Rays Diary: 10/12/10


Tonight, I watched “A Tale of Two Cities.”  It was not the great Dickens novel, but a tale of two managers representing Dallas/ Fort Worth and Tampa Bay.  One brought with him a well coached team with a well conceived game plan.  Possessing a somewhat superior hitting team, but with only two first class starting pitchers, the Texas manager knew that he had to get the most out his players.  Injuries to his very best player meant that he would have to play a very aggressive style of baseball minimizing mistakes, especially mental errors.  His players would have to steal bases, hit and run, bunt, hit the ball “in the hole,” hit the ball “the other way,” “keep the ball in play,”  “advance the runners,” and most importantly, avoid strikeouts.  His pitchers would try to keep the ball on the outside part of the plate, knowing that their opponents usually disdained the outside pitch, rarely hitting it to the opposite field as their own team did.  They would throw sliders and other breaking balls, realizing that their poorly coached opponents could rarely hit these pitches, that they had never been taught how to move up in the batter’s box or to choke up on the bat with two strikes.  After watching their opponents and playing them during the season, their pitchers could rest assured that their extremely ignorant and arrogant batting coach had no idea how to teach his players the art of hitting the “breaking ball.”  The fact that their only success against this Cliff Lee character had come with hitting the ball to the opposite field had only dawned on two of Tampa Bay hitters.  Both had experienced career seasons the year before, mostly because they had so frequently hit the ball to the opposite field, of course.

One had finished the previous year at about .320, but had actually hit at more than a .360 clip for the first 106 games.  His manager, an expert at Nintendo and other computer games and once quite knowledgeable about baseball, but suffering from obsessive compulsive behavior and a rare form of amnesia, batted his star shortstop in the ninth slot in the batting order for those first 106 games.  For most of those games, his poor, affected manager led off with his .220 hitting outfielder who actually batted .100 in those instances in which he actually led off.  Meanwhile, his utility infielder/ outfielder hit almost .300 for that season with 25 home runs despite relatively limited playing time.  This season, the poor fellow was placed fifth in the lineup.  Opposing pitchers, fearful of his home run power began pitching him outside.  A talented hitter, he adjusted and began to hit the ball to the opposite field.  With this his average was still high and the team was winning at a record pace.  The teams new hitting coach, however, admonished his poor pupil to “turn on the ball” in order to increase his power.  This resulted in a few more home runs, but as his batting average dropped,(that is what happens when hitters try ”to turn” on outside pitches) so did the teams winning percentage.  Thus  the “slugger,” also a good base stealer,  was switched to the leadoff spot in the lineup, a spot where home runs are totally unimportant. This change in the lineup promised to be quite successful and would have been except for one of the strangest metaphysical entities in baseball history, the Tampa Bay manager’s “philosophy.” 

Unfortunately, the somewhat incompetent manager and his quite ignorant hitting coach,apparently “shared the same philosophy of hitting,” according to the manager.  This philosophy was one of ”taking pitches.”  It is quite different, you see, than “working the count.”  “Working the count” entails “taking” pitches off the plate and “getting ahead in the count” in order to force the pitcher to throw a hittable pitch.  Simply “taking” pitches in order to draw a walk, instead of hitting the ball, leads to an impotent offense and hundreds of “caught looking” strikeouts.  Players were taught to take first pitches, rarely swinging at pitches over the middle of or on the outer half of the plate.  They would usually take “strike one” on the outside corner and swing at the second pitch which was most often four inches inside, off the plate.  Between taking the first pitch and not hitting it “the other way”  and swinging at the second, unhittable pitch, the players’ averages began to dip precipitously.   For most of the year three or four players who used to be able to hit were batting under two hundred.  There were, none the less, far more walks and, unfortunately, far more strikeouts with fewer hits.  In short, the manager’s philosophy represented a dismal failure and his hitting coach nothing short of a disaster for most of his poor victims.  Although, by the sheer ability of the players and the only effective aspect of the manager’s unfortunate philosophy, the running game, the team managed to average over five runs a game,  most of the runs were courtesy of relatively few high scoring games.  In fact hey were shut out fourteen times and no- hit twice.  Despite their great speed on the base paths, they were well known as one of the worst teams in “manufacturing” runs.

Although the team boasted two of the very fastest runners in baseball, neither of them was encouraged to bounce the ball “into the hole” or “up the middle” for scratch hits, either to get on base or to score runs.  After being badgered by their bench coach, the manager and hitting coach did finally agree to employ the squeeze bunt and by the middle of the year, had convinced their players that this was an effective way to score runners from third base.  Mysteriously, however, toward the end of the year and through their short playoff run the squeeze bunt was abandoned and with men on second and third and less than two outs, batters were encouraged to draw a walk or else strike out by taking a third strike.  Just as mysteriously, players were discouraged from hitting the ball on the right side with those same men on second and third, in fact, the manager would often substitute a left handed hitter against a right handed fireballer to insure that the ball could not be pulled down the first base line.  You see, it is much easier for the right handed hitter to swing late and hit the ball toward first than for the “lefty” to pull that 98 mph fastball.  Lest you get upset, take it easy, the runner wouldn’t score anyway.  Part of the manager’s “philosophy” is   for the runner at third not to take a lead almost as far as the third baseman is off of third base, so he would probably be thrown out anyway.

Another interesting feature of this intriguing philosophy involves getting the runner into scoring position, then praying really hard that a lucky hit will get him home.  The only problem is that the other manager is praying just as hard to the same G-d who has much better things to worry about.  Too bad you can’t steal first and praying for an errant throw can’t make up for the incompetence and lack of instruction by so called “coaches.”  “One on one” instruction, unfortunately, depends on the coach knowing more than the student.  Teaching players how to study their own swings on a computer cannot make up for the coach knowing absolutely nothing about hitting.  No, hitting the ball “in the hole,” “hitting it where it’s pitched,” stepping up in the batter’s box and choking up on the bat with two strikes all seem to work better than closing ones eyes and trying to pull the outside pitch for a home run.

Ironically, in tonight’s “Tale of Two Cities,”  virtually all of the mismanagement of the last three years became evident as the Texas manager so artistically orchestrated his mastery over an inferiorly coached team.  Considering the demented lineup with its two left handed power hitters, both hitting under .200 and with no chance in hell of getting even a loud foul ball off of the Texas ace left hander to the right handed catcher hitting under .200 who performed so miserably in the first game against the same pitcher to the half a dozen mental blunders leading to the first three Texas runs, this game was lost by the manager of the Tampa Bay team before it ever started.  Texas probably could have won this game without any hits!  This game was lost in game one when everyone knew that Texas had to be fed a diet of breaking balls and off speed pitches with a few fastballs, but, as usual, the pitching coach and catcher, neither with any understanding of how to call a game, proceed to call one fastball after another.  The result could not have been more predictable, nor the game plan more incompetent.

Forgive me, please, I may have misspoken, for the game plan for the second game, starting James Shields, currently the worst starter on an otherwise excellent staff, could only be called “bizarre!”  In fairness to Shields, I consider him the most talented junkball pitcher in the league.  With even an average pitching coach and a veteran catcher, he could win twenty games a year, however, the poor guy has neither.  He has a pitching coach who convinces him to establish his fastball before he throws his “junk.”  After pitching the way he is capable for 4-5 innings, he allows a fluke run or two and believes he has struck out the Texas batter on a checked swing attempt for the third out.  The play is so close, that, for once, the umpire can’t be accused of blowing the call.  The game is still under control.   It is time for the usually placid  manager to tell his players to calm down, to send his catcher and his pitching coach to talk to his pitcher.  That is not what happens.  The manager loses his cool,stomps around in the dugout, glares at the umpire.  The pitching coach glares at the umpire and now the pitcher glares at the official.  The umpire calls “play ball!” and the catcher calls for a fastball down the middle!  Shields throws as hard as he can, all of his anger in an uncharacteristically very fast fastball at 95 mph and the ball whizzes past him at 195 mph as it heads into orbit, landing some 450 feet away in center field.  The score is now four to nothing and the game is essentially out of reach.  It is a scenario that had been repeated scores of times during the season.  It’s what happens when the manager can’t manage and the coach can’t coach.  It’s what happens when one manager is doing everything he can to win and the other manager is totally lost in cyberspace receiving bad advice from his computer while he sleeps.

The next two games are planned and managed as if the manager and his coaches had properly taken their medication.  The pitchers are instructed to throw mostly breaking balls and off speed pitches and the bats awaken as the opponent throws its second line starters at the Tampa Bay team.  The manager returns, temporarily, to his senses and starts Jaso at catcher.    A few hitters actually hit the ball “where it’s pitched” and the team storms back to even the series. For the rubber game, the Texas team has a game plan.  No mistakes, mental or physical.  Advance the runners, steal bases, chop the ball into ground, beat out the base hits.  Price is too difficult to hit if his game is “on,” and it is!   Lee is “on” as well, but the Tampa Bay team has no plan.  Unprepared, they are taken by surprise.  Twice failing to “keep the play in front of them,” they allow runners to score from second on infield grounders.  A third run scores on an errant throw to third on a steal attempt.  Meanwhile the Tampa Bay team fails to advance the runner in the first inning, and when they have men in scoring position cannot execute, just as they had failed so many hundreds of times during the regular season.

If the General Manager of the Tampa Bay team is again afraid to confront his manager regarding his bizarre managerial aberrations, if he does not address the gaping deficiencies in his coaching staff, the next season may prove to be very embarrassing indeed.  Young players must be taught, not left to learn by themselves from a computer.  An actual batting coach must be hired.  Teams like the Yankees, Red Sox. Orioles, Royals, Mariners, almost every team has secured a hitting coach who has stressed the basics and the results are strikingly successful.  Mr. Friedman, your hitting coach is a total embarrassment.  B.J. Upton continues to deteriorate as he pushes off his left foot, swaying backward, unable to hit an inside pitch because he’s leaning heavily on his back leg.  He straightens the back leg as he swings, losing all power and pulls his head off the ball.  Pena still leans over the plate with his left shoulder instead of rotating the shoulder back, and as long as he keeps his left elbow up in the air, he’ll never have a good season again. (Ask Joe Morgan).   Longoria stands so far back in the box that he can’t read or come close to hitting even a mediocre slider.  If he and half of the other hitters move up in the box with a two strike count and choke up a little on the bat they’ll all raise their averages and cut down their strikeouts.  What’s the matter guys, afraid  the itty bitty ball will hit you?

Reluctantly, I must admit that in almost sixty years of following baseball, I have never seen a worse coached team than the Tampa Bay Rays.  The pity is that their manager quite obviously has one of the highest IQ’s of anyone in Major League Baseball. Sadly negated by delusions of grandeur and serious obsessive compulsive tendencies’ that IQ has been tragically wasted thus far.  Next year, without the glut of pitching talent and the probable loss of Carl Crawford, we will be left with Mr. Maddon, his accursed computer and the ten to fifteen games he has seemed to lose for the team every year.  Welcome back to reality.

Truly Concerned Rays Fan: Allen Finkelstein, D.O.