Mike Zimmer’s decision to go for a first down instead of kicking a field goal late in the Vikings’ loss to Seattle last Sunday sparked a week’s worth of second-guessing.
Earlier this month, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli’s early removal of starting pitchers prompted a similar response.
What their approaches had in common: Neither worked.
How their approaches differed is much more interesting.
Zimmer’s decision could be justified analytically but, perhaps because of his reputation as an old-school coach, it seemed rooted in old-school, tough-guy philosophy. Baldelli’s seemed to be more the result of pure, modern analytics.
Meanwhile, the Astros swept the Twins, upset the A’s and surprisingly extended the ALCS against the Rays to Game 7 before losing 4-2 Saturday as Astros manager Dusty Baker engineered upsets with a decidedly old-school approach.
Instead of basing his decisions on deep analytics, sometimes he simply looked into the eyes of his veteran pitchers to judge their resolve.
I don’t think so. There has to be room in sports for human intuition, and for leaders who know their players.
The 1991 World Series remains one of the high-water marks of Minnesota sports. In Game 7, Jack Morris came off the mound after nine shutout innings and told Twins manager Tom Kelly he wanted to go back out for the 10th. Kelly, who in a regular-season game likely would have called in closer Rick Aguilera, threw up his hands, turned away and said, “Ah, hell, it’s only a game.”
In today’s game, any manager other than Baker might have removed Morris after six or seven innings. That night, Morris pitched a scoreless 10th and earned the Series-clinching victory.
That isn’t proof that all moves should be made with the gut, or the heart. It’s just a suggestion that not every decision should be made with a calculator.
This isn’t even about old and new schools. Earl Weaver, Gene Mauch, Tony La Russa and Kelly were among the many managers who relied heavily on statistics. Successful modern managers like Baldelli work just as hard on their relationships with players as they do at calculating probabilities.
As someone who finds value in intuition and analysis, I would suggest that no leader should become a slave to philosophy.
That’s why I think Zimmer got it right in Seattle and Baldelli, as good a manager as he is, got it wrong.
Watching the Vikings-Seahawks game live, I thought Zimmer should have kicked the field goal that would have given his team an eight-point lead. That felt like the safe bet — Seattle would need to take the kickoff, drive for a touchdown and convert the two-point conversion just to send the game to overtime.
Instead, Zimmer and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak called for an inside run with Alexander Mattison, who got stuffed, leading to Seattle’s winning drive.
After the game, giving Zimmer’s decision more thought, I came to appreciate it. He was investing in his players and trying to remove any chance of Seattle winning. Gain 1 yard, and the Vikings win. He was also trying to win in a way that could revitalize his team. Winning at Seattle after converting a fourth-and-1 could have altered the course of the season.
In Game 2 of the Twins’ playoff series with Houston, Baldelli watched Jose Berrios fist-pump his way off the mound after finishing the fifth inning.
Berrios had allowed one run on two hits and two walks in five innings. He had struck out four. He had thrown 75 pitches. Baldelli removed him in favor of middle reliever Cody Stashak.
I’m sure the Twins have data indicating that Berrios’ effectiveness would wane after a certain number of pitches or trips through the lineup.
At some point, doesn’t an organization want to place its faith in its best and most important players?
Do you want the most important game of the season decided by one of your best pitchers, or a middle reliever?
Zimmer’s decision didn’t work out in Seattle, but his mentality might have helped the 2020 Twins. And if he faces a similar decision Sunday against the Falcons, he should probably go for it again.