It was either a(nother) sign that Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon is not particularly good at his job … or the ultimate small-sample size move based on solid numbers but bad logic … or a more shrewd move than we realize that just happened to backfire when Mauer hit an RBI single … or a referendum of where Mauer is in his career … or ?
But I’m not ready to let it go yet. There are 162 baseball games a season, maybe more for the Twins this year if they can reel off another hot streak like the one they had in May. Small details and moments tend to be forgotten quickly, often as soon as the next pitch of the next game is thrown on the next day. But no, I’m not ready to let it go.
Is McClendon a bad manager? Is that all this is — someone bad at his job making a dumb move? Nah, that’s too easy. McClendon was in Pittsburgh with some utterly green teams that lacked talent for his first managerial stint, racking up losing season quickly. With a little talent and lessons learned, he led the Mariners to 87 wins last season; they’ve fallen back this year, but the balance is probably this: he’s not one of the best, and he’s not one of the worst. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe put him at No. 12 in his preseason rankings. That might be a little high, but Cafardo knows his stuff.
So let’s dig into the logic of the move a little. Hicks has been on fire. Since July 5, he’s hitting .397 with eight extra-base hits (including four homers) and a 1.137 OPS. It’s only 68 at bats, but it’s a scorching few weeks for a guy who had really shown little at the plate up to this point. Mauer, in the same span, had been pretty much what he has been all season: a .282 average and a .702 OPS. Also, with a left-handed pitcher on the mound, this factor comes into play: Hicks, a switch-hitter, is pounding lefties to the tune of a .404 average and 1.092 OPS this year. Mauer hits both lefties and righties with equal mediocrity this season (.722 OPS vs. .724). The short-term numbers, then, are screaming: walk Hicks. He’s more dangerous at this particular time against this particular pitcher.
Here’s where we must decide, though, if the flaw was in believing those numbers or if the only flaw was that the right move led to a poor result for the Mariners. And this, really, is the heart of pretty much every advanced stats vs. baseball instincts debate.
The numbers can tell you a little bit about high-leverage or low-leverage situations. What they don’t tell you is how each individual is going to react to each specific situation. The best they can do is provide a set of data from what has already happened in an attempt to explain what is going to happen.
This is both beautiful and dangerous because looking at the numbers from different angles will lead you to different conclusions. It also works better with inanimate objects or long-term trends than it does with human beings trying to hit a baseball, though I do absolutely believe there is a very important place in baseball for the consideration of advanced metrics — just as I believe very strongly in the human element.
Who is more likely to take a better at-bat in an 8-5 game at that moment against a left-handed pitcher: a guy who has been hot for three weeks but has a .227 lifetime average and has been intentionally walked exactly one other time in his career or a guy who has won three batting titles and — while he isn’t the same hitter he once was — has been intentionally walked 10 times this season (six more than any other teammate) and 125 times in his career (eighth-most among active players)?
Does it matter that a guy like Mauer, not fiery but certainly a man with pride, was probably at least smirking and a little annoyed when he got to the plate — and motivated to get a hit after a move that, on its face, inspires a “you have to be kidding me” reaction? Is that even a thing, and if that’s even a thing does it matter?
Is this a signal of a shifting of the guard — that while some teams deem Mauer dangerous (as evidenced by those 10 IBBs this year), there is at least one team that looks at him as a favorable option to go after compared to a guy who had a .563 OPS as recently as July 4? Is this a boon for Hicks, a sign that he has turned some sort of corner in terms of fear and respect?
I don’t know. And we’ll never really know any of this, which is the beautiful yet maddening gift of any second-guessing scenario. Even if we could go back and play it out both ways — pitching to Hicks or pitching to Mauer — we wouldn’t have proof that one was right or wrong. We’d just have proof of what worked or didn’t work — and even then, we might have had similar outcomes.
My best conclusion is this: I can talk myself into thinking it wasn’t a bad move — just a bad outcome for Seattle — because Hicks is hot and mashes lefties. But I can talk myself out of it pretty quickly when I think about long-term odds and short-term bets. And I think the Mariners arrived at what they thought was a logical conclusion based on too much information and not enough thought — a dangerous mix that led to what could have proven to be an important run with the way the Twins bullpen has been going.
But I’m done thinking about it now. I’m ready to let it go. I’m ready for the next weird baseball question with an impossible answer.