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May 16, 2013 at 9:56 AM

Eric Wedge, Raul Ibanez and playing a managerial hunch

Raul Ibanez is congratulated at the plate after hitting a grand slam last night off Yankees starter Phil Hughes in the first inning. Photo Credit: AP

Raul Ibanez is congratulated at the plate after hitting a grand slam last night off Yankees starter Phil Hughes in the first inning. Photo Credit: AP

We’ve seen Raul Ibanez hit three home runs in two games at Yankee Stadium after Mariners manager Eric Wedge openly stated that his outfielder’s prior success at this ballpark was one of the reasons he’d see game action. Another reason given for Ibanez starting on Tuesday night against left-handed pitcher C.C. Sabathia was his track record of success against the southpaw.

But when Ibanez lived up to those expectations — taking Sabathia deep on Tuesday and then popping two more homers on Wednesday — the results were dismissed as “lucky” and a “fluke” by some of my readers on Twitter. When I tried to explain to them that Wedge was playing a hunch in giving Ibanez the rare lefty-on-lefty start against Sabathia and had it pay off, one reader expressed horror that an MLB manager would conduct himself that way.

The reader, it seemed, was shocked at the discovery that MLB managers allow hunches to dictate many of their in-game and pre-game decisions. In fact, I’ll put forward — as I did last night on Twitter — that managers at this level are paid for their expertise and with that expert knowledge comes the ability to make educated guesses that will often exceed the thought process of the average fan. Or even the above average, self-professed thinking fan.

For me, this might represent one of the biggest disconnects I see between some who favor a more stats-oriented approach to baseball versus what those who work in the sport actually deal with on a daily basis. It’s right up there along with a failure by some fans and analysts to grasp the nuances of full-time players versus part-time players, or realistic, true-life “sample sizes” versus the ideal theoretical ones that play out over hundreds, even thousands of at-bats.

There are hundreds of variables that go into every baseball game. Once you accept that reality and understand how every one game in a season of 162 can change the course of how decisions are made, it becomes much simpler to grasp why even the most stats-savy of managers will never make all of their decisions on auto-pilot based off some pre-calculated computer projections.

They can’t do that. They are paid to be different from the next guy. And from the average fan sitting at home pumping out stats for every situation beforehand.

If every manager in baseball managed every game based off what the computer projections told him ahead of time, we’d have some very predictable patterns unfolding that some intelligent manager looking to buck the trend could easily exploit.

Now, back to hunches.

The easy call on Ibanez would have been to sit him against the left-hander the other night based on what the generic stats said. But the much tougher call was to view this as an opportunity to get Ibanez going against a pitcher he’s seen success against before. Yes, I am aware that a lot of the success had by Ibanez against Sabathia came when he was younger and a full-time player and that Sabathia has since blossomed into a more mature, ace-like version of his younger self.

On the surface, that would appear to lessen the case for playing Ibanez.

But Wedge kept taking about the “knowledge base” Ibanez had built over the years by seeing Sabathia firsthand as both an opponent and a teammate. Wedge also knows Sabathia’s pitching style very well — having managed him for years in Cleveland — and liked the matchup against the style of hitter Ibanez is. Wedge has spoken before about hitting styles versus pitching styles in explaining his decision-making process. That we have no real way to validate that statistically might bother some people. It doesn’t bother me. The Mariners aren’t paying those worried fans or pundits for their expertise. They are paying Wedge for his. And they will keep paying him for his firsthand knowledge of what goes into hitting and pitching and managing until he clearly isn’t good enough at the job based on the team he’s given.

So far, since I arrived in Seattle in 2006, I’ve seen the team deploy Mike Hargrove, John McLaren, Jim Riggleman, Don Wakamatsu, Daren Brown and now Wedge as managers. And I’ve seen the same complaints from the usual suspects about every in-game tactical decision and roster choice that gets made. I even see those complaints from people who previously spent years championing the cost-cutting moves by the organization that left Wedge saddled with the equivalent of a Class AAA squad the first two seasons he was here.

This team has gone through enough managers of varying styles over the years that it should be evident by now that no one field boss would have fixed what ails the Mariners. The troubles have originated much higher up the food chain than the field boss, even though he is usually the one with the highest degree of accountability — as witnessed by the rash of recent dismissals.

This 2013 team is arguably the best one we’ve seen in Seattle — at least on paper — since 2007.

Let’s see how it plays out and then decide whether Wedge deserves to stay on. Right now, after a horrific, 2008-style opening, he’s got the Mariners within two games of .500 despite continued injuries and struggles by the back of the rotation. I don’t have an axe to grind with Wedge or anybody else in the front office. If this team shows marked improvement, they should all get a chance to stay and keep building it — hopefully, with added resources from ownership.

I’ve already set my minimal standard at a .500 season for them. If the Mariners can’t reach that, then all bets are off as far as changing the folks who run the squad. The mere fact the Mariners are already back near the .500 mark so quickly demonstrates this is clearly a better team than we’ve seen before.

Don’t believe me? Need some statistical backup?

Here you go.

2013

OPS+: 98

ERA+: 97

 

2012

OPS+: 89

ERA+: 99

 

2011

OPS+: 84

ERA+: 97

 

2010

OPS+: 79

ERA+: 100

Which of those teams would you go into battle with? The 2013 Mariners are clearly a much better offensive squad, even with the numbers dragged down by an April stretch in which the entire outfield was injured at one point in time. The pitching remains about where it’s been for years. The Mariners are better. Our expectations should therefore be higher and for some of us, they are.

But it’s not merely about getting a computer readout and posting whatever lineup the bits and bytes tell you to shove out there every day. It’s taken a lot of educated guesswork and some “hunches” to get the Mariners where they are today — which is, back to a point where their season is more than the writeoff it looked to be three weeks ago.

Players like Jason Bay had to be expertly guided into their new roles, getting just enough playing time and trust early so they could produce if needed later. As he has.

When Blake Beavan and Kameron Loe weren’t getting it done early, there were decisions made to replace them without further hesitation. Some players, like Brendan Ryan and Robert Andino, have been given much more ample rope.

There are decisions being made daily about how to bring Jesus Montero along so as not to disrupt the pitching staff with a catcher still learning the game and who may never be even a part-time guy behind the plate. Part of those calculations have to do with Kelly Shoppach and the team’s desire not to run him into the ground. Believe me, if the Mariners could, they would have Shoppach catch each and every game. But if they did that, his numbers would plummet.

It’s like John Jaso a year ago. He puts up an OPS of .850 in 294 at-bats and everybody screams and yells at Wedge and the Mariners over their “incompetence” for not playing him more (we’ll leave his defensive liabilities out of it for today).

Fast forward to 2013 and Jaso is on-pace for 420 at-bats with the Oakland Athletics, yet his OPS has dipped to a lowly .668.

Again, managing a baseball team of human beings is not like running a team of robots. In order to manage effectively, you have to know your players, see their limitations and play your “hunches” based off the knowledge base you have of how to get them where you need them to be.

With Ibanez, Wedge saw the chance to kickstart a player who needed it and give his team a chance to win the game. Wedge explained his thought process and it played out the way he hoped it would.

And if too many of his hunches don’t play out? The team will lose more than it wins and he will very likely be gone.

That’s managing. Everybody’s favorite statistics-oriented manager, Joe Maddon, plays his hunches, too. His team is a game above .500. Toronto Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos¬†– widely praised for his process and boldness — is in charge of a 17-24 squad.

No one guy or “process” has it all figured out. Every one of these managers and GMs is paid to think within their own heads — not inside some stats-laden box others want to limit them to. These guys are all paid to think. The ones who do it with greater success will stay employed. Those who fail too often at it will be looking for work elsewhere.

But yes, hunches always will be part of running a team. And sample sizes won’t always matter as much as winning the next few games in front of you.

 

 

Comments | More in manager | Topics: raul ibanez; eric wedge; c.c. sabathia; john jaso

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