Last night, Ron Washington put Mike Napoli eighth in the batting order. This caused a little bit of a Twit-stir because Napoli has been the Rangers' best hitter this year, and it prompted jokes about him being a second cleanup hitter, a secret weapon tucked way back where the Einar Diazes and Gerald Lairds usually roam. There are a million reasons why a manager might hit his best hitter eighth. None of them make sense. Over 15,690 of those reasons have to do with gypsies and/or werewolves, for example.
Washington is an unconventional strategist. He will bring Neftali Feliz in with a 9-run lead, but he will never bring him into a tie game on the road. He loves to bunt -- Ian Kinsler, who averages more than 20 home runs per year, is usually good for a few bunts every season. Elvis Andrus is laying down a bunt right now, and it's making the other players in the bathroom feel uncomfortable.
TLR playing chess. The other dugout playing checkers.
And that's the book on both managers. Washington is a jittery sprite running on pure emotion and adrenaline. Tony La Russa is a genius who is also a genius in his spare time. La Russa is playing chess out there, thinking 12 moves ahead and mulling over every option, while also being smart enough to let the wookie win when he needs to. Genius.
There are different ways to evaluate managers objectively. You can run simulated lineups, and you can plug managers' on-field decisions into a run matrix to see if they're costing a team more runs than they're adding. For the most part, though, fans and analysts are just guessing at what makes an effective manager. This is why Ron Washington drives me nuts. I know he's a good manager. I just can't prove it. No one can. And most of his in-game or strategic decisions -- at least, what can be entered as evidence -- are somewhere between "a little off" and "completely illogical."
But here's why I like him.
When he comes to get his pitcher, he looks him in the eye, jabbers at him with emotion and honesty that's impossible to fake, and gets him to smile before he leaves the mound. That doesn't happen every time he makes a pitching change, but it happened on Sunday night, when Derek Holland was making a bid for a complete-game shutout. I have no idea what Washington said. It could have been something like this:
Washington: You disgust me, you know that? You've come all this way, but you can't finish the damn job.
Holland: Sorry, skip.
Washington: It's a good thing this is the last time you'll be on a mound this year. Because we want to win this thing. Yeah, thanks for the eight innings of good pitching, but you failed here in the ninth. When we needed you most.
Holland: Sorry, skip.
Washington: Get out of my sight. And put some milk on that thing on your upper lip, go down to the pound, and let a cat lick it off.
Holland: Yes, skip.
Probably not. Holland recounts it differently:.
I said, ‘Come on, Wash. You got to let me go. I can get this. I’m going to try to get a double play and do everything I can.
He said, ‘Nope, you ain’t getting out there. Just watch the crowd reaction when you get out of here, son.’ I said, ‘All right, I’ll see you later Wash. Thanks.’
Exactly what words he picks, how he says them ... I have no idea how effective they are. But just by looking at the faces of the players when Washington is talking, I figure that every silly bunt that Washington tries is made up for tenfold by the respect he commands from his players.
I want to hold him up as an example of what a good manager is, what downtrodden teams should seek out when looking for a new manager. But all I can do is guess. All anyone can do is guess, really. There's no way to take the anecdotes and good feelings and quantify what Ron Washington does for a team. Is he the reason they're in the World Series for the second year in a row? Is he the reason they lost the World Series last year? Is he effective in any capacity?
No idea. And that drives me nuts. Ron Washington drives me nuts. I'm convinced he's one of the better managers in the game, and it makes me feel like someone who doesn't check Snopes.com before forwarding an e-mail. I'll make peace with it one day, especially if the Rangers win the World Series. Right now, though, I like the guy so much it's annoying.