10.11.2005

Autopsy of the 2005 Season: Part III - Alou's Hands Were Tied

Many fans were angry with Alou. They ridiculated his lineups. They blasted his use of the bullpen. They thought he went overboard in responding to racist comments, intended or not by the perpetuator. I think Felipe Alou did about as good as can be expected given the circumstances.

Lack of a Consistent Offense Hamstrung Any Lineup

Lineup contruction was a common complaint. One of the repeated complaints I heard about Alou's lineups was the batting of Feliz. While I agree that Alou is not consistent about his lineups, I think, whether intuitively or consciously, he is doing it in a good way.

The way I see it, after the loss of Bonds plus multiple losses of Moises (and it took him a while to get his stroke back when he returned) plus the impotent offense contribution for large stretches of time for Grissom (all season long), Alfonzo (basically since the first weeks of the season), Vizquel (basically since first month), Feliz (basically for the second half), Ellison (basically once he became a starter), Niekro (basically for the second half), Snow (missing much of middle of season), Matheny (second half of the season, though, at least that was expected of him given his career stats), Tucker (gone most of the season), even Durham (missing at start and end of season). In other words, there were a lot of poor performances all around and to expect Alou to find a great lineup among all that inconsistency is pure folly.

So I don't see much to complain about thought I do have a few complaints. People complained about Feliz batting third, but really, what was Alou suppose to do, he had to bat somebody there, to paraphrase his retort to complaints about his use of the bullpen. Alfonzo and Snow weren't hitting in the mid-part of the season and Niekro was not high OBP guy either. Grissom has just as low a rep as Feliz for OBP plus he was hitting horribly anyhow then when Ellison took over, he was a natural leadoff hitter. Vizquel and Matheny would have been silly choices. And, of course, Moises was batting 4th since Bonds was out.

That left Durham and Feliz as choices to bat 3rd. I can see going with Durham as 3rd instead of Feliz perhaps, but that would kill Moises AB because who is going to challenge him with Feliz batting after him? Durham, at least, would be a more valid threat hitting behind Alou. And whose AB would you rather "waste" with little protection, Durham's or Alou's?

Some also wondered about why Durham was not leading off. Again, nobody was really hitting that well so Felipe wanted Durham's higher offensive potential down lower in the batter order because no one else was delivering the power. Plus when Ellison did well initially, that freed Alou to bat Durham lower. Again, even when Winn was added because Ellison wasn't doing it, lack of power lower in the lineup forced Felipe to bat Durham lower.

My only problem was with Vizquel in the 2 spot all season long. Alou at least saw that Feliz wasn't doing so well at the end and put him down lower in the lineup. I guess the same thing here applied: who else could get on base well enough to hit 2nd? But at the end, perhaps a lineup starting with Winn, Snow, Durham, Bonds, Alou, would have been better overall; Durham at 6th, while protecting Alou to some extent, has his offensive talents wasted hitting down that low, he needs to be higher in the batting order and he hits for more power than Snow does.

In any case, most studies of lineup construction come up with just a few strong conclusions. One is that you need a good leadoff hitter. We, of course, didn't really have one for most of the season until Winn came along. The other, and it varies with the study, says that you should put your best hitter (presumably in terms of OPS) batting 2nd or 3rd - most have said 3rd, but there was one that said 2nd is best. Of course, our best hitters hit 4th and 5th most of the season until Winn came along, and Vizquel stunk up the 2 spot after April and there was a parade of pretenders in the 3 spot most of the season. The last thing is that some of them say that the placement of players among the other positions of the lineup don't seem to matter much.

Bullpen Usage In Question but OK Overall

I think Alou did the best that he could under the circumstances overall. Everyone in the bullpen disappointed this season except for Eyre and Fassero. Even Walker who was passable as a closer but couldn't do the job otherwise.

Some complain about his warming up pitchers needlessly and bringing in pitchers for just a batter or two, then playing the percentages again. But my understanding of how Alou has been running the club is that he has delegated a lot to Righetti, his pitching coach. If so, Righetti should be the pitchers' advocate and letting Alou know who is ready and able and who is not, who is tiring and need rest, etc.

And the pitchers are at fault as well if they are not speaking up. This is their career and livelihood at stake, they need to let the coaches know when they are stretching their limits. Why didn't Brower speak up last season about his usage if it was straining him? Let the coaches know because if you have nothing left, you do the team a disservice because you will go in and either ruin another pitcher's good outing or the team offensive production by pitching batting practice. Eyre understands himself enough to know that he likes frequent usage, the more the better, and thus he is not necessarily looking to close for a team because a closer doesn't get used as frequently; that give me hope that he will stay with the Giants in 2006.

Frankly, I think baseball teams are babying their pitchers too much in general, the pendulum has gone too far in the other direction. I understand that there are things one should take it easy on youngsters. Especially if they have shown that they have arm problems. But there were a lot of pitchers who had long and good careers pitching 250-300 innings regularly when I was growing up. If you baby everybody, then it is a self-fulfilling prophesy that pitchers cannot pitch that many innings because nobody will be pushing the pitchers to pitch that many innings.

Since he is a more old-fashion manager, I'm hoping that he goes with a 4-man rotation like most managers did when I was younger, where the 5th man only comes in depending on the way the schedule works out, so that the 4-man rotation can keep to a steady schedule of regular rest, because we have a good core of Schmidt, Lowry and Cain plus Sabean is targeting getting a top line starter to take the pressure off Lowry and Cain but no strong 5th starter in view for 2006.

Alou's Strategy

To me, Alou manages looking to win every game as long as the team needs the wins. With a good offense and a good pitching staff, which the Giants teams under him has been in prior seasons, the team will be in most games and so he manages accordingly. A win early in the season is always as good as a win later in the season.

So Alou will leave in the starters when he thinks they have enough left in the tank to get the win. And when he thinks he is done, then he goes to the bullpen. And he will play the percentages to try to get that win. So he will sit down players who aren't performing well enough and push them down the totem pole of usage but will still give them another chance later to perform back at his expected performance.

This year because the Giants were losing so many games and playing generally poor baseball for too much of it, fans didn't want to see so much maneuvering and some wanted to see the youngsters play. But, really, despite their poor record, they were always within striking distance of taking the division title, which they proved with their late season move once Barry Bonds returned to the lineup. Had he given up on the season earlier, then the Giants might not have been able to make such a late charge: he had to manage as if Bonds was returning soon for most of the first half before it was realized that Bonds might not even come back this season, then, because the 'Dres refused to take the division by the horns, the Giants always stayed close enough to think that they were just one big win streak away from taking the divisional lead. And they were but fell short.

Another thing I like about Alou, though it took me awhile to appreciate, is that he has trust that the players will eventually play to their past abilities but will not wait too long until they do. Yes, he often hits players in positions that don't make a lot of sense: Neifi and Grissom leadoff, for instance, or even Feliz batting 3rd to take the example from above. But look at how it really turned out: Feliz only batted 21 games there, Snow actually got the majority of the ABs there.

The main point, however, is that any player will usually get a chance to get prove himself at some point in a position that he had not tried before. Yes, it may not make sense at the time, but how are you going to find out about the capabilities of that player for that year without trying him out in a variety of different situations.

This is good for developing young players. You give them some rope, then if they fail, you bring back in the pros into the rotation. But you still play the youngster or professional periodically to give them a chance to prove themselves and if one of them get hot then he would get the ABs until somebody takes over.

I like the fact that he sat down Tomko and that he gave him another chance to redeem himself, not only once but twice; the second time he pitched well for nearly a month. That worked with Alfonzo in 2003, when he was cold for much of the season but then, after the All-Star Game, he hit .296/.372/.474/.847 with 8 homers and 48 RBI in 56 games and 196 AB. He also got good production this year out of youngsters like Ellison and Niekro before they hit the wall, but even then he still played them regularly, and the pitching prospects really benefited from this approach, getting to pitch in critical situations late in the season, despite their lack of MLB experience, despite giving up the winning hit the night(s) before. I am looking forward to our San Jose prospects to advance and be developed under his tutelage.

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