Many of you have been writing in incensed about last night’s game and calling for the head of manager Eric Wedge. We’ve been down this road before. I’ve been here six years and this is the sixth manager I’ve covered. The four managers who lasted multiple years here — Wedge, Don Wakamatsu, John McLaren and Mike Hargrove — all had fans calling for their heads by their second seasons.
Here’s a hint: the Mariners have changed managers more than any other team in baseball the past five years. How’s that worked out?
Second hint: it isn’t the managers.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, Wedge is not perfect. He plays the lefty-righty percentages a lot and one reason they call them percentages is that there will always be a fraction of the time when the move doesn’t work out.
In Wedge’s case, he is banking on it going right the majority of the time.
Wedge does tend to leave starting pitchers in games longer than some managers I’ve covered. The reason is — especially this early on — he’s trying to develop a trust factor with those pitchers to show them that he’ll give them enough rope. Sometimes, it will be enough rope to hang themselves with, but then, I suppose, everyone will be all that much wiser for the next time.
I had irate fans, and some bloggers, writing in last week suggesting Wedge should have bunted with two on, none out and Chone Figgins at the plate in the eighth inning of a 3-0 game. The problem is, with six outs to go and down three, giving up an out in that situation tends to mean you’re playing for a 3-2 game heading into the ninth, which, most times, leads to defeat. So, no, having the hitter bunt in that situation is probably not the correct call — even though Figgins grounded into a double play when the pitcher cut off his ground ball. In that situation, you’re looking to get the tying run on base and having Figgins bunt is not the way to do it.
Anyhow, this is the fun part about baseball. Getting to debate stuff like this.
Should Wedge have had Michael Saunders lay down a suicide squeeze last night in the ninth with Munenori Kawasaki on third, another pinch-runner on first and the M’s down a run? There’s an argument to be made there, for sure. But the counter argument says that Saunders had a single earlier in the game and in the at-bat prior to the one in the ninth had driven a fly ball roughly 400 feet to the warning track. In that situation, as the home team with a pinch-runner on first base as well in Miguel Olivo, you’re playing for the win. You’re hoping that, at minimum, Saunders can hit a tying fly ball off a struggling closer he wasn’t exactly overmatched against. What you’re really hoping for is another Saunders hit, especially to the gap, where Olivo can score the winning run. But if you attempt the squeeze and a command-deprived closer throws an un-buntable pitch, you’re going to be out of luck. So, just some factors to consider. The squeeze might have worked. But not attempting it is hardly a firing offense.
Now, on to the main thrust of today’s complaints about Wedge: why he left Millwood in the game as long as he did.
The key to understanding why Wedge did not go to Erasmo Ramirez sooner can be found in his post-game comments about Millwood.
“He’s one of the best I’ve seen in regards to controlling damage,” Wedge said. “But today, he just wasn’t able to get through it.”
Despite what some people suggest, you can learn a thing or two from post-game comments if you actually take the time to listen, think and have a bit of an idea what to look for.
So, let’s look at what happened to Millwood, who gave up a double and a single right away in that fateful fifth inning. The next batter hit a groundball that looked like it might become a double-play until Brendan Ryan booted it.
Instead of two out and a run in with nobody on, you’ve got a run in, two on and nobody out.
So, if you’re Wedge, what are you thinking is the situation Millwood should be in at that time?
You’re thinking he should be well on his way to getting out of trouble. And with the score at 8-2 by then, you aren’t hitting the panic button. You especially are not looking to pull a veteran starting pitcher who is three outs away from qualifying for a win with a six-run lead. Managing a baseball team is about leading people as much as it is about playing percentages and crunching numbers. If it wasn’t, anyone could do the job. And most can’t.
We’ve seen examples of people coming out of the front office, or broadcast booth without any managing experience and trying to attempt it at the big league level and often it is met with failure. Why? Because of the human side of the equation.
Want to tick Millwood off and have him start to doubt your managerial know-how? Pull him with an 8-2 lead when he is three outs from qualifying for a win. Just as bad, start warming up a guy in the bullpen behind him — implying it’s his fault and not Ryan’s — when he should have two of the three required outs by that point.
So, no, that wasn’t going to happen. Doesn’t matter that Millwood said he felt like he was struggling and that some of his outs were more luck than skill. He had bad luck too. So, it goes both ways. And there are tons of pitchers who go out there every night with less than their best stuff and have to bluff their way through some innings. That’s why they are major leaguers. They get it done.
And Millwood has for most of his career. Just not this time.
But with an 8-1 lead heading into the fifth, even if Millwood had told Wedge, “Man, I’m going to need all I’ve got to get three outs this inning” you’re going to let him try because the last thing you want to do with a seven-run lead is start warming up bullpen guys too early.
The seven-run lead gives you a margin for error.
Unfortunately for Wedge and Millwood, that margin vanished in a matter of minutes. The two line drive singles after Ryan’s error were the wake-up call that — bad luck or not — Millwood had lost it by then and wasn’t getting it back. And they came very quickly, with Jason Kipnis getting his single on a 3-2 pitch and then Shin-Soo Choo lining his just two pitches later. So, a three-pitch span told Wedge that Millwood was in too deep. That’s when Ramirez was summoned to begin warming up and unfortunately for the Mariners, it wasn’t going to be in time to keep Carlos Santana from hitting.
Had Santana hit merely a single, the M’s might have had a shot at escaping the inning with a multiple-run lead. But he took Millwood deep. In a span of just a few minutes — not enough time to warm a reliever up — the M’s went from a situation where there should have been two out with none on in an 8-2 game to having the score at 8-7.
So, you can second-guess Wedge for relying on Millwood, but understand please, that I don’t know of a manager in this game who — barring some obvious injury — would pull his veteran starter when he’s up six runs and just three outs from qualifying for the win. Especially when his shortstop just muffed two potential outs.
It’s just not a smart way to run a baseball team.
I understand the frustration. But again, the key to understanding many of Wedge’s moves — including the catching situation — is to go into the analysis with the realization that this is not football. That one game out of 162 is not life-and-death like one game out of 16. That being two weeks into a rebuilding season is not the same as being in a September pennant race.
I know these games are frustrating. Believe me, they are no fun to cover from a writing perspective. But approach the argument from a long-term perspective rather than the short-term one and the reasoning becomes a bit easier to accept.
And again, never forget this fundamental premise: the reason the Mariners have been this bad for so long has little to do with the managers. Adding a seventh one here since 2007 won’t make life any easier on this franchise.