For starters let me say I didn’t want to use cover your “rear end” in that headline, but I didn’t know if I’m allowed to use the real word I’m thinking. From here on in, every time you see me use “rear end” assume I’m thinking of the more graphic term — because I am.
So here’s how covering your “rear end” works:
Big league baseball has its bureaucratic side, just like every other big organization, and making sure you don’t get blamed for something that goes wrong is part of the art of surviving.
Clint Hurdle, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, once told me that teams that want to go all the way better know how to play for the big inning (because sooner or later they’ll be in a high-scoring game), but they also need to know how to play for one run (because sooner or later they’ll be in a low-scoring game). If sooner or later they’ll need to play small ball, why don’t more managers do it?
Clint said because of the news conference afterward. If a manager bunts or steals or calls for a hit and run and those moves don’t work, he’ll get blown up for being a bad manager. If the manager sits on his hands and lets the offense swing away and that doesn’t work, the players will get blown up for not hitting.
Be a slave to the numbers
A manager pinch-hits or brings in a reliever and the move backfires. He then has to face the media and gets asked why he did such a boneheaded thing, and the manager answers: “Have you seen the match-up numbers?”
The answer — most of the time — is no. Those of us in the press box are usually too busy looking at Facebook or constructing an ice cream sundae to scour the internet for matchup numbers. So when the manager asks if we’ve seen them, we kind of assume they favor the move the manager made — otherwise he wouldn’t bring them up.
But when you look closely at matchup numbers — especially matchup numbers for relievers — you’re often looking at less than 10 at-bats. So a guy is 2 for 9 off a reliever but hit three line-drive outs; the numbers favor the pitcher, but the batter actually hits that particular reliever well.
Or it might be reversed:
Say the batter is for 4 for 9 off the reliever, but two were broken-bat flares. The hitter’s matchup numbers look good, but because of the small sample size, the numbers don’t accurately reflect what happened. But if the manager follows the numbers, he’s safe — he did what the numbers told him to do.
It might not be good managing, but it covers your rear end.
Give players the green light
Big-league players have much more freedom than fans might imagine; they sometimes steal or bunt or hit and run on their own. And sometimes that’s a good thing; the player can see things that the coaches sitting in the dugout can’t. So maybe the player picked up on something — like the catcher puts his bare hand behind his back on fastballs and keeps it out in front for breaking pitches — and the player can take advantage of that without having to conduct a meeting in the dugout.
That’s the good side of a player having the green light.
The bad side goes like this: If a player steals a base, or bunts or signals to a teammate that he wants to conduct a hit and run on the next pitch and the move fails, managers can then say the player was doing it on his own. Giving the players a green light can protect the manager. And some players with a green light won’t run because they don’t want the responsibility if they get thrown out.
Safety over suicide
And it works the same way on squeeze plays: If the manager calls for a suicide squeeze, the runner on third must break for home and the batter must attempt a bunt. If the suicide squeeze blows up, the manager takes the blame for calling the play on the wrong pitch.
But the safety squeeze protects the manager (probably why the word safety is in there). On this play the batter has to lay down a bunt on the right side of the infield and when the runner on third base sees the pitcher’s numbers — which means the pitcher has turned to his left and is headed toward first base — the runner breaks for home.
If the play doesn’t work the manager can fault the execution of the bunter or runner.
If you want to be safe, follow the scouting reports
Covering your rear end also extends to scouting reports. Some scouting reports are so vague it leaves the scout some wiggle room if things go wrong: “The fastball in is a good pitch, the slider away is a good pitch and the changeup down is a good pitch.”
But let’s say the report is more specific and advises the catcher to call for a slider if a certain hitter is in a two-strike count. And now let’s say the pitcher’s slider sucks that day; he’s missing spots and hanging it. So what does the catcher do?
If the catcher wants to be safe he calls the slider and when it gets hit 400 feet, it’s on the scouting report and the pitcher; the catcher’s safe — he called the pitch he was told to call.
But if the catcher recognizes that the pitcher’s slider sucks and calls something else in that two-strike count and that pitch gets hit, the catcher has some explaining to do. Do you cover your rear end and do the safe thing? Or do the right thing and expose yourself to criticism?
It’s a brutal business
Despite the image we have of teams being a band of brothers all pulling in the same direction for the same goal, it’s also a brutal business. Some people are going to survive and some aren’t.
And covering your rear end is one of the ways you survive.