There’s a great anecdote about in-game coaching found in Jack McCallum’s :07 Seconds or Less, the basketball writer’s book about spending a season as an honorary assistant coach with the 2005-2006 Phoenix Suns. McCallum writes how Dan D’Antoni (then-assistant coach for the Suns, now-assistant coach for the New York Knicks, and always-brother of Mike) claimed to have a surefire technique for getting a late-game defensive stop as a high school coach: calling a timeout. D’Antoni believed that, if given the time, the other coach would invariably draw up some sort of elaborate play and just mess everything up. He claimed that this technique worked almost every time — in trying to think for their players, coaches often get in the way. (Sunday’s final minute Rajon-Rondo-to-Kevin-Garnett lob notwithstanding.)
This story is what I thought about during the Mets-Braves game Sunday afternoon, as the game slowly devolved into an exposition on the various in-game management and mismanagement techniques available to baseball skippers. The Mets played Sunday’s game as if it were the finale of the World Series, with Terry Collins using two members of his rotation in relief and playing for one run whenever possible. The Braves, meanwhile, were managed as if Fredi Gonzalez had chicken pox and his absentminded scratchings were being misinterpreted as signals to steal and squeeze bunt. The Mets won the game 3-2, mostly because Terry Collins did his team less harm. At times, it felt less like baseball and more like a two man assault on logic. To recap and quantify:
- Bottom of the 2nd: With the bases loaded and one out, Fredi Gonzalez called for pitcher Tommy Hanson to squeeze bunt with two strikes. This was easily the weirdest play of the game. Hanson — who is not a good bunter — missed the pitch, and Eric Hinske — who is a slow runner — was tagged out between third and home. According to Baseball-Reference, this play alone reduced the Braves’ chances of winning the game by 17%.
- Top of the 4th: After Ike Davis’ leadoff walk, Terry Collins called for Angel Pagan to bunt. (EDIT: I’ve been informed that Pagan may have been bunting on his own both here and in the 6th. Double Edit: He was.) Pagan’s bunt moved Davis to second, but at the cost of an out, and reduced the Mets’ chances of winning the game by 2%.
- Top of the 5th: With none out, a full count on David Wright, and Josh Thole on first, Collins elected to send the slow-footed Thole with the pitch. As he is wont to do, Wright struck out, Thole was caught stealing, and the Mets’ chances of winning the game dropped 6%.
- Top of the 6th: Ike Davis hit a leadoff double, and Collins again called for Pagan to bunt, this time as a righthanded batter (his weaker side). Pagan popped the bunt up and Davis was doubled off second base. The Mets’ chances of winning were reduced by 7%.
- Bottom of the 8th: With one out and down by one run, Braves catcher Brian McCann was caught trying to steal second base. It’s unclear if Fredi Gonzalez called for this play, but at the very least, the stop sign wasn’t put on. The Braves’ chances of winning the game dropped 11%.
- Bottom of the 9th: Braves still down one run and no one out, Fredi Gonzalez called for Alex Gonzalez (who hit 23 home runs last year) to bunt Chipper Jones over to second base. Alex Gonzalez succeeded, but again at the cost of an out, and the play actually lowered the Braves chance of winning by 5%.
Six managerial moves, all of which backfired to various degrees. Terry Collins’ offensive strategies lowered the Mets’ chances of winning the game by 15% (though he deserves equal credit for using Chris Capuano and R.A. Dickey in relief, hitting Thole second, and ending the losing streak before an off-day, thereby preventing Mets fans from tearing each other limb from limb). However, Collins was easily outdone by his counterpart: Fredi Gonzalez’s moves lowered the Braves’ chances of winning by 32%. Combined, the two managers managed to reduce their team’s chances for victory by 47%.
That 47% isn’t a totally fair claim, of course: it’s not as if Fredi Gonzalez called for a botched squeeze play, or Terry Collins wanted Josh Thole to run himself into a double play. There are times when a well executed squeeze, hit-and-run, or sacrifice bunt are good plays. But these are also by no means foolproof plays, often counter-productive even when successful, and they often end up harming teams more than they help. Yet they remain painfully commonplace.
Sunday’s game was a wonderful demonstration about the perils of being a manager: Baseball is a slow game, and therein lies the danger. Managers sit surrounded by these buttons they could press — to sacrifice, to hit-and-run, to squeeze, to intentionally walk — but most should be pressed rarely, if they should be at all. Yet these options are used all the time, in spite of the piles of evidence to the contrary, hurting their teams more often than they help. Managers just have way, way too much time to think, always drawing up plays during timeouts and messing things up. It’s hard to do nothing when something is an option.
Which is why, on Sunday afternoon, Tommy Hanson squared to bunt with two strikes as Eric Hinske broke towards the plate, and why Angel Pagan bunted twice, and why Brian McCann made a misguided break towards second base in the eighth inning. Two managers in their first year with a new team, trying to control the game, but mostly just getting in the way. Everyone wants to drive.