Wednesday, October 15, 2003

11th Hour Resource Management -
Grady Little Vs. Jack McKeon  

"Managers use relief pitchers like a six-shooter. He fires it until it's empty
and then takes the gun and throws it at the bad guy" --
Dan Quisenberry

This has been an exceptional year for playoff games. The level of drama has been operatic (and the level of Greek tragedy has been Sophoclean). More great games to watch than any year I can remember: see-saw lead games, one-Pudge Army single-handedly turning things around games, freaky Hollywood-movie inning games, sweating bullets games, and a scarcity of blowouts. And one other thing, something that provides non-baseball managers an interesting scenario to study and show tactics under pressure.

This was the first year in baseball history where it took the playoff competitors in both leagues seven games to decide the pennants. Now, there weren't always playoffs. And even when they were instituted, it wasn't until '85 that the leagues expanded the playoff to best-of-seven from best-of-five. Nope, the losing teams have never shown, nor even had to show, so much collective gumption and sticktoitive-ness as in this unusual season.

Best-of-Seven is really quite different from Best-of-Five, especially when it comes to handling pitching. If he's been lucky to have clinched going into the last week of the regular season, a respectable manager can line up the first-round best-of-five game playoff rotation so his best pitcher starts game #1 and is available for #4, too, while his second best is available for #2 and #5. And if the two best starters have good outings, the bullpen can get recharged over 5 days of relative rest (two days between end of season and first playoff game, two days of playoff games, one day of travel after the second playoff game). If the team is battling to get into the playoffs, they aren't usually lining up for the future, they're firing off all their guns at once and exploding into space, as the 20th Century poet John Kay wrote, and that can have their pitching somewhat spent entering the first round.

By the time you get to the second round's best-of-seven, nothing is really lining up well unless you've had a cakewalk in the first round and swept your opponent. This didn't happen this year. Both series have gone to the wire. The underdogs in each series were both faced with life-or-death resource allocation decisions today. They took opposite approaches. They both won.

Jack McKeon: The Future is Now

Marlins' manager Jack McKeon today started Mark Redman, a crafty lefty. With the series against Chicago tied at 3 games apiece, he just has to win this game. It's reinforced for him personally because he's in his 70s. He didn't start this year as a manager, he was an in-season replacement that was an easy choice for a franchise that didn't think they were going anywhere this year because of their youth and because McKeon was already in the organization. But McKeon may not live forever, and he knows it. As my buddy Martin Marshall would say, Carpe Diem.

So to win today's game, he put every pitcher except yesterday's starter on notice they could be called upon. This keeps everybody's head in the game, and the Marlins have been thriving on this tight-team everyone-keyed-up approach since mid-May...it's what got them from nowhere to the seventh game of a Championship Series for the pennant.

When the Marlins starter got beaten up some early, he switched quickly to Brad Penny, a guy that had been punched up pretty heavily during the playoffs. The Fish notched some runs, and when they got a lead they wanted to protect, McKeon called on his best starter of late, Josh Beckett, for relief. Beckett had started and won a complete game 115-pitch (a full helping) game on Sunday (that is, he had two days rest). And McKeon left Beckett in for 4 innings and that was long enough to get the team to the ninth inning where they could use their reasonably effective closer Urgueth Urtain Urbina who did his job.

Though their rotation is not optimized for the World Series, Marlins win the pennant using every resource available.

The Jack McKeon Approach: Scrape up every available tool and apply it at the most likely moment, but leave no resource unapplied. It's an old-fashioned military theory (no longer fashionable among this country's military strategists). Worry about the future later.

Grady Little: Conservation for Maximum Total Effect

The Boston Red Sox' manager Grady Little has:

  • One superb starter who seems burned out for the year, but even on fumes is a formidable competitor (Pedro Martí­nez).
  • One quite good starter who's been inconsistent this year (Derek Lowe)
  • A tireless knuckleballer who can be adeityy one day and dog-dirt the next (Tim "The Vicar" Wakefield)
  • A gutty veteran but one who only puts up an average-or-better start half the time (John Burkett)
  • A late-season acquisition who was better-than average in only twoof hiss ten starts (Jeff Suppan)

In their series against the Yankees, his team down 3 games to 2 going into today's match. They have to win both today in New York and tomorrow in New York.

For somebackgroundd, here's a list of the work his starters have had in this series:

Game Date Pitcher Quality? Use?
1 Oct. 8 Wakefield A- Light
2 Oct. 9 Lowe D Average
Day Off        
3 Oct 11 Martí­nez C- Average
Day off        
4 Oct. 13 Wakefield A- Light
5 Oct. 14 Lowe D+ Heavy

Little needs to win two games, not one. Average thinking would opt for the best chance for today, and leave tomorrow for tomorrow. That would argue using Martí­nez today for the best chance now and then, if you won, scraping together what you could for a 7th game. But Pedro is tired, he pitching on fumes. His velocity is down and he's been hittable, and he hasn't been pitching on 3 days rest (what he would if you started him today), or 4 days rest. In fact, through a big part of the season, he was pitching every sixth day to conserve his Pedro-osity for the playoffs.

Little pulled what bridge players call a finesse. His thinking is to really win (the championship) he doesn't need to win today, he can only do it by winning both. So rather that shoot the moon with a tired Martí­nez followed by a mediocre Burkett, he decided to roll out a rested Burkett today (he's not going to get better with one more rest day) and have a probability of a better (more rested) Martínez tomorrow.

The Grady Little Approach: Bring to bear the maximum value over time without regard to optimizing against any one event. It's the healthy agricultural model, that aims to keep yields high year after year, even if that approach misses out on a single bumper harvest.

In Your Organization...

...You'll face back-against-the-wall situations where you have to apply resources to achieve the optimum yield. Personally, I usually favor the Grady Little approach (life is a marathon, not a sprint), although I use the McKeon approach when I have no choice. But I always consider both approaches every time, think both through, before picking one to apply. Neither is always right. Tomorrow, Little will be in a 7th game and he'll be in a position where he might have to use McKeon's approach. McKeon won, but he only has two days off before the World Series and his rotation is dis-optimized which can be costly against the caliber of team the Marlins are going to face.

Both approaches have virtues and vices. Apply them thoughfully.

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