Ned Yost has the revved-up Kansas City Royals on track for their first World Series trip in 29 years. Still, in his first postseason as a manager, every choice he’s made has been dissected — and, in many cases, flat-out destroyed.
Bruce Bochy has the San Francisco Giants positioned for a third trip to the Fall Classic in five years. Yet before and after games, he’s had to justify all sorts of decisions.
That’s playoff baseball. Every move is magnified, and the scrutiny is relentless.
“We’ve already considered all of our options and what we want to do when we get there,” Yost said. “If it works out, then I look smart. If it doesn’t, then I’m stupid. And that’s just the way it works.”
In an age of instant opinions and insider access, there is no shortage of second-guessing in the postseason, where all eyes are on one game at a time. As the intensity on the field increases with each successive round, so does the attention focused on the dugout.
With the rise of sabermetrics and analytics tools, managers have NASA-like access to data.
So do the fans.
“You know every move, whether it works or not, is probably going to be questioned,” Bochy said. “It’s the game now.”
In 2009, Yankees manager Joe Girardi famously — or was it frustratingly? — consulted his black binder before making decisions. Shots of Girardi studying that book was so prevalent during New York’s run to the World Series title, it became comedy: the binder earned its own fake Twitter account and was given plenty of TV time.
None of the skippers leading teams into the playoffs this year have as prominent a prop as the binder, but you can bet they all have their color-coded lefty-righty matchup charts and a coaching staff that has gleaned every bit of information it could from spray charts and hitter’s heat maps.
Yost, whose wild-card Royals have won six straight postseason games this year and holds a 2-0 lead over the Baltimore Orioles in the AL Championship Series, said he and his coaches had perfectly envisioned the ninth inning rally that propelled Kansas City to a win in Game 2 Saturday night.
“We do that a lot,” Yost said of predicting outcomes. “It works out about once about every seven times when you have a plan.”
Yost’s introduction to the postseason, however, got off to a rocky start and, boy, did he hear about it.
Just one inning into the AL wild-card game, the Royals botched a double steal with Eric Hosmer thrown out at home. Then in the sixth, he went with hard-throwing rookie Yordano Ventura, a starter who was on one days’ rest, in a relief role rather than using his vaunted bullpen.
Twitter lit up before Oakland’s Brandon Moss touched home plate after homering.
“Ventura was pitching on one day rest having thrown 70-75 pitches....horrible managerial decision by Yost,” wrote ESPN commentator and former big league general manager Jim Bowden in a typical reaction.
Yost’s explanation after the game?
“We got to that point where we just wanted to bring the gas,” he said.
Bochy ran into trouble, too, for a bullpen decision — much of the second-guessing is about pitching changes.
In Game 1 of the NL Division Series, rookie Hunter Strickland yielded a monster home run to Washington’s Bryce Harper. Bochy again went to Strickland in Game 4, and Harper again wowed with a long ball.
Bochy never considered using another pitcher.
“No, he was our seventh-inning guy,” Bochy said.
To the follow-up question of “Even with Harper coming up?” Bochy chose to lighten the mood.
“Yeah, yeah, and you’re hoping lightning doesn’t hit twice, but it did,” he said to laughter.
It’s a bit easier to look back when you’re a two-time World Series winning manager.
“You can’t ever lose that feel or that ‘gut’ decision, I think, because now you’re going to get influenced because of numbers,” Bochy said. “Sure, they play a part in it, but how a player is playing or swinging the bat or throwing the ball, that’s gotta come into play.”
The Orioles’ Buck Showalter, in his first Championship Series, agreed, it’s more than numbers.
“I could go over about a hundred decisions Ned and I and all the guys have to make, and the players, more importantly, have to make,” Showalter said. “It can be kind of maddening if you let it, but you trust your instincts and know your guys.”
One thing all the managers agree upon is that playing in the postseason requires some adjustments. During the 162-game regular season, a loss in June can be written off. Not in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series.
“I believe that you have to manage with a different sense of urgency in the postseason,” Yost said. “We’re doing things differently. We’re defending a little bit earlier. We’re pinch-running more in certain situations to try to win baseball games.”