Monday, May 10, 2010

The End of the Tracy Honeymoon

Last year Jim Tracy, manager of the Colorado Rockies, was named Manager of the Year in the National League. The reason was the incredible turnaround he helped to engineer after an 18-28 start under Clint Hurdle. The Rockies, after appointing Tracy, went 74-42 the rest of the way to finish 92-70 and make the playoffs.

This season, however, Jim Tracy's leadership has transformed into an altogether more sinister beast. After an ugly 9-5 loss to the Phillies tonight (following an ugly, but for different reasons, 2-0 loss in Los Angeles yesterday) the Rockies have fallen to 15-17. Better than last season, but far from the World Series contending start the team expected.

While I don't put a lot of stock in the importance of a good manager in baseball - it seems to me that good teams make good managers, not the other way around - it is the case that managers make a small handful of decisions which should be fairly straightforward. Beyond that, they also manage personalities, making sure the $10 million a year guys get along with the $1 million a year guys. Tracy is renowned for his ability in the latter category, and earned my admiration during last year's miracle turnaround on that count. His actual tactical ability has never impressed me, but I was willing to overlook it.

This season, however, things are different. I can't overlook the tactical when the personality side seems to be falling short as well. The story is that Hurdle lost the respect of his players by constantly juggling the lineup, but benching players for an 0-4 day, or starting inferior backups simply because they hit a homer the day before. The team became so much his, so little a team, that the Rockies had no choice but to axe him and to go with someone else. Tracy came in and provided a stable lineup, secure and well-defined roles, and, perhaps best of all, someone who wasn't Clint Hurdle.

Except now he's becoming Clint Hurdle. The Rockies lineup is different every day this season. Chris Iannetta was demoted to AAA (where he is, not surprisingly, tearing the cover off the ball while Miguel Olivo wracks up strikeouts and pop-ups) after a mere 8 games. Three different pitchers have already held the "closer" role in the absence of Huston Street. Eric Young, a natural second baseman, has repeatedly started in Left Field during Brad Hawpe's recent injury, while Seth Smith - a superior hitter and fielder to Young - has sat on the bench. I could go on.

I know the Rockies are dealing with injuries, and that tonight they were missing Tulo and Carlos Gonzalez, and that Greg Smith has to keep starting every 5th day in the absence of Jorge De La Rosa. But despite all that, despite the misfortune, Tracy is not putting his team in a position to succeed. There were two decisions from tonight's ugly, ugly game that baffle me, that scream "I don't know what I'm doing," that signal the official end of the honeymoon.

The first of these was an intentional walk of Raul Ibanez in the ninth inning. At the time the score was tied 5-5. Manny Corpas had hit Ryan Howard with a pitch, but had managed to get Jason Werth out. After a first strike to Ibanez, Corpas uncorked a wild pitch, allowing Howard to move up to second. With the count 1-1, Tracy ordered an intentional walk of Ibanez to bring up Carlos Ruiz instead. Now, Ibanez is left handed and Ruiz right handed, but both are slow, and Ruiz had a homer earlier in the game. What's more, Ruiz is off to an awesome start this year, and the aging Ibanez looks like his baseball playing days are wearing thin.

Of course, Ruiz smacks a single to left to bring in Howard, and Ross Gload follows with a three run home run to give the Phillies an insurmountable 9-5 lead.

Why not pitch to Ibanez, especially since the count was already 1-1? It's not like Manny threw a wild pitch on a 2-0 count, putting Ibanez way ahead. At 1-1, the at-bat is even, and if Manny gets a strike two across, he's way, way ahead. Why give up that strike? What's more, why give up a free baserunner? I know you don't want to give up any runs, but putting another runner on means that the Phillies have a better chance to have a big inning, which they did.

Sometimes the Ibanez walk works out fine, don't get me wrong. Sometime you get a double play out of Ruiz and go to work in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game. But why risk it? Why not try to get Ibanez out, and even on a grounder to the right side, you've got Ryan Howard - who's no track star - on third with two outs. Then you don't need a double play from Ruiz. Then you don't need to face Gload, or, if you do, you do with one fewer base runners. And yes, maybe Ibanez gets a hit, and Howard scores, but are your odds really that much better with Ruiz than with Ibanez? Are they so much better that giving up the free runner is worth it?

The second and altogether more frustrating decision occurred in the bottom of the 6th inning. The Rockies were, at the time, down by one run, 5-4. After Miguel Olivo and Clint Barmes not surprisingly both made outs, the pitcher's spot came up. Now, this is the 6th inning. The pitcher's spot is likely to come up once more - maybe twice - if the game goes nine innings. The Rockies have a short bench due to Tulowitzki's injury, but Ryan Spilborghs, Eric Young, Todd Helton, and Paul Phillips (the backup catcher in the absence of Iannetta) were still available.

And Jim Tracy sends up rookie pitcher Esmil Rogers to pinch hit.

Esmil Rogers.

I simply don't get it. Why? Why would you send up a starting pitcher - and not even your best hitting starting pitcher; Ubaldo and Cook are both better - instead of one of your bench players? Why? Even with no one on and two outs, what reason is there to give up on the inning? Why not send up Helton? If he draws a walk, you have Seth Smith - who had already hit a single, double, and triple in the game - up with a runner on first. That's good, right? Even with two outs you'll take one of your best hitters up with a runner on, right? Or send up Eric Young, so if he gets on you can try to steal a base and have a runner in scoring position.

It's all well and good to save your bench, but in this case the math doesn't work out. Four bench players (and lets be generous and make it three, since Tracy never never never uses his backup catcher) and two or three more at bats for the pitcher's spot. 4 (or 3) - 2 or 3 is not a negative number. Use your bench!!! This game ended with Eric Young, Todd Helton, and Paul Phillips unused, while Esmil Rogers ended with an 0 for 1. Unacceptable. Giving away outs does not win baseball games, and hitting a pitcher instead of Todd Helton is giving away outs.

Giving up free baserunners and giving away outs... It's bad enough that the Rockies are throwing Miguel Olivo's .290 OBP out there every day when they could have the .350 (or better) OBP of Chris Iannetta. It's bad enough that the Rockies haven't done anything to upgrade at second base, where Clint Barmes will surely put up another .290 OBP this season. It's bad enough that the Rockies have to rely on Greg Smith to start 1/5th of their games, and that Aaron Cook suddenly forgot how to throw strikes. It's bad enough that the Rockies are playing the Phillies when Carlos Gonzalez is in Venezuela and Troy Tulowitzki is hurt, and Todd Helton is taking a scheduled day off. All of that is bad enough. Much of that is not Tracy's fault.

But, as a manager, you have to get right the stuff that you can control, and Tracy isn't doing that. This is a team that's supposed to contend for the World Series, and tonight they looked like amateurs against one of their biggest competitors.

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