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A Little Mistake?

by Bill Deane

Rob:
In the book, I argue — as most do, I guess — that Grady Little made a terrible blunder when he failed to remove Pedro Martinez before the Yankees completed their game-tying rally in Game 6 of the 2003 ALCS. But Bill Deane disagrees with me. And since Bill knows as much about baseball as anybody, I’m thrilled for him to make his case here…

Second-guessers had a field day with Grady Little’s eighth-inning decision to leave Pedro Martinez in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series. You’ll recall that the Red Sox were five outs away from winning the pennant, with a 5-2 lead and ace pitcher Martinez on the mound. But the Yankees strung together four hits off Pedro that inning, the last a two-run bloop single, to tie the game. They went on to win it in the 11th on Aaron Boone’s home run off Tim Wakefield. Tim McCarver, the usually-perceptive Fox-TV analyst, led the media criticism that Little had left Martinez in too long, and this certainly was the key reason for Grady’s dismissal a few days later.

Two years later, Little – a man who managed 16 years in the minors, and who went 188-136 (.580) in two years in the majors – was still the punch-line for jokes, and still not managing.

As someone rooting hard for Boston in this series (my favorite team is whoever is playing against the Yankees), I found fault with a lot of Little’s decisions, but not this one. With everything on the line, he had the best pitcher in baseball, a man with a 2.22 ERA for the year, on the mound, still throwing in the mid-90s, and saying he wanted to stay in. But Little is supposed to replace him with Alan Embree (4.25 that year, 4.40 for his career), just because that’s the way it’s always done in baseball? Little’s decision was reminiscent of Johnny Keane’s sticking with Bob Gibson in Game Seven of the 1964 World Series; I’m surprised McCarver, of all people, didn’t make this connection.

To refresh, the fire-balling, lionhearted Gibson was the Cardinals’ ace pitcher in 1964, and for about a decade thereafter. With the team in a sizzling pennant race, Gibby hurled 287 innings – 29 of them in the last 11 games of the regular season, including the pennant-clincher on its last day, October 4. He then pitched eight innings in Game Two of the World Series on October 8, and ten frames in Game Five on October 12. By Game Seven on October 15, he was running on fumes. Gibson battled valiantly into the ninth inning, but two Yanks’ home runs left him clinging to a 7-5 lead with two out, the Series’ leading hitter at bat, and Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle due up behind him. The Cards had several capable pitchers in the bullpen, including Barney Schultz, who led the club with 14 saves and posted a 1.65 ERA. But manager Keane made no substitution, Gibby got the out, and the Cardinals were world champions. Asked why he didn’t replace Gibson with the Series on the line, Keane delivered a classic tribute: “I had a commitment to his heart.” Gibson’s catcher that day: Tim McCarver.

By the time Pedro Martinez joins Gibson in Cooperstown, how many people will remember the name of the journeyman Grady Little was supposed to replace him with in 2003?

I think there is just too much managing in baseball today, and it is a big reason the games are so long. It used to be a manager put his nine best guys on the field and left them there unless there was a compelling reason to switch. Now we see parades of pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, defensive replacements, set-up men, and closers, and inevitably finish the game with weaker teams than those that started – for example, where was Jason Varitek when the Sox needed a blast in the 11th inning of the ALCS finale? (Answer: on the bench, having been replaced two innings earlier by a pinch-runner who didn’t score.) But today’s managers have learned that they rarely get second-guessed when they make a substitution, only when they don’t, and they manage accordingly – not necessarily to win, but to avoid media scrutiny and justify their own existence.

Lots of people have said it was painfully obvious that Martinez was washed up by the time Little made his first visit to the mound in the eighth. But also in that conference were the Boston catcher and field leader, Varitek, and their perennial All-Star shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra. Apparently it wasn’t painfully obvious to them, because nobody contradicted Martinez when Little asked him if he still had anything left, and Pedro said he did. Knowing the brainwashed, second-guessing media and fandom, it would have been a lot easier for Little to take Pedro out than to leave him in. I’ll bet nobody was hoping more than the Yankees that Martinez would be taken out of the game.

Many have pointed out how well Embree and the other Boston relievers had done in the post-season to that point (Embree had allowed four hits, zero walks, and one earned run in 6 1/3 innings). But every pitcher in the majors goes through stretches like this; I’d postulate it’s all within the bounds of random chance and has no predictive value. Over time, a 4.40 ERA pitcher becomes a 4.40 ERA pitcher. I’d wager that if you examined all of Alan Embree’s stretches of six innings and one run allowed during his career, then calculated his aggregate ERA for the following innings, it would be, oh, around 4.40.

It has also been noted how much trouble Pedro had after throwing 105 pitches in a game that year (though he didn’t get many chances). According to one source, from pitches #91-105 in 2003, he held the opposition to a .231 batting average, .306 on-base percentage, and a .354 slugging percentage; from pitches #106-120, those numbers increased to .370-.419-.407. However, he had faced only 31 batters in that situation, and only one got so much as a double. And even a guy who allows these numbers can’t be expected to give up three runs in one inning, but it happens sometimes. Maybe if Embree had come in to start the eighth, the relentless Yankees would have gotten five runs – yet hardly anybody would have questioned Little’s decision.

During the season, it is wise to use your whole staff, pacing it in hopes of a pennant race and post-season. But when you reach the big games, you ought to go with your best, unless he or his teammates say he can’t do it any more – especially when it’s the best pitcher in the league compared with the seventh- or eighth-best on the team.

Grady Little made a smart and gutsy decision – it just didn’t work. And, to most observers, it wiped out everything else he had done all year and all career, costing him his job and his reputation.

Bill Deane has authored hundreds of baseball articles and six books, including Award Voting, winner of the 1989 SABR-Macmillan Award. He served as Senior Research Associate for the National Baseball Library & Archive from 1986-94. He has since done consulting work for Topps Baseball Cards, Curtis Management Group, STATS, Inc., and Macmillan Publishing, and also served as Managing Editor of the most recent Total Baseball.