Second-Guessing, Early and Often

Some think cheating is baseball's oldest sub-profession, with or without the generally downsized specter of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. Put me in the camp that says it's baseball's second oldest sub-profession behind second-guessing, of which I'm not entirely innocent myself.

Second-guessing has one thing in common with election campaigns: it begins too early, as often as not, even as elections campaigns are said only half puckishly to begin the day after the incumbent class is sworn in, from the most obscure water supervisor to the least obscure on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

And in certain baseball regions, second-guessing can be described without too much puckishness as mother's milk, among both the baseball professoriate and the ordinary fans in the stands or in front of their television sets. New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago are described fairly as having as many second-guessers as they have organized gangsters.

The Yankees and the Phillies have opened their seasons with new managers about whom it's not unfairly said that they lack experience in their new jobs, even if they don't lack familiarity with each other on the field. (And, even if Kapler did once take a hiatus from his playing career to manage a minor league team.)

Kapler was one of the Red Sox having to watch helplessly as Boone launched an 11th-inning-opening, pennant-winning home run in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, though Boone's offseason mishap of an injury playing pickup basketball got him purged from the Yankees in time not to be part of the receiving end of the Red Sox's staggering 2004 ALCS overthrow.

Boone's first series as the Yankee skipper ended with a nuclear bang and a Blue Jays win. Walking Josh Donaldson to load the bases and pitch to Justin Smoak with David Robertson on the mound and two out in the bottom of the eighth ended with Smoak hitting a grand slam and, in short order, a 7-4 Yankee loss — on a day Sonny Gray couldn't pitch deep into the game with an already-taxed Yankee bullpen — has put Boone into the second-guessers' crosshairs.

Now, look a little deeper, as did the New York Times's baseball writer Billy Witz: Boone and Yankee pitching coach Larry Rothschild asked Robertson whether he wanted to pitch to Donaldson. Robertson gestured toward first base, an indication he preferred to pitch to Smoak, against whom Robertson had not exactly been vulnerable to that point.

In fact, in six prior plate appearances against Robertson, Smoak was a strikeout victim four times (three last season), received one walk, and had one base hit otherwise. In nine previous meetings, Donaldson took Robertson deep. "This," Boone said of Robertson vs. Smoak, "was the matchup we wanted."

It may not have been the matchup Smoak wanted, considering his record to that point against Robertson, but he wrestled the Yankee right-hander to a ninth pitch, guessed fastball on that pitch, and — having seen his guess affirmed — drove it over the center field wall. The second-guessers seem to think Boone acted on his own allowing the Robertson/Smoak duel, but it was on Robertson, having been asked and having replied what he preferred, to make it stick.

"I threw him some really good pitches," he told Witz, and he actually had. He put Smoak on ice with one cutter and kept Smoak at bay with a few curve balls. "He just kept fouling them off and stayed on me. I thought I could get a fastball by him. I didn't think I could throw him another curveball; he'd already seen too many then."

Boone's mistake wasn't necessarily letting Robertson pitch to Smoak based on the record as it was between the pair but in losing sight for one moment that, at that moment, Donaldson wasn't having a hot series (2-for-13 prior to the free pass) while Smoak (who'd homered earlier in the game off Tommy Kahnle) was afire on a 5-for-8 string entering that plate appearance. It's not a mistake unheard of among even the most experienced skippers.

Nor, for that matter, is the blunder Kapler committed a day before Smoak ruined Robertson's and Boone's plan. With his Phillies down 5-2 in the third against the Braves, Kapler — whose accessibility to his players regardless of their experience or status was seen as welcome as his attentiveness to possible tactical heterodoxies — decided it was time to get his battered starting pitcher Vince Velasquez the hell out of there and go left-hander Hoby Milner.

Except that Milner wasn't anywhere near ready to come in, despite tossing a little in the pen earlier in the game. He still had his warmup jacket on in the pen when Kapler arrived at the mound. Kapler lingered as Milner shook out of his jacket and threw a few in a hurry before coming in. When Braves manager Brian Snitker argued about the delay with plate umpire Jerry Layne, Layne ejected him.

But Layne wasn't entirely thrilled with the Phillies in the moment, either. "For whatever reason the pitcher wasn't even getting ready," Layne told the press after what ended as a 15-2 burial by the Braves. "Who got crossed up, I'm not placing blame on anybody because I don't know. He just wasn't ready. Hadn't thrown a pitch. ... The last thing I want to do is get somebody hurt. It's already a messed-up situation."

If you think only the "inexperienced" can make mistakes like that with their bullpens, be reminded that Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa almost blew a World Series in 2011 when he only thought he was going to call for Jason Motte to spell Mark Rzepczynski. The original call to the bullpen got translated, somehow, as Rzepczynski and Lance Lynn to warm up.

Rzepczysnki came in and his stab at a grounder turned into an infield hit instead of a game-ending double play. With Motte nowhere to be seen, Rzepczynski stayed in to face Mike Napoli, and Napoli ripped a 2-run double to win the game for the Rangers.

Boone and Kapler didn't make their weekend mistakes with anything that terribly serious on the line. Their clubs weren't going to go out the following day and try just to survive in a World Series La Russa's Cardinals went on to win surrealistically after being down to their final strike twice in Game 6. The second-guessers aren't paying particular attention to that little detail.

Nor are they thinking deep about Joe Maddon, a much experienced manager, who let a shaky Yu Darvish stay in Saturday's Cubs/Marlins game for the fifth inning, on a day Darvish seemed to have something not. quite. right. about him.

Assorted Cubs testified to Darvish feeling a little dehydrated and a lot badly amped up for his first start of a new season. And, with the Cubs leading 5-3 going into the bottom of the fifth in Miami, Darvish threw Starlin Castro an up-and-in slider with the bases loaded and Brian Duensing warming up in the pen that prompted him to shake his wrist in discomfort. Maddon and Darvish spoke of a cramp after the game.

Darvish tossed a few during the time out. Assuring Maddon he was OK, the skipper let him stay in. And Castro smacked a game-tying single. The Cubs needed 10 innings and a 2-out, 3-run double from Kris Bryant to win it, 10-6. Darvish hadn't had his best stuff, but had managed to hold to a 5-3 lead until the cramp and the game-tier.

Managers like when their players assure them they're just fine, but they also have to assess whether their players pick the wrong time to suck it up. Maddon may have wanted Darvish to get to a sixth inning, and he probably couldn't bring himself to lift his struggling man before getting to the fifth even with a lead. Maybe Maddon was too conscious of the hangover effect from Darvish's Game 7 nightmare last fall and wanted to let Darvish work it out.

But it's still too early in the season to treat that and the previously examined as though the fate of baseball civilization hangs in the balance. The season isn't even 10 games old. These would have been catastrophic down the stretch of a pennant race. On Opening Weekend, they're mere hiccups. And, in the case of two of them, they're the kind of hiccups to which even Hall of Fame managers are prone.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site