Nine of the worst postseason managerial decisions
1. John McNamara keeps Bill Buckner at first base in Game Six of the 1986 World Series
All baseball fans are familiar with the iconic image of Bill Buckner watching a groundball go between his legs in extra innings during game six of the 1986 World Series. The Buckner play became the living embodiment of the "Curse of the Bambino." In Buckner’s defense, the play probably should have never happened, and it’s all his manager’s fault.
Throughout the first five games of the ’86 World Series, Red Sox manager John McNamara had put his club in a position to win. Part of doing so was removing Buckner late in games for a defensive replacement in Dave Stapleton. In fact, McNamara lifted Buckner for Stapleton in Games One, Two, and Five. Why did McNamara feel it was necessary to lift Buckner for Stapleton in those games? Ray Sons of the Chicago-Sun Times posed the question on everyone’s mind during the series itself:
“Watching Bill Buckner try to play in this World Series makes one wince. He said before the Series began that someone would have to shoot him to keep him out of it. If he were a racehorse, someone would. Every game, the No. 3 man in the Red Sox batting order extends his Series record for most innings played without ankles. The pain and frustration are written all over his face. The question must be asked: Should he be out there at all?”
The Red Sox had taken the lead in extra innings yet McNamara opted to leave Buckner in the game anyway. Buckner had been dealing with sever ankle injuries and a damaged achilles for years, and 1986 was a particularly bad time in his career for his injured legs.
Beyond Buckner’s Game Six blunder, the first baseman struggled at the plate over the course of the entire playoffs hitting just .200 during the 1986 postseason. After Game Six, Buckner was hitting a meager .179, so there was really no reason for him to be on the field at all, much less in extra innings with a lead and Stapleton on the bench.
Bill Buckner became the scapegoat for a Red Sox team that was one out away from a World Series victory. Sadly though, Buckner was only scapegoat-able because his manager made the extremely poor decision to have him in the game in the first place. We’ll never know what might have happened had Stapleton replaced Buckner in the bottom of the 10th that night. At the very least, the results couldn’t have been worse. —Jeff Long
2. Joe Torre bats Alex Rodriguez eighth in Game Four of the 2006 ALDS
You should always judge a manager’s decision based on the information that he has before the decision, not on what the result was. I even believe in cutting managers some slack for decisions made on the fly in the craze of the haze. But then there was the A-Rod thing in 2006. In Game Four of the Division Series that the Yankees played against the Tigers, Joe Torre decided that A-Rod, because of his performance in the first three games of the series (he was 1 for 12 to that point) would be demoted to the eighth spot in the lineup. Rodriguez was in the middle of an era of dominance, having won the AL MVP in 2003 and 2005 (and he would win it again in 2007). Of the nine Yankees who were in the lineup that night (Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, a young Robinson Cano, A-Rod, and Melky Cabrera), Rodriguez wasn’t even having the worst series so far (Cano was hitting .091 for the series going into the game; Sheffield was hitting .125). A-Rod also had the highest seasonal OPS of all of those hitters. It’s a stacked lineup looking back, and if you want to make the case that one of those other hitters might have had a bit of an edge on him, that’s fine, but … A-Rod was the second-worst hitter in that group? Really?
The narrative at the time (and now) was that A-Rod wasn’t clutch enough to handle the big situation. He was a liability in the middle of the lineup. He was arguably the best player in baseball, and yet the Yankees found themselves down 2-1 to the Tigers in the Series. Why had he not single-handedly won the World Series for the Yankees yet? Joe Torre disregarded an entire season of production from Rodriguez based on three games. In the end, it didn’t much matter. The Yankees lost 8-3 and went home for the winter. But this sort of warped emotionalism conflating a couple of bad games with moral failing continues to this day. —Russell A. Carleton
3. Grady Little sticks with Pedro Martinez in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS
You know it. You love it or you hate, but you know it. Game Seven, bottom of the eighth inning. Pedro Martinez mostly cruising — although, you know, maybe not quite so much at this point, come to think of it. In the seventh, he’d allowed a two-out solo homer to Jason Giambi and then a pair of singles before getting out of the inning with a 4-2 lead. But when David Ortiz hit a solo homer of his own in the top of the eighth, restoring the three-run cushion for the Red Sox, maybe it was time to start feeling safe. Petey had done his job, more than 100 pitches. The bullpen could get six outs. The Red Sox would go to the World Series, which they hadn’t won in 85 years.
Oh, but here’s Pedro to start the bottom of the eighth. Hmm. But, well, gets the first out, no problem. Boston’s win expectancy increases to a game-high 94 percent. Then Jeter doubles. Well, it’s Jeter. Then Bernie Williams singles him home. 5-3. Pedro has thrown 115 pitches. Up next is Hideki Matsui. Lefty. Already hit a double off Pedro in this game, and also one off him in Game Three. Grady Little comes out to the mound. Time to call on Alan Embree, a lefty, ready in the pen.
Except, wait, no, he’s leaving Pedro in. He’s leaving Pedro in?! He left Pedro in. It wasn’t even really a conversation. Kind of, “You’re Pedro Martinez, right?” Pedro nodded, Grady was like, “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Patted him on the shoulder, went back to the dugout.
Pedro gets ahead, 0-2. Then leaves one up. Matsui hits another double, ripping a ground-ruler to right. Williams moves to third.
A single will probably tie the game. OK, now Grady’s going to take Pedro out. Except, wait, no, he’s leaving Pedro in. He’s leaving Pedro in?! He left Pedro in. Jorge Posada is coming up. Petey and ‘Sado had some screams at each other in Game Three; there’s a lot of lingering mads because of Game Three, when pitchers hit batters (like Karim Garcia!) and Petey threw Don Zimmer on the ground. It’s big-time playoff baseball. On a 2-2 count, Martinez gets Posada to hit a little flare into shallow center field. He wins the battle. Except, wait, no, none of the three Red Sox fielders converging on the ball are going to be able to catch it. It lands on the grass, it’s a pop-fly double because no one is available to cover second base, and it ties the game. It’s Pedro’s 123rd pitch.
Three innings later: Aaron Boone.
Thirty-eight innings after that: Jeff Weaver.
(These blunders: so famous. We did them both in a single Lineup Card almost exactly a year ago.)
You know, though, I might like to add one thing. Little’s decision to leave Martinez in stood out in greater relief against Joe Torre’s earlier decision not to extend that superstar courtesy to Roger Clemens. In the fourth inning, Torre replaced the Rocket — who had already allowed four runs and put runners on the corners with no outs — with Mike Mussina. Mussina not only stranded the runners; he pitched two more scoreless innings after that, going a long way toward allowing the Yankees to have their eighth-inning chance in the first place. We always recall the blunders. We aren’t as likely to recall the masterstrokes. —Adam Sobsey
4. Dusty Baker: a lifetime achievement award
The baseball crimes of Dusty Baker run deep. He’s considered a players’ manager, one who is loyal to his guys to a fault, which makes him prone to mistakes when it comes to the 7-10 p.m. portion of his job. He gave Neifi Perez 609 plate appearances once while he was sporting an on-base percentage that was sub-.300. It wasn’t a good look.
He’s had three high-profile collapses in the playoffs with three different teams. Baker’s work with the Giants and the Cubs features two of the biggest meltdowns in baseball history. Baker’s most famous gaffe involves the decision to take Russ Ortiz out of Game Six of the 2002 World Series when Ortiz was coasting to the finish line. The Giants were up 5-0 in the seventh in Game Six with the title in sight when Baker called for Felix Rodriguez to finish what Russ Ortiz started. The Giants did what no other baseball team in the 100-plus-year history of Major League Baseball had ever done that night: They blew a five-run lead in a potential World Series clinching game. Baker’s decision to go to the bullpen in that game has to be counted among the biggest World Series mistakes in baseball history. —Mauricio Rubio
5. Dick Williams lets Goose Gossage pitch to Kirk Gibson in Game Five of the 1984 World Series
Entering this matchup, Gibby was 1-for-10 against Goose with a single, a sac bunt, two popups, and seven strikeouts. Gossage knew this. Padres manager Dick Williams might have known this? After all, pitcher-vs-hitter stats were advanced metrics in 1984, as were Pac-Man cheat codes.
With runners on second and third in the eighth inning, Gossage needed to keep the Tigers lead to one run. A wider lead and Detroit likely clinches the series. Dick Williams held up the four fingers to walk Gibson, but Gossage talked him out of it. During this discussion, legend has it Gibson bet Sparky Anderson $10 that he wasn’t going to be walked and that he’d hit one out of the park. Back then $10 was a lot of money!
It’s a bit of hindsight; the other decision would have been to face Lance Parrish with the bases loaded and one out. Gossage had already given up a home run to him in that game. And Gibson had hit a dinger earlier in the game too. The real mistake by Dick Williams was not running out of the stadium and leaving a note to the bench coach that read, "DO WHATEVER YOU WANT, WE’RE DOOMED." Now that’s a smart managerial tactic: delegation. —Matt Sussman
6. Bruce Bochy’s strange decisions in Game Three of the 1998 World Series
While Bruce Bochy is regarded as one of the best managers in baseball today, Game Three of the 1998 World Series wasn’t his finest hour. With a one-run lead and no outs in the top of the eighth inning, Bochy brought closer San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman in to face the back half of the Yankees lineup. Three batters later, Scott Brosius hit a devastating homer, causing many pundits and fans to pin the loss on Bochy. With high stakes and a weak bullpen, Bochy’s call to the closer was defensible; the circumstances surrounding Hoffman’s entry were not.
Shortstop Carlos Gomez had ended the previous inning, and with the pitcher’s spot due up first in the eighth, Bochy made a seemingly innocuous double switch: Hoffman entered the game in Gomez’s slot while reserve Andy Sheets came in to play short and bat ninth.
The decision blew up in Bochy’s face after the Yankees took the lead. After Sheets grounded out leading off the eighth, Quilvio Veras and Ruben Rivera reached base. We’ll never know how the rally might have fared if John Vander Wal or Mark Sweeney had the opportunity to hit instead of Sheets, but only one run scored in the eighth. Incidentally, Rivera was only playing because Bochy had questionably used him to run for Tony Gwynn earlier in the contest, but let’s stick with one qualm at a time.
After two quick outs in the bottom of the ninth, catcher Carlos Hernandez singled. Bochy then inexplicably sent Vander Wal, one of the finest pinch-hitters of all time, in to run for his backstop. Mark Sweeney followed with a single batting for Hoffman, but that left Sheets to face Mariano Rivera with runners on the corners and two outs. It would have been a perfect spot to use Vander Wal, who had been acquired on Aug. 31 for that very situation. Alas, he was standing on third when Sheets struck out to end the game and for all intents and purposes, the series.
While Bochy may have wanted to save Sheets — the Padres had no reserve shortstops available — in case the game reached extra innings, there was another option available back when he called for Hoffman: If Bochy had inserted Hoffman for Hernandez instead of Gomez, he could have saved his reserve shortstop and his roster flexibility. The Padres were carrying three catchers in 1998, which would have allowed Bochy to double switch with Hernandez instead of Gomez. Subsequently, he could have used Vander Wal and Sweeney without hamstringing his defense if the Padres rallied to tie the game. Instead, a .230-hitting backup shortstop had to face vintage Rivera with the game on the line, and the rest was history. —Brendan Gawlowski
7. Ron Washington starts Michael Young at first base in the 2012 AL Wild Card game
Though many of the other managerial decisions on this list occupy much larger places in the “Baffling Decisions” Hall of Fame, the choice by Ron Washington to start Michael Young at first base in the winner-take-all 2012 Wild Card game still confuses to this day.
Though Young had plenty of experience at first, as well as the other infield positions, he’d fallen off defensively throughout the season, spending the majority of his 2012 time as the Rangers’ designated hitter. His offense had fallen off, as well, but Washington’s loyalty to one of the longest-tenured members of the Rangers organization meant it was extremely likely Young would get a start in the first playoff game of the year. However, a quick look at the lineup makes it clear that it would have been no problem for Young to start as the designated hitter, something that could have changed the outcome of the one-game playoff.
While it’s obvious why Mitch Moreland, the Rangers’ primary first baseman, didn’t start this game (Joe Saunders is a lefty, and Washington went with an eight-righty lineup), putting Young in the field over Mike Napoli would cause an issue later in the game. Yes, Young started nearly twice as many games at first as Napoli, but neither one of them offered the defensive value of the left-handed Moreland, so that’s a wash. The issue, of course, is what happened when Baltimore went to its bullpen for right-handed submariner Darren O’Day. In his second puzzling decision of the day, Washington elected to leave Young at first, pinch-hitting Moreland for starting catcher Geovany Soto, and therefore losing the DH by having to move Napoli behind the plate. Why not either start Napoli at first (if he was planning to play the matchup), or, if Young must start in the field, pinch-hit Moreland for Young (who led off the inning)?
Of course, these questions pale before the #narrative-setting error Young made on the first play of the game, a fumble that both caused me to spill a rather nice beer and seemed to take the life out of the game before it had really even begun. —Kate Morrison
8. Bruce Bochy rearranges his 2012 World Series rotation and has everybody like, ‘What?’
I know we tend to do this thing with "bad" manager decisions where, when they backfire, we never let up on them, but when the manager gets away with them — or, worse, benefits from them — we never mention them again. That’s probably not fair; if we have faith in the idea of process, not results, we shouldn’t gloat when they go "our" way and we shouldn’t ignore when they don’t. Know what I mean? So I’ll just go ahead and say that I still can’t believe that Bruce Bochy set his rotation the way he did in the 2012 World Series.
Here were his pitchers: Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong, Tim Lincecum. OK, fine, take Lincecum out, as he had proven to be more effective in relief and a legitimately valuable weapon out there. The other four, ranked by ERA+:
1. Cain (126)
2 (tie). Bumgarner (105)
2 (tie). Vogelsong (105)
4. Zito (85)
But that’s just one year, looking backward instead of forward. How about what PECOTA thought of them at that point, by projected ERA:
1. Cain, 3.05
2. Bumgarner, 3.32
3. Vogelsong, 4.05
4. Zito, 4.32
No disagreement. That’s your pitching rotation, right there: Cain, Bumgarner, Vogelsong, then, by mandate of the law (or playoff schedule), Zito. Now, Cain had just pitched a couple days earlier. He couldn’t pitch Game One, or Game Two. No problem: If he starts Game Three, he’ll still get two starts in the series on full rest. So:
Well, Vogelsong pitched Game Six of the NLCS, so he won’t be ready until Game Three of the World Series. Fine, no big deal. He’ll go fourth, and the Giants will bite the bullet and let Zito pitch twice in the series. So:
(5, 6. 7: Bumgarner, Zito, Cain.)
Not bad! Here’s what Bochy went with:
1. Zito (!)
3. Vogelsong (!)
4. Cain (!!!!)
Still blows my mind. Just stunning. Of course, Zito beat Justin Verlander, drove in a run with a hit off Verlander, etc. The Giants swept the series. Cain pitched the clincher. Great decision, Bochy. Still don’t get it, never will. —Sam Miller
9. Jim Leyland sticks with Fernando Rodney; no arrows were fired that day.
Five years before Brad Ausmus was criticized for not letting Anibal Sanchez throw a third inning in Game One of the ALDS — leading to the epic eighth-inning meltdown by the Tigers’ pen — Ausmus’ predecessor Jim Leyland faced his own criticism for the opposite situation. For the third straight season, and the last time prior to the installment of the Wild Card game (which these games may have inspired), there was a Game 163 the day after the regular season drew to a close. And for the third straight season, it would be a game decided by one run. The Twins and Tigers battled back and forth for four hours and 37 minutes, seeing four lead changes and two separate late-inning ties (the Tigers tied it at four in the top of the eighth and the Twins tied it at five in the bottom of the 10th). There was the baserunning gaffe by Alexi Casilla that got him thrown out at home in the bottom of the 10th, the Brandon Inge HBP that wasn’t in the top of the 12th inning. There was so much packed into this game that it should have been part of the 2014 postseason.
The Tigers were on their fifth pitcher of the game when Fernando Rodney entered the game — Rick Porcello, Zach Miner, Fu-Te Ni, Brandon Lyon saw action before him. On one hand, Leyland did use his closer in the ninth inning on the road, which is a point in his favor. He threw seven pitches and got out of the inning, despite inheriting a runner on second base. In the 10th, Rodney threw 20 pitches, allowed the tying run to score (and the Casilla gaffe mentioned earlier got him back to the dugout without the loss), and after setting the Twins down 1-2-3 in the 11th, he had gotten eight outs on 39 pitches. Good job, good effort, right? Not so much. Leyland sent his closer, who hadn’t thrown more than two innings or 35 pitches all season, back out for a fourth frame — even after he’d allowed four baserunners and only struck out one thus far. Two singles and an intentional walk later, the Twins were advancing to the playoffs and Rodney was heading to free agency.
So what choices did Leyland have other than stretching his closer further than the instruction manual recommends? The Tigers bullpen wasn’t full of stars, but he did have Ryan Perry available. Funny enough, Perry (ERA: 3.79; FIP: 4.52) and Rodney (ERA: 4.40, FIP: 4.56) were awfully similar pitchers in 2009, except one was a proven closer and the other was a rookie. Perry hadn’t pitched in three days. The other option would have been to go with All-Star Edwin Jackson (yes, that was the one nod of his career), who had thrown 81 pitches four days earlier. Unfortunately, Jackson was fading a bit down the stretch, as he had a 5.45 ERA during August and September — though his strikeout and walk numbers were in line with his previous four months. At that point, almost anyone would have been an improvement on a slumping, bad closer who was on fumes. In fact, Rodney lowered his combined Septemeber and October ERA with this three-inning appearance, from 8.40 to 8.00. —Bret Sayre