A couple winters ago I wrote an article about a big-league manager who had a lineup change suggested to him: a sabermetrics guy employed by the team suggested that the manager sit one of his star players because the player had bad numbers against the opposition pitcher throwing that night. The article I posted pointed out that benching the star player would result in a chain of events and, in some cases, have undesirable results: benching a guy to give you an advantage in four or five at bats might give you a bigger disadvantage over the rest of the season.
The article set off what passes for an uproar in the world of the internet and I was accused of—among other things—making the story up.
That charge was difficult to refute because I was told the story off the record, but now Terry Francona’s book is out and he tells the story, so I guess it’s OK to talk about it. The team was the Red Sox and the manager was Terry Francona. Here’s what he said in his book:
"In those first years they had a guy who would send me lineups. This guy would tell me not hit David Ortiz against Scott Kazmir because chances are, David’s going to have a rough night. Well, I’m not sitting David. He’s got a chance to be MVP, and you want me to start Doug Mirabelli at DH because Doug has better numbers against this guy? I was like, ‘F---, I’m not doing that.’ You might win a game somewhere along the way, but it’s not worth what you might lose from David overall."
I haven’t met a baseball player coach or manager who ignores numbers. They may not pay attention to the same numbers you do, but they all care about numbers—but numbers aren’t the only thing that matters. Francona also writes about managing Manny Ramirez and how Manny would pout if he felt "disrespected" and Manny could feel disrespected at the drop of a hat. Ramirez would claim his hamstring was bothering him and sit down. The Red Sox put up with it because they wanted Manny’s production. David Ortiz sounds like a much more mature person than Manny Ramirez, but David Ortiz is still a person and managers have to take that into account. A move might help you in one game, but hurt you overall.
Terry Francona did not like getting a lineup from a consultant who had never been in the clubhouse and had no clue about player personalities. Benching Ortiz might have gained the Red Sox an advantage in one game, but Francona didn’t want to have to deal with the repercussions that would show up down the road. Over 162 games, Francona thought not benching Ortiz was a better move. Here’s another Francona quote: "Just give me the information, don’t tell me how to manage."
We can all see the numbers that are publicly available, but fans should remember that teams have numbers that aren’t publicly available as well as scouting reports, personal experience and some idea of the people they’re dealing with.
Once again, here’s Terry Francona: "I understand fans and the media second-guessing. I’m a fan. I do it. I just wish people would remember that we know things about the team that maybe they don’t know. I have more information than anybody. And it’s my job to know my team."
I’m now in my fourth year of covering the Kansas City Royals and over and over again—when I’ve asked a player or coach about a situation or a decision—they’ve had information that I didn’t have. It doesn’t mean they never make a mistake or every decision is going to work out, but they know what we know and more. Numbers matter—but numbers aren’t the only thing that matters.
And if you don’t believe me, just ask Terry Francona.