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Criminal Managing: Geren Is Proving "Beyond A Reasonable Doubt" He's A Terrible Strategist

First of all, let me say that in my time on AN, I have spent more time defending A's managers than criticizing them - Geren included. That's because every fan thinks his/her team's manager uniquely messes up tactical decisions when the reality is that most managers have an idea of what they're doing, most decisions are arguable either way, and most moves - no matter which direction the manager goes - will make the manager look good or bad based on how the players perform.

As an example, I'll defend Geren for his ill-fated decision to leave Eveland in as long as he did last night. The decision was driven largely by the unavailability of Ziegler, Casilla, and Bailey, the fact that Springer and Wuertz had pitched the day before, and thus the realization that pulling Eveland in the 5th would inevitably mean pitching Giese for 3 innings and then still having 2 innings left to navigate - and heaven forbid the game go extra innings. It was a lose-lose choice and that is not the basis for declaring a manager incompetent.

Yet last night highlighted how little a feel Bob Geren has for tactical decision-making, as he made two blunders that reflect a lack of understanding about basic odds and risk/reward assessment.

The first was the decision to have Travis Buck bunt with Suzuki at second and nobody out in the 8th inning of a 7-7 game. When deciding whether or not to bunt, Geren routinely ignores crucial factors in the simplistic (and sometimes false) reasoning that "bunting gives us a better chance to score one run." The batter was Buck and the next two hitters were Crosby and Patterson. Against a right-handed pitcher, which one of those three, if all three swung away, was most likely to get a hit? Which was most likely to strikeout? What Geren did was to take the bat out of the hands of his best hitter of the three, hoping to get a runner to third with one out for Crosby. And then if that didn't get the job done, leave it up to Patterson.

Meanwhile, left-handed hitters have a far easier job advancing runners from second to third. Why? Because if you pitch inside to a right-handed batter, it's relatively hard for them to hit the ball on the ground to the right side. In contrast, if you pitch away to a left-handed hitter it's relatively easy to reach out and pull the ball to the right side (see Eric Chavez and Jason Giambi when they're in a slump, pulling pitches they shouldn't be trying to pull). So you had a situation where your best hitter of the three was up, was in a great position to advance the runner even if he didn't get a hit, and you ask him to bunt with a hitter on deck who doesn't make a lot of contact and a hitter after him who has never hit major league pitching well. Just not smart.

And yet asking Buck to bunt was downright brilliant in contrast with the decision to walk Russell Branyan to load the bases in the 9th. There is a reason small samples are to be avoided like the plague: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Russell Branyan is not a .333 hitter; he is in fact a career .233 hitter. Russ Springer can get lefties out regardless of how the first 16 hitters have fared against him this season.

In that situation Branyan was going to be as lethal as his batting average, whereas Lopez was going to be as lethal as his on base percentage. Facing Branyan, Springer could have buried cutters on his terms, whereas with Lopez Springer did not want to risk going 3-2 and kept leaving cutters up - Lopez fouled off about 4 mistakes before his game-winning hit. Springer could have come inside and hit Branyan, but he couldn't risk hitting Lopez so he lost some of the plate there too.

The only time you can justify walking the bases loaded in that situation is when the hitter in front of you has a better expected batting average than the on deck hitter has an expected on base percentage. (This is rare because few hitters are going to be career .300 hitters while few hitters will have career OBPs under .300.) When might I walk the bases loaded in that situation? If Ichiro was up with Yuniesky Betancourt on deck, it makes sense - but of course that would require Don Wakamatsu to be dumb enough to bat his low OBP, low OPS shortstop #2 in the batting order. Oh.

And all this was just yesterday's game. (Prior to Friday's game, I thought the decision to bring the infield in, 2nd and 3rd, against Brett Gardner in the 2nd inning of a 0-0 game in New York was "rock bottom" incompetence.) This is not about "Geren made two bonehead decisions on Friday!" This is about the fact that Geren has shown, throughout the season so far, an inability to grasp when a bunt makes sense and when it doesn't, whether to bench Buck, Sweeney, or Rajai Davis against LHP when the team isn't hitting a lick overall, when to consider a month's stats or a 10 year body of work when assessing whether a guy gets 233 or 333 hits out of 1,000, and how much it restricts a pitcher's ability to pitch on his terms - and how important it is for him to be able to pitch on his terms - when you walk the bases loaded.

Every fan thinks his/her manager lacks the competence to make tactical decisions. However, sometimes the fans are right and this time they're right. And given the personal connection between Billy Beane and Bob Geren, I'd say that if he wants to put the team first Billy has himself a mess worse than the one Springer faced yesterday.