SweetSpot: Jerry Manuel

Waiting for the save situation ... forever

May, 6, 2010
From the mailbag a good question from a Mets fan (and no, not that Mets fan) ...

    Rob, as a fan of both the Mets and common sense, I simply can't take this any longer. The Mets lost two extra-inning games in Cincinnati this week, and K-Rod pitched in neither of them. It simply baffles me that every organization hasn't had a smart person sit down with the manager, and explain that your best reliever goes into the game in the bottom of the ninth when the score is tied. Many major league games are lost due to managers' insistence on holding back their closer for an extra-inning save situation. Why is this mistake made over and over again? Can anything be done to change this? I would love to hear your take on it.

    Jay (Marina, Cal.)

Before getting into the general argument, let's take a quick look at the three games in the series.

Monday night, Oliver Perez pitched six innings and was succeeded by Jenrry Mejia, Fernando Nieve, Pedro Feliciano, and finally Manny Acosta in the 11th, when Cincinnati's Laynce Nix hit the walkoff homer.

Tuesday night, John Maine went six innings, then was followed by Mejia, Nieve, Feliciano (notice a pattern here?) and finally Francisco Rodriguez, who dispatched the Reds with 13 pitches to earn the save.

Wednesday afternoon, Jonathan Niese started and went six innings. He was replaced by Hisanori Takahashi, who went three clean innings. Feliciano took over the 10th and the game was over five pitches later.

Was Rodriguez tired? He's probably one of the few Met relievers who isn't tired. Since the 28th of April, Rodriguez has pitched twice, one inning in each outing. Mejia, Feliciano, Takahashi, and Nieve have all thrown more innings than Rodriguez. Nieve gets a gold star or something; he's pitched in 17 of the Mets' 28 games.

So no, Rodriguez hadn't previously been worked hard. And the Mets are off today. Assuming he's not nursing an injury, there was simply no reason to rest him in either of the extra-inning games.

Most managers, maybe all of them, will use their closer in the top of a ninth inning in a tie game, because regardless of what happens there will never be a save situation for that pitcher; the home team will never have a lead to protect.

But the visiting manager ... Well, he's afraid. Of what? Of eventually getting a lead and not having his closer available to protect it. Most visiting managers will use their closer in a tie game only when everybody else has pitched.

Almost everyone who works in baseball will argue that relievers are better when they're given defined roles; the more precisely defined, the better. And for ace relievers it's become pretty simple: You won't pitch unless there's (Officially!) a save situation in the ninth inning or later.

There's something to be said for that. It's simple enough that even the dumbest manager can remember it, and it's specific enough that the closer knows when to start preparing himself to pitch. On paper, a manager should consider using his best reliever in the seventh inning, in a particularly tight spot. But we know that's just going to happen. It's too radical.

Is it radical, though, to suggest a very slight change to the guidelines? Is it radical to recommend that a manager deploy his best reliever in the bottom of the 9th inning, or the 10th, when a game is tied? To stop waiting for the save situation that might never arrive?

Can't we agree on just this small thing? You know, for the kids?

Manuel of New York: Medieval Manager

August, 17, 2009
I've been reading Joe Posnanski's new book -- and no, it's not in bookstores yet; being a BBWAA member does have its occasional perks -- and while every page oozes with goodness, there's one story in particular that I must share with you today. It's about Gary Nolan, who won 14 games for the Reds when he was 19 years old, and was out of the majors before he turned 30.

In 1972, when Nolan was still only 24, he might have been the best pitcher in the National League.

Well, probably not. That was the year Steve Carlton went 27-10 with a team that was otherwise 32-87. But Nolan was fantastic. Only problem was that his arm started hurting during the season. Hurt so bad he couldn't stand it. Of course, everybody -- the fans, the players, the manager -- figured Nolan just wasn't tough enough. It hurt so bad, though, that he just couldn't pitch (and would miss nearly all of the next two seasons).

Management's solution?

    One day, the Reds executive Dick Wagner called Gary and said that the club had set up an appointment for him with a dentist. A dentist! "We think this will cure you," Wagner said. Well, Gary went to the office, and the dentist fished around in his mouth for a few minutes and finally said, "I have found your problem. You have an abscessed tooth." Gary shook his head; he had never felt any pain in his tooth. The dentist explained that such pain often transfers to another part of the body -- maybe the right shoulder. The dentist pulled the tooth, and he promised Gary relief.

    There was no relief, of course, his shoulder hurt more than ever. Dentists from around the country wrote in to say that there was no way an abscessed tooth could cause a man's arm to shoot with pain. Gary understood. The Reds had sent him to a witch doctor. They thought the pain was all in his head...

I knew this happened in the 1930s. Back then, a sore-armed pitcher might have all of his teeth removed (which worked just as well in those days, too). I had no idea it was still happening in the 1970s. In fact, Nolan might the last man who had oral surgery performed to treat a sore arm. I hope so, anyway.

Some of you probably remember a character Steve Martin used to play on Saturday Night Live: Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber (video here). Theodoric would attribute disease to a toad or gnome living inside someone's stomach, and then prescribe a good blood-letting. Until the 1970s, that was still roughly the state of sports medicine, at least when it came to pitchers with sore arms. Happily, we're mostly past those days.

Apparently we're still working on concussions, though. In 1942, Brooklyn Dodgers superstar Pete Reiser -- as was his custom -- slammed into an outfield wall and suffered a terrible concussion. He sat out a few games, and then his manager got him right back into the lineup. Reiser struggled terribly for a month or so, the Dodgers lost the pennant by two games, and I blame Leo Durocher.

Fast-forward 36 years, to 1978. Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans is terribly beaned on the 28th of August. Evans sat out a few games, and then his manager got him right back into the lineup. Evans batted .164 in September and made a bunch of errors. He was having dizzy spells. The Red Sox lost the division title by one game, and I blame Don Zimmer.

Fast-forward 39 years, to 2009. This is what Jerry Manuel said yesterday about an ex-Met and a current Met, and concussions (as recorded by Ken Davidoff):

    The other lowlight came when Manuel intimated  a correlation between toughness and concussion recovery, comparing Wright to Church:

    "You have to be careful into stereotyping individuals. David is a different animal, so to speak. How he is made up is a little different than, say, Ryan Church, in my opinion. That's not to say that one is better than the other, but they're different.”

Actually, Manuel is saying exactly that David Wright is better than Ryan Church. Better at recovering from head trauma. Fortunately, managers these days aren't given as much freedom to destroy people as Durocher and Zimmer once were. David Wright has been placed on the disabled list, and presumably he won't be in the lineup if he's still seeing double or suffering dizzy spells (as Reiser and Evans were).

But managers still are entrusted with too many decisions that are tied to players' health. Too many players are still shamed into playing when they shouldn't. And too many players don't tell anybody when they're hurt, because there's still a stigma attached to injuries that don't include a bone poking through skin.

This attitude undoubtedly is bad for the players. It results in more pain and shorter careers. You might argue that this attitude can sometimes be good for teams, and you'd probably be right. But I can't help thinking that if you could measure everything, you would discover that Major League Baseball's general spirit of machismo does quite a bit more harm than good.

But perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps all those dead arms and skeptical attitudes are exactly what every team needs. Perhaps there needs to be less doctoring and babying and DLing, and more just walking it off until the pain goes away. Perhaps ...


Mets' Pelfrey diagnosed with tendinitis

April, 15, 2009

Posted by ESPN's Claire Smith

NEW YORK -- Mike Pelfrey may miss a start Sunday after being diagnosed with tendinitis in his right forearm.

"We have to take our time with him and make sure we do the right thing by him," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said. "We'll do a whole thorough thing with him to see if it's worth him missing a start or not."

The tendinitis was discovered after Pelfrey underwent an MRI. Monday, Manuel expressed concern about the righthander after Pelfrey's pitches appeared to lack life in a five-inning, five-run start against the San Diego Padres at Citi Field.

"The good news is that there really wasn't anything structural," said Manuel.

Manuel on using Sheffield
Manuel had yet to hand in the first official lineup card listing Gary Sheffield in right field, yet he spent part of the afternoon explaining just what situations would lead him to remove the former Tigers designated hitter from games for defensive purposes.

Manuel, striking a serious note, said that it would certainly depend on game situations. Then, laughing, he said, "if it's 4-4 and he's driven in all four runs, he'll be in there."

LeFebvre grateful to Robinson
Padres hitting instructor Jim LeFebvre is one of the many second basemen to play the position for the Dodgers since Jackie Robinson. He may be one of the few who can claim to owe the Hall of Famer a heartfelt thank you for a personal gesture long gone by.

"I was a rookie in 1965 and I committed an error to cost us a game -- Koufax versus Tug McGraw, here at Shea Stadium," said LeFebvre. "It cost us the game and I felt terrible. I went back to the hotel as down as I could be and had a restless night.

"Then, at 10 in the morning, the phone rang. It was Jackie Robinson. I'd never met the man, but he wanted to call and tell me to hang in there. 'You're in the major leagues, you're a Dodger, you have the talent to be here, you're a good player,'" he said. "He told me he enjoyed watching me play, and not to get my head down.

"That was it. I never got to meet him, and never spoke with him again. But, boy, what class. I went to the ballpark with a little different attitude the next day. I never forgot what he did that day."

Claire Smith is a news editor at ESPN. She covered baseball for 27 years at the Hartford Courant, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Manuel shares memories of Fidrych

April, 14, 2009

Posted by ESPN's Claire Smith

NEW YORK -- New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel fondly recalled Mark Fidrych, a friend since the two met at Class AAA Oklahoma City in the Tigers organization.

"I knew him well. Very well," Manuel said. "I was very surprised and saddened [at news of Fidrych's death]. I remember Mark's first game in Triple-A, at Oklahoma City. He comes walking in, with all this curly hair, a white t-shirt, cut-off jeans and red Converse sneakers."

Manuel, saying that the teammates, sensing that they had a character on their hands, encouraged Fidrych to be himself from the very start.

"We instigated it all, I think. We had a big part in him talking to the baseball and all those things. I'm shocked by this. Saddened by this. He was a tremendous character for this game."

Claire Smith is a news editor at ESPN. She covered baseball for 27 years at the Hartford Courant, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.