Don't Blame Felipe Alou
by Glenn Dickey
Jun 06, 2005

WHEN TEAMS lose, managers are usually the first ones blamed, so I was glad to see that the Giants didn’t make that mistake last week, instead extending Felipe Alou’s contract for a year, with Alou having an option for the next season as well.

Alou is often criticized by Giants fans for overmanaging with his relief pitchers but, in fact, this is probably the strongest feature of his game. Last year in particular, he did an amazing job of keeping games under control by knowing when to lift a starter, who to bring in from the ‘pen and spotting specific pitchers in key situations. That was a big factor as a deeply-flawed Giants team that looked in early season like no more than an 83-84 win team actually won 91 and finished only two games behind the Dodgers in the NL West.

This year, though, Alou hasn’t had a chance as injuries and poor planning have sunk the Giants.

The injuries are obvious: Barry Bonds, whose return from multiple knee surgeries is still unknown; Armando Benitez, whose hamstring injury will keep him out for most, if not all, of the season; Jason Schmidt, who had to be shut down for awhile because of a “dead arm” and still isn’t right.

Even with a healthy Schmidt and Benitez, though, the Giants would have had problems because of a starting rotation that was mostly built on hopes and dreams.

IN THE MODERN era, where pitchers seldom complete games, the ideal is for a starter to pitch seven innings, turning it over to a setup man in the eighth and the closer in the ninth. But, look at the Giants season-starting rotation after Schmidt:

--Kirk Rueter. Giants management likes Rueter because of his personality, which is understandable, and his winning percentage, which I don’t understand. They should know better.

Baseball people know that winning percentage is often an unreliable statistic because it depends so much on the team behind the pitcher. In Rueter’s case, he has won because of great fielding and run support. He gets some credit for the fielding because he pitches so quickly and puts the ball in play so much that fielders stay alert behind him.

The run support is a different matter. In a season, teams usually score about what they should; a team with 750-run potential isn’t going to score either 700 or 800. But the final number is reached in an inconsistent manner; a team might score 10 runs one game, only one the next. When the Giants have scored above their average for Rueter, it means they’ve scored below their average in other games. A net gain for Rueter, but not for the team.

Rueter has averaged about 5 2/3 innings a start during his Giants career, with about 10 hits per each 9 innings and a 4.21 ERA. His figures this year are comparable. If you have a No. 5 starter with those figures, you’re satisfied – but Rueter is supposed to be the Giants No. 2.

--Brett Tomko. The Giants brass is enthralled by Tomko because he seems to have the pitches to be a big winner, but he’s been in the majors since 1997, has never won more than 13 games, has an ERA of 4.53 and has averaged not much more than six innings a start. (Precise stats are not available on that because he's had 43 relief appearances before this season).

When Tomko pitches a game like he did Sunday in ending the Giants’ eight-game losing streak, you see why the Giants have had high hopes for him, but he still has those games when he’s pitching brilliantly and then just blows up. He still hasn’t learned how to avoid those “crooked innings.”

The Giants were also counting on second-year pitcher Noah Lowry, who has struggled, and Jerome Williams, who was trying to deal with family problems. Hitters have adjusted to Lowry, so he now has to make adjustments of his own. If Williams comes around, it will be with another club, because he’s been traded.

In retrospect, too many things had to go right for this rotation for it to be solid. Of course, it would be much stronger with Russ Ortiz, whose 36 wins in the last two years are one more than Schmidt’s total, or Livan Hernandez, who pitched 255 innings and averaged about 7 1/3 innings per start last season. But both were traded two years ago.

IT’S PROBABLY true that all of us overestimate how much a manager can help or hurt his team.

On the minus side, for instance, I would say that the worst manager I’ve watched closely was Joe Altobelli – but Altobelli was “Manager of the Year” one season with the Giants and won a World Series with the Baltimore Orioles, who were so good, he couldn’t screw them up.

On the plus side, the manager who has impressed me the most was Tony La Russa with the A’s. La Russa was great at game management, and he was so intense that he kept the players involved all the time. Yet, though the A’s were clearly the best team in baseball in the 1988-90 seasons, they won only one of the three World Series – and La Russa’s Cardinals were swept in last year’s World Series. My theory is that, when his teams get to the postseason and have to step up their intensity, they can’t, because La Russa has had them at a fever pitch all year.

Alou is certainly intense, but he’s able to keep that more within himself and not transmit it to the players. I’d like to see him in the World Series, because I think that would be a great showcase for his skills in managing a game, but he's not going to get there with this team, for sure. What’s happening is not his fault, but he has to deal with it..


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