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Losing with the Right Guys

Oh, hell, where to begin.

Since my buddy Jason moved to Maryland several years back, we've caught a few games at Camden Yards when the Red Sox or Indians have been in town.  When it's the Red Sox, sometimes we'll sit out in left field, often in the front row, the better to observe all the mirth and magic that is Manny Ramirez, Defender.  I'm talking about pretty much the exact seats where Manny jumped up and high-fived that guy a few days ago.

Watching Manny the Defender live and in person is different than watching him on TV, because you're watching him all the time, not just when he's making a play or for a few seconds in between.  And when you're watching Manny the  Defender live and in person, what jumps right out at you is that he doesn't seem to be paying much attention to what's going on — at all — very much like a little league corner outfielder. He's bored, he's looking around, chewing gum or something, he's listening to music through his little earbuds.

Most amusingly, most of the time, he's not even wearing his glove.  At the end of a play, the glove comes off, and again, he doesn't seem to be paying too much attention to when the play is about to start.  Many times, when the pitcher is in his windup, Manny is still not wearing his glove.

So we would start shouting:  Hey, Manny!  Manny!  Ballgame!  Manny!  Ballgame!  Manny, there's a ballgame going on!  Right now!  Glove!  Put your glove on!  Ballgame!

Just to be clear, Manny was absolutely close enough to hear us doing this — although who knows how loud the music is blasting in his ears — and we found the whole situation deeply amusing of course.  It wasn't long before we had several other people joining in the fun of helping Manny pay attention, and the most we ever got out of him was a quick grin.  Like all ballplayers, Manny must be well accustomed to fans shouting who-knows-what at him at any given moment.

But watching the game last night, I had that same funny feeling — except it was a sick feeling, since it involved the Indians — and I just couldn't help thinking, does Eric Wedge realize that there's a pennant race going on?

Hey, Wedgie!  Wedgie!  Pennant race!  Wedgie!  Pennant race!  Wedgie, there's a pennant race going on!  Right now!  Brain!  Put your brain on!  Ballgame!

And then ... ballgame.

Just about anyone who's talked baseball with me can tell you, I'm not a fan of quibbling over managerial decisions.  Few managers are that bad or that great, in-game strategic decisions rarely represent massive swings of probability, and in making those decisions, managers have access to information about the players that we just don't have — for example, whose jock itch is really acting up badly today.  I've gone so far as to say that fire-the-manager is the lowest form of baseball discourse, both for the above reasons and also because that discussion tends to be engaged with quite a bit less intellect and attention to detail than the average guy gives to picking his nose.  So I end up downplaying the significance of a lot of moves, explaining others, downplaying the whole subject for the most part.

And yet, what Indians fan at this point cannot be irked by Eric Wedge?  By his my-kinda-guy biases hiding behind stringent professionalism, by his denial of reality with regard to in-game probabilities and long-term strategy, and now, last night, by his apparently not even paying attention to the game?

One real good way to score a run is by putting the leadoff batter on, so you have a baserunner to advance with no outs.   I won't bore you with the math, just trust me, this is a real good way to score a run.  The Indians did this three times last night, and the first time, Blake' s infield single in the 3rd, we did in fact score a run.  The second time was Dellucci's leadoff double in the 5th, but he promptly got caught napping between bases when Blake bounced a ball to second — caught in a rundown, end of scoring opportunity.

The third time was in the 7th, when Garko led off with a single.  By this point, we're down 2-1, and — Wake up, Wedgie! — it's not so much that it's really late-late — Wedgie! — or that the Chicago bullpen is so indomitable as the fact that — Wedgie!  Wake up!  Pennant race! — we haven't been scoring a lot of runs lately, as you may have noticed even if — Wedgie!  The meat loaf!  We want it! — the manager possibly hasn't.  So, you know, it's rather incumbent on the Indians to, you know, do whatever they can to actually — Ballgame!  There's a ballgame going on! — you know, score a run, whenever possible —  and maybe to stay alert to those moments where we might actually score a run.

So here's Dellucci, the lefty, coming up to the plate, and out walks Ozzie to remove Contreras, replacing him with Matt Thornton, a lefty of course, to face Dellucci.   After all, lefty batters are well known to be terrible at hitting other lefties — the traditionalists and statheads can share a toast to common ground on this one — and Dellucci is, compared to other lefties, especially bad at hitting other lefties.  What you will see in this situation, well over 90% of the time, is the batting team's manager sends up a righty pinch-hitter, and then the pitching team's manager has to decide whether to play the matchup and burn a pitcher, or go with the bad matchup.  Of course, Ozzie knows this, but he also knows Thornton gets out righties just as well as lefties, and that's why he sent him up there — he doesn't really care what Wedge does, he's going to stick with Thornton either way.

Wedge sticks with Dellucci, who promptly grounds into a double-play.  Now, I can defend the move — Thornton has those weird splits, and I'm sure Wedge knew that Dellucci once hit a home run off him. Of course, context is everything; that home run came on the 58th pitch of Thornton's relief appearance, and Dellucci was facing him for a second time — not exactly a typical relief-split situation.  And consider:  Dellucci is especially bad at hitting lefties, and Dellucci has been pretty terrible for the past three weeks or so — and Wedge had plenty of right-handed hitters available:  Peralta, Gutierrez, Shoppach and Marte.

Ha ha, I'm just kidding about Marte, who of course was not "available."  Shoppach isn't that great at making contact and is a good candidate for a double-play if he does.  Gutierrez has been hitting just as bad as Dellucci if not worse, and again, this reliever isn't easy on righties.  But there's Peralta, he of the 830 career OPS against lefties ... and there's Dellucci with his 572 ... hm, what to do, what to do ...

Hey, why is Peralta on that bench anyway?  He's on the bench, and in the lineup instead are pretty much the worst two hitters on the roster, Cabrera and Carroll.  Peralta has had a rough season, but so have most of the hitters, and Peralta still grades out as possibly the fourth or best hitter on the team, and like I said, we are struggling to score runs.  In fact, Peralta is on a little bit of a tear — five-game hitting streak, with two doubles and two homers in there!

Hey, that's great!  Finally, one of our hitters getting hot!  We better jump on that!  Maybe it's time to move him into the #2 spot.  Wedgie?

"We're going to give Jhonny another little break. Hopefully, that will get him back on track."

Wha ... huh?  Back on track?  On track from hitting .389 with two doubles and two homers?  This is a joke, right?

"When you talk about the middle of the diamond, you've got more responsibility than others.  He has such great potential to be a very, very good hitter and a very, very good player.  We've seen signs of it.  I just want him to be more consistent."

Ah, I see.  It's a defensive slump — Jhonny was charged with a two-base error in his last game, that is true.  But you know, other guys make errors, too.  Dellucci, only three innings earlier, had made that boneheaded baserunning error that may have cost the Indians a run.  And just a few days before that, Dellucci grounded out after working the count to 4-2 — that's right, he'd already gotten four balls called, and he grounded out anyway.  I don't know whose mental error this is — obviously the ump's, but also the batter and his coaches — but Dellucci hasn't been hitting all that well, or fielding all that well, and, well ...

Don't you have the uncomfortable feeling that some players are allowed to make dozens of mistakes, and others aren't allowed to make any?

And even aside from that — Wedgie!  Pennant race!  Wedgie! — is it really that important to make an example of Jhonny Peralta yet again when (a) we're struggling to score runs, (b) it's a tight game, (c) there's a pennant race going on, and (d) we're facing the team who may well turn out to be our only important rival for a playoff spot when it all shakes out?  And isn't it just possible that for damned near any shortstop, the very fact that you made two errors in a game is all the wake-up call you really need?

I know Wedge understands that all the games count, and possibly even that these games might count double.  But could anyone really claim that he's acting like it?

Peralta started the game on the bench, and if there was a right moment to use him in Wedge's mind, it never came, despite a game that was always within two runs and usually two.  Peralta isn't allowed to make mistakes, even though Dellucci and Blake make mistakes by the bucket.

Dellucci and Blake are The Right Guys.

Quick aside here to revisit Marte and Blake.  As I suggested a week ago, Blake seems to have improved when given a little more rest, and he's put up a spiffy .303/.395/.485 line over the past two weeks.  True, the average is a bit propped up by BIP luck, the OBP by free passes, but if he can maintain that level even luck-adjusted, he'll be fine.  Of course, what works for Blake is not ever going to work for Marte, who will struggle to raise his average to .200 with playing time this limited, but if that's the strategy for now — maximize Blake — I'm fine with it.   I'm not clamoring for Marte to play today, or tomorrow, or on any given day; I want Marte to play four times a week at a minimum.

Short of that, playing him twice a week or not at all are absolutely the same thing as far as cultivating Marte as a long-term asset to the club.  So if they want to keep him locked int he closet until he's needed, that actually would fine with me, as long as Shapiro could give us this guarantee:  "We're not going to dump Marte without giving him a long look, because he was our starting third baseman a year ago, and we'll need him to resume that role no later than next April."  But I don't think we're going to get that guarantee, and the reason isn't Blake but rather Francisco, Gutierrez and Choo.

Francisco has been hitting his way into a job, and Gutierrez out of one, but Gutierrez is out of options and can't be sent down, just like Marte and Choo.  Aubrey will eventually get sent down once Borowski returns, and Westbrook will displace Laffey if all the starters stay healthy — don't argue, you know he will.  But once Choo is ready to come back, somebody has to go, and if Francisco keeps hitting for the next 18 days, it won't be him.  That means either trading or trying to sneak one of the other guys through waivers — Gutierrez, Marte or Choo.  Gutierrez's package of skills would never get passed up by all 29 teams — and we value having another premium defender around anyway — and Marte probably wouldn't get through, either.  As for Choo, he's one of Wedge's Right Guys, just like Francisco.

So if Francisco can avoid going into a slump, we may be about to find out just how expendable Marte is considered by Shapiro.  Could it really be the case that they've kept him around all this time just in case Blake got injured — just as in 2006, they incredibly kept Phillips clear through Spring Training, just in case something happened to Peralta or Belliard?

Shapiro has long emphasized that he wants to not just win, but to win with The Right Guys.  Guys who play the game "the right way," guys who are professional in their approach, guys with drive, guys who respect the game and their teammates.  I am not critical of this in the least, although I think it is fair game for criticism — after all, it limits the pool of talent available to a team already severely limited by financial considerations.  How smart can it be to put up more barriers?  But I believe this policy has helped Shapiro keep the payroll under control and retain their best players, i.e., that the a-hole-free clubhouse pays off at the negotiating table.

And anyway, Shapiro's definition of The Right Guys seems to be a pretty big tent, encompassing guys who once punched a cop or appeared in porn, moody guys like Brandon Phillips, and laid-back dudes like Belliard, Peralta and Marte —  and as an aside, my God, what a chubby infield that would make — and they even tried to make things work with Milton Bradley.  So the policy hasn't seemed to prevent Shapiro from doing anything except perhaps trading three key prospects for Manny, and let's be honest, was he really going to do that anyway?

Thing is — and forgive me for sounding a familiar theme here — Wedge has his own definition of the Right Guys, and it doesn't seem to include Jhonny Peralta or Andy Marte or (of course) Brandon Phillips.  Whatever it is that they're doing or not doing, they apparently don't look like they're trying hard enough for Wedge's taste.  Or something.  As with Shapiro's preferences, it's one thing to do it when you're winning.  Winning with the Right Guys — that's great, truly, it is.  But we're losing, and we're still struggling to score runs, and we're about to win or lose a bunch of games against a key rival, head-to-head.

So when the manager puts the priority on giving one of our better hitters  "another little break" to "get him back on track" — and leaves in a struggling lefty hitter to face a not-struggling lefty pitcher, and lets a hitter go back up to the plate to ground out on a four-ball count, and muffs a double-switch apparently just to avoid putting Marte in the game — there's only one response I can think of.

Hey, Wedgie!  Wedgie!  Pennant race!  Wedgie!  Pennant race!  Wedgie, there's a pennant race going on!  Right now!  Brain!  Put your brain on!  Ballgame!

I mean, it just seems sometimes like he doesn't really know what's going on.  He seems to have trouble putting personal nonsense aside and focusing on the right things, and at some point you have to start wondering ... if he's the Right Guy.