Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Felipe Alou in a Box

In his Baseball Abstract at some point during the 1980’s, Bill James introduced his “Manager in a Box” managerial assessment forms. I’ve filled one out for the current Giants manager. Sure, there are lots and lots of words there, but I do invite your comments, corrections, and criticisms.

Year of Birth: 1935
Years Managed: 1992–2001, 2003–Present
Record as a Manager: 2,179 games: 1,128-1,051, .518
(With the Giants: 448 games, 246-202, .549 through 8/23/05)

Managers for Whom He Played:
Bill Rigney, Tom Sheehan, Alvin Dark, Bobby Bragan, Billy Hitchcock, Ken Silvestri, Lum Harris, John McNamara, Dick Williams, Ralph Houk, Gene Mauch, Del Crandall.

Others by Whom He Was Influenced:
How should I know? He was in the Expos organization for eons, during which times those with the longest managerial stints were Mauch, Williams, and Buck Rodgers. (Williams also was Alou’s manager with the A’s.)

Characteristics as a Player:
Righthanded-hitting outfielder with some pop, hardly ever walked, didn’t strike out much. His lifetime range factor and fielding percentage (for whatever those are worth) are above league averages, and he’s been described—during Giants broadcasts—as having been a very good defensive outfielder. He also played nearly 500 games at first base, and the numbers suggest that he was about average. Except for his first two years and his last, he played at least 100 games a season, and of those 100-plus years, you could call him a regular for eight of them. He stole over a hundred bases, but was successful only 61 percent of the time. His OBPs were almost always about 40 points above his batting average, suggesting, in his case, roughly 30 walks a season. Note his lifetime OBP, .328, and his highest batting average, .327 in 1966, when he lost the batting crown to his brother Matty. That year his OBP was .361—roughly Omar Vizquel territory.

WHAT HE BRINGS TO A BALL CLUB


Is he an intense manager or more of an easy-to-get-along-with type?

He seems like way less of a player’s manager than Dusty Baker. I don’t know whether he’s what you’d call a good communicator, but I get the sense that he doesn’t have that much time to waste on mere ballplayers. I could be wrong, but that’s the sense I get. Over the last two-plus seasons, there have been at least a couple of incidents where players have received bad news from a coach or the press, rather than Alou. It is said that with Montreal he had a doghouse, where naughty players go, but that hasn’t seemed real clear since he came to the Giants.

Is he more of an emotional leader of a decision maker?

Depends on what you mean. He’s an “emotional leader” in the sense of playing hunches; in this way, Dusty Baker is a piker by comparison, and I used to go on at length about how he played hunches. His demeanor usually suggests that his emotional range is firmly between 4.9 and 5.1; indeed, he rarely gets animated during arguments, and seems to give up way too soon. When he gets ejected, it’s a real surprise. Is he a decision maker? Well, he seems to pigeonhole all his pitchers very tightly, and he has no hesitation about yanking them. So in that way, yes.

Is he more of an optimist or more of a problem solver?


Well, both. Attempting to get anything out of Alex Sanchez was awfully optimistic, I’d say, but that’s just a small example. Once Armando Benitez went down, he tried a few guys in the closer role before going with Tyler Walker—and sticking with him. I really don’t see how he could have considered this a solution so much as a stopgap, especially given his choices in that role last year. Since he plays hunches to death, “optimist” seems to be the right category, doesn’t it?

His in-game decisions, however, suggest that he at least considers himself a problem solver: burn a pinch-runner or phantom pinch-hitter; play percentages till you want to strike him (“Allemande left and allemande right, stand up, sit down, fight fight fight!”). The only problem is that he often leaves himself without a safety valve of any kind—viz J.T. Snow being in desperate need of a pinch-runner in the final game of the 2003 Division Series, but with no one available to do the chore since he’d already burned some guys earlier, unnecessarily.

HOW HE USES HIS PERSONNEL


Does he favor a set lineup or a rotation system?


This guy definitely uses his whole roster. Everybody plays—it’s almost like Little League sometimes (which is something I don’t mean in a disparaging way). He understands the value of rest, especially in that his team is awfully old. He moves hitters around in the lineup, though I’m not sure there’s much rhyme or reason to it. For instance, Marquis Grissom batted leadoff, third, and eighth as a Giant (and elsewhere, but I think these examples clarify my point). When Randy Winn came aboard, Alou batted him second, behind Vizquel. Then suddenly he flip-flopped them, perhaps because Vizquel wasn’t hitting much. It probably doesn’t matter either way in this case, but it seemed as though the move was made just to make a move. Sometimes I think that when he makes a lineup, the first two spots and the last three (not counting the pitcher) seem like a priority, and whoever’s left over goes into the three-, four-, and five-holes. I suppose that sounds mean, but it might explain putting Grissom, J.T. Snow, Edgardo Alfonzo, Deivi Cruz, Lance Niekro, and Pedro Feliz in the three-hole at various times. (If Bonds were around, that would be a set lineup position: fourth; I think he should hit third.)
This year, anyway, people move in and out of the starting rotation, and the sequence has changed.

Does he like to platoon?


Even though with his pitchers he loves to play the lefty-righty-lefty-righty thing, he doesn’t really do that with his hitters. Michael Tucker doesn’t usually start against lefties, but he often does when he’s hot. And this year Niekro’s gotten a lot of starts against righties, although he and Snow seem to be a clear platoon pair, if not necessarily a good one.

Perhaps because he usually has at least 12 pitchers, he doesn’t often pinch-hit to get the platoon advantage. The other side of that coin is that many of the guys he does use as pinch-hitters are people you’d often want to pinch-hit for.

Deivi Cruz and, especially, Neifi Perez would fit those categories. (None of this, though, is nearly as heinous as the time Dusty Baker sent up Cody Ransom in place of Andres Galarraga. Once Ransom was in the game, clearly it was a bunt situation—nobody didn’t know that—and Ransom couldn’t get the job done. The point is, even with Galarraga being over 40 at the time (and he still is, by the way), happy and hitting after a bad time with the Rangers, it’s (a) pretty weird to pinch-hit for someone with his power unless it’s a lefty batter who’s just like him, and (b) really stupid to pinch-hit Ransom for anybody, let alone someone with Galarraga’s power. Sometimes it’s best to risk the double play.)

Does he try to solve his problems with proven players of with youngsters who still may have had something to learn?


With the Giants he’s done both. That might have to do more with Brian Sabean than Alou, though. This year has been a real Sabean aberration in that tons of rookies and youngsters have gotten decent chances, and, indeed, four well-liked veterans—Grissom, Kirk Rueter, Matt Herges, and Jim Brower—got the boot. What suggested to me that Alou is fond of youth was when Perez got released last year and Alou named Ransom as “the shortstop of the future.”

How many players does he make regulars who had not been regulars before, and who were they?


I’m not interested in researching Alou’s Montreal years, but with the Giants he’s made regulars out of Jason Ellison, Pedro Feliz, and Deivi Cruz in particular. (Of those, only Feliz currently plays almost every day—indeed, Ellison’s back in Fresno.) Ellison looked to be mostly a defensive replacement, but Grissom wasn’t hitting and kept getting hurt besides. Feliz has played three infield positions and two outfield positions under Alou, so desperate are the Giants to get his bat in the lineup (for reasons I don’t entirely fathom). And Cruz really was just a stopgap.

Giving the closer job to Tim Worrell, Herges, and Walker probably qualifies a mention here, too. And Noah Lowry looked as though he’d just be a Young Bullpen Lefty, but suddenly here he was, starting games and winning them. So he certainly counts.

Does he prefer to go with good offensive players or did he like the glove men?


Well, I wouldn’t say he’s had a lot of either. Bonds you play no matter what, barring, say, a devastating injury, and he’s pretty much become a liability out there. Grissom became one, too, but he played almost every day when healthy. Ray Durham, ditto. Cruz gets a lot of time at second base, but he’s not a second baseman. (Nor is he much of a shortstop, since you asked.) Ellison has a good defensive rep, but I have the feeling that’s mostly because he’s fast. So to actually answer the question above, you pretty much have to conclude that he likes hitters. On the other hand, J.T. Snow has been his first baseman, for the most part, even though he hasn’t hit much in two of Alou’s three years. And Snow is an occasional defensive replacement.

Having Mike Matheny behind the plate suggests that he at least appreciates the value of a good defensive catcher. (Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that Matheny is a good defensive catcher; some folks think otherwise. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen any particularly effective measures that would tell us how good a given catcher is on defense.) He certainly doesn’t hit much. Aside from perennial backup Yorvit Torrealba, now gone, Alou’s catchers the last two years were Benito Santiago and A.J. Pierzynski, neither of whom was in there for his glove. On the other hand, neither was anything close to a spectacular hitter—I guess they were just perceived that way.

Does he like an offense based on power, speed, or high averages?


Not high OBPs, that’s for sure. He doesn’t seem to value walks at all, as his own playing career might suggest. That’s why we’d see, for instance, Ellison in the leadoff spot. Alou seems to like high averages, given Ellison’s and Niekro’s early success and Sanchez’ immediate insertion into the lineup in the top spot. I get the sense that Alou likes speed, but the Giants rarely have any of that, and this year is no exception. Durham, for instance has sick legs now—only two—so he doesn’t steal. Ellison tried to, quite a bit, but then started getting thrown out constantly, as if he’d been aching for it. Vizquel is the closest thing this team has to a stolen-base threat, and he’s been getting thrown out a lot lately. It remains to be seen if Winn’s speed will have an impact. In any case a real “disruptor” just isn’t a priority for the Giants, and a lot of baseball analysts will tell you that stolen bases aren’t that important anyway. Speed in the outfield is, though, and with the gimpy Grissom and Moises Alou out there, not to mention Feliz, the Giants’ outfield has been cringe-making, for the most part. With Winn out there, at least, the complexion has changed somewhat.

Does he use the entire roster or did he keep people sitting on the bench?


I swear, he’d put all 25 men in the game if he could. If a guy sits for any length of time, you have to assume he’s hurt.

Does he build his bench around young players who could step into the breach if need be, or around veteran role-players who had their own functions within a game?


Alou clearly likes versatility, so that may be a higher priority than either of those criteria. However, you’d have to say he leans toward veteran role-players, such as Perez, Cruz, and even Feliz. He’s more reluctant to throw a young player such as Todd Linden into the deep end.

GAME MANAGING AND USE OF STRATEGIES


Does he go for the big-inning offense, or does he like to use the one-run strategies?


Alou sometimes, but not terribly often, bunts when he shouldn’t. (No Ransom-for-Galarraga setups here.) He’ll almost always bunt his pitcher with one out, which I’m okay with—I mean, you may as well get a guy into scoring position if you’re going to get out anyway—but on the other hand, double plays have just murdered this team this year (and, thanks in large part to Pierzynski, last year). Dusty used to bunt a lot because, I thought, he didn’t trust the ability of any of his baserunners to reach second on their own power. So there has to be a happy medium between nearly gratuitous bunting and constant double plays.

Unlike Dusty, Alou will squeeze now and again, and he likes the hit-and-run, which he’ll sometimes use in an effort to help a slumping hitter. Another thing is, the Giants don’t have a big-inning-style offense, so one-run strategies are the order of the day. Sadly, the team’s lack of speed makes that a tough row to hoe. Also, these guys do seem to make a lot of unproductive outs: lots of popups, short fly balls, and grounders to third with runners on second.

Does he pinch-hit much, and if so, when?


He doesn’t pinch-hit much for nonpitchers, at least not this year. For instance, I would have expected to see Matheny pulled for a pinch-hitter now and again, but that doesn’t happen. He’ll pinch-hit for his pitchers about as often as he should, but the “trouble” inning seems to be the bottom of the sixth or top of the seventh, depending on whether the Giants are home or not. If it’s Jason Schmidt or Lowry, let him hit if he’s not worn out. If it’s Rueter, Brad Hennessey, or Kevin Correia, you’re not going to get much more out of him, so pull him. With Brett Tomko, you never know. All too often we’ve seen Alou let a pitcher hit and then get bombed once he’s back on the mound.

Is there anything unusual about his lineup selection?


Double-play king Snow batting second leaps readily to mind. Longtime leadoff man Durham batting fifth behind Moises Alou certainly is weird. Batting Cruz anywhere above sixth is odd. Batting Niekro third makes hardly any sense at all. Feliz seems to migrate slowly between the third and seventh spots, with many stops along the way. And sometimes Alou will go with an all-righty lineup against a lefty, but not always. Also, it’s not at all unusual for Alou, when he sits a regular, to put the replacement into that player’s spot. I think we see this more with, say, the second and third spots than fourth and fifth.

Does he use the sac bunt often?


Every time a pitcher is up with less than two outs and a runner on first and/or second, and often first and third, he’ll bunt. With the position players, I don’t see it that often. Vizquel and Ellison like to bunt for hits, though, and often their failed attempts will be credited as sacrifices. Alou also will ask the wrong kind of guy to bunt—say, a Snow or an Alfonzo or a Tucker.

Does he like to use the running game?


Oh, I’m sure he’d love to if he had one. He’s tried it out with Ellison and Vizquel, mostly, to very little avail. He’ll hit-and-run more than Dusty seemed to, and certainly he’ll squeeze more often.

In what circumstances would he issue an intentional walk?


I think mostly to get the pitcher to the plate. Sometimes he uses it to load the bases and set up a devastating hit by a weaker batter. In fact, he doesn’t use the intentional walk all that much.

Does he hit and run very often?


He seems to try it about every third game. Is that often? I don’t know. He does like to stay out of the double play, and I think he’s more likely to hit-and-run than to steal or bunt.

How does he change the game?


Does he? If anything, he impacts the demographics of his roster. Currently active are 14 white players, seven Latinos, and four African Americans. (Compare this with the Latino-bereft Roger Craig years, for instance.) Of the 12 pitchers, 10 are white, but of the seven infielders (counting Feliz), only the first basemen are, with one African American and four Latinos. Alou’s outfielders tend to be African American or Latino, though this is less obvious with Grissom, Ellison, and Sanchez recently taking a hike.

There’s nothing, though, that would lead me to believe that he “changes the game.” That’s not a criticism, though.

HANDLING THE PITCHING STAFF


Does he like power pitchers, or did he prefer to go with the people who put the ball in play?


Schmidt, Tomko, and Correia throw hard; Hennessey and Lowry, not so much. Alou inherited Rueter, but obviously he liked him enough to keep him in Montreal from 1993 into ’96. Eyre throws hard, but Christiansen and Fassero don’t. Walker throws pretty hard, as do LaTroy Hawkins and Jeremy Accardo; Scott Munter doesn’t, and Benitez doesn’t throw as hard as he used to.

None of this answers the question, really, but over the years, especially during the Dusty years, the Giants didn’t strike out a lot of guys per nine innings. This year they have two closers who are power pitchers, more or less. Eyre gets strikeouts. But except maybe for Schmidt, I don’t think this team has anybody hitters are afraid to face.

I don’t know that either Alou or Sabean has a marked preference.

Does he stay with his starters, or go to the bullpen quickly?


Both. Frequently he either doesn’t stay with them long enough or he leaves them in too long. Often, when I’m watching a game, I seem to figure out when a starter is tiring before he does. I don’t know why—maybe I’m seeing something that registers subconsciously. I do know that when I think a guy is losing it, I get antsy because Alou and Dave Righetti don’t seem to be acting on it fast enough.

I don’t get a strong sense that Alou pays attention to pitch counts. If he did, he’d have known—well, this would mostly be the last two years, because this year was off-the-charts bad—to pull Rueter after about 90 pitches, without fail.

Does he use a four-man rotation?


Who does anymore?

Does he use the entire staff, or does he try to get five or six people to do most of the work?


Oh, he uses everybody. He runs his bullpen into the ground, partly because he seldom has more than one starter who can go even a full six consistently. Schmidt does, but he still throws lots of pitches.

Not that I think Walker is any kind of star, but I do think that Alou wore him out, even though the Giants haven’t had that many save situations this year. Walker, for instance, has had at least a few games in which he entered during the eighth inning, and he seems to have guys warm up often, which takes a toll. Lately, in fact, Christiansen complained in the papers about how Alou uses his bullpen. I’m not sure that’s entirely his fault, though. True, he seems reluctant to keep Correia or Hennessey out there past the sixth, but otherwise there are huge periods where you just can’t expect a starter to last much past the fifth. In other words, the starting rotation needs some kind of upgrade. At the moment, I would say that means replacing Tomko.

How long would he stay with a starting pitcher who was struggling?


Well, at what point do we determine “struggling”? In the second, when he gives up three runs on two doubles, a single, and a walk? Or in the seventh, when he walks the first two hitters? I’ll tell you this, though: He’ll stay with that closer till the sound of the Trump of Doom. He showed that with Benitez early in the year against the Dodgers, when hit after hit after hit gave them a victory that never should have happened, and he showed it with Walker on Friday, when the Cardinals turned an 0-4 deficit into a 5-4 win.

When it’s a starter giving up a quick three or four, Alou often will let him try and right the ship, at least if the pitcher is a veteran. Last year, if I remember right, he pulled Lowry a couple times with the lead during the fifth inning.

Is there anything unique about his handling of his pitchers?


I hope so. He does not tend to win those games where seven pitchers appear in the ninth inning. His constant, almost desperate attempt to gain the platoon advantage on defense drives me crazy, along with everyone else. Eyre, for instance, gets righthanded hitters out just fine... but he’ll pull him in favor of, I dunno, Brandon Puffer because there’s a righthanded hitter on deck. Some day in the distant future (I hope, for all concerned), when Alou manages in heaven, when Rafael Belliard shows up as a pinch-hitter, I fully expect Alou to pull Sandy Koufax and bring in Stephen Mintz to face him, only to see Barry Bonds come up instead. You’d think a manager would ask himself, “Which matchup would I prefer?” Sometimes Alou doesn’t seem to.

What is his strongest point as a manager?


Maybe that he has good instincts about resting position players. He’s said to be a good motivator and a good guy to play for, but that’s hard to reconcile with the idea that he often doesn’t communicate directly with his players. To me he does seem very smart and thoughtful, though. I do feel that he manages the team, not just the ballgames.

If there were no professional baseball, what would he have done with his life?


Retire early and fish nonstop.

2 comments:

  1. Part of what's interesting is how things have changed since James created this thing ... some of the managerial decisions regarding the roster are different now because it seems like most teams have larger pitching staffs. Alou doesn't do much with his bench because there isn't much there. And I guess it's part of the same story that he uses his bullpen a lot because he has lots of pitchers there.

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  2. Agreed. I can’t remember for sure, but did they use 24-man rosters back then? That would even it out a *bit*... but then some teams used only nine pitchers. Alou sometimes uses 13, and that really hamstrings him.

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