Starting his fourth season as manager of the White Sox, it's hard to really get a handle on Robin Ventura's abilities as a manager.
Sure, we've gotten used to certain aspects of his leadership.:
- Detectable disagreements with players are few and far between.
- He's not much for telegraphing intentions to and through the media.
- He has a sneaky, smartassed sense of humor.
- It's a lot of fun during the rare outbursts.
But good luck figuring out how it translates to wins and losses.
If you take the actual, you know, wins and losses, it's not good. He has the lowest winning percentage (.455) of any White Sox manager with as many games to his name (486) thanks to 188 losses over the last two years, and the lack of reactions stronger than shrugs fails to satiate the angry fans who want vicarious catharsis.
It's hard to isolate it from the level of talent available, though. He isn't the reason why the Sox needed a rebuilding process -- he was just holding the bag when the perpetual attempts to patch an aging club all exploded. The Sox have traded, released or otherwise jettisoned a considerable amount of bodies the last two years, and it's not like they've gone on to discover greatness.
The front office hasn't wavered in its support of Ventura, which is good. But now they've actually taken the handcuffs off him, which is better. Rick Hahn reinvested in the bullpen after a year of trying to get by on the cheap, and he also gave Ventura an actual bench for the first time in his career, unlocking potential platoons and defensive arrangements like never before.
Given this see-sawing amount of talent over three wildly uneven seasons, it's difficult to build a comprehensive vision of how he might go about using it. The best we can do is look for patterns using the hard data in The Bill James Handbook 2015, and then apply the strongest tendencies to the players he now has on hand.
It's a tall task, so we're devoting a full day and some 4,000 words to the cause. Let's start with the pitching this morning, and we'll look at the other half of the roster this afternoon.
Nothing showcased the extreme variance in Ventura's teams -- and his subsequent decision-making -- like the bullpen (or lack thereof).
In 2013, Addison Reed became the first pitcher in White Sox history to record all of his team's saves.
In 2014, six different pitchers recorded saves for the White Sox, which hadn't happened since 2005.
Here's another example of how untrustworthy the bullpen was -- after leading the league by using a reliever on consecutive days 133 times in 2013, Ventura dropped below the league average with just 96 such usages in 2014. A year earlier, he made Jesse Crain an All-Star with a heavy high-leverage workload and leaned on Reed for six saves in six days. All of a sudden, he ain't had nobody he could depend on.
Matt Lindstrom started the season as the presumptive closer with Nate Jones ready to step in. That plan blew up in a week when Jones hit the DL with a back injury, and Lindstrom himself went on the shelf after breaking his ankle the following month. With his two most proven relievers out of action, Ventura spent the rest of the season scrambling for competent performances.
And as a study by Baseball Prospectus' Jeff Long shows, he actually did a good job using his most capable relievers in the most demanding roles when they presented themselves:
He gave Ronald Belisario the first shot at the ninth after Lindstrom went down, and Belisario deserved the opportunity. Heading into his first save situation, he hadn't allowed an earned run over his previous 17⅓ innings, over which he allowed just nine baserunners while striking out 13.
But regression caught up to Belisario soon after he took over as the closer, and it spent the rest of the season kicking his ass.
Belisario's month in in the closer role was a rough one, but Ventura kept giving him shots for a couple reasons:
- He had a couple clean saves after an initial rough patch, making it seem like he'd endured an adjustment period.
- The other relievers were rookies or cast-offs.
Once Belisario failed, he reluctantly turned to Jake Petricka, going so far as to avoid calling Petricka the C-word as long as he could. But as the chart above shows, Petricka earned his trust enough to take most of the save opportunities, and Ventura protected Petricka by using Zach Putnam in late-inning situations against the left-handed hitters that gave Petricka trouble.
(He also tried using Petricka and Putnam to nail down saves four outs or longer. It didn't always work, but the Sox finished with five such saves, after zero the year before.)
Ventura's season wasn't perfect, even adjusting for the awfulness. He blew through four relievers in an inning in April. He used post-closer Belisario for the final three innings of an extra-innings loss, even with two relievers available. He couldn't get a handle on Javy Guerra's reverse splits, which played a part in Guerra's ugly strand rate for inherited runners.
Yet at the end of the season, he helped develop two obscure relievers into ones capable of high-leverage work, and Guerra wasn't a bad find either.
That was enough for Rick Hahn, who shared his opinion of Ventura's bullpen work on the South Side Sox podcast:
"We went through some pretty rough stretches there, where there simply just wasn't the right answer down there regardless of which button he was going to push, whether it was bad luck, or bad matchups, or us just not providing the right personnel to him. It's hard for me to put that on Robin's doorstep.
"If anything, once the writing was on the wall for this season in terms of our likelihood to contend for a championship, I think there was some benefit to the way the bullpen was, in terms of Robin's long-term bullpen management skills. I liked the idea that he was not tied down because of anybody's pedigree or past history or performance, saying, 'This guy has my ninth inning.'
"I like the fact that he was bringing Jake Petricka in the eighth inning when he was the right matchup. I like the fact that some days he'd go to Putnam for the save because of who was due up and how that matched up.
"I think ultimately, we're going to have more and more quality back-end options for Robin to choose from, and his having endured some of the hardships this year, and those hardships forcing him to manage creatively and having an open mind in terms of bullpen roles, is only going to serve him in the long term."
2015 outlook: Hahn lived up to his word, signing $61 million worth of contracts for the free agent market's best right-handed reliever (David Robertson) and second-best lefty (Zach Duke). A smaller acquisition for Dan Jennings gives Ventura a second MLB-caliber lefty after spending most of the 2014 season devoid of any.
This should send Ventura back to his earlier habits, setting a rather firm hierarchy with Robertson handling the ninth inning, Duke facing the tough late-inning lefties, and Petricka and Putnam taking their tandem act to the setup role, assuming Petricka bounces back from his sore forearm.
(I'm also inclined to write off a surge in intentional walks as an aberration. Ventura called for 42 of them after averaging 27 his first two years, and the sheer increase of baserunners probably played a significant part.)
This is Ventura's first time with a big-ticket closer, and so we don't quite know how Ventura will react should Robertson struggle in the first year of his $46 million deal. Robertson would deserve a longer leash than a guy like Belisario (or Hector Santiago, to go back to Ventura's first year as manager), but the commitment would inevitably change the conversation to some degree. Ideally, we won't find out how much for at least a couple of years.
Starting pitcher management
One area where Ventura remains consistent despite the tremendous turnover on his roster -- he likes to ride his starters, and not always for the better.
According to the Bill James Handbook, Ventura led the league in "slow hooks" for the second straight season. Let's get the definition of his "slow hook" metric, since we'll need it to understand a nuance:
We calculate a "Damage Score" for each pitcher and each game, which is his itches thrown plus 10 times the runs allowed. The bottom 25 percent of the games in each league are Quick Hooks. If the manager takes his pitcher out after 92 pitches and one run allowed (102), that will be a Quick Hook. The top 25 percent are Slow Hooks. If a pitcher throws 114 pitches and gives up four runs (154), that will be a Slow Hook.
James also counts "long outings," which are simply starts of 110 pitches of more. The damage component is what sets it apart, and when you look at the totals of each category over the last two years ...
- 2013: 52 slow hooks, 38 long outings
- 2014: 59 slow hooks, 29 long outings
... you'll notice the starters took on more water. Ventura had seven more slow hooks, even though fewer of them were simply attributable to innings/pitches alone. That means runs came into play, and I have a couple guesses.
The first deals with the talent. Take Hector Noesi, whose proclivity to give up homers led to a healthy amount of crooked numbers, especially early in games. Yet he showed an ability to dust himself off and last six innings. John Danks had some similar tough-it-out starts. Those end up as slow hooks in Ventura's ledger, but they're far from blemishes on his record, especially when you consider the bullpen.
The other factor puts blame on Ventura: He had some issues with TTOP (Times Through the Order Penalty), especially in the first half. It's one thing to leave Chris Sale to give up a game-tying grand slam to Mike Trout in his fourth plate appearance of the game, because Sale is the league's most dominant starter. However, Ventura also let lesser pitchers like Scott Carroll and Danks also start one extra turn through a lineup, and the results were uniformly disastrous.
After Danks gave up a game-tying homer to Josh Hamilton on July 2, White Sox starters were the worst in the league when facing hitters for the fourth time in a game:
- AL average: .256/.313/.407
- White Sox: .438/.526/.719 over 38 PA
This eventually normalized a little bit over the second half. Ventura picked his spots better -- even though the quicker hook sometimes worked against him -- and Sox starters finished with "only" the third-worst line in such situations (.289/.355/.458).
It's hard to isolate this from the larger context of the Sox looking toward next season, though. Ventura took it easier on his starters over the final two months, as only four of the 16 highest pitch counts occurred in the second half. It's possible Ventura learn from those TTOP games, or from the 127-pitch start for Sale that preceded a one-month stay on the DL. It's also possible that when the Sox are contending again, he'll go back to wringing extra outs from his rotation.
And that brings us to ...
2015 outlook: .... where opposing forces will play tug-of-war with Ventura to see which tendencies win out.
The Sox are in it to win it this year, and history shows that when the Sox are a team with in-season aspirations, Ventura's default setting makes him wait longer than his peers to go to the bullpen. With the addition of Jeff Samardzija, who threw 220 innings between the Cubs and Athletics last year, Ventura will have another horse to ride into the dark recesses of starts.
Then again, if Robertson and Duke create a new and reliable order in the bullpen as expected, maybe Ventura will relish in the newfound comfort of relievers who provide, y'know, relief.
We'll see how he handles Sale, whose season-delaying foot injury could force Ventura to be a little more cautious with regards to workloads in the early going. It's also worth watching to see how Ventura and Sale get along personally. With the shouting match in Ventura's office at the end of last year, Sale has had three public and/or noticeable disagreements with his manager over three years -- and that's three more than pretty much everybody else.
Then again, the Condor struggles to hide displeasure from himself, so maybe Ventura would be caught in the crossfire no matter what.
We'll dig into Ventura's possibilities with position players later today.