Here’s something funny about managing a baseball game: You could do the absolute right thing from a percentage and logic standpoint and have it blow up in your face. And you could do the dumbest thing imaginable for the dumbest reason imaginable and have it work out perfectly.
What would be the “dumbest reason imaginable?”
Well, it just so happens we have Angels manager Joe Maddon right here to explain.
“I thought by going up there and doing something like that, the team might respond to something like that,” Maddon said.
There you go. He thought by doing something like that the team might respond to something like that. Simple.
“Something like that,” in this case involved intentionally walking Corey Seager with the bases loaded on Friday.
Here was the situation. The Rangers led 3-2 in the fourth inning and had the bases loaded. Madden had brought in Austin Warren, a 26-year-old relief pitcher from Fayetteville, N.C. Warren had come into the game with runners on first and third, then Texas’ Eli White stole second on a 2-0 count. With first base open and just one out, Warren threw two more balls to Marcus Semien to load the bases.
Up came Seager. I think we know Seager is a very good player, not much more needs to be said about that. Is he a “walk him with the bases loaded” kind of very good player? Of course not. There has been only one of those in modern times, and that was a bulked-up Barry Bonds, who from 2001 to 2004 hit .349/.559/.809 and homered once every 7.85 at-bats.*
*The only other player in the modern era to have been walked with the bases loaded was Josh Hamilton in 2008 in a game between the Rangers and Rays, but we’ll put an asterisk next to that once since Joe Maddon was managing the Rays at the time. Plus the situation was completely different. It was two outs in the ninth inning, the Rays were up by four runs, and the chances that the unsound move would backfire were minimal.
Anyway, Maddon went to the mound to talk to Warren. And here’s how he described the meeting: “I walked out there, I looked at [Warren] and said, ‘How about …’ and then he kind of said, ‘Putting him on?’ And said, ‘Yeah, how about putting him on?’ And he kind of smiled and said, ‘Yeah, I’m good with that.’ And the infielders kind of dug it too. It was a great moment on the mound, it was one of those … it was a Hallmark* kind of moment on the mound.”
*I suspect Joe Maddon meant “hallmark” in a lower-case way, but I know quite a few people in Kansas City who work for Hallmark, and I’m all for them coming up with a “We didn’t know what to do so we intentionally walked you,” card for the occasion.
Yeah, I don’t know if it really went down quite like that. Warren afterward was asked about it and he said, “Absolutely it was surprising, but I mean, I’m not going to tell Joe Maddon no.” That doesn’t exactly sound like someone who happily volunteered to intentionally walk Corey Seager with the bases loaded. I mean, what self-respecting pitcher would EVER happily volunteer to do that?
And I’m not really sure the infielders “kind of dug it,” would be quite accurate either. Mike Trout is not an infielder but there’s a great shot of him in centerfield scanning the merry-go-round scene with a Vince Lombardi “What the hell is going on out there?” kind of look on his face.
It didn’t work, by the way. Texas’ Mitch Garver hit a long fly to the warning track to score one run and move up both runners. Then Warren was called for a balk, scoring a second run. The Rangers led 6-2. At that point, the Angels’ win probability was 9%.
But Maddon explained that he wasn’t thinking percentages. Instead, he made the calculation that doing this ridiculous thing would fire up his team.
And you know what? They did respond. Kurt Suzuki homered. Shohei Ohtani homered. Mike Trout doubled and scored on a Jared Walsh single. The Angels scored five runs in the top of the fifth inning and took a 7-6 lead. They never trailed again.
Now, did that response have anything to do with Maddon losing his mind? Well, let’s just say it was a pretty smug-looking Maddon in the postgame press conference. When someone mentioned that there might be other ways of firing up the team without, you know, giving up a free run, Maddon explained his own mathematical calculations:
“Yeah, but the other possibility was giving up four, I didn’t like it at all” he said, and then he explained in vivid and specific ways that he had no faith in Warren preventing Corey Seager from hitting a grand slam there (“He wasn’t as sharp as he normally is,” Maddon said). So that happened.
“The analytics would probably say, ‘Not to do that,’” another reporter began.
“The numbers are one thing,” Maddon would say. “Human beings are something completely different. And for me, the human element required what we did.”
The human element required what we did. He really said that about intentionally walking Corey Seager with the bases loaded and down a run in the fourth inning.
In some ways, I must admit that I admire the sort of manager Joe Maddon has become, because nobody else in baseball is allowed to be that kind of manager anymore. He’s right out of 1977, when a manager’s word was gospel and even the dumbest explanations were pretty much accepted because, hey, Sparky Anderson and Earl Weaver and Chuck Tanner and Billy Martin and the rest, these people knew what they were doing! Plus they might punch you in the mouth!
Obviously, there’s no logical defense for that intentional walk. But when you win, you don’t need a logical defense. In 1972, Billy Martin was managing the Detroit Tigers. In early August, the Tigers swooned, losing 10 of 13. dropping from first place all the way to third. Martin was losing his mind, and so in the first game of a doubleheader against Cleveland and Gaylord Perry, he decided to try something wild: He would pick the lineup out of a hat.
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Actually, Martin had his star, Al Kaline, pick the lineup out of his hat And Kaline picked a gem, a lineup that he himself was not a part of (nor was All-Star catcher Bill Freehan). The lineup went like so:
Norm Cash, 1B
Jim Northrup, RF
Willie Horton, LF
Eddie Brinkman, SS
Tony Taylor, 2B
Duke Sims, C
Mickey Stanley, CF
Aurelio Rodriguez, 3B
Woody Fryman, P
I don’t know if Fryman was automatically put in the ninth spot or if that’s how Kaline picked it out. But the rest of the lineup was wild, particularly for that time when lineup construction was pretty basic. Cash had only once before led off a game (though he might be a leadoff hitter today because of his high on-base percentages). Brinkman, in the cleanup spot, had a lifetime .300 slugging percentage, and Horton was batting .218 and had been in the No. 6 spot all year. The lineup went against all the principles of the day.
So what happened? Horton went three-for-four with a home run, Brinkman hit the key double, and the Tigers beat Perry and Cleveland 3-2. (Perry would go on to win the Cy Young award that year.)
Martin said that he had tried the stunt to relax his players. “And it worked,” he added. But did it really work? Of course not. It’s just that in baseball, you can do the intelligent thing and have it go bad, and you can do the ridiculous thing and have it work out just right.
“Who knew?” Billy Martin said. “Turns out I have a really smart hat.”