Judging the Royals

Why do managers stick to set roles? Happiness is one reason

Royals relief pitcher Wade Davis (right) and catcher Salvador Perez celebrated a 2-1 win over the Cleveland in June.
Royals relief pitcher Wade Davis (right) and catcher Salvador Perez celebrated a 2-1 win over the Cleveland in June. jsleezer@kcstar.com

If you spend much time around big-league ballplayers sooner or later you’re going to hear one of them say these words: “People forget we’re human.”

Ballplayers generate a lot of numbers and after a while it’s easy to view them as just that: a collection of emotionless numbers that can be plugged in or pulled out of any role. But it’s not that simple — ballplayers are human and humans tend to be complicated.

For example: say you’ve got a guy who’s hitting well in the lower third of the batting order. The logical thing would be to move him up in the order and get him more plate appearances … unless he’s hitting well because he’s hitting in the lower third of the order.

Some guys are comfortable hitting eighth because they know not much is expected of them, but move them up to the two-hole and as players say: “They get a nosebleed.” They can’t hit that high; they put pressure on themselves to do even better and their game goes south.

Cheslor Cuthbert has hit well in the bottom third of the order and in their last two games it appears the Royals want to find out if he can do the same thing batting second.

How managers stay popular

We’re encouraged to think of a team as a bunch of guys all pulling in the same direction; winning ballgames — but it’s more complicated than that. Sure, players want their team to win, but they’re also keenly aware that they need to put up individual numbers if they’re going to remain part of that team.

Managers who help players achieve those numbers are popular in the clubhouse and staying popular in the clubhouse is one way managers stay managers.

If players are upset about how the manager uses them, they might start throwing that manager under the bus. The players might not say anything critical to the media, but their teammates, coaches and agents might hear complaints. When a manager “loses his team,” that’s part of what people are talking about.

So to keep players happy a smart manager tries to help those players achieve the individual goals that will keep the players in the big leagues and earn them lucrative contracts.

That’s one of the reasons managers try to get a starting pitcher with a lead through five innings; it qualifies that pitcher for the win and (whether you like it or not) wins equal money. Pull the pitcher after 4  2/3 innings and he might not be happy.

It’s the same reason a manager doesn’t want to expose that pitcher to a loss; let a pitcher give you a quality start and then take the loss in the seventh and that pitcher might object to the way he was managed.

A manager who wants to keep his job wants to keep his players happy.

Why managers save their closers for save situations

Fans who like to look at the game through numbers reason that a team’s best reliever should pitch when the team needs him most and if that’s the seventh inning, so be it.

But most managers want to use their closer when they know that closer can get them a win. Use your closer in the seventh inning and lesser pitchers will have to handle the eighth and ninth. And if those guys are going to blow the game the manager wants them to do it before he wastes an inning from his closer. Use the closer in a save situation in the ninth and the manager knows that his team will win if he pitches well.

But there’s another reason managers use their closers in save situations; saves make closers happy. Start rolling the closer out in non-save situations and you might wind up with an unhappy relief pitcher. He starts complaining about the way he’s used. And because the closer’s the big dog in the bullpen, it gives the green light to every other relief pitcher to complain about how they’re being used — they didn’t get enough time to warm up, they were pulled too soon, they were left in the game too long or the manager didn’t find them good matchups.

Set roles can eliminate a lot of complaining; a set-up man knows he’s got the eighth and whoever comes up during that inning. If he isn’t ready on time or performs poorly, it’s on him.

It might be the big leagues, but it’s still a workplace

I once had a catcher tell me that a scouting report might say throw this guy a slider, but if the pitcher’s slider was horrible that night you might want to throw something else. But throw something other than the slider and it’s on you if that pitch gets hit. Follow the report — throw that flat, hanging slider — and it’s on the scout and the pitcher who threw the pitch.

I said: “So you guys have a bureaucracy, too.”

It’s easy to forget big-league baseball is a business and people are fighting to keep their jobs. Some people are shifting blame to someone else, trying to avoid responsibility or refusing to take any kind of risk; probably quite a bit like your workplace.

Managers want happy workers and that’s one reason managers don’t use their closers in the seventh inning:

They’re managing to keep their players happy.