Before I started writing about baseball I played it for 20 years in a men’s amateur league. Early in my career I became a manager, which shouldn’t be a surprise. The worst player on amateur teams often manages because that’s the only way he’d ever get to play.
Turned out I was way too good a manager to ever let myself play. I wanted to win and most days that meant my name wasn’t in the lineup.
But being a first-time manager, there was a whole lot of stuff I didn’t understand and I’d often go to the guys I knew who played the game professionally to ask questions.
At the top of the list of stuff I didn’t understand was pitchers and pitching changes. I was lucky, I knew Clint Hurdle and Bob Apodaca; Clint was managing the Colorado Rockies and Bob was the pitching coach.
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One day we all went to lunch and they gave me a tutorial on the art of the pitching change. It’s not the first time I’ve written about this, but after Thursday night’s game it bears repeating.
Here are the rules they gave me for a pitching change:
1. Never let a starting pitcher struggle after the fifth inning. He’s tired and doesn’t have much left in the tank; if he starts to scuffle, go get him.
2. Never let him struggle third time through the order. The hitters have seen him twice already and have a pretty good idea of what he’s featuring that night.
3. Three line drives in a row is not a coincidence. Even if those line drives are caught, the hitters are starting to square him up.
4. Fix the problem you have, not the one you might have. Don’t get caught up in wondering if the next guy you bring in will have good stuff that night; you know the guy who’s currently pitching is getting whacked around, get him out of the game.
5. Better an inning too soon than an inning too late, better a batter too soon than a batter too late, better a pitch too soon than a pitch too late.
6. If you’re thinking about it, do it.
I asked what that last rule meant and Clint had a couple questions of his own; why are you thinking about it? Is he throwing a no hitter? No, he’s in a jam, sweating like a horse and acting like his life would be a whole lot better if he never had to throw another pitch.
Go get him.
Gut instinct is your subconscious talking to you; every time I ignored rule No. 6 within a couple pitches I regretted it.
The art of the pitching change isn’t to wait until a pitcher gets whacked all over the yard and then pull him; every fan in attendance could do that. The art of the pitching change is to get everything you can out of a pitcher, read the signs and pull him before something bad happens.
And that gets us to Dillon Gee.
The fifth inning; Gee replaces Vargas
Jason Vargas started Thursday night’s game against the Indians and gave up two runs over four innings. Vargas threw 70 pitches and because he’s coming back from an arm injury, Dillon Gee replaced him in the fifth inning.
Gee started things by hitting Lonnie Chisenhall with a 1-2 pitch. That was bad for two reasons; the game was tied 2-2 and Gee was one good pitch from retiring Chisenhall. Clearly, Gee did not want to clip a batter at that point, but his command was off.
Next Gee left a 2-2 changeup too high in the zone and Coco Crisp singled; another pitch that didn’t go where Gee wanted it to go.
Gee threw two pitches to Roberto Perez, both changeups that stayed up and in the heart of the zone. The crisis was averted when Perez bunted the second changeup and left his bunt too close to home plate; Salvador Perez started a 2-6-4 double play. Both corners were crashing in on the bunt, so Alcides Escobar had to cover third base and Whit Merrifield had to cover first.
When it takes an outstanding defensive play that nobody can remember ever seeing before to get out of a jam, you should count yourself lucky.
Gee got the third out of the inning when he left a cutter up and too near the heart of the zone, but Rajai Davis pulled it on the ground to Cheslor Cuthbert.
Before the fifth inning was over, it was clear Gee was having trouble commanding his pitches.
The sixth inning; Gee stays in the game
If the narrow escape of the fifth inning wasn’t enough, Gee started the sixth inning by hitting another batter; Jason Kipnis. Gee then walked Francisco Lindor on five pitches. Gee finally got an out when he left another changeup middle-middle and Mike Napoli popped it up.
By that point a manager’s subconscious shouldn’t be just talking to him; a manager’s subconscious should be blowing an air horn and shooting off warning flares. Gee did not have it and he was about to face a very hot hitter: Carlos Santana.
The Santana home run
Coming into that sixth-inning Santana was 6 for 11 with two doubles and a home run in this latest series against the Royals. Santana also had 33 home runs on the year and 29 of those home runs came against right-handed pitchers. So with Gee struggling and Santana on a tear, it was almost as inevitable as the Titanic meeting the iceberg.
Gee tried to run an 86 mph cutter in on Santana’s hands and didn’t get it there; Santana homered, the score was 5-2 and that was it for the Royals chances on Thursday night.
What were Ned Yost’s options?
Here’s the thing about second-guessing managers; they know stuff we don’t. Teams do not announce which relievers are available that night because they don’t want opponents to have that information. If you go by days off, lefty Matt Strahm was the only reliever who had pitched two days in a row.
Theoretically, every other reliever was available.
I can’t tell you with complete confidence what Ned should have done instead of letting Gee face Santana, but I can tell you Ned has a whole bunch of arms in his bullpen and Gee had already demonstrated he didn’t have it by the time Santana walked to the plate.
Rules 4, 5 and 6 said pull Dillon Gee.