Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Clint's Choice

By now the futility of sending Gerritt Cole onto the mound on Sunday vs. Cueto and the Reds, as Wainwright stood poised in Arizona ready to dissect the Dbacks, is apparent. Tomorrow's game now rests on the hope that Eddie Volquez can come through for us at least one more time. If we could have seen Cole stalk out to the mound tomorrow night at 8 instead of Eddie, the butterflies in our bellies would have beaten their wings more gently.

But still, I like it. Analytically, it was the wrong decision, and I and everyone else knew that before it was announced. I think we also knew exactly what Clint and the Pirates were going to do, though, and when Cole was announced, no one was surprised.

I can't believe I like it, but I do. I loved it when Leyland started Ted Power in that playoff game to turn the opposition right-handed and then get the righty platoon guys out of the game after one time through the lineup. I love that kind of bold creativity, and part of me wanted to see something like that on Sunday. Since first reading Bill James in the 80s, my bias has been toward sober analysis and away from superimposed narratives about heart, guts, big-money players, clutch performances, and all of the other baloney that sells newspapers and gets people listening to sports talk shows. We create these narratives because the experience of watching a baseball game with a rooting interest in one of the two teams is primarily an emotional one, and the emotions love to tell stories. But much of the time, the stories aren't true (or at least they are unprovable).

And yet, how do you watch Josh Harrison play third base and fail to see something that can't entirely be explained by rational analysis? There were a couple of games this season in which Harrison appeared to single-handedly win the game for the Pirates from the sheer force of his indomitable will.

There was a time in the early days of sabermetrics when a lot of fans actually were smarter and more knowledgeable about how you win baseball games than the people who were directing and making decisions for professional baseball teams. But those days are now long past (with the possible exception of the Phillies). And they are certainly long past with the Pirates. Can any of us still pretend that we know more about what the Pirates should do than Dan Fox, Mike Fitzgerald, Hurdle, and Huntington? That we have thought more about it and have access to information that they don't have? It was reasonable to criticize Bonifay and Littlefield on the basis of the things we learned from sabermetrics. But these guys know what they are doing, and by now they have earned our trust.

They made the decision deliberately and, maybe as most expected, including them, it didn't work out. But adopting a pose of intellectual superiority about it just doesn't wash anymore.

I have no idea if the emotional message management sent to the team by sending Cole out on Sunday to go for the division title against long odds will translate into an edge, borne of commitment and engagement, that will tip the game in the direction of the Pirates on Wednesday. But I think that is what the team thinks, from management down to the players. I think that this is who this team is, and I don't think I'd want them to be otherwise.

It will be fun to watch it play out.

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