Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 24, 2001
BASEBALL: Was Jimy Williams A Rational Manager?
Originally posted on Projo.com
My first reaction to the Jimy Williams firing was, has anybody ever fired a manager in August in the middle of a pennant race? Let alone, done so and win? Other teams have rallied to win around the halfway mark, but it looked from the published reports (such as Jayson Stark’s column) like the answer was no. Not so fast. In 1981, the strike season, Dick Williams left the Expos – I believe he was fired, if I remember right -- with just 27 games left in the second half of the spilt season. The perennial runner-up Expos had finished third in the season’s first half, and stood just 14-12 in the second half with the season winding down. New manager Jim Fanning guided the Expos to a 16-11 mark, taking the second half title, and eventually winning the divisional series over the defending World Champion Phillies and coming within a Rick Monday home run of the World Series.
Is – was – Jimy Williams a rational manager? Not having watched the Red Sox on a day-to-day basis, I can’t offer a better answer to that question. But there was plenty of evidence from the moves he made over the years, particularly his starting lineups and in-game substitutions, to suggest that he was not. Not that the decisions were stupid or misdirected or based on bad ideas, necessarily, although you could always find someone to argue with any particular decision, and some of them were way out there. Rather, the problem was simply that you could not possibly come up with a theory of who should play when, in advance, that would ever explain the things he did. If there was thought at all behind any of this, it had to be thought that was as changeable as the weather. Thus, from everything the public had to go on, Williams was literally irrational or non-rational in his decisionmaking, going by hunches or the seat of his pants.
If (as Art has suggested) there was more to his thought process than that, we never heard it, never got the Jimy decoder ring. In fact, his public statements were often either laughable, obviously wrong or completely inscrutable. And his record in Toronto was very much the same; after the Jays’ disastrous collapse in the 1987 pennant race, Bill James argued that Williams’ inability to settle on a second baseman had doomed the Jays, because the constantly auditioning infielders (with a washed-up Garth Iorg in the Mike Lansing role) had collectively performed far worse than any one of them could have individually. (This was before George Bell played the Carl Everett role of disgruntled star who fatally undermines Jimy in the clubhouse).
One specific charge was that Jimy jerked players around in the batting order apparently without rhyme or reason. Did he do it, like Tony LaRussa, on the basis of a carefully guarded array of scouting reports, situational stats and "inside" insights? Did he do it, as Bill Simmons has suggested, because his decisions were dictated to him by Mr. Weebles, a microscopic man who lives in his mouth? We will probably never know. But we can do one thing: look at the evidence. If players are going to rotate through the batting order like the Cubs’ old “College of Coaches,” based on information or hunches that they will hit better here than there, the proof should be in the pudding.
Let’s look at the Sox hitters’ performance at the top of the batting order (slots 1-4), the middle (5-6) and the bottom (7-9), this year and in prior years under Jimy. (This includes a few games under Kerrigan this year but not enough to affect the sample). I’ll also note some other splits where relevant. Let’s assume that a manager who shuffles his lineup regularly is looking to move guys up top in situations where they should hit well, and down when they shouldn’t.
Let’s start with the least favorite player among the Jimy-bashers. Lewis is on the roster mostly because he can field (though not spectacularly as in his heyday with the Giants) and hit lefthanders. From 1998-2000 his on base percentage was a respectable .351 against LHP, a dismal .318 against RHP (with no power against either one). Lewis’ playing time has declined this year mostly because he’s been limited to that role, with 64% of his at bats vs. lefties as opposed to 31% in 1998-2000. He’s hit .282 vs. lefties as opposed to .200 vs. RHP, but has drawn so few walks (with the usual lack of power) that he’s been equally useless against both.
Lewis has mostly hit first or ninth, too few appearances (mostly pinch-hitting/running) in other lineup slots to draw any conclusions. Here’s the breakdown for 2001 (batting/slugging/obp and (plate appearances)):
1-4: .225/.375/.244 (41)
Even at the bottom of the order Lewis isn’t that useful. From a standpoint of picking your spots, Jimy’s handling of Lewis rates as a complete disaster: he’s been far less effective when thrust into a more prominent role in the order.
For 1998-2000, Lewis spent about two-thirds of his time at the top, mostly leading off:
1-4: .249/.325/.323 (932)
You would expect that Lewis’ numbers would be better at the top, since as he’s gotten older he’s led off less (in 1998 he was used almost exclusively as a leadoff man), but instead they’ve been about even. In Jimy’s defense, that may be because he’s hit better as a platoon player. Either way, we have to score the overall handling of Lewis as unusccessful.
In 2001, Varitek mostly hit sixth. The breakdown:
1-4: .250/.250/.333 (9)
That 7-9 line is too small to take too seriously, and mostly resulted from a May hot streak, but clearly if Jimy was trying to move Varitek down in the lineup when he had the least confidence in him, the strategy was not a success.
1-4: .225/.441/.271 (118)
Varitek has clearly hit better when he’s been at the bottom of the order. There’s no way to call this one a success.
Hatteberg has mostly been platooned, as he continues to fail against lefthanded pitchers, batting just .178 compared to .273 vs. RHP, with a severe dropoff in walks against lefties. He’s been one of the main juggling-act guys, hitting second about half the time but also sixth, eighth and ninth. Here’s 2001:
1-4: .294/.402/.374 (115)
Hatteberg’s 0-for-8 batting seventh, so the real story here is that he’s succeeded more at the top of the order than the bottom, though not dramatically, while struggling in the middle.
1-4: .192/.308/.276 (29)
Almost exactly the opposite pattern, except for the part about hitting better in the 8-9 holes than 7. I’d rate Hatteberg’s handling a success, though – he’s generally hit best where he’s been used most, and this season at least he’s done his best work when expected to produce at the top of the order.
1-4: .253/.342/.323 (449)
What is hidden here is that Offerman has been great this season batting second (.329/.500/.392) but dreadful in the leadoff slot. 1999-2000:
1-4: .278/.404/.378 (1192)
In 2000, the 1-2 pattern was the same; in brief action at the 2 slot in 1999, Offerman hit .191. Offerman is a top of the order guy if he’s worth playing at all, but maybe he’s better off at #2. Or maybe splits like that are just random chance. Either way, his handling in the lineup has been at best a wash.
1-4: .313/.500/.313 (16)
Bichette hasn’t been moved around much, but the few times he’s been moved up or down it’s worked as expected. He’s also faced an increasing proportion of lefthanded pitchers, and he’s hit far better against lefties than righties since leaving Colorado. Dante may be happier playing regularly, but I’d rate his use by Jimy Williams a success.
Obviously the relationship with Carl Everett won’t be on Jimy’s resume. But has he placed him well in the lineup?
1-4: .291/.515/.335 (319)
Obviously this has been injury rehab related. In 2000:
1-4: .284/.498/.355 (290)
If memory serves me correctly, Everett moved up from fifth to third in the lineup after his hot start, so this shows little.
Another controversial figure in the Williams analysis. Since only Manny and Nomar get on base more than Nixon and he has the least power of the three, he’s a logical leadoff man, but Williams split his time evenly between the 1-2-3 holes.
1-4: .280/.503/.375 (419)
Nixon’s had a .381 OBP as a #2 hitter and .405 in the 3 hole, but .323 batting leadoff. A Jimy critic could point to that as evidence either that (1) he picked the wrong spots to lead off Nixon or (2) he allowed Nixon’s intermittent poor showings as a leadoff man to override the logic behind just sticking him there full time; after all, he’d hit well as a leadoff man in prior years.
The decision to platoon Nixon on a continuing basis is one I don’t really agree with, but he’s been so awful against lefthanded pitching that you obviously can’t start using him against them in the middle of a pennant race.
1-4: .287/.484/.379 (456)
Nixon, overall, shows up here as a success. Yes, you can argue that Jimy should have lived with some ups and downs to turn him into an everyday player, the way Paul O’Neill and Andy Van Slyke did after they broke out of the platoon mode. But in the short run, Jimy succeeded at his goal of maximizing Nixon’s value in the lineup by the shuffling and platooning.
1-4: .000/.000/.000 (3)
Clearly, the Hillenbrand-batting-sixth experiment was a case of falling in love with a hot-starting rookie. Thumbs down.
1-4: .231/.231/.286 (14)
Like a lot of the Red Sox, Daubach’s hit best at the positions in the lineup he plays the most, sixth and eighth. Mixed bag here – he’s been more patient and productive in the middle of the order, but a lot more power at the bottom.
1-4: .273/.506/.333 (715)
Pretty even here comparing top to bottom. Daubach is another guy who has really had to be platooned. I’d have to rate Daubach a modest success.
2001 stats only.
1-4: .348/.543/.375 (48)
Call it blind luck or small sample sizes if you will, but Lansing’s usage pattern has to be called a success (once you assume he should be playing at all, that is).
Another guy who can’t hit lefthanded pitching, O’Leary has hit righthanders well enough this year (with the benefit of reduced playing time against lefties) to justify the roster spot. 2001:
1-4: .000/.000/.000 (3)
1-4: .250/.250/.400 (5)
Looks like Jimy did a decent job of picking the spots where O’Leary was at least less likely to hit for average. Then again, in 2001, as in 1998-2000, O’Leary hit much better batting sixth than fifth. The fact that O’Leary has the team’s most plate appearances over the 1998-2001 period says more than you want to know about recent Red Sox history. I’d declare him a modest success, but barely.
Stynes is a natural platoon player – he murders lefthanded pitching – but circumstances have pushed him into a larger role in Boston.
1-4: .272/.404/.313 (160)
Aside from a freakish 22 at bats hitting sixth, there’s not much to choose from here.
Manny has yet to bat anywhere but cleanup. Some things, no manager can screw up. But score a victory for Jimy in sticking to his promise to at least not jerk Ramirez around. Nomar has been moved around some, but only within the top 4 lineup slots, and without much effect on his hitting. Has been most effective batting cleanup before 2001.
There’s six players here who rate as a success, if mildly, as opposed to three significant failures. That’s not bad; if you want to look solely at the short-term impact of picking spots, Jimy Williams didn’t do a bad job, a fact that is reflected in the team’s W-L record. And of course, some of the juggling act was driven by injuries. More importantly, what has really benefited the team is the use of a lot of platooning arrangements – even if never quite officially acknowledged as such – that have reduced the roles of players trying to do things they can’t.
None of this is to say that all the juggling was good for morale – it wasn’t. The loss of Williams’ authority over the players, alone, made it necessary to let him go. And the team’s long-term interests may have been better served by letting Nixon in particular experience the necessary growing pains to become an everyday player. And just because Chris Stynes hits well at the top of the order by his own standards doesn’t mean that he belongs there. And the criticism specifically directed to Williams’ love affair with Darren Lewis was certainly justified. But at least give the man the benefit of the doubt that, given the players he had to work with, he tried to keep everyone involved and, at least on the offensive side, didn’t do such a bad job on the whole of picking where and when to do that.
Before I leave this topic, I can’t let one pro-Jimy argument pass without comment. The Duquette critics among the press have generally responded that if anyone has alienated the players, it’s Duquette. But that is completely beside the point. The general manager’s personal interactions with the players aren’t really all that regular or important, at least to the day-to-day functioning of the team, although it can matter in re-signing free agents. Motivating players and commanding their respect is the manager’s job; in many ways, it is the most important part of his job. He is paid, first and foremost, to be a leader of men. Duquette could make roster moves on an old typewriter from a shack in the Montana wilderness, but if he has a manager worthy of the title, the players will play.