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Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Looks like Red Sox Nation got it's wish.

People will talk about the fact that he left Pedro Martinez in too long in Game 7 as the immediate cause.

Those who have been paying attention will know it's about more than that.

The upside to the firing is that, to say that, as a game-level tactician and as a team-level tactician, Grady Little is awful, is an understatement. His ineptitude was prominently on display during the playoffs but was manifest well before that.

There was the incessant use of pinch-runners, many of whom had to come up to bat later in the game, with the expected results. The excessive use of the hit-and-run, sometimes with people prone to swinging and missing, like David Ortiz. The obsession with Damian Jackson as pinch runner, as defensive replacement, as spot starter, as whatever.

Can it be a coincidence that nearly everyone in the bullpen underperformed their career norms this season? Bronson Arroyo was called up but promptly buried behind Todd Jones. Byung-Hyun Kim, after a fine late season job in the bullpen, was ignored in the post-season based on one poor outing - many seemed to doubt he was hurt. Only with numerous in-season talent acquisitions was the bullpen solidified.

And here's the litany of the worst playoff managerial gaffes...

Game 1, ALDS: Pinch-hitting Adrian Brown for Trot Nixon. Yes, Nixon struggles against southpaws, and lefty Ricardo Rincon was on the mound. However, Oakland had a righty (Chad Bradford) warming up in the pen, and Rincon had already given up a homer to Todd Walker, who also usually struggles against lefties. What you needed here was not even a hit but a deep fly ball, since there was a man on third with one out. Bradford would have come in a batter later to pitch to Varitek, a switch-hitter who hits better from the right. Rincon pitching to Nixon is far better than Bradford pitching to anyone on the bench, especially Adrian Brown. But Grady brings in Brown, Ken Macha brings in Bradford. A run the Sox would turn out to need is stranded when Bradford retired Brown and Varitek.

Game 4, ALDS: Grady leaves a tiring John Burkett, who at this stage of his career has trouble going six innings, in long enough to give up a 3-run tater to a struggling Jermaine Dye, for a total of 108 pitches. Thanks to late-inning heroics by the offense and bullpen, the Sox do come back to win this game, but it's harder than it might have been.

Game 5, ALDS: With flyball pitcher Pedro Martinez on the mound staked to a 3-run lead in the sixth, Grady brings in Damian Jackson as a defensive replacement for Todd Walker, who was the hottest hitter on the team at the time. (Mind you, I am not blaming Grady for the Jackson-Damon collision, as that's not a forseeable consequence of the move.) Other than the collision, this move turned out not to cost the team anything, since the Sox never lost the lead. But it wasn't hard to imagine the team needing another run at some point over a three-inning stretch.

Game 2, ALCS: With Derek Lowe running out of gas (remember, this is his fourth appearance in six playoff games, two of them starts) Grady walks to the mound and asks Derek Lowe if he wants to stay in the game. Lowe says yes, Grady leaves him in, and disaster ensues.

Game 6, ALCS: Grady again sticks with Burkett after he's clearly lost it. Detecting a patten here? He brings Todd Jones into an elimination game; Jones promptly gives up two baserunners, and a run scores on a wild pitch. He then brings in Alan Embree, who shuts the door, and the Sox rally, but it looked pretty bleak at one point.

Game 7, ALCS: Pedro is clearly in trouble in the 7th. The second Giambi homer is a warning sign, since unlike the first Giambi home run, it did not come on the first pitch and was not surrounded by a string of easy outs. Still, nothing terrible happens, but there are two men on with two out. Leaving Pedro in is only defensible here because the batter is Alfonso Soriano, who looks even worse that night (3 strikeouts) than he usually does against Martinez.
You have Timlin ready to start the 8th, right? No, Pedro goes out there, and does get Nick Johnson. So pull him when he gives up a baserunner, right? No, Pedro stays after giving up a double to Derek Jeter. Then a single to Bernie Williams that scores Jeter. Now has to be the time, right? The Grady comes out to the mound, with the tying run on base. And instead of just taking the ball, he asks Pedro, who has now thrown over 110 pitches, if he wants to stay in - apparently having learned nothing from Game 2. Pedro says yes, and pitches to Hideki Matsui, who has hit Pedro well. Matsui smokes a double down the right field line. Pedro stays in again against Posada, who drops a two-run blooper into center field, scoring Williams and Matsui. When Grady finally summons Embree, the damage is done - it's 5-5 now with Posada on second.
What's worse about this whole series of events is that while this will be remembered as one bad decision, it was really four or five separate bad decisions.
Letting Pedro start the 8th with his pitch count in triple digits. Letting him pitch to Williams. Letting him pitch to Matsui, which is just 100% indefensible. Then letting him pitch to Posada.

Aside: Just to be clear about this, Grady is at fault here, not Pedro. Though it's good of Martinez to try to take the blame, any pitcher who doesn't want the ball, who lacks total confidence in his stuff, even when and if he's tired, probably can't be a great pitcher. Martinez is one of the great ones, and you can't expect him to be a judge of when he should leave the game. The manager's job is not to do what the pitchers want him to do.

Game 7, ALCS - Little summons Tim Wakefield to pitch the 10th inning. In some other games, Wakefield in relief might have been a good idea. Wakefield has a good career record in the Bronx, and pitched brilliantly in two games in the series. However, bringing in a knuckleballer into an extra-inning road game where you don't score in the top of the inning, is fraught; any hitter in the lineup, even the weakest bat, can hit an errant knuckleball into the stands, and that's your game, or, in this case, your season. And, as we all know, that's exactly what happened.

The Game 7 performance was merely icing on the cake, telling the nation what those of us paying attention already knew - Grady Little is a terrible in-game manager, a liability he can't really make up for elsewhere.

By trade, he is a bench coach, and as far as I can tell, a fantastic bench coach.
A manager has to be able to stand up to his players and make the decisions based on what will work for the team, not based on what will make him popular in the clubhouse.

However, there is a downside to the firing as well.

Little's top strength, as far as I can tell, were managing a clubhouse that has its share of difficult personalities - Pedro, Manny, Derek Lowe, sometimes Nomar.
Position players have generally played very well for him. Trot Nixon finally had the monster season many of thought he had in him. Bill Mueller had the season of his life. Jason Varitek and David Ortiz have similarly stepped it up. Even marginal talents like Doug Mirabelli and Rey Sanchez have often outperformed expectations under Little.

One more nice I will say about Little:
During the regular season, Little was careful with Martinez and his other starters, which sometimes got him in trouble as the bullpen famously struggled early in the season. It did paid dividends, as the starters stayed strong into the postseason, and the bullpen eventually righted itself - it was one of the better bullpens in the league down the stretch, and excelled in October.

It's clear what the danger is here - there's a danger that the players will get the idea that Red Sox management is letting the media and the talk-radio crowd make team decisions, which creates the potential to make the attitude in the locker room turn sour in a hurry.

The solution? As tempting as it might be for Theo Epstein to find an unknown as manager - a tabula rasa - the Red Sox probably need a veteran manager, even if he's a less-than-ideal tactician from the sabermetric perspective.

Next year?

This team had a lot of career years on offense, which should give the fans worries about next year. The defense is not as strong as you'd like. But the pitching came together late in the year - Pedro and Lowe were outstanding after the All-Star break, and maybe the bullpen problems will recede into memory. We may see a more balanced team next season that may finally be ready to pass the aging Yankees.


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