By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) Know what’s boring? Math. Not a fan. Luckily there are people smarter than me that like it enough to design our buildings, figure out our taxes, and show us what a great deal we just got on that timeshare.
I don’t hate math in a Hawk Harrelson way, though. Sabermetrics are where baseball is at now, like it or not, and I’m a believer, even if I don’t exactly understand what I believe, which makes me a baseball equivalent of a Westboro Baptist Church member, though I’m not going to protest at Tim McCarver’s funeral. I let the smarter people plug the numbers into their formulas for me, and then I deviate once it’s all spit out.
Know what else is boring? White Sox manager Robin Ventura. Milquetoast picked on him on the playground back in the day. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a manager with the personality of a Communion wafer, so long as what he does in-game really pops and buzzes. Ventura, after being very much an out-of-left-field choice for manager after former general manager Ken Williams sent the exact opposite personality in Ozzie Guillen packing, represents the anti-Ozzie when a microphone is in his face, and Chicago media had to adjust from going from crack to aspirin during his first year managing in 2012.
But is everything about Ventura a 180 from Guillen? The latter was well-known to be averse to sabermetrics, and when the former was hired it was supposedly because Williams “wanted a manager who wasn’t afraid to express his beliefs even if they didn’t conform to those of the staff, as well as to bring an old-school attitude with an open-mindedness toward sabermetrics in evaluations.”
Then Williams stepped down at the end of Ventura’s first year on the job and made way for assistant GM Rick Hahn to take over. Unlike his predecessor who was more a fan of videotape assessment, Hahn is regarded as a sabermetrician. Almost immediately after getting the job he began being poked and prodded about his numbers inclination. “At the end of the day, I think Kenny, given his background as a player and scout and player development guy, and (having) a great deal of faith in video, if things were all close, that would probably break the tie, what his gut and what his eyes saw and what it told him. For me, given my background and some of my strengths, the objective side may be weighted more heavily in my decision; however, it’s not as if we’re going to completely disregard one.” In other words, “I like the New School of stats and will use that as my driving force while trying not to sound like a jerk kicking Williams into an old folks’ home.”
So, progressive statistical GM with a manager willing to embrace a numbers-driven era. An organization with those in charge on the same page. The manager is willing, right?
“I’m in the middle,” Malcolm Ventura said at SoxFest in 2012. “You go with your gut and what your eyes see. (Sabermetrics) tell a story, but not the whole story. We get that information and we’ll go over it based on the numbers and trends.” Maybe that’s why Fangraphs called the White Sox an in-between analytical team last year.
It didn’t take long for the nerds to begin to question Ventura’s middleness. His “Bunt Binge Game” in late April 2012 was just the first example of choices he would make in his rookie year at the helm that left numbers folk somewhere between head-scratching and ear-steaming. I was willing to chalk it up to getting his feet wet, going with what felt comfortable from a guy who played on the threshold of the SABR dawn among baseball brass.
2013, though, hasn’t shown that Ventura is ready to abandon his sabermetrically sinful ways of giving up outs. On April 7, the Sox beat the Mariners by scoring all their runs via the homer, a game that looked like what the team was ideally built for. But that was after the “Alejandro De Aza Bunt Game” of April 3, another one in which the Sox won with all home runs. The question to Ventura afterward was why he’d call for a bunt with runners on first and second and no outs while up three runs, something that would make many a numbers guy’s jaw drop.
“Well, they’re not sitting in my seat either,” Ventura said. “There’s a lot of those guys out there, but they’re not sitting in this seat and they’re not sitting in this dugout. So it’s a different feel when you’re a player or a manager than it is just to sit there and write numbers down on a piece of paper.”
“Feel” being the operative word there. Numbers don’t deal with “feel.” Hahn is a numbers guy. Being up three made the move low risk, low reward and probably even forgivable to the GM, but it wasn’t an isolated incident.
On April 13th, Ventura chose to have the notably-bad bunter, Alexei Ramirez, attempt to lay down a bunt in the eighth inning of a tie game to get a runner on second base with no outs over to third—a move that, had it been successful, would have actually decreased the run expectancy and would have only raised the chances of scoring less than four percent. Those numbers became irrelevant, though, because Ramirez failed to get the bunt down on his first try and then bunted up in the air to the catcher for an out and no advancement of the runner. The White Sox lost that game 1-0.
In the bottom of the fifth Saturday against the Twins, catcher Tyler Flowers took off from first base with one out, a 3-2 count to De Aza, and the heart of order due up. The result was out on a strike ‘em out throw ‘em out with De Aza swinging at what would have been ball four. The Twins won that game 2-1 in extra innings. Such a managerial call was not a numbers one.
And then there was Alex Rios in the fourth inning Sunday inexplicably being thrown out trying to steal third as Adam Dunn struck out to end the inning. Even a non-SABR person had to be dumbfounded at that. If that was Ventura’s call—awful. If it was Rios going on his own, one would hope Ventura spoke with him afterward. That is, if Ventura buys in to a Hahnian plan.
The Sox aren’t young, so perhaps a Hahn formula like the one being implemented on Chicago’s North Side isn’t quite rolling yet, and maybe then Ventura can get away with going with more “feel” with a veteran team. But the White Sox general manager certainly has to feel a bit ill every time he sees an out thrown away and maybe question if his manager and he have the same philosophy going forward. Because boring numbers are certainly better than bad baseball.