The Royals, Jimmy Gobble and the art of good managing vs. bad
The Royals released the 27-year-old Gobble, a left-handed relief pitcher, last week
Gobble held lefties to a .200 average last year but was hit hard by righties (.382)
I have asked many baseball people through the years: "How many games does a manager's moves win or lose over a season?" It's a pet question of mine, and generally the answers have hovered in the 3-5 games range. Of course, this means nothing. There is no science behind the poll.
And there's also no agreement behind what "a manager's moves" even means. Managers moves could be pregame moves (setting the lineup, arranging the bullpen, etc.), or it could mean in-game moves (to hit-and-run, to pull a pitcher, to sacrifice, etc.), or it could mean subtle moves (telling a pitcher who is struggling that he has confidence in him, resting a struggling hitter for a day to get his head on straight), or it could mean preemptive moves (having the team work extra on pitchers covering first, instituting a fine for any player who does not run out a ground ball, giving the take sign on 3-0), or it could mean big picture move (naming a player a captain, having a young player's locker set up next to a veteran player's), or it could mean a public relations move (calling out a player in the paper, giving a player a vote of confidence on the radio), or about 12 million other things.
But I think, mostly, when I ask the question, the people who answer are thinking about in-game moves. How often does a manager win a game with strategic excellence (or lose it by making the wrong move at the wrong time)? That, I would guess, is where the 3-5 number comes from. The best answer I ever got on this topic was from Ray Knight, shortly after he took over as Reds manager.
Knight gave the number most give -- five games or so -- and then said something like this: In baseball, great moves fail a lot. Terrible moves work sometimes. And most managers go by the book most of the time.
I thought that was pretty smart -- point being that it's really hard to tell managers apart (a topic that Bill James has written about extensively). Would Buddy Bell or Tony Muser have flopped as manager of the New York Yankees in the late 1990s? Would Joe Torre or Tony La Russa have turned around the Kansas City Royals' fortunes around the same time?
We can rail endlessly about how this manager abuses the bullpen, how that manager sets up his lineup without any easily accessible logic, how this manager gives up too many outs through bunts and ill-advised stolen base attempts, how that manager always seems to win even though his day-to-day strategies don't inspire thoughts of Garry Kasparov, and so on. But there are still mysteries to this game. There's an argument to be made that Bobby Cox is the best manager in baseball history -- I might lean toward Earl Weaver or Casey Stengel or someone like that, but anyone would conced that it's compelling evidence when a man in modern days leads teams to 15 division titles, five pennants (and only one World Series championship -- his Achilles heel).
But my point is not to argue the best manager ever but to say that when it comes down to it, I really have no idea why Bobby Cox is a great manager. I have theories, ideas, things I would love to explore. But what makes him great is something that I think is not as obvious as, say, what makes Bill Belichick great.
All of which (believe it or not) brings me to Jimmy Gobble.
The Royals released Jimmy Gobble this week, and it's hard to argue with the move. Gobble last year was 0-2 with an 8.81 ERA. It was a rather stunning move when the Royals offered him a $1.35 million contract in the first place. As it turns out, the Royals themselves were stunned by the move and cut him now -- and because of the rules of engagement, they owe him about $220,000.
Jimmy is a good soul who has lived several baseball lives. He began his career with that dubious "Tom Glavine type" tag -- it's probably fair to say that 96 percent of all pitchers who have been called a "Tom Glavine type" or "Jamie Moyer type," do not succeed. This is in large part because the most obvious things about Tom Glavine and Jamie Moyer -- they are left-handed pitchers who are not physically imposing and do not throw hard -- have very little to do with their success. For a few years there the Royals were the nation's leading producer of Tom Glavine types (Jose Rosado, Glendon Rusch, Chris George, Gobble, J.P. Howell) and the Royals' record was a general indication of the wisdom behind harvesting soft-tossing, physically unimposing left-handed pitchers.
Anyway, Gobble, 27, began as a Glavine starter, then he worked his way into the bullpen as a long reliever (and his fastball made the requisite jump in mph) and finally he became what he always should have been: A lefty specialist. Many teams do not have the luxury of carrying one pitcher whose only job is to get out left-handed batters. Plus, it takes great discipline and planning by a manager to make a pitcher like that work over a long season. You can probably see this thing coming around to the point now.
Royals manager Trey Hillman has admitted -- painfully -- that he regrets the way he used Jimmy Gobble in 2008. You can see the basic problem when you look at how right-handed and left-handed batters did against Jimmy:
Right-handed batters: .382/.517/.676 in 89 plate appearances.
Left-handed batters: .200/.246/.323 in 69 plate appearances.
That has to be one of the most extreme splits in baseball history. Right-handed batters were Rogers Hornsby. Left-handed batters were Jim Mason. But even that doesn't tell the full story. Here are a few batters vs. Gobble in 2008:
Joe Mauer: 1 for 6
And from 2007:
Grady Sizemore: 0 for 8 with five Ks
Of course, I'm cherry picking. In 2007 Jack Cust faced Gobble four times, walked three and hit a homer the other time. In 2008 Curtis Granderson got hits off Gobble both times they met. He wasn't infallible against lefties. But he was awfully good -- he got out even the toughest of left-handed batters.
And that's the general point: As Jimmy developed in his role, he did get lefties out. Now, he was preposterously bad against righties, but it sure seems like a good manager can reduce the sting. For instance, three of the four home runs Gobble gave up to righties in 2008 were: Mike Lowell at Fenway Park (a grand slam), Gary Sheffield (a three-run homer with Detroit leading 12-0) and Paul Konerko (a walk-off home run). Now, frankly, there is absolutely no reason for him to be pitching to any of those guys. Jimmy was in there to: (A) Save the bullpen; (B) Rescue a bullpen that was stretched beyond its means or (C) Get an out that he was very unlikely to get. Jimmy was the one who gave up the home runs, and nobody is trying to shield him from the responsibility. But I would have to say that a good manager would not have put him in position to give them up.*
*And let me say here that I am NOT saying Trey Hillman is a bad manager. I'm saying that in my view he was a bad manager in 2008. But it was only his first year, and he should be a lot better because of the experience.
In many ways, the Jimmy Gobble story is a perfect little synopsis of good managing and bad. A good manager has an uncanny way of consistently putting his players in positions where they can succeed. There are no perfect players, but more than that, there are very, very few players who do not have serious and easy-to-define weaknesses in their game. Some hit but don't field, some field but don't hit, some cannot catch up to hot fastballs, some cannot lay off the outside slider, some throw too many pitches, some cannot get lefties out, some do not walk, some are not aggressive enough, on and on and on and on forever. Seems to me that the part of managing that matters most -- and maybe this is where Bobby Cox shines -- is setting up game after game after game so that more of your players get to play to their strengths.
Does this mean that the Royals made a mistake releasing Jimmy? Well, not exactly. The Jimmy Gobble that the Royals released had an 8.81 ERA and could not get out right-handed batters. There's no room on a big league roster for THAT player. But will a team pick up Gobble, use him exclusively as a lefty specialist, and help him become a valuable big league pitcher?
They might, rabbit. They might.*
*From the classic, "Bugs and Thugs."
Bugs Bunny as police officer: "All right, where's Rocky? Where's he hiding?"
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for the Kansas City Star and the author of joeposnanski.com.
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