Human interest story
Grady Little is back in the playoffs.
It will be viewed in a few circles, unkindly, as at least three more decisions involving starting pitchers.
It will be viewed in others as a baseball lifer’s recompense.
Little will regard it as neither, the first perception casting a single October judgment as a career reflection, the second inferring the game owes him more than it would someone else.
He holds a simpler view of his place in the clubhouse and on the dugout steps. As Saturday afternoon’s party in San Francisco ebbed, he sat in an office holding a beer bottle, the mouth of which he jabbed toward a handful of soggy players.
“The end result is they make a lot of us look good,” he said.
Four managers -- Dusty Baker in Chicago, Felipe Alou in San Francisco, Frank Robinson in Washington and Joe Girardi in Florida -- have been let go since the season ended. There could be more.
The job is transient and callous. Little won 188 games in two seasons in Boston, managing into Game 7 of the 2003 American League championship series against the New York Yankees, and was fired and ridiculed for it.
They called him Grady Gump because he pronounced his Rs and talked slower than they did. And there, in the months leading to his choice to have ace Pedro Martinez pitch another inning, and the days leading from it, was born his reputation for ignoring statistical data that would have saved the Red Sox, and were written the leading lines of his obituary.
Little, 56, makes his return to the postseason three years later, leading a Dodgers team that won 88 games into a series in which, coincidently, Martinez is on the opposing team. He will not pitch because of a torn rotator cuff.
Little’s presence, and his history, also gives life to the broad discussion of statistical analysis, and its place in dugouts of a game played amid slumps and mood swings and bad-hop singles.
In his book, “Feeding the Monster,” author Seth Mnookin described Red Sox management’s custom of delivering “voluminous” advance reports to Little, and Little’s custom of ignoring them.
“Grady Little,” Mnookin quotes Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner as saying, “was a hunch manager. That’s not our style.”
Principal owner John Henry harped to Mnookin about Little’s “total lack of preparation.”
In 2002, when the Red Sox deemphasized the importance of the closer -- based in part on statistical guru Bill James’ advice -- they complained, according to Mnookin, that Little “was not capable of dealing with this degree of flexibility and creativity.” By 2004, they too had abandoned ninth-inning creativity, signing closer Keith Foulke.
Recently handed several pages that contained those passages, Little handed them back.
“Nah,” he said, “I’m not going to read it. You read it.”
He listened patiently, then said, “I’m not going to lower myself to make any comments on what you’re talking about right there. And I accent the words ‘lower myself.’ Because they run a big business around there, they’ve got to justify everything they do, just like I do as a manager. So, you’ve got to respect them for that. Whatever they’ve got to do to justify their decisions and their moves, so be it. But I’m not lowering myself to comment on it.”
Asked to compare the baseball resume of a man who had managed nearly 2,500 professional games to those of the Red Sox brass, Little shrugged.
“That’s their prerogative,” he said.
“I guess the following year, when they added Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke to their pitching staff, I guess that all came from their numbers group. And the following year after that, when Schilling was hurt and Foulke was out, how’d they do?”
It is the manager’s job to balance the numbers and the people who produce them. Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who socializes with Werner, and General Manager Ned Colletti have praised Little for his steady hand, season-long perspective and clubhouse adroitness.
Colletti constructed the Dodgers on the fly, meaning the pieces wouldn’t fit quite perfectly, and then closer Eric Gagne, setup man Yhency Brazoban and third baseman Bill Mueller were lost for the season because of injuries. Flare-ups occurred with volatile starter Brad Penny, who began the season as the staff’s ace, and there were complaints from the end of the bench over playing time.
In Little’s first season with the Dodgers, some analysts wondered whether he wasn’t too hasty in removing his starting pitchers, the opposite of their complaint with previous manager Jim Tracy. Dodgers relievers pitched 65 2/3 innings more than they did last season, an increase of about an out a game.
The fact is, Little said, he uses the scouting reports. He knows the matchups, the splits and the spray charts. He also knows the players, and that there is no perfect method for separating the men from the numbers.
“I can’t give you an exact formula for that,” he said. “I don’t have one. I don’t know that anybody has one. Maybe there’s some smarter people than me that have an exact formula for that, but I’ve never figured it out.
“I think it’s well-documented that I’ll never take the human element out of it. We’re dealing with human beings. I’ve said before, those stats, they tell you a lot, but they never tell you the whole story. They can tell you that some hitter is hitting .750 off a pitcher throughout his career, but on that sheet it doesn’t tell you that hitter is in a three-for-20 slump right now and he couldn’t hit me if I ran through there and ducked my head.”
The routine is simple in all organizations. At some point during the day, a team employee will place a stack of papers on the manager’s desk. On the road, it often is the public relations director, who has access to a printer. The manager and his bench coach go through the statistics, particularly on the first day of a series, and sort the meaningful from the meaningless.
How those numbers get from the office to the dugout varies. White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen keeps his on a three-by-five card in his back pocket. Rockies Manager Clint Hurdle has kept a handwritten black notebook for a decade, his thoughts supplementing the standard statistics. Most, including Little, keep a series of binders, labeled by opposing team.
Some managers develop pet statistics. Rangers Manager Buck Showalter has come to trust players’ production in certain ballparks. Others, such as Girardi, who managed a rookie-swollen roster in Florida, have to look elsewhere.
“We don’t have [pitcher-batter] matchups,” Girardi said. “So, we can’t really hold onto matchups. You look at our card when we face people and it’s usually half blank.”
Girardi was fired Tuesday.
As the statistical revolution grows, the jobs become simpler and more difficult. Managers, if they choose, can understand players’ tendencies better than ever, and yet could misplace the essence of the players in those stacks of papers.
One afternoon this summer, Alou waved two dozen pages, stapled in the upper-left corner.
“The advance scout saw that game last night,” he said. “The problem is, the game tonight is not going to be a replay of last night.
“The most important game is the one that is in front of you. It’s not what happened a month ago in a game against different players.”
Showalter asked why he would play the lines against, say, Rickey Henderson, late in a close game because his binders told him to. If Henderson singled through the larger defensive gaps in the infield, he’d only steal second anyway. He asked why he would have his hitters take a strike against, say, Dennis Eckersley, if Eckersley had walked only three hitters all season.
Each night, he said, he plays his men off the statistics and the long-held baseball strategies.
“The tiebreaker,” he said, “is always defer to the makeup, the person.”
Showalter famously walked Barry Bonds with the bases loaded and a two-run lead in the ninth inning in 1998.
“If he weren’t seven for 10 against Gregg Olson,” he said, “I wouldn’t have walked him with the bases loaded.”
Actually, according to STATS LLC, Bonds was two for four with four walks and a strikeout in his career against Olson.
The point, Showalter said, is that “there’s just not some blanket answer.”
By way of preparation, Guillen is a seat-of-his-pants manager. White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams would prefer Guillen expand to two or three pockets but defers to Guillen’s comfort. When his manager summoned Orlando Hernandez with the bases loaded and none out in the division series against the Red Sox last year, Williams admitted the numbers didn’t support the decision.
“I thought he was out of his mind,” Williams said.
Hernandez did not give up a run, and the White Sox won that series and two more.
“We’ve got a lot more information that I’d like to give him than a three-by-five card,” Williams said. “But he ain’t going to use it, so what’s the point?
“It’s just like a player. You don’t teach all the players the same approach. The manager, you have to be flexible to what that person’s strengths and weaknesses are. Let’s face it, a general manager isn’t going to hire a manager who doesn’t have a similar philosophy. Well, maybe they do, but it won’t last too long.”
Even Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics who has been cast as statistics-driven, grants they are only part of the equation.
“I think hunches are born out of also having objective information,” he said. “But the games, played in real time on the field, a lot of these things are based on what you’re seeing in real time. You can’t discount that.... If being a manager was strictly a numbers position, you’d call it a ‘dugout engineer.’ ”
Oftentimes, the player, the situation and the numbers don’t align anyway. Sometimes, it happens in the playoffs. Sometimes, the hunch wins, and the manager loses.
“You make that decision and wait and see what happens,” Little said. “I just take all my experiences, put them into what I know is on that piece of paper, what I know about that human being that day, and get after it.”