Saturday, July 19, 2008

Writers Believe In Curses, Not Bad Managing

Yes, this is a week old. But it has relevance into the second half of the baseball season, especially with this being the "Cubs' year."

Hurray for Harden, misery for Marmol

For those of you not playing along, Mike Nadel's article refers to the Cubs' 8-7 victory over the Giants in 11 innings last Saturday.

Rich Harden's pitch count was monitored closely, lest he get an owwie on his arm. A boo-boo on his finger made Kerry Wood unavailable.

I love it when sportswriters or fans trivialize injuries--or the possibility of injury--like the players are all a bunch of wusses. Yes, Rich Harden has been injured quite a bit in the past 3 years, and he's only had one season with 20 starts or greater. But throwing a curveball is notoriously hard on a pitcher's arm--which is why so many pitchers get injured.

I'm digressing a bit. What I meant to write is that Nadel's opening two lines are going to make my point for me.

And the Chicago Cubs felt compelled to protect Carlos Marmol from a bunch of bullies. Jeesh. Is the team running a pitching staff or a day-care center?

Yeah, we get it--the Cubs are a bunch of babies.

Was the team really "protecting" Marmol? We'll see...

That the Cubs defeated San Francisco 8-7 in 11 innings Saturday seemed trivial in light of the performances of Harden (brilliant, albeit somewhat brief, for the team’s newest hero) and Marmol (another in a series of train wrecks for the once-untouchable, now-combustible reliever). The Cubs led 7-0 when Harden left his Cubs debut to a raucous standing ovation...He didn’t get credit for the victory, however, because Marmol spit the bit.

According to Nadel: Harden didn't get the win because of Marmol's performance. Period.

Do you know how hard it is to give up five runs in one inning to the Giants’ collection of has-beens and never-will-bes? Marmol managed to do it in the ninth, displaying a variety of ills and a vivid imagination: a line-drive double, three soft singles, a hit-by-pitch, a base-on-balls and a booted infield chopper.

Marmol had used his great imagination to blow the lead! Did you see how Marmol used his mind to force Ryan Theriot to make a bone-headed error to allow the tying run to score? I also thought that is was wildly creative of Marmol to have a unicorn score two runs in the inning.

And it's true that the Giants were 13th in the NL and 27th in all of MLB in runs scored heading into the game. But part of that is because the Giants play in a very pitching-friendly ballpark. The Giants are exactly middle-of-the-pack 16th in MLB in runs scored on the road, so five runs in an inning isn't an impossible task. Never mind that any major league team is capable of scoring a bunch of runs, but that's beside the point.

Afterward, just as Marmol turned to face the vultures of the press, media-relations assistant Jason Carr stepped in and said: “We’re going to give Carlos the day off today.’’ If only Lou Piniella had done the same, the day’s theme would have been “How ’bout that Harden?’’ instead of “What’s wrong with Marmol?’’ The manager contributed to the angst by staying too long with Marmol.

"Vultures of the press" includes you, sweetheart.

If Piniella had given Marmol the day off, the Cubs might very well have run out of pitchers. As Nadel already pointed out, Kerry Wood was unavailable, and Harden was on a strict pitch count and only got one out into the 6th inning. Piniella used newly-acquired Chad Gaudin for only 2/3 of an inning to end the 6th. Piniella did allow Kevin Hart to start the 8th after a good showing in the 7th, but Piniella then wasted lefty-specialist Neal Cotts by having him face only one batter in a 7-2 game. Bob Howry finished the 8th, and instead of letting him go out for the 9th, Piniella went with Marmol (you can see for yourself here).

Wood couldn’t pitch due to a blister on his index finger (an ailment also likely to keep the closer out of the All-Star Game), but Piniella had left-hander Sean Marshall warmed up in the bullpen. Nevertheless, Lou didn’t go to Marshall even when lefty-batting John Bowker came up with the lead already cut to 7-4. Nor did Lou take out Marmol two batters later, when the trainer went out to make sure Carlos was OK.

Nadel said it himself at the beginning of the article: Harden was on a strict pitch count and Wood was unavailable. So why did Piniella blow through his bullpen like he was managing the All-Star Game and trying to get everyone into the game (before "it mattered")? The reason Piniella had to stay with Marmol was because if he went to Marshall, he would have had only one pitcher left (Jon Lieber).

Look, Marmol definitely pitched poorly last Saturday at Wrigley. But the criticism of Piniella shouldn't be just that he stayed too long with Marmol. Piniella knew he was short-handed going in to the game, yet still wasted his relievers--and it nearly cost him the game. By the time Marmol was struggling in the 9th, Piniella was trapped by his own mistakes.

Let's count the questionable Piniella moves (for the record, I was at this game and I made all of these comments as the game progressed, so this isn't second guessing):

1. Harden's pitch count. It was 7-0 in the 6th with two runners on when Piniella lifted Harden at 96 pitches. I get the fact that Harden is fragile, but Piniella could have given Harden a chance to get out of the inning. Basically, if the next batter gets on, you pull him, and if Harden can get the final two batters out, he's done after the inning. I doubt that 8-10 more pitches would have been so damning for Harden, especially since he'd averaged 97 pitches per start coming in to this game. A 105 pitch or so game wouldn't have been so bad.

2. Chad Gaudin only working 2/3 of an inning. It was a 7-0 game when Gaudin left after the 6th. This would have been a great opportunity to get some work out of him, since Gaudin is durable and he hadn't pitched the day before. In fact, Gaudin has started six games this year, so getting two or three innings out of him wouldn't have been an issue. Also, Piniella compounded the error by double-switching and having Reed Johnson replace Jim Edmonds, who had homered already. With as few position players as the Cubs have on their bench, making the needless double switch in a 7-0 game made no sense.

3. Using your LOOGY in a five-run game. A term borrowed from our good friends at FJM, "LOOGY" stands for "Lefty One Out Guy:" basically, the dude you have in your bullpen to face the other team's left handed batter, usually at a crucial point in the game. Evidently, Piniella thinks that point is in the 8th inning when your team leads 7-2; he used his LOOGY (Neal Cotts) in that situation. To be honest, the main thing Piniella did wrong was only use Cotts for one batter--in a five-run game, it's not uncommon to have your LOOGY stay in after he gets the left hander you wanted him to face. That way, you don't wear out your bullpen. By using Cotts only for one batter, Piniella then had to use Bob Howry in the 8th, which pretty much made Howry unavailable for the 9th.

4. Using Marmol at all. I know that Piniella wanted to build Marmol's confidence by letting him finish the game, and a 9th inning 7-2 lead seemed to be a pretty safe place to do that. But, without having Wood available, Piniella was forced to have Marmol get himself out of the 9th. Yes, Piniella had Sean Marshall ready, but if he'd used Marshall in the 9th, Piniella would have been left with only Jon Lieber in the bullpen if the game went into extra innings.

The better solution might have been to use Marshall to start the 9th and to only have used Marmol if Marshall got into trouble, or not at all. In another article that asks no questions of how Piniella handles his bullpen, Jay Mariotti points out that Marmol was near the top of the league in appearances going into the All Star Break. Perhaps Piniella should not have used Marmol when it wasn't necessary, instead allowing Marmol a day off. It's not an overstatement to say that the Cubs will need Marmol in September and October if it really is "their year;" if Piniella uses him another 45 times after the All-Star Break, Marmol won't have anything left.

It's a good thing the Cubs were carrying 13 pitchers (!!!) at the time of this game. With Piniella thinking his bullpen is the reincarnation of the 1990 Reds, he may need to carry 15.

Wait--there's more:

Piniella let Marmol throw 36 pitches to 10 batters. Compare that to the Cubs’ stated commitment to coddling Harden, who threw 96 pitches over 51/3 innings.

It’s hard to blame Piniella for being ultra-cautious, given that Harden has spent more of the last four years on the disabled list than on the mound. He was just so dominant Saturday (five hits, no runs, 10 strikeouts), it left everybody wanting more.Although it’s a stretch calling San Francisco a big-league team — after watching ancient Rich Aurilia and decrepit Omar Vizquel take their hacks, I wondered when the Giants would activate Willie Mays — Harden’s performance was impressive.

Oh, boy. Hacky, hacky, hacky. Nadel's right: Vizquel has been awful (.399 OPS; OPS+ of 8. 8!?!?!!), but Nadel's comment about the rest of the Giants' hitters is just a hack-job. The stats show the Giants have been remarkably average when they're playing in a park smaller than Yellowstone.

Piniella went to the mound with two on and nobody out in the sixth and was cheered loudly for leaving Harden in the game. Harden struck out Bowker and then departed, feeling the love of 41,555 fanatics.“Pretty cool,’’ Harden said. “I never really had anything like that in Oakland (where empty seats outnumber paying customers). You’ve got the crowd into every pitch. It’s good to see how passionate they are.’’

Nadel is apparently a high school senior at a school that is too small to have a newspaper, so he is allowed to work for the Springfield State Journal Register. Here is Journalism 101: when quoting someone in your story, everything in quotation marks should be something that person actually said. I am 100% sure that Harden did not say that "empty seats outnumber paying customers." I know that Nadel wanted to add that cute line as both a slam to Oakland and a positive for Wrigley, but come on. And incidentally, the statement itself is not true--Oakland is averaging about 23,000 per game, while McAfee stadium's baseball capacity is 37,000. If you use the football capacity of 63,000, then you might be on to something.

Also, the journalistic convention of including parentheticals inside of quotations is overused. Sometimes, it's done so poorly that it changes the meaning of what is being quoted. Other times, it is simply a crutch for poor writing.

Soon enough, those passionate people viciously turned against a struggling kid with a bruised psyche. For more than six weeks, Marmol was baseball’s best reliever; his earned-run average on May 14 was 1.04.

Small Sample Size Alert!!!

He then had several outings during which he couldn’t find the strike zone, followed by a decent stretch, followed by three consecutive games in which he allowed home runs...

Which happens to any reliever at some point...

...followed by another decent stretch, followed by Saturday’s meltdown. His ERA now: 4.13.

And his WHIP now: 1.04. And his Ks/9 inn.: 12.05. Even with the bad outings, he's pretty good. Yes, Saturday against the Giants wasn't so good, but some of that was luck (the three "soft singles") and a defensive letdown.

No wonder Sweet Lou took his sweet time getting his thoughts together between the end of the game and his arrival in the interview room. “Sorry I’m late,’’ Piniella said. “I had to have a nice, cold beer before I came down here.’’ He then professed complete lack of concern about Marmol, saying: “I think he’s been on his way back.’’ Was that Lou talking … or the hops and barley?

Neither--it was the weed Piniella smokes in the clubhouse runway between innings.

Piniella is right far more often than he’s wrong — a good thing, given how much he’s paid to be right. The Cubs’ hopes this season might depend upon him being right about Carlos Marmol.

Marmol needs to pitch well for the Cubs to be successful--no question. But Piniella needs to better effectively use his bullpen, or the Cubs will be in trouble late in the season.

And if this trouble happens during the playoffs, I'm sure there will be someone or something that will be blamed other than Piniella or the players--i.e. a goat, a black cat, or a fan (among 5 or 6) who "interferes" with a potential catch on a foul ball. The "curse" will have reared its ugly head again. But the truth is that the real cause of the failure will likely be in the Cubs' dugout.

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