For much of the season, many fans have been calling for the ousting of Jim Tracy as the Rockies’ manager even though this is the same guy everyone credited with leading the team to the playoffs just three short years ago. So why such vehemence? Most of these folks just want a change because that’s the standard procedure when your favorite team has turned back into a pumpkin. I’ve tried to stay objective this year, noting things like injuries, extremely young pitchers, and the fact that the GM brought in a troupe of fly-ball pitchers to the worst fly-ball park this side of the moon. No, where Jim Tracy has lost me is in his constant overmanaging, including decisions in situations like the following.
Wednesday night against the Braves, the Rockies faced the following situation down 1-0 in the bottom of the fourth inning. The Braves have catcher Brian McCann on second with two outs, and their number eight hitter coming to the plate – light-hitting Jose Costanza, sitting at .225 on just 40 at-bats on the year (149 for his entire career). Jim Tracy has a decision to make. He can a) pitch to Costanza with the intention of forcing the pitcher to lead off the next inning, b) pitch around Costanza with the hope he chases bad pitches, achieving the same result as a), or c) walk him to face the pitcher, reducing the odds of a hit from Costanza’s .225 to the pitcher’s (Mike Minor) .085, or by 14%. Tracy chose option c) and the pitcher ended up grounding out to end the inning. But was this the right decision?
On the surface, it seems logical because of that 14%, but when you look at the whole situation, it makes no sense. The obvious concern to Tracy is to reduce the chances of McCann scoring, but what is the actual reduction in chance? McCann is a slow-running catcher with an injured shoulder, so he probably won’t risk a close play at the plate, especially with the Braves needing him for the playoffs in less than a month. This means a hit by Costanza is going to have go down a foul-line or find a gap in order to score McCann. Since Costanza has 5 extra-base hits out 42 in his career, we can safely assume that half of his hits won’t score McCann. That effectively reduces Costanza’s .225 to .112 and now we’re looking at a 3% gain.
Now consider that the lead-off man, Michael Bourn, has an OBP of .355 and that the leadoff man scores 38% of the time when reaching base (from Bill James’ calculations). Minor has an OBP of .122, so there’s a 23% higher chance of Bourn reaching base. Multiply that 23% and 38% and you have an increase of 8.7% in the chance a run will score in the next inning. So, just by the numbers, Tracy is actually taking a higher risk by walking Costanza than by pitching to him. Even if we take away my earlier assumption, he’s only gaining a 5.3% increase in the odds of a run not scoring in either inning. And I haven’t even begun on the non-mathematical reasons this option is wrong.
First of all, it doesn’t even pass a sanity test of “saying it out loud” to make sure it’s not ridiculous. “So, we’re going to walk the number eight hitter, a guy with a .225 average over 149 career at-bats, in order to pitch to the pitcher.” That sounds ludicrous even before mentioning the inning, number of outs, or the Rockies’ record. Throw that stuff in and Tracy should be in a straight-jacket for even pausing to consider the idea.
Second, the Rockies are finishing up a disastrous season and have nothing left to play for except pride and development. In a playoff deciding game, 5.3% might be the difference in making the playoffs, but this isn’t a concern for the 2012 Rockies. So, what kind of message is the manager sending when he doesn’t think his team can get a .225 hitter out? This also touches on the development of Alex White (the pitcher in this situation) and the complete lack of confidence Tracy showed him. Additionally, Tracy is also sending the message to his offense that he has no faith in their ability to score two runs in five innings. And let’s not forget about the Rockies’ self-imposed pitch limits. Without getting into the cost of certain pitches over others, Tracy added four extra pitches to White’s count from which White now has to recover, especially galling since it had already been decided a pinch-hitter would replace White in the next inning (he was due up third).
So, why did Tracy choose this option? Gregg Easterbrook of Tuesday Morning Quarterback constantly bangs the drum about “fraidy-cat coaches;” coaches who punt in situations where the odds are actually in their favor if they just go for the first down, pointing out that their sole purpose is to shift blame in the face of media scrutiny. Punting is safe and the defense is blamed if the ensuing drive is not stopped, but failing when going for it is viewed as the coach’s fault. It’s no different in this baseball scenario where pitching to the pitcher is safe, but pitching to the eight-hole is viewed as risky. If White gives up a hit to the pitcher, it’s his fault, but a hit for the eight-hole will result in questions to Tracy like “why didn’t you walk Costanza in the fourth inning to get to the pitcher?” Tracy’s decision here is the equivalent of a 3-10 team punting on fourth-and-one from the opponent’s 37-yard line in the second quarter, down 7-3, and is meant to shift blame away from him.
In the end, the Rockies lost the game 1-0, rendering all outcomes of those choices moot, but Tracy’s decision still had consequences. Choosing to pitch around Costanza, while still almost comically-conservative, at least would have challenged White to make good pitches. Choosing to pitch straight up to Costanza would have had the same effect and, either way, Tracy learns more about White. Worst case scenario is Costanza hits a home run, the Rockies still lose, and White has a chance to learn from his mistake. What does it matter to a downtrodden team if they lose by one or ten when the season is effectively over? By choosing the intentional walk, Tracy showed zero confidence in his pitcher and his team, took away a growth opportunity for White, and the team rewarded him by losing. As long as Tracy continues to choose his own job security by trying not to lose over challenging his team to win, the Rockies will remain a losing ball club.