National / Sports / April 29, 2010

A broken franchise: Da Cubs of Chicago

In baseball, the managerial effect is often minimal. Recent studies have shown that batting order is largely negligible; that bullpen moves are more about luck than brains; that baseball is so random, has so many variables and is so statistically volatile that a manager is often decided by the quality of his personnel.

Some managers don’t like this. They don’t like to feel secondary. They don’t like to appear fungible. They’re professionals, gosh darn it. They wear a uniform; they chew tobacco; they lead men.

So they act proactive. They don’t want to appear like they’re just filling out the lineup card and drifting into the background. They may give an impassioned press conference, calling out their players for a lack of heart or desire. They might also argue with the umpire, get thrown out to “fire up” the team and turn things around.

All of this in the guise of doing something. Anything. Because then, when the media comes calling, when they ask why a team has lost five of seven the manager can throw up his hands and say, “I’m doing my best, I’m out there yelling at umpires, calling for the hit-and-run and my guys won’t respond.”

Exhibit A: Chicago Cubs. Last week, following a frustrating, albeit statistically insignificant, four-start stretch, manager Lou Piniella demoted Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen to make room for Ted Lilly.

Four games were all it took. But it wasn’t just four poor starts from Zambrano — which isn’t even the case, one bad, one average, and two stellar — it was a torrent start by question marks like Carlos Silva and Tom Gorzellany. While the latter two have been good according to ERA, a deeper look at their batted ball rates and opposing lineup strength screams fluke.

And how bad has Zambrano been? Not very bad at all. And even if he had been — four starts? That’s all the data you’re going to utilize in moving the face of your franchise, he of the $17+ million contract, into the bullpen, where his value will deteriorate and he will, at most, give you half the innings he would as a starter?

All of that in the guise of creativity, defended by the notion that a manager must shake things up, must make sure that even the brightest shining stars must understand their roles. All of it: nonsense.

But managers can also bring their overactive mentality to a game-by-game level. See: micromanaging.

Picture this: home team, tie game, bottom of the ninth, leadoff walk. Great, right? Who is coming to the plate? Arguably the team’s best hitter, hitting over .350 with an on-base percentage above 50 percent. The pitcher’s control sucks, as he’s walked nine guys in eight innings of work.

Lou Piniella found himself in this scenario Monday night. What did he do? Why pinch-bunt for the on-base machine at the plate. On the first pitch, no less. And in the poetic sort of schadenfreude that only baseball can induce, Koyie Hill bunted into a force out, effectively killing the rally.

Yes, the Cubs went on to win (on a bases-loaded walk by, you guessed it, the same pitcher, Brian Bruney) one inning later, but Piniella’s misuse of personnel should have sunk them.

And the Cubs are the last team that needs micro-management, overactive and impatient hands steering the wheel. It’s been over a 100 years now and until management learns to assemble a talented team, sit back and let the cream rise to the top, it could take 100 more.

Kevin Morris

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