Should they be?
I was watching the Patriots game yesterday and noticing, like I usually do, that they can beat you in so many ways. For instance, in the first game of the season, Tom Brady threw for four touchdowns…all of them to a tight end. Yesterday, he threw three TD’s, but only one to a TE. It’s not a perfect example, but it shows how the team shifts its focus depending on what will work, or should work, best against the other team. Is a team bad against the run? Let’s force it down their throats and rush for four TDs. Next game against a better run defense? Might as well just leave that running back off the roster. Play the best players for that particular game. Even if that means your leading receiver doesn’t get a touchdown that day.
It reminded me of something Buster Olney said earlier this season. He was asked why the Rays always seem to have a strong team, while teams like the Red Sox and Padres who have big off-seasons seem to struggle. His answer was flexibility. With the Red Sox, they have several star players. Those players deserve the benefit of the doubt sometimes when it comes to their struggles. If David Ortiz is starting the season poorly, he’s earned the right to work through it. Just as important, if he does work through it, he’s by far the best option the Sox have. Or, if a particular pitcher gives Hanley Ramirez more trouble than others, he’s still going to start that game. You don’t sit your stars. The Rays, Olney said, don’t have that problem. Nobody has earned that status. So, the manager is free to make a line-up out of the nine best hitters for that day. Maybe the hottest guy plays instead of the “starting” shortstop. Maybe the guy who is 8-10 against a pitcher starts over the guy who is 3-10. There’s the freedom and flexibility to do whatever is needed. Can you imagine the Sox sitting Pedroia because he’s only 3-10 against a pitcher, while Rutledge is 8-10? It reminds me of the way Jimy Williams used to manage with his “they’re all major leaguers” strategy. He’d sit Nomar if he was 2-9 against a pitcher and throw up a bench guy who was 2-3. Is that the right answer?
Is it the answer that the Patriots would give?
Right away, I can think of a big difference. Baseball players don’t have the opportunities to take advantage of a good match-up. If the Steelers can’t guard Gronk, or choose not to guard him, Brady can just keep throwing it to him. Ten, twenty times if that keeps working. Baseball, however, limits that impact. Even if a hitter owns a pitcher, he’s only going to face him three or four times in any given game. So, even making a great substitution isn’t going to really affect things. Getting three hits in ten at bats and four hits in then at bats is less than a hit per game. So, even though over time the numbers would suggest a bigger impact, it’s not enough to sit down Mike Trout against a guy he’s “only” hitting .265 against.
Really, the only time I see that flexibility being a big help is if a player is injured. If Gronk has a sprained ankle, he may have a smaller role in the game plan. Be flexible and play to strengths. If Pedroia has a sprained ankle, though, he’s still going to get just as many at-bats as he would otherwise. Having to play him so that he will look tough is forcing you to play a player that you know isn’t going to perform as well. Just because David Ortiz doesn’t hit lefties as well as righties doesn’t mean he won’t have a two home run game against one. But, if Pedey can’t hold a bat because his thumb is throbbing, he definitely won’t. So, in those cases it would be nice to have the flexibility to say that his image isn’t as important as the team’s performance, so Brock Holt will be playing in his place.
But, other than that, I think the star power of a player will outweigh any sort of game plan decisions. Even if Xander Bogaerts is only hitting .275 against a pitcher, I like his chances better than Rutledge…even if he happens to be hitting .285 against the guy.
Naturally there are exceptions. At one point Chipper Jones was, like, 0-30 against a pitcher. When he finally got a hit off him, he asked for the ball. Might not have been a bad idea to start giving him the day off once the number got to 0-20 or so. Similarly, some bench players hit Pedro better than the stars. Players who could just make contact sometimes blooped in a hit. Maybe that’s a good way to give the star a day off. That would put together a game plan based on style.
But, other than that, I think playing the “hot hand” is just another way to over-manage.
Having talented players is not a hindrance.