Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why does Ron Roenicke trust John Axford?

The Brewers lost again Tuesday night, and unsurprisingly, John Axford was prominently involved. Axford has contributed significantly to three of the Brewers' losses so far, and blew a lead in one other game that the team still managed to win. Axford was a bad pitcher in 2012, and has been even worse in 2013. Ron Roenicke removed him from the closer role after the Diamondbacks series, only to put him in a high-pressure spot against the Cubs two days later where Axford predictably failed. I've been a Roenicke supporter, mostly because I think his positives far outweigh his negatives, but I can't support his decision to turn to Axford in a close game. It was huge a mistake that likely cost them the game.

Instant fan reaction is that Roenicke is a bumbling idiot, trying to lose games, is the worst, and should be fired and replaced by someone who totally won't do the same thing. Any intelligent fan knows that none of those things are likely true, but the continued reliance on Axford is puzzling nonetheless. But this is not just a Brewers problem. It's a problem that every fanbase has endured at some point; managers showing too much trust in their players.

Another example happened in the same game Tuesday night. Cubs manager Dale Sveum put similarly broken pitcher Carlos Marmol into a tied game in the top of the eighth inning, the difference being that Marmol got away with a few meatballs and survived a two-out triple to get out of the inning unscathed. Marmol has been a mess for even longer than Axford has, but has basically never been removed from high-leverage situations. San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy has watched starting pitcher Tim Lincecum melt down for over a year now, and still trots Lincecum out there every fifth day. Lincecum was once one of the best pitchers in all of baseball and has back-toback Cy Youngs to his name, but his velocity has decreased to the point where his fastball is useless and it's made all of his other pitches worse. He's shown for over a year now that he's no longer an above-average player. The same has been true for Ryan Howard in Philadelphia, Jose Valverde in Detroit, Jeff Franceour in Kansas City. With the exception of Franceour, all of the aforementioned players were among the best in baseball at their respective positions. They earned their managers' trust. They're also all players that can no longer produce like they once did, but are continually put in positions to do so by their loyal managers. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances for some of these players. The Cubs are probably trying to trade Carlos Marmol, the Phillies are paying Howards buckets of money, the Giants don't have any starting pitcher depth, etc. But most baseball teams are trying to win games and trusting broken and/or ineffective players seems to fly in the face of that goal. If it were all about money or trade value, Vernon Wells and Juan Uribe wouldn't have been riding the bench the last couple years. Money may play a part, but I'm willing to bet there's more to it than that.

Some fans and analysts mock the idea of clubhouse chemistry and managers showing faith in struggling players. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else. While it's certainly true we cannot quantify clubhouse chemistry and no team should build solely around it, dismissing it completely and claiming it's meaningless is bullshit. For us it's all about results, nothing else should matter. It's a business, after all. But we don't have to walk around the clubhouse every day, we don't have to look players in the eye, and we certainly aren't personally invested in them. We're constantly reminded that players are human beings, not robots that play for our enjoyment and satisfaction. But it's still easy to forget that they're not only people, but people who are trying their hardest to succeed at a sport they love. John Axford is not trying to pitch horribly, and his manager and teammates want to see him succeed. We look at Roenicke placing Axford in a tight spot as setting him up to fail, but I have no doubt that Roenicke views it as an opportunity for Axford to succeed. Demoting him to a mop-up role or sending him to AAA may be the right move from a baseball standpoint, but it could destroy whatever confidence John Axford has left as well as alienating him and other members of the locker room. We don't know, which means we probably shouldn't speculate, but it still means that we don't know.

Ron Roenicke knows John Axford better than any of us ever will. He's seen Axford's successes as well as his failures, and from his perspective it's probably easier to remember the success. That's almost certainly led to him making poor choices in how to use Axford, but he's not alone. Every manager in the history of the game is guilty of it. By design, managers are taught not to be swayed by what we call recency bias. That does not necessarily make it okay, especially with clearly declining players, but I think it's important for us to stop and understand why they do it. It's not to spite us, or to lose baseball games, or to beat a dead horse, even if it seems that way. They want to win, but they also want to maintain their locker rooms and player relationships. The players have to be accountable to their manager, but in turn he has to be accountable to the players. They need to know that one rough stretch won't place them on the bench. Tim Lincecum has years of dominance that in his mind have earned him the right to continue starting. If Bochy buries him in the bullpen because of one bad year + two starts, it sets a dangerous precedent. Players don't really think like fans and talent evaluators do, they'll believe they can work their problems out forever. What player would want to play under Bochy in the future if he makes someone who was as good as Lincecum a relief pitcher after just one rough season?

Fans can pick and chose their loyalties, but managers cannot. And it's not a cold business to them, like it is to front offices and owners. They're hired specifically by those front offices to handle the players on a personal level, and we probably shouldn't be surprised when they act accordingly. We still have the right to be frustrated and upset, but let's stop pretending that we can put ourselves in their shoes.

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