Guest Post: Giants series displays flaws in Manuel’s strategy

Mitch Goldich has previously written for espnW.com and is currently a sports blogger for The Huffington Post.  Follow him on Twitter.

Baseball, like every other sport, is a results-oriented business.  At the end of the day—or the season—the only things that truly matter are wins and losses.  Sometimes this is unfortunate, as it often muddies the way coaching decisions are evaluated.

Should we pinch hit with a righty?  Should we go for it on 4th-and-1?  Should we foul before they can attempt a three-pointer?  Either side of those coins will routinely be praised or ridiculed, depending on whether or not the game is won.

One popular draw of the sabermetric movement is that the reliance on empirical data forces observers to judge the process instead of the outcome.  While the majority of people focus on what happened, the statistically-informed focus on what should have happened.

Enter Charlie Manuel.  Manuel was criticized because on Wednesday night he used Jim Thome as a pinch hitter, and then left Thome in when a left-handed pitcher was brought on to face him.  Had Thome gotten a hit (or even a sac fly), the old-school crowd would have praised Manuel because of the outcome.  He “knows his ballclub.”  He “pushes the right buttons.”  He “instills confidence in his players.”

Thome struck out, and Manuel was ripped.

Interestingly, his rationale for leaving Thome in was more disturbing than the act.

Matt Gelb writes that Manuel explained, “Thome is 2 for 11 off the guy [Javier Lopez] with three strikeouts.  That means he put the ball in play eight times.  If he hits a ball, as big and strong as he is, we have a chance to score a run.”

This is troubling for several reasons.  First, note that Manuel particularly liked the matchup even though Thome was batting .182 off of him.  Second, Placido Polanco was available to hit for Thome.  Polanco is not only right-handed, but was the third hardest batter to strike out in the NL last season.  Finally, most damning of all, let’s dive deeper into Thome’s 11 at bats that were the basis for the decision.

Year PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP
2003 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000
2004 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000
2005 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000
2006 3 2 1 1 0 0 0 1 1 .500 .667
2007 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000
2008 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1.000 1.000
RegSeason 12 11 2 1 0 0 0 1 3 .182 .250

As you can see, there were three in 2003, three in 2004 and only five within the last seven years.  The decision was made primarily based on at bats that occurred when Thome was an everyday first baseman, with an OPS over .950 and a WAR above 4.0.

Manuel has always relied heavily on batter vs. pitcher data, so it’s hard to be surprised by his thinking.  The disturbing trend is that he continues to do so with an increasingly older team, relying on increasingly older sets of data.  Manuel has to understand that his players, particularly his aging players, are not who they were in their primes.

Reliance on outdated statistics displays a strange form of bias, akin to being unable to separate in his mind the players on his roster from the players they used to be.  Making decisions today based exclusively on data from more than half a decade ago is like trying to win on Jeopardy! by studying yesterday’s clues.

Consider the first game of the Giants’ series, against Tim Lincecum on Monday night.

Gelb wrote in his game preview (and I have no reason to doubt him), “Why is [Juan] Pierre starting over John Mayberry Jr., who is the superior defender, in a big ballpark? It probably has to do with these career numbers vs. Lincecum.”

Gelb didn’t break them down by year, but I will.

Year PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP
2007 3 3 1 0 1 0 2 0 0 .333 .333
2008 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .333 .333
2009 7 6 4 1 1 0 1 1 0 .667 .714
RegSeason 13 12 6 1 2 0 3 1 1 .500 .538

Sure, Pierre has had success against Lincecum.  But the data shows just 12 at bats, much of it four or five years old, all during a stretch when Pierre was a .294 hitter, which he has not been in the years since.

While these at bats are at least more recent than Thome’s against Javier Lopez, it’s wrong to allow this miniscule sample size to carry more weight than the hundreds of at bats since.

There’s a reason small sample sizes aren’t dependable.  For an example, let’s go back to Wednesday night’s game and think about why Polanco was available to pinch hit in the first place.  Polanco was on the bench not only because of his early season struggles, but because Manuel wanted Ty Wigginton to start at third base against Matt Cain.

“How did I decide on it,” Manuel asked himself.  “Nix is 8 for 20 with a homer off this guy. Wigginton is 3 for 9 with a homer. Those guys have seen them, have some hits on him, so why shouldn’t I put them in the lineup?”

Yes, Wigginton was 3-for-9, for a shiny .333 average and a homer.  But stats can fluctuate so much over nine at bats.  One of those three hits was a ground ball through third base in a 10-1 ballgame.  If that ball had been gobbled up for an out, making Wigginton a career .222 hitter against Cain, would he have been on the bench?  The point is that one measly ground ball on one random day, and one homerun (at Coors Field by the way), shouldn’t matter as much as his 1,000 at bats over the last two years, in which he batted under .250.

The blame doesn’t all fall on Manuel when the Phillies’ offense comes up empty.  Ruben Amaro built this roster, and Manuel has other coaches to help him make in-game decisions.  Plus, I’m just like everyone else: Had Thome popped a homerun, I’m probably not writing about this.

The roster and the injury bug have dealt Manuel a bad hand.  To his credit, he has not publicly used that as an excuse.  If he did, it probably wouldn’t be well-received, but I think it would be defensible.  If he disregarded important statistics like career platoon splits or contact rates to play a star, or go with the hot hand, that too would often be defensible.

But for him to repeatedly explain after games that his decisions are based on statistics—and then use insignificant or outdated ones—shows a lack of understanding about how the decision-making process works.  That, to me, is indefensible.

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28 comments

  1. Phatti

    April 20, 2012 08:00 AM

    Great analysis. It just got cited on WIP for what it’s worth.

  2. LTG

    April 20, 2012 08:00 AM

    Does the sample size of hitter vs. pitcher ever reach the level of reliability?

  3. LTG

    April 20, 2012 08:00 AM

    That is, for anything but contact rate and swing rates.

  4. wayne

    April 20, 2012 09:16 AM

    ifs and buts will make you nuts… the reason Thome does not come out of the game is because he is a 1st ballot HOFer in waiting with 600 HRs and given the lack of offensive pop in the Phillies lineup right now, you take that chance that he might connect other than wipe him out on a double replacement.

    As for the statisitical arguement, a college professor once told me, “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics”. You can make the numbers read whatever you want. Baseball is a game of offensive failure anyway, with 70% failure being considered highly successful.

    Ultimately it comes down to believing in your players. If the game was managed strictly on numbers, anyone could do it.

  5. Jeff T

    April 20, 2012 09:59 AM

    Did Chuckles bother to determine how many of those non-strikeouts were popups or grounders? It agrivates me that not only were the resuts bad, but the thought process was far worse.

  6. yo

    April 20, 2012 10:29 AM

    it is a little scary that nobody in the organization is willing or able to effectively say ignore data re: 9 ABs

  7. Dan

    April 20, 2012 10:53 AM

    We can probably all agree that Manuel is frustratingly terrible when it comes to day-to-day decision making. We can also probably agree that these decisions are not the main role of an MLB manager. If they were, any one of us could theoretically do it much better than Manuel.

    It’s certainly not measurable, but I think it’s safe to say that Manuel has been the perfect manager for this team over the past 5 years, despite his horrible-decision making. He keeps the team focused and on an even keel, and gets his players to play to their full potential day in and day out. Again, I am not claiming that this is some kind of measurable skill, but all the rhetoric over the last 5 years would confirm this notion.

    A manager’s job is about increasing win expectancy. Obviously, Manuel decreases this team’s win expectancy with his lineup and in-game decision making. But really, how many wins could that be over the course of the season? You could argue that his ability to be a great “spiritual leader” offsets that loss of win expectancy.

    This year, the marginal value of these in-game decisions is definitely higher, as the Phillies are not likely to blow the doors off the NL East. But we have to keep in mind that the intangibles Manuel provides are why he has the job in the first place, and that we just need to accept him for what he is.

  8. Hunterfan

    April 20, 2012 11:38 AM

    I think you need to reticle the post “Every series Phillies play exposes flaws in Manuel’s strategy”.

    A good, or even average, in game tactician he is not.

  9. Duane

    April 20, 2012 12:41 PM

    IMO, none of this analysis on the Giants Series really matters. I am with Hunterfan on this one. But if you really want to question some of Charlie’s decisions, and of course there are many, what really stands out to me so far this year was the series with the Mets. Why take out Lee when he had 2 hits against Dickey, a guy everyone else was baffled by(for some reason), especially since Cliff was still keeping them in the Game, and was only at 83 pitches. Or the First Worley Game in Pittsburgh, guy is only at 78 pitches, Charlie lifts him for a Laynce Nix BUNT??? and then you let Juan Pierre swing away??? That was baffling. The Giants series…..not so much. Matt Cain annually destroys us, Tim Lincecum normally does too, but he has been off the last 2 years IMO, very hit or miss with his starts. Same goes for the back end of their Bullpen, but then again our oft anemic Offense can make almost any pitching staff look like our pitching staff.

  10. me

    April 20, 2012 12:43 PM

    He is like the Andy Reid of game day playcalling.

  11. Ray Jimmy

    April 20, 2012 01:29 PM

    This makes for a great article, but with this “aging data = flaw” philosophy, you could breakdown statistical flaws in every manager move from every club. The starting lineup is weak-hitting and there’s no combination of moves that will improve it significantly. Charlie has a knack for making every player involved and feel important-intangibles that your nerd calculator does not consider.

  12. LTG

    April 20, 2012 01:58 PM

    How’s that intangible stuff working out for Charlie this year?

  13. harry

    April 20, 2012 02:16 PM

    Polanco”s statistics also have to be viewed in the present. Once one of the toughest batters to strikeout, he has doubled his K’s per at bat in the last year. When he does make contact, balls in play are to the opposite field and weak. We may even see the Howard shift before Ryan comes back, for Polly. Charlie’s real old school and he makes his share of mistakes, but this one can be argued both ways.

  14. Sam from Bay area

    April 20, 2012 02:37 PM

    I agree 100% with the Thome hitting against one if the hardest lefties to hit, I live in the bay area and seen enough of Giants pen that is by far the best in the in the game. No way Thome should be hitting while you have other options…Wonder what Cliff Lee was thinking!!!
    The 2nd problem I had in that same game was leaving Bastardo to pitch to Milky Caberara??? He has a bullpen that well rested and need to go with match ups, but he is so stuburn and out if touch with this game that the best pitched game of Lee’s career went to waist because his manager is an idiot.
    He should have learned from Bochy, he removed Sergio Remo as soon as Chooch got a hit and brough in the lefty to face Thome.
    That game was on Charlie.. he needs to man upn and admit his mistake.. If I’m Cliff I’m as pissed of as I am by now.

  15. Noah

    April 20, 2012 03:00 PM

    hehehe, went to waist

  16. Damned Liar

    April 20, 2012 03:13 PM

    Wayne’s comment pulls one of my favorite anti-saber moves: citing statistics (600 HRs, 70% failure rate) that aren’t relevant while simultaneously bashing statistical analysis. I’m sure his college professor would be proud.

  17. Joe

    April 20, 2012 05:03 PM

    Stupid to pull Thome for polanco because:
    1. Polanco hasn’t hit ball out of the infield since July.
    2. The move in question occurred in the 11th. Why are you going to burn a player without so much as 1 pitch being thrown? That’s a great way to have a pitcher bat in a big offensive spot should the game continue for several more innings.
    3. Dude is a hall of famer and it’s April. It is also the exact situation that you bring Thome onto your club for.

  18. Kent Mummau

    April 20, 2012 05:35 PM

    Great article. The most glaring example of Manuel’s disturbing neglect of reality was last year in game 7 late into their 1 run castration by Carpenter. Down 1-0 he could have pinch hit for a struggling Ruiz and a hurting Polanco with Mayberry and Francisco. Both would have brought a chance for a game tying home run. The best case for Ruiz and Polanco was a single and the way the Phillies hit, or Carpenter pitched, it was going to take 4 singles for either of them to score.

    That was the time to pull out all stops and not worry whether you were going to hurt feelings out even weaken the defense. They got shut out and they needed one run. Neither player had upside beyond a single while he had bench options with extra base upside.

  19. mike hoffman

    April 20, 2012 06:06 PM

    The Phils biggest mistake was going cheap on Davey Lopes and not paying more than a first base coaches salary. The guy was calling all the shots with the running game and could read pitcher better than anyone in the game. Remember how the Phils used to put pressure on the opposing teams defense and pitchers. They did all they way up until last year and have failed miserbly ever since. I could have filled out the lineup card the last 5 years and sat in the dugout with the same results. If he is not gone this year the Phils have no chance because they are now in a situation where their manager cannot give away 5 to 10 games a year without anyone noticing because they no longer have enough talent to overcome his shortcomings. His strength is supposed to be teaching hitting. He has failed at that bfor the last two years now. Bring in Dallas Greene (just kidding) like 1980. He may be older than Charlie but at least he looks and sounds younger. Ryne Sandberg are you listening, get ready.

  20. Lance Phillips

    April 20, 2012 06:30 PM

    Charlie’s lack of managerial skills will be exposed more and more as the season deepens. He may not be gone by the All-Star game….however,he should be.

  21. LTG

    April 20, 2012 07:27 PM

    As I understand this article, a lot of the comments here are misdirected. The article neither calls for Manuel to be fired nor concludes that Thome should not have hit all things considered (although it claims Thome should not have hit one or two things considered).

    The article’s point is that the reasons offered by Manuel for that decision and others fail to justify the decisions. Even if Manuel made the right decision, we prefer those that make the right decisions for the right reasons than those that happen onto the right decision for bad reasons.

    All comments not directed at this point are fail.

  22. Glen

    April 21, 2012 09:43 AM

    Excellent points. Too many managers and coaches hide behind statistics, and as the saying goes, you can make statistics say what you want to justify a decision

  23. LTG

    April 21, 2012 11:58 AM

    *Face Palm*

  24. Gina

    April 22, 2012 07:39 AM

    A bit off topic, but I have to agree with Mike Hoffman that it was a huge mistake letting Davey Lopes walk. Not only because of his calling the shots in regards to the running game and that he could read pitchers better than anyone else in the game, but also because those things instill the phight and the will to win. Enough studies have shown that the team (or player) that wants the win more DOES most often win! You could tell Davey Lopes instilled that mentality by doing what he did so well.

  25. Joe

    April 22, 2012 08:55 AM

    Pump the brakes LGT, not all comments are directed at the purpose of the article, such as this one. Some are in response to other comments. If its ok with you, people will continue to contend other people’s viewpoints.

  26. LTG

    April 22, 2012 10:34 AM

    Joe, you’re right, I left implicit that all comments means all comments criticizing the author for a point not made. A lot of comments here fall under that category.

  27. LTG

    April 22, 2012 10:37 AM

    “Enough studies have shown that the team (or player) that wants the win more DOES most often win!”

    Is there a source for these studies? How is this even measured? How do you aggregate the desire to win over a team? Do we have reason to believe that in the MLB there is a significant difference between levels of wanting to win among players and teams?

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