Saturday, October 06, 2007

Before Manny, Francona delivered

Managers very rarely get noticed for doing something right, strategy-wise. It's much easier to second guess the decision-maker when things go wrong than to sit up and notice the strategy when things go right. I've personally always been only perfectly willing to rip Terry Francona when he sticks with the veteran too long or uses his bullpen sub-optimally.

With apologies to Jacoby Ellsbury, we're going to be ignoring the veterans vs. kids issue for now, and go straight to his bullpen. The complaints about Francona's bullpen use are familiar to every manager out there right now--they tend to manage to the statistic, rather than a situation. They'll use their fourth best reliever with a one-run lead in the seventh inning and the bases loaded, or with a tie game in the eighth, the highest leverage situations where a great reliever can help his team win more games, while saving him in case the team has a lead in the 9th. Meanwhile, that same manager will use his best reliever with a three run lead in the 9th, when the reality is that a terrible pitcher can come into a game and get three runs before he allows three runs a huge majority of the time- look at Joe Borowski. The talk this fall is how he's a great closer despite his statistics, saving 45 games in 53 tries, a rate that doesn't seem to jibe with his ugly 5.07 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. The truth is, these stats are right in line. To blow a two run lead in one inning, your ERA for a game needs to be over 18.00. With that in mind, a pitcher with a 4.50 ERA should be able to close a two run lead in one inning around 75% of the time. Borowski's success this year is more an indictment of the save statistic than it is an example of his innate ability to close games.

However, this isn't meant to be a condemnation of Borowski, who is far from the worst pitcher to be branded a closer, and has often pitched much better in his career. It's not a condemnation of Eric Wedge, either, who used his bullpen in roughly the same way the other 29 managers would have if given then same situation. Today, we're taking a moment to give a thumbs up to the way Terry Francona managed the team in yesterdays 6-3 win against the Angels.

Francona's first good move simply recognizing that he's managing in a different situation than the regular season. In mid-July, taking out Daisuke Matsuzaka in the 5th inning after only allowing three runs would normally make little sense. Matsuzaka was clearly not especially sharp, but he wasn't getting shelled by any means, and it was a one run game. In the regular season, using a bullpen to try to get 13 outs is a luxury a manager can ill-afford. In this case, though, nobody in the bullpen had pitched in five days, and the team had an off-day the next day. So Francona did not hesitate to go to his four best relievers, the last three (his three best) to get four outs apiece, rather than applying the one inning and out strategy that is most often employed.

Now, when four pitchers with ERA's of 3.10 (Lopez), 2.22 (Okajima), 2.05 (Delcarmen) and 1.85 (Papelbon) pitch 4 1/3 hitless innings, then perhaps its easy for the manager to look like a genius. Perhaps it's a shame that managing your bullpen to win, rather than waiting for a lead then managing your bullpen not to lose is worthy of praise. Still, the bottom line is that Terry Francona played all the right matchups, pushed all the right buttons, and has a 2-0 series lead to show for it. For that, there will be no more Terry Francona bashing from me. At least until Sunday, of course.