A Defense of Ron Washington
By Nicholas T. Dahlheim
This is a blog response at The Planetary Observer to the Sunday Open Thread at “Baseball Time in Arlington” <http://www.bbtia.com/home/2010/7/18/sunday-morning-open-thread-five-questions.html – comments>.
July 22, 2010
I’m just going to answer one of the five questions posted here from this past weekend’s open thread at “Baseball Time in Arlington.”
1. Q: Did the Cliff Lee trade (unfairly?) elevate expectations around the Rangers to such a degree that some coaching heads — including, most notably, Ron Washington, whose contract expires after this season — will roll if the Rangers fail to reach the playoffs? Or has this year’s success bought everyone some extra leash, regardless of how the pennant race turns out?
A: The Cliff Lee trade DID unfairly raise expectations for the Rangers such that coaching heads will roll in Arlington should the Rangers fail to make the playoffs. The bankruptcy case is quite serious and I suspect other political issues are involved that make me increasingly pessimistic about the Greenberg/Ryan group taking control of the team. For that reason, manager Ron Washington and his staff might become victims of the fact that either MLB, a court-ordered bankruptcy/restructuring officer, or new ownership (whether that may be Ryan/Greenberg or some other ownership group) may need to clean house for purely financial reasons. That said, it is hard to separate the pressure on Washington due to the team’s financial reasons from the baseball merits of any decision to eliminate Washington’s job by letting his contract expire at the end of the year. Washington’s performance as a baseball manager, however, merits that he keeps his job regardless of whether the Rangers win the AL West Title or the Wild Card. I’m a Cubs fan, but I follow important developments around MLB religiously. And surprise teams like the 2010 Texas Rangers especially draw my attention away from my perennially woeful Cubbies. The 2010 Texas Rangers are a seriously flawed team, but the diligence of GM Jon Daniels in 0building a farm system and an organization (should the bankruptcy and the team’s financial uncertainty not put all that work for naught) has the Rangers moving in the right direction as young players, especially the organization’s young pitchers begin to make a major contribution this season and beyond. But that’s the future, the 2010 Rangers have major problems that the leadership of Ron Washington has helped overcome.
First, the team has black holes in its lineup: the Rangers 1B and C have been arguably the worst offensively of any team in the major leagues. Winning a division in the American League (given that the wildcard seems permanently reserved for the Yankees or the Red Sox) where offenses have more of an impact on a team’s ability to win requires that a lineup have zero automatic outs. A division winning team in the American League needs even its weakest hitters to at least hit balls hard and see 4-5 pitches every plate appearance to wear down starting pitchers—the presence of the DH makes it more tempting to push starter’s harder as the manager doesn’t have to consider pinch-hitting for the pitcher to grab an extra run in the 6th or 7th inning. At C and 1B, the Rangers DO NOT have players that fit that description. Catchers Teagarden, the curiously disappointing Saltalamacchia, and Ramirez just couldn’t hit and would always strikeout in clutch situations. It remains to be seen if the VERY overrated Benji Molina will represent a serious upgrade—at least he’s more durable than career backup Matt Treanor. At first base, Chris Davis has been an unmitigated disaster. Davis struck out at absurd rates. Justin Smoak, prior to the Cliff Lee trade, was not much of an improvement over Davis. Now, the Rangers appear stuck with Davis and playing Joaquin Arias against tougher LH starting pitchers as Smoak now plays for the Mariners where he could potentially torch Rangers’ pitchers later this season or next if he finds his stroke.
Second, prior to the Cliff Lee trade the team’s starting pitching has been a patchwork, makeshift outfit. GM Jon Daniels, knowing that the organization’s pitching depth will not impact the major league team until 2011 at the earliest, spent the previous winter signing journeyman Colby Lewis out of Japan and the oft-injured and perennially disappointing Rich Harden (I got so sick of watching Harden with the Cubs during 2008 and 2009; a typical line of 4 2/3 IP, 2ER, 8K, 1BB, 2HR, 100 pitches made him someone who would always tax the bullpen). Daniels also was hoping that C.J. Wilson would have a smooth transition to the starting rotation despite a dearth of success there at the major league level. Daniels also counted on converted reliever Scott Feldman to approach a 17-win plateau in 2009 that clearly Feldman could not have repeated—especially considering that last year’s full season of starting would cause Feldman’s performance to slip this year. Other Rangers pitchers thought to be seriously in the mix for starting during the off-season and during Spring Training included Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, and Tommy Hunter to fill out the remaining 1-2 spots in the rotation depending upon C.J. Wilson’s spring. This is definitely NOT a group of starting pitchers who will finish games, consistently throw dominating games, or even save bullpens. As the season has progressed, a hot streak by Tommy Hunter covering late May, June, and the first half of July; the inspired and unexpected success of a C.J. Wilson unaccustomed to the rigors of starting every fifth day for a full season, and the #1 ace-type performance of Colby Lewis. The blog “Home on the Rangers” posted a mid-season report card just before the Cliff Lee trade occurred, and it accurately reiterates my assessment of the Rangers starting pitching situation. I challenge anyone to have a better year managing than Ron Washington with a group of pitchers like this.
Playoff teams typically never have to shuffle pitchers in and out of the starting rotation, but injuries to Harrison and Harden have forced the Rangers to use extra starting pitchers not to mention increase the workload of a bullpen already overworked.
Third, the bullpen has been relying upon sub-par arms and/or totally inexperienced pitchers. The performances of Texas’s bullpen pitchers have been well above what could have been expected. Converted starting pitcher and now 22-year old Neftali Perez has taken the closer’s role from Frank Francisco after he had struggled mightily to begin the year. People forget, but Neftali also struggled in his first few outings and to expect such an inexperienced pitcher–much less a young pitcher not used to the regimen of getting up and down on a daily basis as opposed to working on the five-day regimen of starting—to carry the closer’s role for a MLB team with postseason aspirations. Ron Washington made a bold call when he handed the role to N. Perez, and he has been rewarded for his continuing confidence in the young fire-baller. The manager, and not the pitching coach, has to make that call—nothing is more uplifting for a team than a closer who slams the door and nothing is more deflating than a closer who coughs up 9th inning leads. Washington’s credibility in the clubhouse was on the line, and Washington understood that and acted boldly knowing full well that a wrong move here would put his head on the chopping block. In addition the closer crisis just mentioned, the Rangers have other incredibly shaky parts of that bullpen. Darren Oliver, thought to be nearing the end of the line and not resigned by the Angels, has pitched incredibly well. Though, Oliver’s 2010 pace of appearances has him slated to make a career-high number of appearances. This is not a good recipe for the success of an older pitcher, particularly one like Oliver who has had to not only serve as the lefty specialist (a role for which his stuff is not particularly well-suited) but also as a part-time setup option. Darren O’Day has pitched some great baseball, but it is difficult to believe that he can sustain his performance so far and carry that over into the dog days of the pennant race. Dustin Nippert just is an awful pitcher and is only useful in mop-up or some low pressure long-relief duties, or as “Home on the Rangers” puts it (http://homeontherangers.com/2010/07/08/mid-season-grades-bullpen/), a tandem start with Rich Harden. Chris Ray and Doug Mathis have been similarly been putrid. Ogando and Scheppers, without MLB experience, may be counted on down the stretch to make important contributions to the Rangers AL West Title drive. And we haven’t even gotten to the fact that the Texas Rangers bullpen, for all of Nolan Ryan’s bombast about starting a pitching revolution in Texas that will result in the Rangers someday having a staff filled with horses like Roy Halladay, has been forced to lead the MLB in innings pitched. They still rank among the best bullpens in terms of ERA and save percentage. That is a remarkable feat considering the workload and testifies strongly to a manager who is carefully using a bullpen in spite of the temptations to manage the bullpen poorly when the starting staff is not providing innings.
Well, what about Cliff Lee? Well, the addition of Cliff Lee will surely save the bullpen some. And he gives the Rangers the best left-handed starting pitcher in the American League, if not all of baseball. However, Cliff Lee cannot pitch everyday and none of the group of Colby Lewis, Scott Feldman, C.J. Wilson, and Tommy Hunter are clear #2 starters.
Fourth, the Rangers are relying for most of their offensive output from highly brittle and fragile players who must be handled with care. Chief among them has to be Josh Hamilton. Every time Hamilton tries to stretch a long single into a double, reach for third base when running from first on a long base hit, attempt to score
Ron Washington’s leadership shows up in other ways, too. His popularity with team leader Michael Young is no accident; it reflects an overall approach to the game that wins the genuine respect of the players. Young is the kind of old school player who is the glue on any genuine championship team. He plays superb defense, always puts the team first, and like Chase Utley and Derek Jeter, NEVER surrenders an at-bat, and he rarely makes a poor decision on the basepaths. Young is also a very proud player, albeit in a much more quiet way than others. Washington had to sell Young on transitioning from the more glamorous position of shortstop to third base. Young agreed because of Washington’s impressive record developing infielders. If you recall, Eric Chavez was a very raw prospect defensively when the genius Billy Beane and his early sabermetricians narrowly evaluated all position players based on OBP, SLG, and HR production. Washington’s tutelage turned Chavez from a poor fielder into a legitimate Gold Glove 3B before injuries robbed Chavez of much of his playing time and physical tools. Chavez credits Washington’s coaching to his defensive success so greatly that he gave Washington one of his Gold Glove Awards[i]. Similarly, Tejada was NEVER a strong defensive shortstop and Washington made him into a short stop who always positioned himself well and who learned how to use his strong arm more accurately (Tejada had always had a penchant for wild throws as a very young player). Mark Ellis became a stellar defensive second baseman under Washington’s tutelage. Washington even coached Jason Giambi into being a serviceable first baseman for a time. That track record surely convinced Young that he was in good hands with undergoing a difficult position change to third base. In another way, Michael Young is not the kind of player sabermetricians, business-minded baseball people, and geeky computer whiz types highly value or with whom they easily connect. Michael Young bristled under the leadership of Buck Showalter with his huge binder of rules and with his distance from players in participating in their instruction and development. Washington, on the other hand, has never shied away from the less glamorous duties surrounding coaching and teaching. And Washington, though an excellent baseball skills instructor, especially on defense, is quick never to stroke his own ego. I doubt that Kinsler, Young, or the other Texas infielders would be performing as well defensively under a different manager. Michael Young respects Washington’s love for the finer points of infield play as well as his willingness to focus on the play of baseball as opposed to Showalter’s egotistical love of the prestige of the manager’s chair and his cozy pretensions to be closer to the owner and the front office than to the players in the clubhouse. If Michael Young feels that way, I guarantee that the rest of the clubhouse sees Washington similarly. Furthermore, Washington ALWAYS has his player’s backs. He never leaves the top step of the dugout and is the first to congratulate any players who come from scoring or hitting a homer. He is definitely willing to get ejected to protect a player, and he is the consummate cheerleader. When Showalter managed the Rangers, he could not have been more distant from the players during the course of a game—that strict dividing line between King Buck and the players could not have been drawn clearer. That makes getting off to a strong start or finishing the long slog of a pennant race very difficult when the long grind becomes more tiring at the hand of an overbearing and micro-managing team leader.
Furthermore, this has not meant that Washington, in comparison to the authoritarian and business-like Showalter, has been a wallflower or a pushover. He has been unafraid to confront players, even star players. In Washington’s first season with the Rangers in 2007, he pulled aside the slumping Mark Teixeira early in the season to work on his hitting. In 2007, the Rangers players were universally happy with Washington, except for Teixeira who had a reputation for being prickly and unwilling to take criticism—a problem that has manifested itself again in 2010 with the Yankees as rumors persist that he has clashed with Kevin Long who has tried to implement changes to Teixeira’s swing and plate approach to make him more aggressive as Washington himself had suggested in 2007. Still, that didn’t hinder Washington from confronting Teixeira and trying to help him improve, even if such advice supposedly contradicted what famed hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo had preached.[ii] Second, when Washington asked C.J. Wilson, then struggling out of the bullpen and not performing well in a critical game against the Yankees, to give Washington the ball and exit the game in favor or a new pitcher out of the bullpen; Wilson threw a fit. Wilson had just given up a grand slam to Richie Sexson, then of the Yankees, in the 8th inning. When Washington was at the mound to take the ball, Wilson flipped it up in the air for Washington to catch rather than observe the unwritten rule of handing the baseball over to the manager when he comes to remove the pitcher from the game. Washington grabbed C.J. Wilson and handed him the ball back so that Wilson could place the ball back in Washington’s hands as per the unwritten rule. Then, Washington patted the departing and clearly still angry Wilson on the butt as Wilson departed for the showers. Washington, after the incident, chose to downplay it and didn’t do what Showalter would have done—suspend or trade the guy. Wilson was clearly acting on the emotion of coughing up a grand slam to the hated Yankees in a critical game. He wasn’t trying to show up Washington, but Washington forced Wilson to observe respect for the game without needing to be overbearing. That incident, even more so than that with the surly Mark Teixeira, demonstrates Washington’s character. A YouTube video from a fan attending the game captured the exchange between Washington and Wilson just as I had described it above.
I don’t give a damn about the cocaine incident. Washington submits to testing and counseling therapy and complies with all of those rules. He manages the team very effectively. Every manager makes questionable decisions on the field; the beauty of baseball results from the endless opportunities to dissect the action involved in each and every play. But, the overall overachievement and the fact that the players respond and play their behinds off for the guy speaks to the fact that Washington is a leader of men. The two most frequent criticisms I have encountered regarding Ron Washington involve the following. First, Washington has received criticism for his his quixotic and unpredictable use of the bullpen; but, Washington has been dealt a poor hand in regards to the bullpen this year and in his previous years managing the team. Second, Washington has received criticism for his team making outs on the base paths. While they make their fair share of outs, the aggressive baserunning that Washington teaches energizes the team and focuses hitters in hit-and-run situations. Successful aggressive base-running is more of a catalyst to success than getting thrown out is a hindrance to winning. The 2002 Angels, the 2003 Marlins, the 2004 Red Sox (that Dave Roberts 9th inning steal off Mariano Rivera lead the comeback from the 0-3 deficit in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees), the 2005 White Sox, the 2006 Cardinals, 2008 Phillies and Rays, and the 2009 Yankees all were teams whose aggressive baserunning changed the character of games and intimidated opposing pitchers and defenses. Note too that part of the reason Washington was quietly shown the door in Oakland is that he and Ken Macha had clashed with GM Billy Beane about the value of getting better team speed and running the bases more aggressively. And only now is Oakland beginning to embrace the value of team speed. When Oakland had its great teams in the late 90s and early 2000s, they only made it out of the first round of the playoffs one time. Never were those Oakland A’s teams known for aggressive baserunning or team speed. The inability to get from first to third or run-out infield hits, etc. often killed rallies in the postseason. The walk, walk, three-run homer, station-to-station model of scoring that would lead to regular season success would fail in the playoffs. Playoff baseball teams typically have pitching staffs who avoid walks and homers, and therefore teams that can manufacture hits and runs with aggression tend to win. Washington was on the right side of that baseball argument, if the last few years of playoff success count.
So, will Washington fall under more pressure if the Rangers don’t win the AL West? Yes? Will heads probably even roll if they don’t win the AL West? Should they roll? Absolutely not. Washington is the perfect manager at the major league level for this club. He is that old school baseball lifer who earns the respect of players. He handles his authority delicately and he is unabashedly afraid to follow gut baseball instincts. Washington’s Rangers always play with passion and they have a never-say-die attitude. The 2010 Opening Day win where the Rangers pulled off a stunning rally has happened often with Washington at the manager’s helm. The constant carping about Ron Washington amongst fans and bloggers is unwarranted. The Rangers were right to hire Washington in the first place, and they were right to place their faith in Washington after the positive drug test in 2009 and the public announcement of that test in March 2010. The Rangers should keep Washington, no matter whether the Rangers make the playoffs or not.
I know fans in this electronic age can have a magnified sense of the importance of every game, and that educated baseball fans can tend to argue over every single move made during the course of a baseball game. However, the 162-game season is a marathon and fans ought to take a look at the bigger picture. Based on these aforementioned observations and others, the big picture argues that Ron Washington is the right man to be sitting in the manager’s chair in Arlington. I just sometimes wonder if the “geeky” side of being a baseball fan in the Digital Age, and not to mention that Ron Washington is black (not to say that any specific baseball fans are racists, but subtle racial prejudices can sometimes interfere with fair analysis because, and let’s just own up to, we still live in a society politically, economically, and aesthetically organized around racial hirearchies) can sometimes figure subconsciously in criticisms of Washington as the manager of the Texas Rangers.
[i] John Shea. “Ex-coach Ron Washington’s cocaine use stuns A’s.” San Francisco Gate. March 18, 2010. Archived online at http://articles.sfgate.com/2010-03-18/sports/18836692_1_drug-test-texas-rangers-general-manager-jon-daniels. Last Accessed July 18, 2010.
[ii] Jon Heyman. “The Daily Scoop: Piniella Shares Blame (Cont.).” CNN/SI. June 4, 2007. Archived online at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/writers/jon_heyman/06/04/scoop.monday/1.html. Last Accessed July 18, 2010.