Terry Bevington went to the mound to make a pitching change and, of course, was booed. This was last Friday, and as usual he had allowed de facto pitching ace Jaime Navarro to labor too long, into the eighth inning, even though Navarro had squandered an early 2-0 lead and then let the Texas Rangers go back in front after the White Sox rallied to tie it. Now Navarro had done it a third time, allowing a leadoff double and a one-out single in the top of the eighth to send the Rangers ahead 6-5. Navarro was booed when he came off the field, though the fans immediately behind the dugout gave him a polite round of applause, and Bevington was booed again as he departed, with little support even from the loyal dugout cadre. It didn’t help the manager’s cause when Chuck McElroy, the relief pitcher the Sox got in exchange for former leadoff man Tony Phillips, surrendered a two-run homer to the first man he faced, Lee Stevens, sending the Sox to an 8-5 defeat and dropping their record to 51-50, three and a half games behind the first-place Cleveland Indians in the American League Central Division.
Ever since I read The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers From 1870 to Today earlier this summer I’ve been thinking a lot about Bevington, and about how responsible he is for the Sox’ generally disappointing performance this year. James maintains that Bevington is a “middle-of-the-road manager,” unexceptional in almost all measurable regards. He likes to use pinch runners and he likes to call pitchouts–more so than the average AL manager, that is–but last year’s Sox did not lead the league in any of the managerial moves James likes to keep track of, such as pinch hitters, defensive substitutions, relievers used, number of separate lineups, and the like. Many of those statistics are the arcane property of Stats Inc., the excellent baseball stats service, and won’t be commonly available for this season until Stats issues its annual roundup next winter, but the data readily available seem to suggest that Bevington is still firmly in the middle as a tactician. The Sox are dead center in the league in the number of relievers used, and while they’re still granting a large number of intentional walks, they aren’t leading the league in that category.
Even so, I would insist that Bevington is hurting the team, and that his use of pitchers is foremost among his crimes. Simply counting the number of relief appearances doesn’t indicate how he uses his bull pen. Bevington has been prone to let his starters work too long this season yet quick to make additional changes once he goes to the bull pen. As a result he’s used an average number of relievers despite being slow to remove his starters. A cursory look at the statistics seems to bear out this impression. An average starter pitches, what, about six innings? Navarro and Wilson Alvarez, the team’s two top starters, average closer to seven; they’re on a pace that would see both pitch more than 250 innings, which would be a career high for Navarro and a career high by a large margin for Alvarez. James Baldwin is also averaging more than six innings a start, and only the oldsters Doug Drabek and Danny Darwin have been nursed along at a more reasonable five. By working Navarro, Alvarez, and Baldwin hard early in the season, Bevington makes it less likely that they’ll have their best stuff down the stretch, even if the Sox are able to stay close to the Indians.
It seems apparent that the Sox are going to need another starter if they’re to catch Cleveland (rumored to be pursuing National League pitchers Curt Schilling and Pete Schourek, among others, via trade), and while everyone is rooting for Jason Bere’s recovery it’s unlikely he’ll be anywhere near full strength when or if he returns this year. In fact, the Sox have been floating reports in the media that they might actually go in the other direction and deal Alvarez or bull pen closer Roberto Hernandez, both of whom will be free agents at the end of the season. That, of course, would be a sign that the Sox were folding their tents. Yet it’s also front-office stuff and not really Bevington’s immediate concern. (I’ll come back to how those two areas are related in a moment.)
Navarro’s average outing of almost seven innings needs to be put in context with his atrocious 5.14 earned run average. Navarro has not only pitched heavy innings this season, he’s pitched heavy innings even when he wasn’t effective. A “quality start” is commonly defined as giving up three runs or fewer in six innings–a liberal standard that calls it “quality” when a pitcher amasses a 4.50 ERA. By that measure Navarro’s had but 9 quality starts in 22 outings this year. What, then, constitutes a late hook by the manager? I’ll call it staying in to give up five runs or more in five innings or more. By that standard, Navarro’s had seven late hooks this season, giving up nine runs in seven innings (twice!), seven runs in eight innings, seven runs in seven innings, eight runs in five innings, five runs in six innings on opening day, and, last Friday, seven runs in seven and one-third innings. And that’s not counting the four games in which he was just plain bombed and couldn’t make it through the fifth.
Navarro’s Rangers outing was typically infuriating. The Sox staked him to a 2-0 lead with solo homers in the first and second. Navarro promptly surrendered four runs in the third on three singles (right fielder Dave Martinez had a shot to get a runner at home, but threw wide to the plate on that third hit) and then a three-run homer by Dean Palmer. The Sox evened it with two in the fifth, but Navarro let the Rangers go back in front in the seventh on a two-out triple by Ivan Rodriguez with a man on. The Sox tied the game with a run in the bottom of the inning, though the rally ended with the bases loaded when a soft liner by rookie Mike Cameron was converted into a double play.
Bevington sent Navarro out to pitch the eighth. Juan Gonzalez hit a blue dart off the right-field fence for a leadoff double. The right-handed Navarro stayed in to face the left-handed Will Clark, who hit a shot at the left fielder for an out. Then Navarro faced Palmer (the guy who hit the homer in the third, remember? If you did you scored better than Bevington on this pop quiz), and Palmer smacked a single into center to score Gonzalez. Only then did Bevington emerge from the dugout to face the chorus of boos and remove his starter–for McElroy, who gave up the homer to Stevens.
The most frustrating aspect of the game was that Navarro had squandered the courageous effort of Robin Ventura. Ventura suffered a compound fracture of his right ankle in a gruesome accident while sliding home in a spring-training game in late March–a mishap that dissipated the good spirits brought on by the signing of Albert Belle and cast a dark cloud over the entire season, with Bevington powerless as ever to do anything about it. After a vigorous rehabilitation, Ventura had returned to action the previous night and won the game with an eighth-inning RBI single. And he’d homered in the first inning Friday to give Navarro a lead. But the Sox lost, and lost again the next afternoon as Alvarez, removed after giving up three runs in six innings, blasted the Sox afterward for even thinking of trading him at this stage of the season. They also lost Sunday, the bull pen giving up a couple of runs after Darwin left after six with the game tied at three. That defeat lowered the Sox to 51-52 on the season, five and a half games behind the Indians.
Whose fault is that? Here I’m going to turn 180 degrees and say, not Terry Bevington’s. It’s true, Bevington is a mediocre manager on a team that requires an exceptional manager, but if he brings nothing special to the team’s offensive tactics he rarely hurts them on that count, either. My main argument against him is that his handling of the pitching staff has been erratic, but even that’s explicable. The trend throughout baseball is to rely more than ever on the bull pen and middle relievers; Bevington seemed to follow that trend early last year, only to be criticized for overworking his bull pen and relying on inexperienced, unreliable pitchers. This year he’s reversed himself and relied on his starters, refusing to trust his middle relievers, and he’s being criticized for that. Almost certainly things would have worked out better if Bevington had had a strong opinion on the issue one way or the other and had stuck with it from his first day on the job–under Dusty Baker the first-place San Francisco Giants in the NL West are leading the league in relief appearances, while under Larry Dierker the first-place Houston Astros in the NL Central are tied for 12th–but that hasn’t been the case. Bevington is a weak manager who brings out the weaknesses in his team, though a manager should conceal as many as possible.
Yet it was general manager Ron Schueler who supplied this team with its weaknesses–Bevington included–and Schueler who ignored most of them during the off-season, even after last season made them manifest. As I wrote earlier this season, the exchange of ace pitcher Alex Fernandez for slugger Belle actually made the Sox less of a contender than they had been. Compare that move with what the Giants did last winter, trading Matt Williams to the Indians for Jeff Kent, a poor substitute for Williams at third, and–here’s the tricky part–middle reliever Julian Tavarez. Tavarez and free-agent acquisition Doug Henry (whom the Sox or anyone could have had for a song) have strengthened the Giants’ pitching across the board.
One of the main ideas of James’s guide to managers is that–contrary to conventional wisdom–baseball strategy, “the book,” is actually very fluid. One of his prime pieces of evidence is the increasing use of relievers, an element of the game that has undergone revolutionary change just in the last 20 years and especially in the last year and a half. A good, deep bull pen will help a club work its way through the rough patches that are almost inevitable in this era when high salaries are making it difficult for even the Atlanta Braves to keep their starting staff intact. Few teams can afford five good starters these days, and the Sox, of course, can’t even afford one. Bevington grasped this essential change in the game–he certainly grasped it much more quickly than Schueler–but the Sox’ personnel didn’t allow him to respond to it.
A charitable Sox fan could argue that even Schueler has his explanations. Though a former pitcher himself, Schueler has found himself unable to spend money on pitching, mainly because owner Jerry Reinsdorf–burned by the physical breakdowns of Britt Burns and Richard Dotson in the 80s–has been loathe to give pitchers long-term contracts. It’s true he’s likely to get more bang for his buck with Belle than he is with, say, Kenny Rogers (to name just one high-priced pitching washout of recent years), but he isn’t likely to get any closer to first place if he has to rely on a second-rate pitcher like Navarro as his ace. Schueler was the man brought in to replace Larry Himes in 1990 with the often-quoted line that he was the one to take the team “from B to C” after Himes had brought the Sox from A to B. Now the Sox are planning to throw in the towel and deal Alvarez and Hernandez–a move that looks like the transition to Z, the end of the line for Schueler. I can’t say I blame him for deciding to rebuild a sub-.500 team. Then again, I can’t say I’m very excited about what he’s likely to get in return, given his track record. If the Sox aren’t a contender this year, Schueler is the main reason why.