To play in the NFL, you have to make a show of going to college. To play in the NBA, you have to get through high school. To sign a contract with a major league baseball team, all you have to do is convince someone you’re 16, provided you weren’t born in a country with inconvenient labor laws.
Perhaps this goes some way toward explaining both the high reverence in which the intellectual is held in baseball and the low standards necessary to qualify as one. Mike Mussina’s crossword puzzle habit was the telling detail that led a thousand profiles during his long career, limning him as a man apart from the rabble surrounding him in the clubhouse. The Chicago Cubs alone have multiple lousy relievers suspected of harboring deep thoughts because they went to Notre Dame. And Tony La Russa leveraged a never-used J.D. from Florida State University into book-length fawning from both George Will and Buzz Bissinger.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi fits neatly in this line. If you don’t know that he has an engineering degree from Northwestern, a team broadcaster will be happy to tell you. Often caught by television cameras modeling taciturn expressions while consulting thick binders full of arcane statistics, Girardi looks like an engineer, runs a game like one, and even talks like one. (How are the playoffs different from the regular season, Joe? “You have your parts, and you understand what you need to do with your parts, and you just go from there.”) And in this year’s playoffs, Girardi has done a fantastic job illustrating why baseball is a game for delinquents, not engineers.
The quintessential Girardi ploy came last Friday, in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. The Yankees were down one run with two outs in the top of the ninth inning when the Angels walked Alex Rodriguez. Because, as Girardi later explained to the press, an “extra step” can be so important in the late innings, he took Rodriguez off the bases and brought in one Freddy Guzman as a pinch runner. In six years in the majors, Guzman has one-third as many plate appearances as Rodriguez has career stolen bases. Nevertheless, the only reason the move would make sense is if Guzman had been brought in to steal. But Girardi held Guzman at first base, a position from which he couldn’t score without an extra-base hit. You might generously estimate the odds of this move working at 1 percent, and I’d put them lower than that, given that Guzman has slightly more major league game experience than you do while (whatever his other flaws) Rodriguez is probably the savviest ballplayer of his generation. In exchange for at best a marginal edge, Girardi took out a player who’d hit something like half a dozen game-tying home runs over the last several days—in a game that was a couple of hits away from going to extra innings.
This is no nitpick or isolated incident. Throughout the playoffs, Girardi has been allowing moderately decent starter A.J. Burnett to pitch to his own personal catcher—exiling starter Jorge Posada—because of the “rhythm” that Burnett enjoys with scrub Jose Molina. (Burnett walked five and hit two in his first start. Some rhythm!)
The curious thing about these inane moves is that they don’t—at all—match up with Girardi’s reputation as a forward thinker steeped in statistical nuance. There’s nothing more old school than pinch running on a hunch or citing the chemistry between a pitcher and catcher as a reason to bench one of your best hitters. The Yankee manager’s overarching philosophy, then, seems to have less to do with statistics than with the notion that a manager needs to make slick maneuvers to win ballgames.
Consider that in Game 3 of the ALCS, Girardi used seven relief pitchers in five innings, citing matchups and scouting reports as a reason to pull lefty Damaso Marte after he got one out on one pitch, only to bring in lefty Phil Coke as a replacement at the top of the next inning. Unlike his other dodgy moves, those bullpen antics—which at one point forced him to pinch hit for Mariano Rivera, a truly impressive bit of overmanaging considering that pitchers don’t hit in the American League—may have actually cost the Yankees a game. After Dave Robertson, his third-best reliever, got two easy outs in the 11th, Girardi yanked him in favor of Alfredo Aceves, his fourth best. Aceves gave up two hits and the game was done.
All these moves are the result of a search for edges that don’t exist. This isn’t the normal annoying tinkering we’ve all seen in 100 boring playoff games; it’s a compulsive effort to control randomness. The difference between Aceves and Robertson is about 12 runs per 500 batters faced, meaning that the lesser of the two gives up about .02 more runs per batter than the other. Neither player is more likely to get any particular hitter out—whatever differences there are in the speed or break of their pitches are utterly irrelevant next to the role of sheer random chance. An “intelligent” manager like La Russa or Girardi consults his color-coded charts as he thinks deeply about whether Howie Kendrick’s swing will work better against Robertson’s curve or Aceves’ cutter. A wise manager understands that there’s really no difference and there’s nothing he can do but call on a decent pitcher and cross his fingers.
In this World Series, Girardi will be matched against a very wise manager, Philadelphia’s Charlie Manuel. He speaks with a deep West Virginia drawl and doesn’t boast degrees of any kind, having turned down a scholarship to Penn to help support his family. While Manuel isn’t often tagged as a deep thinker, he does understand probability. Going on the recent evidence, that’s a hell of a lot more than you can say for his opponent.
Perhaps the most useful sabermetric insight is that the most recent at-bat, game, or season isn’t necessarily a good predictor of the next at-bat, game, or season. Barring injury, a pitcher with 10 years in the majors and a 4.00 career ERA will likely give up four runs in his next nine innings and 40 in his next 90. There are hot streaks and there are cold streaks, but they behave so much like random variation that the best plan is nearly always to ignore them.
While Manuel isn’t about to hire Bill James as his bench coach, he clearly understands this principle. He pinch hit for a regular exactly once in the five-game NLCS and made just two defensive substitutions, clear evidence not only that he has a solid lineup but that he knows the soundest strategy is usually to roll out your best guys and hope they play well.
Perhaps even more impressive was Manuel’s handling of Brad Lidge. The Phillies closer had one of the all-time rotten seasons this year, and it got worse as it went along. He gave up nearly a run per inning in the last month of the season, and received wisdom was that Lidge wasn’t going to see a meaningful inning in October. Then the strangest thing happened: Manuel gave him the ball, and he pitched brilliantly, as he has most of his career. In five playoff games, he hasn’t given up a run. The whole time, Manuel has allowed that he’s mostly been pitching Lidge for want of other options, but he’s also said again and again that Lidge has been a terrific pitcher over his career and that nothing has happened recently to make him think he isn’t. It’s worked well enough to win him a second straight pennant.
Manuel’s general understanding that baseball is about players throwing and hitting and catching a ball is in perfect accord with the most sophisticated study of the sport. So is his simple insistence that players should be judged by more information rather than less. The Yankees have the better team, and would probably win the World Series if they were managed by a bag of sunflower seeds. The bag of seeds, at least, wouldn’t pinch run for Alex Rodriguez, bench Jorge Posada, or swap relievers because of some minute difference that doesn’t really matter. Girardi isn’t wholly useless—he’s refreshingly willing to use his closer outside of ninth-inning save chances, and he’s dismissed calls to tinker with his batting order to aid slumping Nick Swisher. Still, if the World Series comes down to who has the smarter manager, the Phillies will win a second straight championship.