Friday, October 22, 2004

Playoff PostMortem: Sweep the Leg

Brother Aaron, my college roommate, wrote in with the following about yesterday's post:

"After the Cardinals' deeper rotation and just as lethal line-up knock the crap out of the Sox, the Curse will still live-on.

"Or at least you hope, but the Yankees are no longer un-beatable to the Sox. That aura is gone, just a YEAR after it seemed more impenetrable than ever.
"Yeah, I know about last year, but that was last year. Finally, the Red Sox have a SMARTER manager than Joe Torre.

"Your point about Mattingly....I was expecting you to compare it to what the Yanks SHOULD have been doing to Schilling in game 6!!! The guy couldn't cover first base without wincing.

"Bat Kenny Lofton FIRST and have him drag bunt FOUR TIMES if necessary, and then steal second base. Kind of pathetic, but I think the Sox had more stolen bases in the series than the Yanks. And if not, they at least made better use of theirs.
"[Torre's] NOT the best manager in baseball and he's not as great as everyone thinks he is. He doesn't manage his pitching staff well, and he's become WORSE than Earl Weaver in waiting for the three-run homer.

"You can survive the regular season when you have NINE guys all hit at least 20 HRS (ok, maybe 8....) b/c you're never out of a game that way, but he's too reliant on Rivera and too trusting of the WRONG pitchers.

"Javier Vasquez was banished to the bullpen NOT because he lost a numbers game with Kevin Brown and El Duque, but b/c he was just as bad as Estaban Loaiza by season'send. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

"And by the way, my NINE year old knows Johnny Damon OWNED Vasquez this year, not once, not twice, but thrice???? Look at the numbers!!!"

The part of Aaron's post that resonates most with me is the discussion of Schilling's Game 6 start. There's a moment in the Karate Kid when Kreese, the evil Cobra Kai karate teacher, tells one of his students, a finalist in the climactic karate tournament, to play dirty against the eponymous Kid, Daniel LaRusso.

"Sweep the leg" the teacher says, referring to Daniel-san's already-injured knee. "No mercy."

At the start of Game 6, when they were showing Curt Schilling's blood-stained sock, that was the thought that was running through my mind. It wouldn't be against the rules of baseball for the Yanks to bunt Curt Schilling into oblivion -- taking advantage of his limited mobility, see if maybe they could pop off a few of the sutures holding Schill's ankle together.

The question, for me, was would it be unethical? Take it for granted that Red Sox fans would have whined about this as yet another example of poor sportsmanship by the Yanks, but would bunting on Schilling actually have made the Yanks as evil as Red Sox fans say they are?

Before I could carry the thought much further, the Yankees' lineup was announced -- no Kenny Lofton, extra helpings of Tony Clark and Ruben Sierra -- and I knew which conclusion Joe Torre drew on the ethical issue. To take things a step further, Joe Buck then announced that Torre said, under no uncertain terms, that the Yankees would not resort to such low class tactics.

At the time I heard the announcement, I thought it was a classy move, but it kind of bugged me. First of all, even if the Yankees weren't going to bunt on Schilling, why would you announce it? Maybe you're not willing to take advantage of an opponent's injury, but do you have to put him and his team at ease by declaring to the media you're not going to take advantage?

Second, the idea that bunting on Schilling, forcing him to field or cover first base, would have been low-class is itself flawed. If you remember last October (and if you're not able to remember that far, Dan Schlossberg has a book for you!) the Marlins had no trouble with exploiting David Wells' bad back -- indeed, Wells having to pull himself out of Game 5 was probably the final blow that doomed theYanks in the World Series.

Sure, David's a big fat guy, so no one has much simpathy when his back goes out on him, but the whole thing was never an issue -- bunting was just Juan Pierre being Juan Pierre.

Torre not having Lofton in the Game 6 lineup -- and remember, Lil' Smacky's a guy we got only because George was experiencing Pierre Envy after the Marlins won the Series -- eliminated an offensive threat the Yanks could have used in that game.

I love Joe Torre. Winning those rings earns you a lot of respect. I don't know if it's fair to say that Francona is smarter than Torre, but everyone should realize by now that Torre has his strengths and weaknesses.

Torre excels at the off-field managerial skills: he's great with the media; he has the respect of his players, coaches, and management; he sets a tone of professionalism for the organization as a whole. Boil it all down, and he might be the best player's manager in baseball.

Now, the value of these skills is hard to measure, but I don't think you can dismiss them as valueless. The respect and professionalismTorre projects helps the Yankees recruit free agents. His management style helped mold Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera into the solid baseball citizens they've been over their careers.

There's also value to the decreased in-fighting -- both in the clubhouse and with the owner's box -- that has marked the Torre era. I don't put much weight in team chemistry, but I think there's a tangible benefit to making your team an attractive place for people to come play. There's definitely a benefit to setting a good example for young players, so they don't go astray like Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry did.

When it comes to the place where a manager has the greatest impact on the game -- doling out playing time -- Torre's far more pedestrian. He's not big on playing matchups, preferring a set lineup and pitching rotation to mixing things up every day. He has favorites, and sometimes will stick with a non-performing veteran (coughEnriqueWilsoncough) too long. Young players can quickly drift into his doghouse, and never be seen again.

Torre's also not big on position changes for players. Bernie Williams might be a centerfielder for life, even though his range and arm are better suited for left field or maybe even first base. Torre's teams aren't terribly flexible as a result of this policy, so when there's an injury, he's more likely to substitute and play a lesser player (or look for Cashman to get him a replacement) than he is to change anybody's role.

Joe's biggest weakness is the third area of managing, the in-game strategy. Postseasons have come and gone, and Joe's bench players are largely there for decorative purposes. He'll substitute for injuries, or pinch hit for players whose bats he doesn't like. Sacrifice bunts and pinch running are sometimes utilized in the late innings, but not terribly often or terribly well.

Torre's use of the bullpen was considered cutting edge a few years ago, mainly for his tendency to extend Mariano Rivera past an inning in the playoffs. The field has caught up with him on that score. What remains of Torre's bullpen usage is mechanical -- all this season Torre probably could have handed the umpire a set of instructions, along with the lineup card, to indicate the pitching changes that were coming during that game:

Dear Ump:

If we're leading in the 7th inning, and the starter's given up more than two runs, please put in Quantrill. If we're leading in the 8th, or if Quantrill gets in trouble in the 7th, it'll be Gordon. If we're leading in the 9th by less than four runs, or if Gordon gets in trouble in the 8th, please put in Rivera.

Thanks in advance for saving me the trouble of getting up to make a pitching change.

Joe Torre

That said, and with all due respect to Amber (Aaron's 9 year old), I can't kill Torre for bringing in Javy Vazquez, based on the matchup. Captain Caveman was 2 for 12 against Javy this season, with a walk (Sample Size Alert! This is a Sample Size Alert, when you hear the Sample Size Alert Tone, please feel free to take all the stats I cite with a grain of salt). Although both Damon's hits were homers, few of the relievers Torre had available fared much better against Damon this season.

What were the options? Bring in Felix Heredia to face Damon, Bellhorn, and possibly Ramirez? Bring in Mike Mussina in the second inning, on one day's rest? Do Esteban Loaiza, Paul Quantrill, or Tanyon Sturtze make you feel any better in this spot?

Come to think of it, I probably would have put Sturtze in. That's what I thought Joe was doing, when I saw the game at the pool hall. But I can't really kill Torre for turning to Vazquez, even though it was a mechanical choice ("See? It says right here, 'If Brown's in trouble before the fifth inning, bring in Vazquez.'").

Getting back to Game 6, the decision to announce that he wouldn't "Sweep the Leg" on Schilling is as much a result of Torre's strenghts as his weaknesses. Joe's professionalism kept him from advocating a strategy that might be viewed as crass or tacky. Joe's great relationship with the media led him to announce that that was the way he was going.

Some think that if Don Zimmer, the Yankees junkyard dog, had been on the bench next to Joe, maybe the Yanks would have been more aggressive strategically. We'll never know. This, like the pitching situation, the pitching coach situation, the first base situation, and the ain't-got-no-prospects situation, must be addressed over the winter.

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