Saturday, March 18, 2006

Table Skills

The bases are full, two outs in the eighth, and the Sox lead 4-1. Curt Schilling has thrown a hundred pitches, and the hitter already has two hits off Schilling today. The bullpen in contradictory fashion is rested and warmed, and Terry Francona walks to the mound.

Does Francona owe it to Schilling to leave him in? "It's his game." Or has Francona noticed that Schilling's command is weakening, more pitches are up in the zone, that his time has come? Can you or I do a better job than Francona can in making that call? He brings in the closer, who surrenders a bases clearing double. Does that make the decision wrong, or just the outcome?

There are hundreds of subtle and overt decisions a manager makes during each game, from lineups, to pitch selection, small ball or big inning, defensive alignments, and decisions communicated to coaches who have studied other teams' defensive alignments, throwing power and accuracy, and so on. Are you as 'smart' as Francona? Me, neither.

The decisions played out in the paper now revolve around choosing the starting rotation, the role (if any) for David Wells, and whether will Matt Clement be wearing 'BOSTON' on his chest or some other city. Veterans like Wells have certain expectations (including monetary) and the manager has to cope with those, player fatigue or injury, whether your star can 'bring it' today, and issues discussed sub rosa like players' personal lives and problems.

No, it's not rocket science, but it matters to the performance of the team and to the players. But how much does it matter to the bottom line, the team's ultimate record? In an era where we want to measure everything, I'm not sure that we can say that a good manager wins you an extra five games, or a poor skipper loses you half a dozen.

As fans, we're focused on outcome. Bad outcome, bad manager. Good outcome, good manager. As a physician, I know that patient factors, physiologic changes, and treatment-patient interaction (as well as Divine Intervention) change outcome, often better or worse than I could predict. I've heard physicians tell patients or their families that 'I saved your life.' Spare me. Life and baseball remain subject to many alternatives that just aren't that predictable. Sometimes lightning strikes and sometimes it misses, and managers know it and fear it. Just like doctors.

So the next time you hear about what a great manager 'so and so' is, ask yourself based on what, and whether they just had good fortune and good players on their side more often than the other guy. Let's hope Terry Francona brings both skill and luck to the table.

1 comment:

Mark Lesses said...

As usual, an insightful comment on the most subtle of sports...