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Tuesday, October 1, 2002
No Percival? Scioscia made the wrong call

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

It happens every fall.

Every fall, big games are lost because knucklehead managers do things exactly the way they did things during the regular season.

If you've been enjoying this particular Internet location for at least a couple of years and you followed the action in the Bronx last night, then you probably know where this column is headed, since I seem to write the same fershlugginer column every October.

But if you want to stay in the column-writin' game for long, you have to be completely unafraid of repeating yourself. So here goes ...

Yankee Stadium, bottom of the eighth inning. Angels lead by a run, but the Yankees have fast runners on both first and second base, with the dreaded Jason Giambi coming to the plate to face right-hander Ben Weber. Considering that Weber had just walked Alfonso Soriano (no, I didn't think was possible, either) and Derek Jeter, you could guess that he wouldn't stick around to face the G-Man. Getting loose in the Angels bullpen: lefty Scott Schoeneweis and righty Troy Percival.

In that spot -- runners on first and second, two outs -- you're worried about batting average and slugging average, because a hit will tie the game and an extra-base hit will probably cost you the lead.

It is true that Percival struggled against left-handed hitters this season. Whereas right-handed hitters didn't hit a single home run against him, lefties smashed five homers in 93 at-bats. Sounds scary, like Dracula or Commissioner Bud's hair in the morning.

But if there's one mistake that managers commonly make, it's their reliance on insignificant sample sizes when they're making various sorts of decisions. Did Percival become a different pitcher this year, so different that he's become easy pickings for left-handed power hitters?

Probably not. Five swings of the bat, in the grand scheme of things, means just slightly more than nothing. What's more instructive is a look at four years of lefties against Percival ... and over the last four seasons, left-handed hitters haven't done a hell of a lot: .223 batting average, .374 slugging percentage.

Then again, left-handed hitters have done even worse against Schoeneweis over the last four seasons: .227 batting average, .325 slugging.

So leaving aside, for the moment, the old codicil that you should "always get beat with your best," the selection of Schoeneweis to face Giambi can be defended with the superficial statistical evidence at hand.

It's Scioscia's next move that bothers me. After Giambi tied things up, Scioscia came out to pull Schoeneweis. Obviously, the next pitcher would be a right-hander, since both of the guys warming up in the bullpen were right-handers: Percival and Brendan Donnelly.

Donnelly was great in 2002. By nearly every measure, he was just as great as Troy Percival. But does Mike Scioscia really think that Brendan Donnelly, having pitched the grand total of 50 innings in the major leagues, is just as good as Troy Percival? I'm all for giving the kids their shots, but when the game is on the line, don't you have to hand the ball to the man with 250 saves, including 40 this season?

Scioscia said didn't want to use Percival with the score tied because he wanted to save his closer until the Angels got the lead. But ... and yes, Mike Scioscia knows more about baseball than I do ... but if your team gives up the lead in the bottom of the eighth, isn't there a real good chance that you'll never get a chance to use your closer? Don't you have to use Percival in the eighth (lead or no lead), and then again in the ninth (lead or no lead), and figure out a new plan?

Nearly every closer averages slightly more than one inning per game during the regular season. That's the game today, and Mariano Rivera's no exception ... until October, when Rivera becomes Super Closer, able to throw faster than a speeding bullet and pitch tall innings in a single game. Since taking over as Yankees closer in 1998, Rivera has averaged nearly one-and-a-half innings per appearance. And when you combine all those innings with his 0.80 postseason ERA ... well, you got yourself four World Championships and one very near miss.

Mo the Super Closer deserves the lion's share of the credit for his performance, but a little piece also goes to Joe the Super Manager for being smart enough to frequently use Mo the Super Closer for more than one inning at a time when the games matter more than they did back in July and August.

I think that if Joe Torre had been managing the Angels last night, he would have summoned Troy Percival to face Bernie Williams. Mike Scioscia summoned Brendan Donnelly, and Bernie Williams hit a three-run homer. While it's certainly possible that Williams would have homered against Percival -- after all, Williams is a great hitter -- it's certainly certain that Williams did homer against Donnelly.

It happens every fall and it drives me crazy. When you lose a tight game and your best pitcher never pitched, there's a real good chance the manager blew it.