Having suffered an 0-for-41 slump during his rookie season, Robin Ventura is something of an expert on rough stretches. He doesn't like to say much, but one thing he's said more than once is that baseball is a game "that can bring you to your knees."
Sure enough, baseball's been picking on him lately. On Wednesday afternoon in Cleveland, he put the White Sox in a bind by calling for a two-strike bunt with nobody out and the tying runs on base in the ninth inning. That led to a strikeout, neither runner scored, and the Sox lost a divisional game in frustrating fashion.
On Friday afternoon in Detroit, he chose the "hands-off' approach by not challenging a bang-bang call at second base.
Nick Castellanos tried stretching a single into a double.
Avisail Garcia made a great throw.
Alexei Ramirez applied the tag.
Second base umpire Brian O'Nora ruled him safe.
Ramirez briefly objected.
Ventura stood by the dugout ready to challenge, but didn't.
A bunt and a single later, the Tigers won.
The circumstances were bizarre. I missed the live action because my day job took me away from the game, but as I was queuing up MLB.tv to see what happened, I had two different stories in my Twitter feed as I wondered aloud, and they weren't aligned with the rooting interests.
A Sox fan said Ramirez didn't get Castellanos:
@SouthSideSox Because he missed him by 6 inches— Daniel J Kveton (@DanKveton) April 17, 2015
A third party disagreed:
The source of the confusion: Detroit feed had the only conclusive camera angle. Watching the Fox Sports Detroit broadcast, they had the angle showing Ramirez's glove hitting Castellanos' toe:
Inelegant video of tag. https://t.co/WcAMKvS5Yl— South Side Sox (@SouthSideSox) April 17, 2015
The Tigers' broadcasters plainly admitted that Ramirez tagged Castellanos, and were "stunned" when Ventura didn't challenge the call. They left no room for doubt by the end of their examination:
The disparity in camera-angle quality provides a great explanation for our confusion. Alas, it's a terrible defense for Ventura's inaction.
Ventura said that the club's video guys didn't see the conclusive angle:
Ventura came out of the dugout after the call, with Ramirez strongly objecting, but Ventura said that he received a safe ruling from his video crew and went back in the dugout. [...]
"You think about doing it anyway if you get a maybe," said Ventura. "Yeah, you think about doing it. I didn't even get a maybe. You have to go with what your guys are going with. You could just go out and challenge it anyway, but when you get a 'He missed him,' you don't challenge it."
But that doesn't fly, because a manager's job is to understand the percentages. As Detroit play-by-play guy Mario Impemba put it, "If you're Robin Ventura here, what've you got to lose?"
He had a chance to remove the winning run from scoring position. If he challenged and won, the Sox stood a much better chance of getting to extra innings. If he challenged and lost, he would've lost his challenge ... and still had the opportunity to stump for an umpire-directed review if another protest was needed.
He just needed the slightest reason, and Ramirez reacting as though he made the tag should have been enough.
Ventura didn't consult with Ramirez, though -- he stayed by the dugout and waited for the video consultation. Here's a case where the new replay rules, which don't require a manager to stall with the umpire on the field, might've hurt, because an on-field presence might've allowed Ramirez to make his case. Instead, Ramirez waited from a distance as Ventura waited near the dugout, and no action was taken. Brad Ausmus then replaced his runner, which closed the challenge window by the time Ventura had second thoughts.
"[O'Nora] just missed the play," Ramirez said through an interpreter. "I am sure that I tagged him, and I think he was in the wrong spot to see the play. For me it is clear, and I feel it. I tagged him." [...]
"We were in the ninth inning -- you have to review the play," Ramirez said. "I think that maybe they missed the play the first time on the video, but I am 100 percent I tagged him. If you are going to lose, you don’t want to lose in this way."
This is a bad look for Ventura, because open disagreements between players and Ventura are rare. I can think of Alex Rios and Chris Sale (three times), and that's it.
Ventura is usually on the more reasonable side of those arguments, but not here. Sure, there were a lot of strange actors...
... but O'Nora saw a bang-bang play wrong, as umpires sometimes do. Ramirez didn't place a strong tag, but he did tag Castellanos, then moved the glove before Castellanos' knee or arm could've jarred the ball loose (and O'Nora pointed at Ramirez as if to say "watch it" after Ramirez registered his initial disgust). If the video crew didn't have the angle, that's unfortunate.
That leaves Ventura is the only one who made a purely mental mistake. He had the time to weigh the value of a lost challenge in the bottom of the ninth, he had some evidence in Ramirez's reaction, and he ended up making the wrong decision. As Ventura's boss had said before, "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take," and Ventura had reason to take one here. He's the manager of a Major League Baseball team, and the buck stops with him.
I'd say this is the second consecutive ninth inning in which Ventura made a wrong call. I still don't understand the cost-benefit analysis of Adam Eaton's two-strike bunt attempt, but Eaton executed poorly on his end, and so the player fell on the grenade.
This time, it's the manager who is on his own. Ventura blew this one, and it'd be nice to hear him convey that clearly. He's a hard guy to pin down by design, because we're all on a need-to-know basis. He might not think we need to be in on this either, but the less we know about his decision-making, the more we're left to draw our own conclusions, many of which are growing increasingly unkind.