound with Hall of Famer Willie McCovey checking in at the plate. “How do you want to pitch him?” the Ol’ Perfesser asked his stout righthander. “Upper deck or lower deck?” Getting his first look at brand-new Shea Stadium in 1964, Casey didn’t miss a beat: “Lovely. Just lovely. The park is lovelier than my team.”
Derek Shelton is the Pirates’ new manager; Ron Gardenhire is the Tigers’ incumbent. They seem like steady, agreeable men, the kind of bosses for whom you wouldn’t reject the chance to play. But they’re not likely to make you forget the former Pirates manager who mused, “You can have money piled to the ceiling, but the size of your funeral is still going to depend on the weather.”
Or, the former Tigers skipper who said about facing a team the day after blowout loss to them, “The only reason I’m coming out here tomorrow is because the schedule says I have to.”
But if you ask them about things like the forthcoming three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, Shelton and Gardenhire aren’t exactly stuck for answers, either. Neither were a few other skippers approached by ESPN during this month’s winter meetings. “The three-batter thing will be interesting,” says Shelton, “and it’s going to be interesting for a couple of reasons for me. Never having managed in the National League, it will be interesting to see how that works out with the pitcher.”
He’s never managed in the American League, either, but Shelton has managed in the Yankees’ system in the recent past. Gardenhire’s managed in the American League. (He managed the Twins to six American League Central titles.) “Can we talk about that after a few cocktails?” he quipped. Then he got as serious as a man who’s had a few belts and is liable to trip over his tongue at least once.
“We’ve got a lot of managers still trying to figure out how it’s going to work out,” Gardenhire said. It’s not one of those favorite things for a manager because it starts taking away a little bit of strategy. I know the game is tough when you walk out there and change a pitcher for every hitter; but at times, it’s about trying to win a ballgame, and I think that’s what we’re all here for. Those are the arguments. But we’re trying to improve the game, so we’ve got to give it a look before day one.”
“At times” it’s about trying to win a ballgame, he says. Good one, Skip. Then you remember Gardenhire’s Tigers won only to break up the monotony in 2019: they lost 114. Maybe he has a little Stengelese potential after all. (Codicil: Gardenhire’s own playing career began in a very different organisation of Mets, in 1979.)
When the idea first seeped forth, the three-batter minimum seemed a salve to those who think that either the games are taking too long or the pitchers are getting too fragile. Now it seems a solvent rather than a solution to . . . who knows?
“I think it can affect how you put a lineup together,” said former Yankees/now Phillies manager Joe Girardi. “Depending how many lefthanders they have, maybe you spread your lefthanders out. So if they have a guy that is efficient in getting left-handed hitters out, you surround him with two beasts that are right-handed hitters. So I think it does change.”
“My take on the whole thing is–I’m all for messing with the pace of the game. I think the pace of the game can be messed with; I’m good,” said Joe Maddon, the new Angels manager. “The thing I would never interfere with is strategy, and to me, that interferes with strategy, and that’s the part I don’t like. Pace and length of the game, I think, are interconnected, but strategy is sacred, I think.”
Argue that the games are “too long” and then suggest you might want to scale back on the broadcast commercials, between innings, during pitching changes, during double switches. (If you consider commercial slots between innings amount to two minutes each, that’s over half an hour you spend watching commercials and not baseball for nine innings.) Watch how fast the owners run from the very idea that something should mean a few million dollars fewer in their kitties, even if it’s for the good of the game and those who love and watch it.
Argue that if you’re going to impose the three-batter minimum you’d better not shout, you’d better not cry when a clever manager decides the game situation demands he reach for his best pitcher even if a) it’s a relief pitcher, and b) it’s, say, the fourth inning. Watch the get-off-my-lawn contingent jump up and down in tantrums, screaming blue murder, that you’re destroying the Sacred Tradition.
Never mind that you’re destroying nothing of the sort. Come to think of it, you wouldn’t be destroying the Sacred Tradition, either, if you do something I’ve suggested before: eliminate the eight warmup pitches from the game mound when you bring a relief pitcher into the game in the middle of an inning. He’s just thrown what might be at extreme the equivalent of a quality start’s worth of pitches while warming up in the pen. He needs eight more warmups? He needs them about as badly as the guy who’s hit two home runs already in that game needs batting practise.
One manager who wasn’t terribly concerned about a three-batter minimum was Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “I don’t think it’s going to affect us that much,” he said. “We don’t mix and match that much. Our lefties, they’re pretty solid. Darwinson [Hernandez] and [Josh] Taylor, they get lefties and righties and do a good job against both of them. So I don’t think to us it’s going to affect us that much.”
Not so fast, Cora. The lefthanded Hernandez did look terrific in his rookie 2019 overall. But the righthanded batters hit for a .934 OPS against him against the lefthanders’ .388. Their batting averages against him? Righthanded: .319; lefthanded: .089. Likewise a 2019 rook, Taylor, another lefthander, didn’t get crunched quite that drastically by righthanded batters (.692 OPS) and the lefthanders didn’t exactly have a simple time with him, either (.559 OPS). But the righthanded hit .243 off him and the lefthanded, .209. Better not say just yet that a three-batter minimum won’t affect you that much, after all.
Remember: Real pitching talent is rare enough. So is pitching talent that can keep hitters from both sides of the plate in equal check. Most teams would be fortunate enough to have one starter and one reliever who can work to men from both sides of the plate and leave them looking equally futile. Getting the men who can do both is a challenge the sharpest scout or the most intricate of analysts would consider equal to driving the Golden Spike home with a rock hammer.
But not impossible. Casey Stengel won his third straight World Series when he reached for just such a man, an otherwise non-descript lefthanded pitcher named Bob Kuzava, who’d only pitched fifteen times on the regular 1951 season, to face righthanded Hall of Famer Monte Irvin—in the top of the ninth, with the Yankees up 4-1, but with the bases loaded and nobody out.
Kuzava wasn’t even close to responsible for the men on base. And he got three straight fly outs, from Irvin, Bobby Thomson, and pinch-hitter Sal Yvars, which did push two Giants runs home that weren’t quite enough, to save it for Johnny Sain, who’d come in to relieve Vic Raschi in the seventh.
Do-able if you have the guys who can do it. But those guys aren’t as prevalent as the commissioner’s office or its supporters regarding the three-batter minimum think, and they’re not likely to be for a long enough time if ever. Human nature and pitching just don’t work according to a preconceived mechanical formula. Even the analytics people who develop formulae and applications to help players improve know that goes only so far. This is baseball, not engineering.
And don’t even go there about the Good Old Days when pitchers went the distance and relief pitchers were just guys who couldn’t cut it as starters. A little real history: they really went the distance in times when the ball might as well have been twine, hard throwing was as common as the telephone, the number one expectation of pitchers was throwing what batters could hit and hopefully putting fielders to work, and pitchers weren’t expected to throw like illusionists, trick-shot artists, or human howitzers. You could even pitch your way to the Hall of Fame despite surrendering almost nine hits per nine innings and striking out less than four per nine. (Cy Young—I think there’s a pitching award named after him— accomplished that.)
“If we’re gonna win,” husky first baseman George (Boomer) Scott once told then-Brewers chairman Ed Fitzgerald, “the players gotta play better, the coaches gotta coach better, the manager gotta manage better, and the owners gotta own better.” The owners also gotta own the concept that the good of the game isn’t necessarily the same thing as making money for it, or themselves.
And the commissioner gotta commission better. He gotta remember that the better, more viable pace-of-game solutions than a three-batter pitcher’s minimum may mean making a little less money but would mean leaving game tactics and strategies to the men they pay handsomely (and often not enough) to develop and execute them.
But there’s one little problem, still. Too many managers still think there’s no problem with warming pitchers up multiple times before actually bringing them into the games. Too many managers think they’re not really pitching unless they’re out there in the game. As if they’re just playing catch in the bullpen and not heating up with, you know, real pitches.
Too many managers think it’s the reliever’s fault that he came in gassed after he’d been warmed, sat, warmed again, and maybe thrown the aforesaid quality start equivalent’s pitches overall, and that’s before he tosses the customary eight warmups before facing his first batter of the game.
The three-batter minimum won’t solve that issue, either. If anything, such gassed-before-they-come-in pitchers, handled by managers whose brains are gassed, are more liable to get driven into the middle of next month before they even face their third batters. And often as not, the only solution for managers like that isn’t a dubious rule change but, rather, unemployment.