This is a weird post to write. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want acknowledge something that hasn’t been confirmed and is mostly all speculation. That is not what we do here. There’s another part of me that’s so annoyed by the situation that’s arisen that I can’t help but sound off. In the middle, somewhere, is a responsible reaction that’s maybe worth your attention and time reading. I’ll shoot for that.
On Thursday night, rumors of Chip Hale’s impending departure started to surface. There were reports, and here I’m using “reports” in the loosest of senses, that he was bound to be replaced by Phil Nevin the following day. After checking around Friday morning, no one had heard anything remotely official about the situation. All the hearsay seemed to come back to the same handful of “reports.” Then, around noon on Friday, things started to get real.
— MLB Trade Rumors (@mlbtraderumors) July 22, 2016
At this point, the dismissal of Hale seemed to be imminent. I mean, when everyone knows you’re considering the firing of your manager in the middle of a god-forsaken season, you don’t have to work very hard to connect the dots and assume that the final bell had rung for Chip. It appeared just a matter of timing. Tony La Russa was off in Cooperstown for Hall of Fame things, however, and Dave Stewart responded to questions about a change of manager with a fancy version of “no comment.” Hale didn’t say much about it either when asked, choosing not to address the situation. When asked a day later in Cincinnati, he essentially made it sound as if he was never on the hot seat and that “social media” was to blame for rumors spiraling out of control. This left a lot of grey area for speculation to run rampant.
For the record, I’m writing this Sunday night, and maybe it is Phil Nevin who oversees Braden Shipley‘s first career MLB start. At this point in time, however, there’s no news to report. Perhaps La Russa returns to town and he and Stewart sit down with Hale and let the second-year manager go. Maybe they get together and wonder what the hell happened — how things got spun out of control. Maybe they sweep it all under the rug and just go back about their daily business. It wouldn’t be the first time the braintrust of this organization went along pretending everything was fine. Trying to predict how this group will make a collective decision is not something you want to spend a lot of brainpower doing. Trust me.
Managing the Team
So, let’s get off the speculation wagon. Let’s just think about the situation and try to make a level-headed decision of our own. What responsibilities does a manager “traditionally” have? And, of those, which can we make any kind of evaluation on? This might be a big swing and miss, but we’ll try anyways. Here are some things that maybe we can evaluate to some degree:
- Lineup construction
- Bullpen usage
- Hooking the starter
- Intentional walks issued
- Sacrifice attempts
- Defensive substitutions
The Lineup — On a daily basis, lineups matter very little. It’s only when you pile 162 on top of one another that they start to have some collective value. Research has shown, however, that even over the course of a whole season, lineups are worth a lot less than the players that make them up in the first place. The parts are greater than the whole in this case. There are also some very basic principles to consider when it comes to lineups — not hard-and-fast rules. Things happen: dudes get the flu, dudes have babies (well, their wives do, anyways), dudes have a sore foot, dudes didn’t sleep good last night, whatever. While accounting for real-life scenarios, here are some things that should go into lineup construction, which we’ve covered before.
- Your best hitter bats first, gets the highest number of plate appearances
- Your second-best batter hits fourth, getting those precious AB’s with runners on base
- Your third-best hitter bats second, your fourth best hitter hits fifth, your fifth best hitter bats third
- The rest is a descending order of ability
- “Best” should be determined based off of a mixture of real-world skill development, projections, matchups, etc.
Chip loses points here. Well, if we’re scoring with the sabermetric scorebook, anyways. Maybe an ideal lineup is Goldy leading off, Segura second, Castillo hits third, Lamb bats fourth, Peralta if healthy hits fifth, then it’s Tomas, Owings/Bourn, Ahmed and the pitcher. This assumes some health/injury situations that are in jeopardy at this juncture, but you get the idea. And we’ve seen nothing like this. And we never were going to see anything like this. Chip was not about to base his lineup on research conducted by Tom Tango, et al, in “The Book.” Math is for nerds who don’t know anything about the real world anyways (wink wink).
But maybe there have been too many ABs for Michael Bourn, maybe too few for Lamb. After that, it’s just wading through replacement-level-and-below players. Research says don’t hit Goldy third, so that’s probably not the best idea. Given that Peralta, Owings, Pollock and the newly-emerged Chris Herrmann have all been sidelined, however, it’s kind of hard to put a fair critique together here. There are better ways to do this, but Chip has to play Rickie Weeks sometimes. He had to give the completely lost Peter O’Brien at-bats. Nick Ahmed was really the best option at shortstop. You get it — it’s hard to paint the Mona Lisa when you’re paint’s all dried up and your brushes came from the dollar store. But you could at least try, too. Still, it feels like we’re applying a criteria that’s was never applicable given the organization’s penchant to disregard research and forward thinking.
The Bullpen — here’s the problem with trying to evaluate a bullpen from a distance: you can’t tell who’s gassed and who’s still got a little something left in the tank. I’ve had multiple fits of annoyance with Hale’s use of the bullpen, specifically the rigid structure of job assignments and leaving marginal guys in too long, but after checking with sources I often learned that the pitchers I preferred in those spots weren’t options simply because “they were tired.” So, on one hand, I still think Hale could benefit from being more open-minded in how he employs his bullpen, utilizing an understanding of leverage and matchups to use guys at the right times. On the other hand, the best relievers in the bullpen have pitched the most, and now with Brad Ziegler traded to Boston, there won’t be any kind of ease of relief any time soon. There’s room to improve here, largely by avoiding designated innings for designated pitchers.
Hooking the Starter — the time’s through the order penalty is a thing, and it’s also apparently misunderstood, or not understood at all, by the Diamondbacks. The team’s starters have faced the eighth-most hitters in the league, despite clearly having something worse than the eighth-best staff. It would make sense that the best pitchers, or collections of pitchers, would face the most hitters. But that’s not been the case. The team has the fourth-worst ERA, so the idea of leaving starters in doesn’t seem to make sense or be paying off, especially when we consider how poorly several of them have performed when facing the order the third time. A quicker hook would be very useful, but requires some coordination with the bullpen, which, when managed rigidly (above), can be hard to do.
Intentional Walks — walking batters intentionally can be smart. More base runners is bad, but selecting the most favorable matchup in a tight spot is good. The D-backs are third in intentional walks this year, and while I’ll neglect here to go back and review each one, as long as they’re selected wisely, that’s probably a good thing considering some of Arizona’s pitchers’ struggles.
Sacrifice Hits — the D-backs haven’t sacrificed a ton, but maybe a bit more than one would like to see. Looking just at NL squads (since AL teams don’t have the pitcher hitting), they’re roughly league average. I’m not about to complain about Robbie Ray bunting with a runner on first and no outs. The only non-pitchers with more than one sacrifice are Chris Owings and Phil Gosselin with two apiece. That’s fine, I have no issues here.
Defensive Substitutions — the best defensive infield take the field most nights to begin with. In the outfield, it’s a mixed bag of non-outfielders anyways. There hasn’t been many opportunities to switch for defensive purposes this season, so this is really tough to evaluate. I’d consider my grade here as “incomplete.”
So, based on what we can evaluate, Chip Hale’s biggest issues have been building the lineup and managing the pitching staff. Those are legitimate concerns. The gripes over lineup construction are very real, but it’s not like many big league managers build a saber-oriented lineup in the first place. I’d have the same complaint about most lineups across baseball. Yes, I’d like to see Hale pull his struggling pitchers sooner, preferably before they run into trouble. Not having Josh Collmenter all season to help absorb the gap has done some damage, but there have been other alternatives. Being locked into one configuration of the bullpen has probably hindered this to some degree, as well as creating it’s own issues. More open-mindedness when it comes to managing the pitchers would be good to see. We don’t know if his bosses have had anything to say about this or not, so it’s hard to tell if the front office is even aware that this is a management issue, not just “execution” as they’ve stated time and again. If Hale were disobeying orders here, then fine, fire him. If this hasn’t been addressed by his superiors, they should address it immediately or take a share of the blame for the state of the pitching strategy.
Managing the Roster
The front office, of course, has it’s own issues. The roster they constructed was pegged to win 78 games. That was, of course, before A.J. Pollock went down for the bulk of the year and David Peralta missed more than half of the season (to date). If they’re improperly setting the bar for performance, then their perception of Hale’s influence on the total number of wins was going to be skewed to begin with, his managerial issues aside. They have to be held accountable for their actions, too. Let’s take a look at the major transactions since Dave Stewart took over as GM, scored (with the benefit of hindsight) on a scale of 1-10.
On the surface, Stewart has come up in the negative on transactions. But, that’s if we weigh all transactions as equally important. His highest scores have largely come on small moves and many of the lowest scores have come on huge moves. If we were to weight these things based on impact, his score would be far lower. Simply put, the big moves have largely backfired, some of which were very predictable. They’ve robbed the organization of overall talent without getting enough back in present talent to make most moves worthwhile. It’s okay to see the window and call your shot, trading minor leaguers for guys that can help you win right now. It’s just that you must do two things first:
- Properly evaluate where you stand before making the moves
- Don’t miss when you take your shot
I think we all know that the team thought they were closer to contending than they really were leading up to the season. The projections back that up. I think it’s safe to say that they’ve missed on a number of transactions in the present, too, combining to create one big, ugly, embarrassing situation.
Weighing the Blame
There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that we’re not aware of. But if we just examine what we can, we can see a manager who’s not exactly optimizing things and a GM who’s misfired time and again. Injuries and bad trades aren’t Chip Hale’s fault. Leaving pitchers in too long and running a rigid bullpen plan isn’t Dave Stewart’s fault (but perhaps he needs to cross the boundary and give Chip some advice, assuming he sees the pitching and lineup issues for what they are, which he probably doesn’t). There’s also a managing partner here, Ken Kendrick, who’s empowered all of these individuals and charged them with doing their respective jobs, but that’s a different issue.
Firing Chip Hale gives the team a fresh start, should they go that route. Would Phil Nevin optimize his lineup, pull his pitchers sooner and be more flexible with his bullpen? We don’t know. What it would do, however, is give the front office one less finger to point if things continue going south, which appears to be the case as there’s no easy fix in sight. While Hale’s dismissal may mask the larger problems, it gets the organization one step closer to addressing the top of the food chain. If Chip Hale is “the fall guy,” once he’s gone, there’ll be no one else to examine besides Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart. Chip Hale might just end up being collateral damage, unfortunately, en route to blowing this whole thing up again.
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FanGraphs Stats Glossary
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Previously on The Pool Shot, the guys explained some of their favorite advanced stats. Hitting, including wRC+, HHAV and batted ball; pitching (38:00), including FIP, xFIP and SIERA; and baserunning and defense, including UBR, UZR and DRS (58:00).