How to Manage the All-Star Game
One of the most exciting events of the season takes place tonight, as the AL and NL All-Stars play in the 80th annual All-Star game. The game, as I showed last week, takes on great importance to some teams, particularly those likely to make the World Series. Managers have always faced a series of competing interests in their managing strategies, and these dilemmas are perhaps even more pronounced since the game now “counts”. The main competing interest is between managing to win and managing to play everybody, but managers also have to have an eye for entertaining the fans, preventing injuries, and of course making sure that enough pitchers are available to finish the game.
These goals appear to be mutually exclusive. For instance, it would seem that if all players get in the game, then that means less time for the best players, and a lessened chance of victory. However, the purpose of this article is to show how, if a manager plays it properly, all of these goals can be satisfied. A smart manager can maximize his team’s chances to win as well as get most players in the game, while simultaneously showcasing the game’s greatest stars and making sure that the team is well equipped to go deep into extra innings without jeopardizing the health of any of his players. How can a manager do such a thing?
Managing the Pitchers
First of all, let’s address the pitching problem. The problem was brought to a head in 2002 when both managers ran out of pitchers and forced a tie. It nearly happened again last year when reliever Brad Lidge was brought in for the NL and a gimpy and unrested Scott Kazmir was brought in for the AL in the 15th inning. Had the game gone on only a couple more innings, both managers would have had a major crisis on their hands. How to prevent such potential disasters? The solution here is simple: Have the last pitcher in the bullpen be a well-rested starter who has the ability to throw a complete game if necessary. The manager should wait until the 13th or 14th inning to put him in and he should be able to finish the game. As a starter on full rest, he’ll be able to pitch 7 or 8 strong innings if necessary, which should be enough to finish even the longest of All-Star contests.
Had Carlos Zambrano, on 5 days rest, been the last man in the bullpen instead of Brad Lidge, he could have pitched well past the 20th inning without difficulty. Similarly, in 2002, if Freddy Garcia had pitched the 3rd and the well-rested Roy Halladay pitched the 10th instead of the other way around, the AL squad would have been able to potentially last 18 innings, forcing an NL forfeit instead of a tie. Instead, managers seem to have short-men or fragile pitchers as their pitcher of last resort, leading to potentially disastrous scenarios as occurred in 2002 and almost happened again in 2008.
Since this emergency pitcher will usually not get in the game at all, ideally this well-rested last man isn’t one of the squad’s best pitchers and has already made an All-Star appearance so he won’t mind not getting into the game. The emergency man strategy is a good one because most pitchers can still get into the game even if it doesn’t go extra innings, but if the game does go into extra frames, the team is equipped to go 20 innings or more without risk of injury or overwork.
The rest of the pitching staff is usually fairly well handled by the managers, with a few exceptions. With 13 pitchers on the staff, it’s not a bad idea to throw pitchers one inning at a time, as current managers usually do, so that they can leave it all out on the mound. Combining this with the fact that each pitcher is not necessarily well-rested, and this is a fairly good strategy for getting a lot of players into the game as well as maximizing (or at least not decreasing) the chance of winning.
While managers consistently use starters earlier in the game and relievers later in the game, statistically there is no difference as to when the pitcher enters the game – in a one-game situation, each inning is equally important since the expected value of the leverage in each inning is equal for all innings. The result is that a manager should make sure to get his best pitchers in the game regardless of the inning or score. This is opposed to Clint Hurdle’s strategy last year of leaving Brad Lidge, one of the better NL pitchers, in the bullpen, waiting for a traditional save situation. Hence, the pitchers reserved in case of extra innings should be among the staff’s worst, used in order of talent as the game gets deeper into extra innings, until the emergency pitcher is called in to finish the game.
Managing the Position Players
Except for an occasionally mismanaged bullpen, managers have handled their pitching staffs fairly competently over the years. However, when it comes to playing the position players, most All-Star managers have been baffled. Managers seem to be torn between playing the starters and maximizing their chances of winning, and replacing the starters to give the reserves more playing time. It’s possible to do both, but not when managers traditionally resort to the most caveman of strategies: position-for-position wholesale changes midway through the game. I had hoped for a change in this strategy when the All-Star game was given more meaning, but the basic tactic has still been employed. The only difference is that instead of removing the starters after 3 innings, they are removed in the 6th or 7th.
In fact, maximizing the chances of winning actually does involve the use of most of the team's 33 players on the roster. First of all, in NL parks, teams should always pinch-hit for the pitcher. There are too many great pitchers and players on the roster to burn an at-bat with a pitcher hitting. This sounds obvious, but the manager has chosen to send a pitcher to bat as recently as 1998 when David Wells hit in the second inning (Mark Mulder also hit in 2004, but he was forced to remain in the game since he had not yet faced a batter). Pinch hitting for the pitcher every time up is an obvious way to use an additional 3-5 players and increase the probability of winning, but what to do with the other 7 or 8 other players left on the bench?
Similar to what good American League managers do every day, All-Star managers can pinch-hit good-hitting, powerful reserves for (relatively) poor-hitting players at defensive positions. Usually, there are a few positions on each squad which are relatively weak. In key situations with runners on base, these players can be removed for better hitting first basemen/outfielders/etc who are sitting on the bench. This maximizes the team's chance of winning by putting better hitters at the plate in key situations.
This tactic also has the benefit of getting an additional two players in the game - the pinch-hitter and the player who replaces him on defense in the next half inning. It also gets these players in the game without removing the presumably outstanding starter at the offensive position. If the 2009 NL team were to use this tactic, Albert Pujols could play the entire game, while Fielder, Howard, and Gonzalez could all hit in high leverage situations with runners on base. Using this tactic just twice gets an additional 4 players into the game, without removing the heavy-hitting starters who are the best players on the team. In AL parks this tactic can be used even more often since the manager does not have to worry about running out of players to pinch-hit for the pitcher.
The remaining 3 or 4 players on the bench can be used as either platoon guys, who can be substituted for the starter when a handedness advantage presents itself, or used as pinch runners or defensive replacements. All of these useful and legitimate reasons are preferable to the gratuitous replacement strategy which managers currently employ. The result is that usually all but 1 to 3 players can get in the game (most with an at-bat) and the four or so best players on the team end up playing the entire game. Imagine that - the same amount of players get into the game, but the biggest stars are showcased for the entire night and the team's chances of winning are dramatically increased!
One tactic All-Star managers do seem to employ is the double-switch, pushing the pitcher's spot further down in the order. While it's a good move in the regular season, it's not one I generally endorse in the All-Star game. For one, the manager wants to get a lot of players into the game, so being forced to pinch-hit is not necessarily a bad thing. Two, the players off the bench may be better hitters than the player who just entered in the double-switch, meaning that the team is actually hurt by the switch. And three, the having the pitcher's spot come up gives the manager extra flexibility in just who will come up in that spot, and that flexibility is a good thing. In fact, in some cases, it's reasonable to double-switch in order to bring the pitcher's spot closer in the order for the above reasons, especially if the new position player is a relatively weak hitter compared to his benchmates.
The key to employing the overall substitution strategy that I just outlined is patience and the ability to alter the game plan on a moment's notice. This is probably the reason that no manager has employed this strategy to date - they want to have a relaxing time and a predetermined plan to assure that everybody has a role. However, employing this technique requires much more strategy and thinking than even a regular season game does, precisely because so many players are available. Managers are also not practiced at this style of substitution, since the All-Star game is a unique situation. However, a few practice games of Strat-o-Matic (or even the simplest baseball board game) should get them the feel for their roster so that the moves they should make will become routine.
So how can this strategy be specifically employed by Joe Maddon and Charlie Manuel tonight? Here are a few guidelines:
I'm not a fan of the way Joe Maddon has constructed his bench, leaving two of the league's best hitters - A-Rod and Cabrera - off the roster entirely and leaving it surprisingly bereft of proven mashers. Off the bench, Justin Morneau is by far the best lefty and the biggest power threat. Kevin Youkilis is the best option from the right side. It doesn't matter if they are used early or late, as long as they hit in a big spot with runners on base. With three spots in the batting order to choose from (2B, SS, or P) that big spot is all but guaranteed to come.
Victor Martinez, Carl Crawford, and Carlos Pena are the other best pinch-hitting options since they are either lefties or switch hitters against a mostly right-handed NL pitching staff. They can be used according to the game situation. If Crawford enters the game late, he can also replace Bay in left field for defense. Nelson Cruz, Michael Young, and Brandon Inge should be held in reserve in case of extra innings. Young can also take over at either second or short in case a second big pinch-hitting opportunity arises at either of those spots in the lineup. In the case of Cruz, pinch-running late in the game is also an option, presuming Maddon has enough players left on the bench.
With no left-handed relievers, Manuel can't play the matchup game effectively. Heath Bell, Josh Johnson, and Jason Marquis are the other pitchers who can go in case of extra-innings. Bell can also fill in if another starter gets into trouble (or if the NL surprisingly bats around in the bottom of the first and Lincecum must be removed for a pinch hitter).
The "weak" positions which can be removed for pinch hitters are centerfield and catcher. Molina, clearly the weakest hitter on the squad should be pinch-hit for early and then replaced by the superior, left-handed Brian McCann. Manuel should also pinch-hit for Victorino if a big situation arises, and then replace the pinch hitter with Hunter Pence. Pence in turn can also removed for a pinch-hitter if another key situation arises, and Jayson Werth can take over in center field.
Manuel has three incredibly dangerous left-handed bats on his bench in Howard, Fielder, and Gonzalez, and he should use them for pinch-hitting situations with runners on base when any of the three light-hitting positions come up in the order.
Other options for pinch-hitting for the pitcher are Miguel Tejada, Ryan Zimmerman and Justin Upton. Brad Hawpe provides yet another potent left-handed bat. If a left-handed pitcher enters the game, Manuel should also take the opportunity to replace Ibanez with Werth or Upton - this should also be done if the NL gets a lead to improve the outfield defense. Freddie Sanchez and Orlando Hudson can be used as the last men on the bench if the game goes to extra innings - they should by no means be replacing Wright or Utley in the batting order.
Will Manuel and Maddon follow this advice, playing their best starters the whole game, while still getting a majority of players into the game? If they are anything like the previous All-Star managers, we'll see wholesale changes mid-way through the game, and hence the inferior reserves will be taking the big at-bats at the end of the game.
Taking my own advice and playing several sets of simulated games, I was very successful in getting 26 to 29 players for each side into the game (about as many as previous managers have done), while still making sure that the biggest bats are up in the biggest situations and keeping the best players in the whole time. Of course, sometimes the game played perfectly into my strategy and other times I was not as lucky, but no matter the course of the game, the main goals were achieved every time. The key is to stay flexible and let the game dictate the decisions. It's a strategy that's best for the players, the fans, the teams, and the game. I'd love to see it tonight, but I'm not holding my breath.