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Take the mountains and mountains of data. Celebrate the sabermathematicians all you want. Let your infielders shift on every pitch if that's your fancy. However, no matter how you manipulate all the bits, bytes and algorithms, there's one rule in baseball that rises above all else: Throw strikes!
You needn't look further than Thursday's painful White Sox elimination game in Oakland under the cloudless California sky for the prime example. For the uninformed, there is no defense when your pitchers walk guys. There is zero possibility of retiring a hitter if four pitches wide of the strike zone are delivered. There are no walks in tee-ball, no doubt giving the 6-year-olds a false sense of security, but once pitchers begin throwing the ball toward the plate, the game becomes a different proposition.
And nine White Sox pitchers in the 6-4 debacle provided all the proof required. They walked a gut-wrenching nine batters while their teammates idled helplessly behind them. Three of the nine scored while two other walks forced in the deciding runs in a 27-minute bottom of the fourth inning.
One might argue that the Sox still could have salvaged the game and moved on to face Houston in the next round if only Adam Engel hadn't grounded out with the bases loaded in the top of the seventh with two outs. Or if MVP frontrunner José Abreu hadn't hit into a double-play an inning later with two men on base. Certainly the Sox had their chances, but another rule of the game is that even the best hitters make outs approximately seven out of 10 times. The advantage goes to the pitchers, and on Thursday the Sox' pitching failed when it mattered most.
Of course, a major part of the problem is that after Lucas Giolito, who pitched brilliantly on Tuesday in the team's 4-1 victory, and Dallas Keuchel, who wasn't brilliant on Wednesday, manager Rickey Renteria's choices were about as promising as a Chicago election.
Managing a big league team is multifaceted, but handling the bullpen is right at the top of the list, and Renteria left himself wide open to criticism with his moves in this deciding game. Renteria already served as a target for White Sox Twitter Nation as the team crumbled at the end of the regular season, falling from a top seed to No. 7.
Renteria gave the starting nod to Dane Dunning, a veteran of just 34 major league innings in this, his rookie year. Dunning retired two of the first four hitters he faced before Renteria yanked him in favor of hard-throwing Garrett Crochet, a late-season addition who pitched six scoreless innings in recent weeks, attracting widespread notoriety with his three-digit fastball.
Crochet got two strikeouts but had to leave the game with "forearm tightness" in the top of the second. We can only hope that the injury is not serious, but we have to look no further than Michael Kopech to shudder at the prospects for the talented Crochet.
Should Renteria have remained calm and stayed with Dunning? Perhaps. A's starter Mike Fiers wasn't fooling anyone in the top of the first as Tim Anderson singled in front of an Abreu double, sending Anderson to third. Yoan Moncada lined out hard to end the inning, but Fiers appeared vulnerable. And yet, with Renteria's moves, the Sox already had used two pitchers with just one out in the second inning.
Aaron Bummer came next, and he did alright until Rickey got antsy again in the third frame when two men reached with one out. Codi Heuer was summoned to retire the side with the bases loaded as the Sox led 3-0.
But then Heuer ran into trouble in the fateful fourth as catcher Sean Murphy hit a two-run homer. However, the Sox still led by a run, and Heuer simply made a mistake. It was the walk in front of Murphy's blast that truly hurt.
Once again, Renteria easily could be second-guessed, bringing in seldom-used and often-injured Carlos Rodon, who faced three batters with the following results: walk, double, intentional walk. Oh boy, disaster loomed as poor Matt Foster was called on next. The pressure proved too great as Foster walked in a pair of runs.
Pitching in a playoff win-or-go-home contest is not for the faint of heart. All the jokers sitting at home with their fingers on their phones ready to critique any misplay have little idea or experience what Heuer, Foster and their pals were encountering. Of the Sox' nine pitchers used, not one had ever thrown a pitch in a post-season game. This was all new. Adrenalin was pumping. Temperatures were rising. Foster had a breakout rookie season. He walked an acceptable nine hitters in almost 29 innings, yet the first two hitters he faced with the bases loaded - thanks to the intentional walk issued to Chad Pinder of all people - never had to swing the bat.
Meanwhile, A's manager Bob Melvin used eight pitchers, six of whom had playoff experience. Not until the seventh inning did they walk anyone, ending the game issuing three free passes. I'm uncertain how the saber folks would measure that one. Maybe there's some acronym for adrenaline count.
And so we enter the offseason with a number of question marks for 2021, not the least of which is whether the nation's health crisis will permit a full schedule. General manager Rick Hahn has no control over that metric, but he does have to make a decision whether to bring back Renteria and some or all of his coaches.
The facts include that, as expected, Renteria's record was poor the past three years managing a ragtag collection of players. This abbreviated season, with a much improved cast, the team finished 10 games over .500. That also is not surprising. However, the skipper did not help his prospects Thursday, nor does the closing swoon (nine losses in the season's final 12 games) boost his prospects.
I don't have strong feelings about Renteria's future. If Hahn looks elsewhere, I'll be eager to see how the new guy does. If Rickey returns, I'll expect to see even more progress. If that doesn't happen by, say, mid-May, I figure Hahn might make a change. I do think that Don Cooper's 18-year tenure as pitching coach has run its course. I'm in favor of the pitchers listening to a different voice and philosophy.
What we do know is that talented players make managers successful.
Casey Stengel managed 25 years, including 12 with the Yankees in which he won 10 American League pennants and seven World Series. However, for the other 13 managerial seasons, his teams won less than 40 percent of their games. Joe Torre also managed the Yankees for a dozen seasons (1996-2007), guiding the New Yorkers to six pennants and four World Series titles while posting a .607 winning percentage. Torre had jobs for another 14 years with the Mets, Braves, Cardinals and Dodgers where his clubs finished above .500 just half that time. Not until he closed his career in Los Angeles for three seasons did any of his teams other than the Yankees qualify for post-season play.
Looking to another Chicago team, the Bulls, Jerry Krause replaced Doug Collins as coach with Phil Jackson in 1989, saying that Collins was the wrong guy to take the team to the "next level." My guess is if Renteria goes, the same mantra will be repeated.
Collins had just led the team to the Eastern Conference Finals, and while the Bulls won eight more games in Jackson's first season, they also went no farther in the playoffs, losing to Detroit in the conference finals.
Once Krause got Michael Jordan a little more support, the championships flowed, but keep in mind that they didn't win one until Jordan's seventh season.
If Hahn does make a managerial change, he no doubt will move quickly before people like A.J. Hinch, Alex Cora and respected bench coaches are hired elsewhere.
Madrigal Is Underappreciated
Rookie second baseman Nick Madrigal seems to take an inordinate amount of heat from Sox tweeters. He had a tough game on Wednesday, being charged with two errors and a baserunning gaffe. He couldn't make a play on a grounder off the bat of Matt Olson with the bases loaded and two outs in the first inning, giving the A's an early 2-0 lead.
Facing left-handed hitters, Madrigal almost always is positioned as a short rightfielder. On Olson's smash, the ball caromed off the cut of the outfield grass, taking an unusual high hop. Madrigal usually can make the play, but had there been no shift, he would have fielded the ball off the infield dirt before it reached the outfield grass. I'm not against the shifts. Many balls hit up the middle that would have been hits 30 years ago, are now routinely fielded for outs. Nevertheless, the shifts are not always advantageous.
In addition, because Madrigal doesn't hit for power, his numbers aren't fully appreciated. In 109 plate appearances this season he hit .340, and added three more hits in the Oakland series. Of his total of 38 hits, 35 were singles. However, he's a terrific contact hitter - only seven strikeouts this season - and his lack of power complements an offense that still led the American League in home runs. The Sox don't need more homers; they need fewer strikeouts, and Madrigal should have a long career on the South Side.
A play in the Oakland fifth Thursday when the A's scored the two deciding runs involved catcher's interference, contributing to the final outcome. With Evan Marshall pitching, Sean Murphy walked after two outs. Then Tommy La Stella reached when Yasmani Grandal's glove came into contact with La Stella's bat, putting two men on. Both Murphy and La Stella eventually scored, giving the A's a 6-4 lead and completing the scoring for the day.
Years ago, catchers kept their bare hand behind their glove with their thumb folded into their palm for protection. Then catchers like Johnny Bench and others went to a one-hand technique, even putting their bare hand behind their back with no one on base. This tended to extend their glove arm as their elbows came away from their bodies.
Today, with so much emphasis on pitch framing, catchers are moving their gloves on almost every pitch. Too often they're straightening their left arm to receive the ball in order to pull it into the strike zone, hence we've had more catcher's interference calls within memory.
Grandal reportedly is one of the best at framing, and he also threw out almost half of would-be basestealers this season. But his eagerness to get a strike for his pitcher turned out to be costly.
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