Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Micro-Manager Gibbons

" There are cliques in the Blue Jay clubhouse, you can see them from outside the door; but Gibbons actions have led to private club house politics getting out to the media. "

A pleasant June evening for a ball game at Rodgers Centre. The Jays are in contention a week after the All-star game, and Roy Halladay is starting; its smiles all around for the reconstituted Jays, sans Shea Hillenbrand.

When Vernon Wells hit the majestic home run in 11th inning, a walk-off win over The New York Yankees, it seemed like a crucible moment, the team was reborn. Eleven games over .500, they were Toronto's favorite under-dogs, the come-back kids.

The team seemed stronger than the One, or the avarice of the General Manager, or even the short fuse of the Manager.

Halladay had was one of his, 'Retired-Rodger-Clements' type Starts (fast ball then junk, more junk; out pitch: more junk); he gained no decision. Later Ryan blew a save.

This was the first game since Manager Gibbons 'called out' Hillenbrand for his 'cancerous' (media spin) behavior. The reserved intellectual, under utilized corner man didn't understand the confrontational mannerisms of his boss. Hillenbrand apparently thought Gibbons was challenging him to a fight. Subsequently these events were leaked to the media, Ricciardi's hand was forced and Hillenbrand was released.

In retro-spect,the issue was not sophomoric quotes scribbled on the line-up board or else where. The starting staff was tired and the bullpen was shaky. After two years of over-work the pitching staff was showing cracks and fissures everywhere; brush fires in long relief, the odd explosion in the set up slot, blown saves.

Bad starts were leading to early runs-against; and the Nine-Cylinder-Offense was sputtering. Hillenbrands exile wasn't the panacea. Something had to be done to save Bird-Land soon, or this run would be done.

On July 30th Halladay had another of his 'Retired-Rodger-Clements' starts, he struggled and left with a no-decision. The nine-cylinder-offence surged from behind to take a 2 run lead, then Ryan blew the save and collected a loss.

Concerning pitching up until this point, Gibbons philosophy was: If a starter is keeping you in a game, even if he's given up 7 runs but is only trailing by 3, leave him. Study his command and control, consult with the catcher and pitching coach, use your judgment. It's one of the things I think makes Gibbons a very good manager.

After an off day, Gibby pulled Burnett after 4 innings - behind by 3. He must have thought Burnetts arm was dead, or Burnett told him it was so.

I think this is the game where Gibbons decided that to win this year, he had to micro-manage the starting staff. So now, not only was he managing a complex platoon system on defense, and his brilliant management of the bull-pen, he now took upon himself the micro-management of the starting staff. He figured he could take the pressure off his league leading offence by paying more individual attention to the starting staff.

Gibby has 3 starters; he's been searching the organization to find a 4 & 5 since Chacin went down and Towers didn't rise to expectations. Its been open season all season on Blue Jay pitching this season. This left Gibbons with some flexibility; so if one of the three starters had a bad outing - perhaps 5 days rest instead of 4 would help. This created a complex algorithm in the starters line up where only Halladays' starts kept a regular rhythm. At the same time, Gibbons continued to search for major league starting pitching by giving hopefuls spot starts, and follow-up starts if they did well.

He's good at evaluating the strengths of players and in setting them up to succeed; he leads by demanding respect of the Team - by the team.

Gibbons pitching experiment reminds me of what La Russa tried after the heyday in Oakland in the early 1990's. He declared the team would run a starter-by-committee rotation. It was in the dog days of summer in a losing year, the team was down on itself. La Russa was content that he had thoroughly searched the organization for starters - there were none.

So he proposed that every pitcher should think of themselves as part of a Pitching Team. The 'team' rebelled. If a starter doesn't pitch at least 5 innings he cannot get a Win. The team rebelled not because the idea might not work, but because the arbitration process which determines player salary has come to rely heavily on statistical WINS. Next arbitration year the Oakland pitching staffs pay would plummet. Starters are marketed like gods by MLB, because the pitcher/batter duality is easy to photograph; the arbitration process reflects this truth.

There are cliques in the Blue Jay clubhouse as well, you can see them from outside the door; but in trying to create a Team, Gibbons actions have led to private club house politics getting to the media.

The first transgression came when he tried to call out the reserved Hillenbrand in front of the team, barging into a player-only meeting. He should have talked to Hillenbrand one on one about his Secret Sedition Campaign. Gibbons was a stand up guy in the eyes of some in that clubhouse, as Hillenbrand wouldn't say anything to Gibbons face; but Gibbons crossed several lines in the way he acted.

The Lilly fight was the other incident to darken the threshold of the clubhouse.

Manager Gibbons was well into the theory and practice of micro-managing the starters, so in the third inning he came to get Lilly, who was down by three runs. Before micro-ball management theory Gibbons would have left Lilly in; but Lilly seemingly didn't understand the new paradym at that moment, and he wouldn't give the manager the ball, showing him up in front of a million eyes. Lilly then compounded the problem, breaking a clubhouse rule by leaving the bench before the Team was out of the inning. Gibbons then chased Lilly down the tunnel to confront him for not handing over the ball.

In hind-sight the way to handle the situation would have been to talk to Lilly much later, privately; not in front of the Team, not during the television/radio broadcast, not with 30,000 fans in the RC. Instead, they brawled in the tunnel. Fans who phoned the post-game show on the FAN590 said they, '.. saw the bench clear like there was an emergency in the tunnel.'

Both incidents point to a manager who hasn't quite learned how to manage big league pressure. This is baseball though, in baseball you get three strikes. He's the best young manager I've ever seen. In his first year managing I counted 9 games where in-game desisions he made lead to wins, not including managing the best bullpen in the majors.

To quote J P Ricciardi, " It's all about the pitching. "

Pitching is exactly the cancer in Blue Jays plans this year; in the great crap-shoot of baseball injuries, Ricciardi crapped out in 2006.

Fans were taken on a roller-coaster this year, starting with the big signings in the spring and the WAMCO type line up that emerged early. From a starting staff that had two Aces, a good number Two and a good Three guy to pitch forth, plus the amazing rookie Towers; Until now, with the fall colors starting to show, we are left with one tired ace, three number threes and a blank spot for off-days.

I think Ricciardi has found Gibbons braking point, now its time to take the pressure down a little by getting more pitching. And don't sign any more corner infielders!

If Ricciardi fires The Micro-Manager this off-season, it ain't nothin' but scapegoating.


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