Wednesday Rockpile: Do the Rockies Need a Tactical Coach?

In what was otherwise a slow day for Rockies news, David Schoenfield of ESPN's SweetSpot blog posited that Jim Tracy was at the top of the list of baseball managers on the hot seat this season. The palpable dislike of Tracy that pervades the comments (and articles) of this site and others is evidence that Tracy's fate as Rockies' manager is pretty tenuous. Here's the money quote from Schoenfield (emphasis mine):

Throw in the fact that Tracy isn't exactly regarded as a tactical genius and that GM Dan O'Dowd fired Hurdle less than two years after guiding the team to a World Series appearance, and Tracy might be on a short leash.

This is the part where we as fans come up with countless times where in our opinion Jim Tracy made a suboptimal decision that hurt Colorado's chances of winning, right? Well, just about every major league organization's fans could say the same thing about their manager. So why hasn't baseball "caught on" and hired some guys with great tactical acumen to be managers?

First of all, it's definitely important to state that the manager of a baseball team's most important duty lies in keeping his players properly motivated and focused on the field...all while managing considerable egos, figuring out how to be relevant to a cultural melting pot in the locker room, and dealing with the media as the public face of the organization. At those duties, today's MLB managers perform better than you or I.

But then there's the part of the job that they're ostensibly being paid to do, which they seem to screw up on a daily basis, and that's managing baseball games. As Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus theorizes, maybe the movement toward specialization that has led to the DH, LOOGY, and Bench Coach needs to extend to the Tactical Coach.

Who is the Tactical Coach? He (or she) is the voice of the well-read fan, urging the skipper not to sacrifice bunt or call a double steal at an inopportune moment. As Lindbergh writes:

What he found is that the worst managers may have cost their teams several wins in a single season through poor tactical decisions—namely, sac attempts, intentional walks, and low-percentage stealing. Managerial seasons that bad don’t happen very often—skippers who cost their teams several wins were the Brandon Woods of bad managing. But there were some decisions that Steven’s analysis didn’t consider: starting the best possible players, removing starting pitchers at the optimal times, replacing them with the best possible relievers, pinch-hitting, hitting and running, ordering lineups, and the like.

It's the last few items that Jim Tracy especially seems to struggle with -- and while it might not have cost Colorado a playoff berth last year, putting a AAA lineup out there seemingly every Sunday certainly didn't help matters. Nor does the fact that Coors Field's hitter friendly environment means that giving away outs on the basepaths or via a sac bunt is more damaging than anywhere else.

As Beyond the Boxscore shows, since 2002 25% of Colorado's position players who had at least 100 PAs in a season put up negative fWAR (MLB average was 20%). Some of this is on the front office (relying too much on prospects, badly misjudging veterans, talent poor farm system) and some is on bad injury luck, but the fact is that the manager of the Rockies (Clint Hurdle or Tracy) gave a large amount of playing time to sub-replacement parts.

In a league where millions are being spent to acquire that marginal win to put a team into playoff contention, why is it that a man whose tactical abilities are so obviously suspect is allowed to have so much control over in-game management? Lindbergh thinks the difference between a Jim Tracy tactician and an elite one is several wins. What if he's right? What if Jim Tracy is the Brandon Wood of MLB managers? The thought that Colorado now employs Wood and his managerial equivalent just seems harmonious in a sick way.

Off-Topic.

In the proposed scenario, Tracy's duties off the field would remain the same, while the Tactical Coach would be brought in for any game-related scenarios, such as drafting the line-up, consulting on any calls to the bullpen, etc. It's not a new idea, but it's certainly one worth heavy consideration given what I've seen in terms of in-game tactics the last few years. Rockies, if you're reading this, I'd love to submit my application for this position.

In other news, Jorge De La Rosa is being brought along slowly from his elbow surgery. He's on a strict pace for a late May or early June start, which in baseball parlance could mean late June or even after the All-Star Break. A strong (albeit abbreviated) 2012 from De La Rosa will go a long way toward putting Colorado in the postseason.

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