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The Problem With Robin

What is it that Sox fans really dislike about manager Robin Ventura?

In this fourth season of Ventura's tenure, the typical fan's patience for losing has been sorely tested, and the result is not pleasant. Cries of "It's not the manager's fault" are rarely heard. Most observers are quick to point their finger at Ventura and his staff because of lack of execution. We groan at the inability to hit the cutoff man or when one of our athletes tries to go from second to third on a grounder to short. The assumption is that the team hasn't been schooled in the fundamentals that successful clubs master and execute.

However, we have little or no access to what goes on behind the scenes. We are not privy to clubhouse protocols and procedures on the part of the manager and coaches. The media provide little or no information about the day-to-day preparation. Transparency doesn't exist so that it is difficult to assess Ventura's managerial qualities.

Ventura played 16 seasons in the big leagues, beginning in 1989 with the White Sox. Before he retired, Robin was also a Met, Yankee and Dodger. He appeared in more than 2,000 games. The 1993 White Sox, managed by Gene Lamont, won 94 games with Ventura a stalwart at third base.

Five years later he was a big reason (32 homers and 120 RBI) that the Mets won 97 games before losing in the NLCS. In 2002, Robin and Derek Jeter manned the left side of the Yankee infield for a team guided by Joe Torre that won 103 times.

The point is that Ventura's pedigree should be unquestioned. He played for some shrewd managers alongside Hall of Fame teammates. He wasn't a role player. Ventura was an integral piece of a number of very successful ballclubs. If baseball IQ and achievement were prerequisites for the Ivy League, surely Ventura would be a viable candidate for Harvard or Yale.

So how do we mere mortals judge Ventura's managerial ability? Surely, the number of victories is paramount, and we'll get to that in a moment. But let's pause for a bit and look at some strategy he employed last week as the White Sox dropped three of four in Anaheim before taking two of three in Seattle.

The Sox lost a tough 1-0 decision last Wednesday, a game in which pitcher Jeff Samardzija rebounded nicely after giving up 22 earned runs in 15 innings over his last three starts.

Samardzija answered the call, pitching seven innings and thwarting the Angels with runners in scoring position with less than two outs on three occasions. Only Angels' catcher Carlos Perez's home run in the sixth inning spoiled what otherwise was a shutout performance.

On most nights Samardzija would have been the winning pitcher, but soft-throwing Jered Weaver kept the Sox off balance, pitching into the seventh inning. The Sox managed only five hits off Weaver.

The White Sox rank 14th in the American League in runs scored. Moving runners along into scoring position and getting them in has been among the biggest challenges for Ventura's group. So when Carlos Sanchez doubled to lead off the fifth, Robin had catcher Tyler Flowers, who had sacrificed exactly three times previously in his entire career, bunt Sanchez to third. The execution was flawless in what seemed like a reasonable move - sabermatricians notwithstanding - until Adam Eaton and Tyler Saladino both grounded out, stranding Sanchez at third.

Skip ahead to the top of the seventh after Perez had given the Angels the lead. J.B. Shuck led off with a hit, bringing up Alexei Ramirez, who has sacrificed successfully 35 times in his eight-year career. Judging from Flowers' sacrifice two innings earlier, one would think Ventura would have Alexei lay one down.

Instead Ramirez hit away and struck out. Weaver then was lifted in favor of reliever Trevor Gott. Having spurned the bunt, Ventura had Shuck attempt to steal second (another sabermetric no-no), but Perez gunned him down. And wouldn't you know it; Sanchez followed with another hit which would have scored Shuck had Ramirez successfully sacrificed.

We'll never know why Robin had Flowers bunt while letting Ramirez flail away, but it sure seemed weird. One of the appeals of the game is to think along with the manager, and I'd love to know Robin's rationale from last Wednesday.

On Sunday, John Danks was way out of sorts. The Sox lefty threw just seven first-pitch strikes to the 24 hitters he faced. The Sox were in a 7-1 hole after five innings, but they rallied for five runs in the top of the sixth to jump back into the game.

But there was Danks back on the mound in the bottom of the sixth to face the left-hand hitting Kyle Seager, who promptly pumped a single to left. Reliever Matt Albers then was summoned, and he miraculously escaped a bases-loaded situation to keep the Sox within a run. Why wouldn't Robin let Albers start the inning with no one on base? It's not as though Danks was effective. He was having a horrid day in which the Sox wound up losing 8-6.

None of this suggests that Joe Fan knows the game better than Robin Ventura. What it does say is that we are left in the dark as to why Robin sacrifices in one situation while eschewing the bunt just two innings later.

While some if his moves appear questionable, we lack information about why he makes these moves. I mean, his job is to compile information in order to make intelligent decisions. My guess is that Danks faced Seager for the lefty-lefty match-up, and he didn't want to use Dan Jennings or Zach Duke at that juncture. OK, I get that. But Danks couldn't get anyone out Sunday. I was taken aback when I saw Danks out there in the 6th. Why not let Albers start the 6th regardless of the match-up? I'd love to know his thinking.

Post-game "press conferences" more often than not are meaningless in terms of the manager explaining strategy and the moves he made. Generalities and cliches rule the day.

So we are left with the bottom line: wins and losses. Thus far in Ventura's career, his Sox teams have gone 279-329 for a .459 percentage. Of the 15 American League managers, only Seattle's Lloyd McClendon has a worse mark at .450, and many of his losses occurred when he managed the Pirates before they got good.

The Yankees' Joe Girardi leads all skippers with a .560 mark, followed by the Angels' Mike Scioscia at .546.

Ventura started off as though his managerial career was going to be memorable. He was 44 years old, a year older than Girardi when Joe took over the Yankees in 2008. Scioscia was 41 when he assumed the helm of the Angels 16 seasons ago.

In his first season in 2012, the Sox led the division for 126 days and as late as September 25. Losing eight of nine games in late September dropped the Sox to second place, three games behind the Tigers. No one was blasting Ventura then. Few were questioning his in-game moves, nor did we hear complaints about preparation, fundamentals and execution.

So what has changed? The players for one. That team of three years ago had A.J. Pierzynski and Paul Konerko. DH Adam Dunn, despite a .204 batting average, hit 41 home runs and drove in 96. The promising Dayan Viciedo belted 25 homers, as did Alex Rios, who drove home 91. Chris Sale emerged as a star with 17 wins, while Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd had 23 victories between them.

They also had a declining Kevin Youkilis and Gordon Beckham, who was beginning his long slump.

With a decent, not great, cast, 2012 was a nice beginning for Ventura. His teams haven't come close since.

I'm not sure whether Ventura is the right guy for the job. I do know that someone like Terry Francona had four losing seasons in Philadelphia when he started managing before being hired by the Red Sox in 2004 after a three-year hiatus. Of course, the Red Sox won the World Series in Francona's first season in Boston, and they won another one in 2007.

Assuming the reins in Cleveland in 2013, his club won 92 times and another 85 a season ago. This year the Indians have struggled. Francona is the same guy he's always been, but the results vary.

Kansas City's Ned Yost, whom sabermatricians despise, was on the hot seat until last year when the Royals became an elite team. Prior to that, Yost had a 374-435 record in four seasons in Milwaukee followed by a woeful .439 winning percentage in his first three years in Kansas City. He's not being hailed as a genius now, but he is enjoying respect that heretofore eluded him.

Ventura appears to have the support of his players. Most say they like and respect him, although if there are ones who don't, they would never say so. Prior to last season, Robin signed a contract extension which reportedly expires after the 2016 season. Everything out of the mouths of Rick Hahn, Kenny Williams, and The Chairman, who is loyal to a fault when it comes to his favorite players, indicates that Ventura will fulfill the length of the contract.

A year from now, if the problems haven't been addressed and fixed, then we no doubt will say adieu to Robin Ventura. But all signs say that Robin is going nowhere in the immediate future.

My problem is that we can't really tell how bad or good Robin is because things like strategy and preparation rarely are revealed. He was OK the first year. He's still the same guy. What's happened? I don't think his players are so bad. Some of them like Sanchez show exciting potential. And he has legitimate stars like Sale and Abreu. I do think they are underachievers, and no one - including the fans - has the answers. So he returns next year, and that will be the decider as far as his future on the South Side is concerned.

I can't simply say he sucks, nor do I think he's a Joe Maddon. But he might be a Ned Yost.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.


1. From Mark Schaeffer:

I believe Robin is closer to Don Gutteridge than Joe Maddon, but that's just me.

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