Texas Fold 'Em: A Pinch-Hit Game Report

Sunday, June 12 2005 @ 07:48 AM EDT

Contributed by: Jordan

Today, we're launching a new feature here at Batter's Box: the Pinch-Hit Game Report. We recognized that we have some of the smartest baseball fans on the Net frequenting our site, so we decided to invite some of those readers to show off their analytical and writing abilities by occasionally producing a post-Game Report.

Today's account comes to you courtesy of Box regular Elijah, who explores John Gibbons' ninth-inning managerial decisions in the context of a poker game. If you'd like to try your hand at a Pinch-Hit Game Report, write us and we'll add your name to the list of potential contributors. If you haven't posted to Da Box regularly, we may ask you for a writing sample.

Thanks, and take it away, Elijah!


Now I know why sportswriters sometimes hate writing game recaps. After eight innings, I was prepared to not really say much about the game. Roger Clemens was great – on the mound, with the leather and with the lumber. Gustavo Chacin struggled, but battled his way through. The Blue Jays still are scuffling offensively and the team has dropped to .500.

Earlier on Saturday, I wrote a lengthy analysis about whether the Astros should trade Clemens and exploring trade possibilities for a number of potential dancing partners. I was about 80% done and was all set to use it. Then the ninth inning happened.

For those who missed the game: the Jays trailed 3-1 going into the ninth inning. As soon as Astros closer Brad Lidge came in, Pat Tabler mentioned on RSN that it will be interesting to see how he fares on his fourth straight day of work. Shea Hillenbrand (NFH OBP-O'Meter: .367) and Eric Hinske both went after first pitches, resulting in two balls hit to the wall and a run. After an ugly Ken Huckaby bunt that moved Hinske to second and a passed ball on a cross-up pushed Hinske to third, Alex Rios singled in the tying run. The Jays notched four base hits off Lidge in the ninth after mustering only three altogether in the first eight innings.

Then came the bottom of the ninth. I looked at my scorebook and noted the Astros had the following batters due up: Willy Taveras, Chris Burke, Craig Biggio. Three righties. So I thought Gibbons might bring in Justin Speier or even Miguel Batista. I was wrong. And for one of the few times this year, I openly questioned what Gibbons was doing.

Many managerial decisions can be argued either way. But I just can't see it in this case. The Astros had burned their only two lefties on the bench in Orlando Palmeiro and Mike Lamb. Yet in comes Scott Schoeneweis. I know that when the Blue Jays signed him, J.P. Ricciardi said that he was not going to be used strictly as a lefty specialist. A heckuva time for John Gibbons to prove Ricciardi right.

After Schoeneweis retired Taveras on a grounder, Burke lined a sharp hit to right and stole second with the count 2-0 to Biggio. Then some confusion. According to Jamie Campbell and Tabler, Gibbons gestured out towards the outfield making an apparent pitching change. That doesn't make sense. Why do it with a 2-0 count, especially if you're going to put Biggio aboard anyway?

So Schoeneweis walks Biggio and Gibbons summons Batista. Berkman flies out to center, but Batista falls behind Ensberg 3-0. I can't imagine any semi-knowledgeable baseball fan in the stadium, watching on TV or listening on the radio, thinking that Ensberg would not have a green light. He promptly hammered a center-cut fastball into Landry's Landing in left for a walkoff three-run homer. Houston 6, Toronto 3.

Reading over game threads and chats, not just for the Blue Jays but for fans of other teams, many are quick to direct their blame to a manager for costing his team the ballgame. I’m always hesitant to do that, for a couple of reasons. First, the players still have to make the plays. But a manager must put his team in the best situation to win that particular game, within the context of the season or a playoff series.

Second, managerial decisions do not exist in a vacuum. For example, suppose that with one out and a runner on first, there’s a single to right. The baserunner tries to take third, but is thrown out. The next batter then singles as well. One of my pet peeves is that an announcer might then say, “If he didn’t get thrown out, the run would’ve scored.” Right. And if my aunt were a guy, she'd be my uncle.

Fans and announcers tend to assume that intervening events don’t affect subsequent events. Maybe a pitcher would have worked the batter differently – more aggressively, more carefully, whatever. Maybe the hitter would have tensed up, knowing that he needed to drive in a run. One just doesn’t know with any degree of certainty.

I know there are a number of lawyers in the Box, so I'll use a term that they're familiar with: is there a superseding cause that absolves the manager of a poor decision?

In this case, I would argue that Gibbons’ decision to bring in Schoeneweis had very little, if any, justification. Speier wasn't tired – he hasn't pitched since throwing a shutout inning in Oakland last Sunday. As far as I know, he isn’t hurt. He’s been effective lately: since the start of May, Speier’s numbers are 10 2/3 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 7 K. And he’s a right-hander who’d be facing an all-righty lineup except for the switch-hitting Berkman.

Looking at his 2005 splits (sample size, shmample size), Schoeneweis has thrown 7 2/3 innings against righties and has allowed 11 hits and six walks for a WHIP of 2.22 and a batting-average-against of .333. But Gibbons made an atrocious (and that is a strong word, I know) decision ab initio. The fact that Schoeneweis didn’t do his job is not a superseding cause, because Gibbons failed to use him in optimal circumstances when he had perfectly viable alternatives. Batista could have come in to start the ninth. Don't want to use your closer in a tie game on the road? No worries: bring in Speier.

While I quit playing poker (because I stunk at it), I see managing a baseball game to be similar in this respect. When players are busted out in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em, if they go all-in with the odds in their favour, they may suffer a bad beat. But it’s one they can live with, because they know that most of the time, they’ll come out ahead. Over the long term, that's exactly what happens, and it's the reason those professional poker players all live in large houses in Las Vegas.

Gibbons basically called the Astros with a poor hand. Instead of “folding” (i.e., bringing in Speier or Batista) right away, he called before the flop. Sure, he may get lucky once in awhile, but he wasn't maximizing the play of his hand. The Astros called. Once Gibbons had money in the pot, it became very hard to get away from the hand. So even though he eventually “folded” by bringing in Batista, it was too late because he already lost money after making a poor call.

Like poker, managers may make decisions based on their gut. But if you ask the best poker players in the world, they make decisions based on gut feelings very infrequently. What appear to be gut decisions are based on years of experience of knowing the odds, as well as reading opponents and their tells. All these things factor into a poker player’s decision on whether to call, raise or fold.

Perhaps Gibbons made a decision based on his gut. (I’m writing this before reading any interviews with Gibbons, in which he will undoubtedly be asked about his decision to call on Schoeneweis.) I can't think of any other logical reason why he brought in Schoeneweis instead of Speier or Batista.

Personally, I believe in-game decisions should be evaluated before the result, rather than afterwards. This is my opinion, and I may be in the minority here. Just because a manager pinch-hits Deivi Cruz for Barry Bonds with the bases loaded in a tie game in the ninth and Cruz singles doesn't mean it was the right decision when made. Just because Montgomery Burns pinch-hits Homer Simpson for Darryl Strawberry and the winning run scores when Homer is conked in the head doesn't mean it was the right decision when it was made.

And so while I normally hesitate to solely blame the manager for any loss, I will do it here. Sure, Schoeneweis could have retired the side in order. But he shouldn’t even have been brought into the game at that point. I think most Batter's Box readers agree this was a bad decision, especially because the end result was a loss.

I guess the nearly-completed Roger Clemens treatise now goes into the eternal wasteland of cyberspace, since the Jays will not face Clemens again this year. But I will leave readers and posters with this open-ended question: should in-game managerial decisions be evaluated based on the information at the beginning or based on the end result, and why?