Friday, October 2, 2015

4th Downs, Pitching and the Blame Game

Gregg Easterbrook, who used to write for ESPN until their purge of people critical of the NFL, now writes about football for the New York Times.  One of his constant complaints is about coaches punting on 4th down, especially when it's 4th and short, and definitely when they are on the opposition's side of the field.  It is Easterbrook's contention, and he has the stats to back it up, that possession of the ball is a much more significant to winning the game then is trying to win "field position."  In addition, he says that by going for it, by being more aggressive, that coaches signal to their players that they want to win and trust and believe in the players to get the job done.

But, he argues, if coaches go for it and the attempt fails, the coaches are much more likely to be questioned and take the blame.  Whereas, since punting on 4th down is conventional wisdom, if they punt and the defense can't stop the other team, then it's the players fault.  It's a type of blame shifting that is bought into by the media, and because of them, by the fans as well.

Which leads me to pitching, and in particular the pitching of the New York Yankees.  There is a much lamented refrain in the media this year that the Yankees' bullpen is tired because their starting pitching is not giving them enough length, and so the bullpen pitchers are having to throw too many pitches.  This places all the blame on the pitchers, even ultimately on the bullpen pitchers because "they have to make their pitches" and if they don't it's certainly not the manager's fault.

The problem with this analysis is that it totally dismisses the manager's role in leaving pitchers in or taking them out.  Girardi seems to have the belief that if a pitcher even comes close to throwing 100 pitches that he has to be pulled out of the game.  There are lots of times when he has yanked a starting pitcher who is cruising for seemingly no other reason other than he is approaching 100 pitches.  Then when the bullpen blows the game, it's not Girardi's fault, it's the bullpen because they are tired from having starting pitching not going deep into games.

Similarly, a bullpen pitcher will be doing great when they are yanked and someone else brought in because "conventional wisdom" is to make the move.  I have never figured out why starting pitchers can face both lefties and righties, but bullpen pitchers can only seem to be able to pitch to one of the other.  Unless, of course, they have a specific role such as "set-up man" or "closer" and then can see both batters, but can never be used in any situation other than what their role is.  You absolutely cannot bring in the closer, you're 9th inning guy, in the 8th to face the heart of the order of the other team, because that's not their "role."

That of course is also blame shifting.  It's not the manager's fault if the pitcher messes up, that's all on the pitcher, even if they never should have been there in the first place.  It also signals to his pitchers whether he believes in them or not, and you cannot learn how to pitch out of a jam unless your manager allows you to try it.

The one exception to this rule this year is Matt Williams, the soon to be ex-manager of the Washington Nationals, who is blamed for not bringing in pitchers out of their designated roles.  But Williams is definitely the exception to the rule in this case, otherwise the mantra in sports, and the actions of managers and coaches, is to make the decisions so that the blame goes to the players rather than to the person making the decision, because they did what "everyone else does."

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