May 22, 2008
BASEBALL: Willie Randolph Faces The Music
Should the Mets fire Willie Randolph? In general, I'm not a fan of firing the manager in-season. You can usually get a short-term boost from doing so, even if you hire an empty suit (the Mets' hot streak after hiring Bud Harrelson to replace Davey Johnson in 1990 being a good example), but the #1 problem is that it's hard to find a good replacement in mid-season. Little enough would be accomplished in terms of shaking up the clubhouse by promoting Jerry Manuel.
That said, Randolph has endured more than just a slump. Since last May 30, the Mets are 77-79. The offense is 10th in the NL in scoring this season and 13th in slugging; going back to 5/30/07, you can see that the names have changed but the problem remains, with Jose Reyes (.270/.337/.413 in 649 at bats) being the big disappointment and Beltran and Delgado more generally failing to live up to billing, especially this season. The pitching has been hit or miss, with Oliver Perez the most frustrating over that period - I actually don't feel as concerned about the staff right now, although after yesterday we got another reminder of why the best long-term plan with Pelfrey (leave him in the rotation and let him grow up) conflicts with the team's short-term need for a reliable fifth starter. Even in his four really good starts this season, Pelfrey's averaged less than 5 K per 9.
The case against Randolph isn't so much statistical as a broader sense that his low-key personality has contributed to the team's mental errors and general lack of consistent hustle and sense of urgency - not that they always lack those things, but that the day-to-day focus isn't there. I'm almost out of patience with Randolph myself, so I can see where people with less patience are a lot further along.
As for the flap about Randolph's comments on race, for which he has now apologized:
Randolph, the first black major league manager in New York, wondered aloud in the column whether race had anything to do with his being held to a different standard.
"Is it racial?" Randolph asked in the column, written by The Record's Ian O'Connor. "Huh? It smells a little bit."
"I don't know how to put my finger on it, but I think there's something there," Randolph said in the column. He cited the example of former New York Jets coach Herman Edwards as a coach who was initially successful, but did not last long when the Jets started losing. He also noted the treatment of former New York Knicks coach and GM Isiah Thomas, saying "Isiah didn't do a great job, but they beat up Isiah pretty good. ... There's something weird about it."
I missed it when it happened, but I gather on Sunday Joe Morgan made a point of asking why Randolph is on the hot seat and Joe Girardi isn't. As usual, Morgan misses the thunderingly obvious - let's review their 2007 performance:
Girardi - Had not been hired yet.
Randolph - Took a team that was 16 games over .500 at the end of May and led them to arguably the worst September collapse in baseball history.
I don't even know where to begin with the Isiah comparison except to say that if Randolph thinks it's "wierd" that Isiah is unpopular in New York, he clearly does not follow basketball, read the newspapers or watch television; Isiah has been the perfect storm of unpopularity since he was hired, and for a seemingly endless list of very good reasons.
It should be noted that Randolph was a popular choice with the fans and the media when he was hired - he'd been a disciple of Joe Torre, had played and coached for many winning teams, was well-liked when he played for the Mets, and had been regarded as a smart, heads-up player. Does that mean there's no racial element to his unpopularity? We can only speculate. But the point is, there were good reasons why Randolph was initially liked, and good reasons why he is now unpopular. There's no need to look further.
When I heard and then read the comments, I figured Willie was campaigning to keep his job, and figured now they wouldn't dare fire him. I think he feels he will never get another shot; I bet he would.
The last person I would want to be compared with in this town as a coach is Isiah Thomas. And I recall (never trust my memory) Herman Edwards quit so he could play for the owner of KC, who is a friend (bet that friendship doesn't survive).
Winning solves everything, losing causes everything. What he and everyone else connected with the team seems to forget: it's not just the collapse. It's the collapse in a town full of Yankee fans. Who never let you forget the collapse. I'm not a great believer in rah rah managers: the great coaches and managers had one common denominator: great players. These Mets are, for the most part, good players, few great, and it would probably take an Earl Weaver to make them great. Willie has to go: simple business decision now. They are floundering, he blames the press, and the Mets have a new and very expensive ballpark to fill.
Herm Edwards quit because he thought the Jets were going to keep heading south, and if he got fired he wouldn't get another job. Smart move on his part, seeing as how the more accomplished Jim Fassel can't get a head coaching job even though he took a pretty ordinary Giants team to the Super Bowl.
It's fair game to attribute some of the Mets collapse last season to Randolph's playing time decisions, but he's also led them to the playoffs before and this year the Mets have played to Pythagorean expectation. Randolph is not to blame for Delgado predictably cratering, or Pedro and El Duque predictably getting hurt, and nobody saw Heilman's collapse coming. I think he does neet to rest Reyes more than he does because he plays such a high energy game and the physical demands on middle infielders are great. But its early in the season, the Marlins are a bit lucky right now, and I think the smart play is to stay the course.
Also, his decision to drop swap Church for Castillo in the batting order is both correct and somewhat courageous. Add Alou to the predictable injury list that is beyond Randolph's control.
Randolph has been around the game long enough to understand that managers are hired to be fired. Torre was a three time loser before he got the Yankees job. All of a sudden Torre meets Steinbrenner's wallet and he is a genius. Nope. As managers get experience not just game experience, but experience managing players they are better equipped to handle a high stress job in NY. Making his treatment out to be a matter of race rather than performance, he hurts his chances of getting future managerial gigs.
Crank et al: If you're a subscriber to baseball prospectus check out Joe Sheehan's article on Randolph today. It makes the case that I made, but also takes Randolph to task for lousy bullpen management. But still he argues that Delgado, Alou, Pedro are not Willie's fault and the Mets are not as good as we thought. Anyway, good reading.
Joe Morgan should pay attention. Girardi just got hired you can't fire him yet. Morgan don't worry if Girardi doesn't turn the ship around he'll be booted out of town too. Thats the way things work in New York.
All New York wants is winners. Its a very competitive city. When the baseball teams have the two highest pay roles in baseball the city has high expectations. If you can't live up to those expectations that you set for the city then you will be ridiculed and booed out of town. Its all part of the job that's why they make millions of dollars.
If you win the city a championship you will be loved forever or at least until next year!
The problem is Matt that the most successful NY teams have been the ones with managerial continuity, i.e. Joe Torre, who Randolph somewhat matches in solemnity of approach and lousy regular-season bullpen management. The "new york is different" argument regarding pressure doesnt change the requirements of winning, which tends to come with greater stability. The same argument youre making was trotted out to attack ARod after a "down year" where he hit .290 with 35 hrs. Of course in the years surrounding that he won MVP awards, and there would not have been a Yankee postseason for him to struggle in without those MVP performances.