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Give it away now

In every discipline, there is a certain protocol, a certain hierarchy of decisionmaking, a certain order to things that should be consulted and followed prior to taking action. Those who function within the discipline know the existence of the protocol, as well as the series of steps to consider, like they know their birthdate or their Social Security number or that his father's the district attorney! These things are learned, inculcated, and observed.

Take a discipline; how about law? Let's say you've been injured and have a bang-up personal injury action. Your story is sad, and your facts are good, and you'll cut a fetching image for the jury, wearing a sad-sack expression and that thing that pathetically wraps around your neck. On the merits, you'll score big. There's only one problem: you didn't file suit within the two-year limitations period. Whoops. Your chance of winning, of even presenting your tragic tale to a jury, has---well, let's just say things aren't looking up. You lose, six-love, six-love, like a Steffi Graf "perfect match" from '88 Wimbledon. So you appeal, thinking the next court up the ladder will vindicate you; after all, you're aggrieved, right? Well, there's another problem: you didn't file a notice of appeal within the required time frame. That transcends a mere Whoops. Not only are you a dead dog, but the appellate court doesn't even possess jurisdiction to hear the case. So, maybe your case is good on the merits, and maybe that first court didn't decide the statute of limitations issue correctly. Whatever is the case, your case is going nowhere. Let's just leave it at that.

The point to be gleaned from this discussion, I hope, is that there are considerations that are in themselves meritorious but that should also be viewed in context of other factors to be consulted. And sometimes those meritorious considerations must be set aside when they represent a lower level of status in the applicable order of things.

Members of a baseball team---say, third base coaches---must know this. They must know the protocol, the hierarchy, the order of things to consider. They must have these things down pat, accessible on a split second's notice, because that is how fast a baseball game can move.

Washington Nationals' third base coach Tony Beasley faced a split-second decision in the eighth inning of this afternoon's 3-2, Opening Day loss to the New York Mets. Leading off the top half of the inning, newly-acquired, newly-minted (and not exactly pristine) left fielder Alfonso Soriano singled softly to left. Rookie sensation Ryan Zimmerman came to the plate, and Dutch laced a double into the left field corner. Cliff Floyd pursued the ball and delivered it to shortstop Jose Reyes, who executed a perfect relay to catcher Paul LoDuca, who secured the ball---or didn't, really---in time to retire Soriano in a bang-bang play at the plate. Royce Clayton then grounded out, advancing Zimmerman to third. Brian Schneider's strikeout killed the threat, although the play at the plate was one heavy accessory before the fact.

You're not going to hear a tremendous amount concerning Beasley's decision to send Soriano on a failed dash for home; for one thing, Soriano was, in fact, safe:

"I told [my teammates] I'm a magician in the offseason," Lo Duca said. "The hand is quicker than the eye. I was guilty as charged."

. . . Footage shot from angles behind home plate captured Lo Duca briefly dropping the ball, then smothering it and showing it to Tschida with his bare hand.

Tschida -- who had properly rotated to home plate to cover when plate umpire Rick Reed moved up the third-base line -- could not see the play from his vantage point, charging in from the base.

Tschida said that Nationals right fielder Jose
Guillen mentioned the missed call between innings.

"[Guillen] said, 'I'm not trying to start anything.' He said the replay showed that [Lo Duca] bobbled the ball. And I went, 'You know what? It never entered my mind at the time of the call,'" Tschida saiayayd.

To be sure, it was a tough way to lose a run, but it was also---and more importantly---a tough way to lose a baserunner. Beasley was ill-advised in waving around Soriano.

* * * *

I am, of course, speaking as a fan---one who has watched way, way too much baseball for his own good, but nevertheless just a fan. Beasley, on the other hand, is a respected baseball man, an experienced minor league manager who has nurtured a good bit of talent in recent seasons. When Beasley was brought aboard, many of of envisioned a managerial hire down the road. I am still excited about Beasley.

Plainly speaking, however, Beasley messed up.

* * * *

ANATOMY OF A FLUB-UP

It's not hard to interpret what Beasley was thinking at the moment---be aggressive. He admitted as much:

Beasley said that he is usually conservative, but he wanted to be aggressive on that particular play.
"I thought that with the speed of the runner, I thought we had a chance to score," Beasley said.

It's not hard to see why Beasley was aggressive: speed. Let's review the major changes among the Nats' position players from last season:

  • In: Soriano; Out: Wilkerson
  • Here: Jackson/Anderson; There: Carroll/Baerga
  • Up: Watson; Down: Church
  • Hi: Dutch; Bye: Castilla
Every one of these moves enhanced the team speed. And speed begins a causal chain that is beloved by baseball men the world over:
  • Speed enables
  • aggressiveness, which
  • puts pressure on the defense,
  • which leads to botched fielding,
  • and hurried throws, which leads to
  • runs.
I'm not going to belittle this reasoning. It's often quite meritorious. But, like the merits of your personal injury action, some considerations must come first. Beasley points out the most important:
"I went against what I usually do. With no outs, I'm [usually] safer, but I felt we had a good chance to score."

Simply put, Beasley can't---or, as it were, shouldn't---send the runner in this spot unless he knows the runner will be safe. Aggressiveness is fine, but it must be finely calculated. As Distinguished Senators notes, in the absence of good decisionmaking speed will only lead you to disaster faster. Or, as Homer J. once remarked, "There's the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way"---which is the wrong way, "only faster."

Whatever you want to call it, Tony Beasley faced a split-second decision. Unfortunately, based on what he should have known instinctively in that split-second (a demanding standard, but a necessity for a third base coach), he made the wrong decision.

  1. There was no one out. "Settling" for runners at second and third would have left the Nats with two opportunities to advance the lead runner home, even without the benefit of a hit.
  2. Royce Clayton was the on-deck batter. Although he had driven in one of Washington's runs, Clayton is not a strong batter.
  3. Washington's primary pinch-hitter, Marlon Anderson, had been used in the seventh inning.
  4. Anderson is a lefty hitter; the Mets pitcher was Aaron Heilman, a righty. Anderson's availability would have been helpful.
  5. But the Nats have a second lefty bench hitter, Daryle Ward. He was available.
  6. Ward cannot replace Clayton at shortstop, but Damian Jackson can, and he was still on the bench. He could have come in for defense in the bottom of the eighth.
  7. The Mets have three lefthanded pitchers on their roster: 1) Tom Glavine, who started the game and was gone at the outset of the seventh inning; 2) Billy Wagner, the closer; and 3) Darren Oliver, the putative situational lefty.
  8. Willie Randolph was not going to call on Wagner to record six outs.
  9. Catcher Brian Schneider, a lefty hitter, was in the hole.
  10. Randolph would face the choice of keeping Heilman in the game, to face two lefty hitters who would have the platoon advantage---or call on his situational lefty to record at least two outs without relinquishing the tying run.
And you know what? That's exactly what Frank Robinson was thinking. To Robinson's great credit, he supported his coach. However, his coach has to anticipate how his manager will play the situation---and give his manager that ability:
Robinson declined to second-guess Beasley, but a baseball source familiar with the manager's thinking said that had Soriano stayed put at third, he would have taken Clayton out of the game and had Daryle Ward pinch-hit. But Clayton stayed in the game and grounded out, and Brian Schneider struck out to end the inning.

To be sure, the players have to execute. But the coaches do, too---and that requires sound decisionmaking, not just a desire to be aggressive.

* * * *

As it happened, the game ended on another baserunning blunder (though perhaps not as an egregious one), as Jose Vidro---who is not exactly speedy---was cut down trying to stretch a single into a double. Sufficient similar lapses, as well as a general lack of execution, occurred such that Beasley really isn't the goat of this game, any more than Tschida is, I suppose. And, again, I am not arguing that "being aggressive" is synonymous with "bad."

But I'm starting to wonder about this coaching staff. Beasley's decision, when considered in light of first base coach Davey Lopes' praise of Vidro's choice, gives me substantial pause:

After the game, Vidro was seen apologizing to Lopes for not stopping, but Lopes praised Vidro for being aggressive against a power closer like Wagner.
"I want him to be aggressive. What are the chances of getting two more hits off Wagner? Had he not gone, everybody would have said, 'Why didn't you run and challenge him?' If you play safe, you are not going to win any ballgames," said Lopes, an aggressive baserunner in the 1970s and '80s. "I want these guys to be aggressive. We were aggressive and it didn't work out today, but I'm going to tell you, it's going to work out over the long haul."

It will certainly work at times; no doubt about that. But what is the break-even point? Will the Nats gain anything, over the long haul, from running the bases with hell-bent abandon? In addition, while Lopes' point about stringing together singles is certainly noted, who is to say Guillen could not lash a double into the gap? It's possible, right?

Well, you ask, aren't we back to square one? Isn't the problem with Vidro's decision in large part a product of his lack of speed. Why, yes. But there was a faster guy on the bench: Damian Jackson. He could score on a double, and he could replace Vidro at second in case Guillen comes through big and ties things up.

Being down a run with two outs in the ninth against a fireballer is never a good spot, but there have to be better ways out of this hole than just running around, willy-nilly.

Update [2006-4-4 0:31:52 by Basil]: Other takes around the Natosphere:

* Nasty Nats bemoans the generally slopply play and finds it disturbingly familiar.

* Capitol Punishment provides a comprehensive review, including a familiar feature, a new feature, and a look at a WaPo article that, interestingly, quotes a Washington player who held Royce Clayton culpable for the Soriano out.

* Beltway Boys, among other insights, notes with sadness that the Nats scrapped together only two runs on 12 hits, owing in large part to miscues and poor execution.

* Nats Blog has lots fo neat stuff, including a novel look at the Vidro play and a resumption of a tradition unlike any other: ERV boxscores.

* Ballwonk: the familiarity to '05 was not inspiring.

Anyway, it's only one game . . . and it was close . . . and it was decided, to some extent, based on a bad call by the home plate ump. So maybe we'll bury this one and see better days, starting on Wednesday.