On Tuesday afternoon, Steve posited that Robin Ventura's horrendous rookie-season struggles could give him an edge in dealing with a team full of first-year starters.
For the first two months of 1990, Ventura was basically a worst-case scenario. He started 7-for-20 with four walks, then went 0-for-41. It was the kind of slump that could totally derail a player's confidence, but Ventura managed to weather the storm, finish the year on an upswing and officially start his Hall of Very Good career. Any first-year player should find something to learn from Ventura's rookie season, even if it's far smoother.
But now that Ventura's managing the club, perhaps we should look at how Jeff Torborg guided him through a start that could have derailed him.
First of all, while "0-for-41" is the brief way to sum up his awful start, his slump lasted two weeks beyond his triumphant single off Bret Saberhagen. He had separate skids of 12 and 13 hitless at-bats over that fortnight, which extended his slump to 6-for-75 from April 21 to May 25. It dragged his line all the way down to .135/.278/.260.
At 23-15, the White Sox were winning despite Ventura. They could easily absorb his hitless nights in the bottom third of the order when development was the priority, but the idea of contending complicated matters. It would have been easy for Torborg to bench Ventura for an extended period of time as Memorial Day approached, just to see how either Ventura and/or the team responded.
But Torborg went the other way on May 26.
He batted Ventura second.
His explanation, from the Chicago Sun-Times on May 27, 1990:
"[Ventura] takes a lot of pitches anyway, and if we try to steal it'll give the runners more of an option. He makes good contact - and it might pick his confidence up."
Ventura went 1-for-6 that day. Then 1-for-3. Then 1-for-3. Then 3-for-4. He closed out May with hits in four straight starts, which set the stage for a strong June. Ventura finally outpaced the doubts by hitting .298/.365/.351 that month, and he batted second in all 24 games he started.
As the move started to shift from "quick fix" to "fixture," Torborg was asked about it in more detail. From the Sun-Times on June 4:
Even when Ventura was 0-for-41, Torborg kept trotting him out almost every day, and he has been brilliant afield. "We weren't going to quit on the kid, because he wasn't quitting on himself," Torborg says. "He's never shown he was down about his hitting. You couldn't tell to look at his face. I know it was eating him up inside."
Says Ventura : "I felt I was letting us down."
Recently, Torborg moved this struggling 22-year-old from the No. 7 spot in the order to No. 2. It baffled those of us who don't comprehend managerial genius.
"It was a surprise to me, the way things were going," Ventura admits. "But I usually put the ball in play. He (Torborg) wants the opportunity to hit-and-run, and I can do that pretty good."
Torborg explains: "The feeling was, he might get better pitches." With fleet Sammy Sosa or Lance Johnson leading off, their base-stealing threat would induce pitchers to throw Ventura more fastballs. And his responsibility to simply contact the baseball in executing the hit-and-run might be easier than trying to smash it. Psychology might have been involved, too. Torborg may have reckoned a promotion would be a tonic for a young man secretly dreading he would be benched or farmed out.
"Sonofagun, it's worked!" Torborg says, surprised at his own brilliance.
It wasn't a cure-all for Ventura. In fact, Torborg dropped him back to seventh or lower after a sluggish start to August -- partially because they stayed in the race, and partially because the arrival of Frank Thomas gave Torborg another option to hit in the first five spots. Then again, once Ventura's power showed up, he wasn't going to stay in the second spot for long regardless. It was a temporary move one way or another.
The move was also counterintuitive, but not in every sense. In the clubhouse, it may have been a way for Torborg to back up his words with actions. Torborg could have fueled doubt by leaving open the possibility of a demotion. Instead, he doubled down on Ventura by boosting him to a lineup spot considered by analysts to be the most vital, but in a way that diminished any added stress. He's got the talent. The approach is there. Let's see if this works. It can't be any worse.
That's a tactic used by recently successful managers like Jim Leyland and Joe Maddon. Leyland handed rookies ambitious assignments in the batting order because rookies are big leaguers, and any lineup spot is the big leagues. Maddon's lineup is so pliable that a slumping Evan Longoria goes from cleanup hitter to leadoff man for a new days, because he's still got the eye even if the batting average doesn't reflect it, so it almost makes any subsequent hit a bonus.
Ventura has erred on the side of steadiness as a manager, so he'll probably have no problem protecting guys like Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia and friends should they struggle tread water. It'd be cool if he followed Torborg's example the extra step by taking the air out of rigid roles in a season where the Sox aren't supposed to contend. Some occasional what-the-hell whimsy is called for when the team has nothing to lose, especially if key players think they're on the verge of losing it.