The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Does anyone remember this guy?

The Marlins lost last night to the seemingly unbeatable Cincinnati Reds last night. The decisive blow came on a three-run home run from a centerfielder named Ken Griffey Jr. You may remember him. He was named a member of Major League Baseball’s All-Century team. Many called him the player of the 1990s (and nearly all of those same people thought that he would continue to dominate the game well into the new millennium).

Since arriving in his hometown of Cincinnati though (for the 2000 season), Griffey has not been the player we all knew him to be during his career with the Mariners. More than anything, this appears to be due to injuries, although age is starting to play more and more of a factor. Still, Griffey had amassed 491 career home runs going into last night’s game and he remains a certain Hall of Famer.

That is why the scene that unfolded with Griffey last night in the bottom of the sixth inning was so implausible. Let me set the stage for those of you who may have missed it:

With the score tied at one entering the bottom of the sixth inning, Ryan Freel singled to center. Another future Hall of Famer, Barry Larkin, followed Freel to the plate and grounded out to the shortstop, moving Freel up to second base. Here is where it starts to get interesting: with one out and a runner on second, Marlins Manager Jack McKeon ordered Josh Beckett to intentionally walk Reds first baseman Sean Casey.

This, on its own, without looking at the rest of the Reds lineup, seems to be a fairly logical decision; Casey is hitting .379 for the season, and has been on a bit of a tear of late (like the rest of the Reds) and has been getting on base in more than half of his plate appearances (counting walks). So, the odds were good that Casey would be successful and possibly score Freel from second (thus putting the Marlins behind late in a close game).

However, it’s not as if Jason LaRue, or Wily Mo Pena, or even Ryan Freel bats after Casey in the Reds lineup. The aforementioned Ken Griffey Jr. bats after Casey. This is probably a large part of why Casey has been able to hit .379 this year. You’re likely to see a lot of good pitches when a healthy Ken Griffey is behind you because the other team doesn’t want to see Griffey bat with men on base.

Still, given the scenario, this wasn’t exactly a bad strategic decision by McKeon. Casey is hot and there’s only one out. Putting Casey, who is very slow, on first base automatically takes the bat out of his hand and prevents him from knocking in Freel. It also sets up a potential double play as there is now a force play at third and second base. At least that’s the logic of it – you set up the force play/double play. The odds of turning the double play are relatively low in reality though – they only seem high to us because the double play does a lot to change the momentum of a game, and it’s much more memorable than a standard fielder’s choice (say something like Larkin’s groundout earlier in the inning).

Now Griffey strides to the plate with runners on first and second and only one out. Everyone is on the edge of their seat waiting for a great duel between the young ace, Josh Beckett, and the aging slugger, Ken Griffey. Griffey’s walk to the plate lasts longer than the at bat though as Beckett releases a flat fastball over the heart of the plate for his first offering. The collective, immediate groan from the Marlins dugout is almost instantly overwhelmed by cheers and excitement from the Cincinnati crowd, as it’s a foregone conclusion that Griffey will deposit such a pitch somewhere in the neighborhood of four-hundred to five-hundred feet away from where he was introduced to it.

And he did. Three-run home run to right-centerfield. Reds lead 4 – 1 and go on to win 5 – 2. Ballgame.

To add interest to the sequence of events, Griffey takes a long hard look into the Marlins dugout on his trip around the bases, apparently scowling at Jack McKeon (although McKeon claimed after the game that he didn’t see it). Most of the coverage of this part of the event claims that there’s ill-will between Griffey and McKeon that traces back to Griffey’s first year in Cincinnati, which was also McKeon’s last. Griffey is also a fairly moody guy, by most accounts, and having the man in front of him walked so that the opposing team could face him did not sit well with him. Apparently Griffey channeled his frustration appropriately though, as he was collected enough to drill the first pitch well up into the bleachers. Personally, I took Griffey’s look into the Marlins dugout as he came around the bases more to say “are you guys stupid?” or “did you forget who I am?” than anything regarding a personal vendetta against McKeon.

The other fallout from the event was the now regular second guessing of McKeon and the Marlins. In hindsight, it was obviously a mistake to walk Casey to get to Griffey. Casey couldn’t have hit a three-run home run – at most he could have hit a two-run home run, so that would have been better than what Griffey did. At the time, however, it made sense, and this is why:

Casey comes to bat with a man on second and one out. Casey is very unlikely to strike out (so far this year he has struck out 16 times in 182 at bats – or about one time in every twelve plate appearances; he did strike out last night though). If Casey doesn’t strike out, he’s very likely to move Freel up to third and/or score him from second. It’s also very likely that Casey could move Freel up to third without even reaching base on his own – either via a sacrifice fly or a groundout. There’s also the chance that even in trying to pitch to Casey, Beckett could walk him and expend more energy than he would by walking him intentionally. He also could ground out (say to the third baseman), leaving Freel on second – this would be about all that the Marlins could hope for, as it would leave Freel where he is, not get another runner on base, and would generate an out.

An alternate theory that some have proposed is that the Marlins not only should have walked Casey, they should have walked Griffey too. This would have allowed them to face Adam Dunn with the bases loaded and one out – with opportunities for a double play elsewhere. This option fails to consider that a wild pitch or unintentional walk also scores a run. This is not my favorite option by far. It’s almost like picking your poison. Casey is hot. Griffey’s a lock Hall of Famer. Dunn is a beast at the plate, but he’s been struggling lately. Do you really want him at the plate in a tie game with the sacks full? I don’t think so.

In reality, McKeon’s decision wasn’t a bad one. He was at least as likely to get beat by Casey as he was by Griffey, and if Casey had done the damage, everyone would be screaming today that they should have walked Casey to get to Griffey since first base was open. McKeon was in a no-win position here, especially when his pitcher floated a pitch over the center of the plate. The Marlins would have had a better chance of getting out of that inning had they been able to get a quality pitch or two across to Griffey.

That didn’t happen though, so the Fish lost. But they get a chance to make up for it today.


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