Earlier in the season, when asked about making lineup changes or roster moves, Lloyd McClendon stated that it would take 50 games before he truly knew how the players on his team were capable of performing.
Well, last night, the Mariners played in their 41st game of the 2014 season, and Nick Franklin finally started at shortstop over Brad Miller. It wasn't game 50. It wasn't game 51. But one couldn't help feel it had some sort of significance, one way or the other.
If we are being honest with ourselves, these above sentences probably don't really relate to one another beyond being an unlikely coincidence. It's not as if Lloyd's contingency plan all along was to wait until game 51 to pull the plug on Miller with Franklin waiting in the ranks. No, Nick Franklin is only here because Corey Hart is made of glass, and if we take Lloyd at his word, Brad Miller is still going to be starting games at shortstop in the foreseeable future.
And that brings us to the gist of this whole article: taking Lloyd McClendon at his word. I don't mean tallying his past statements against his current and future decisions, or arguing over his apparent love for the hit-and-run. I definitely don't mean analyzing confusing strategic decisions like pinch-hitting righty Cole Gillespie over lefty James Jones against a left-handed pitcher with inverse platoon splits. Instead, I'm going to talk about him in concert with everyone's favorite mustachioed former M's skipper-turned-ESPN-bloviator, Eric Wedge.
Both Wedge and McClendon faced similar situations in their back-to-back seasons in Seattle, at least in the abstract. The devil is in the details, and the details here do paint a wildly different picture: Wedge thought he knew what he had offensively in veteran Brendan Ryan during his final season as a Mariner in 2013, and McClendon's Miller is a still somewhat unknown prospect. Both managers faced a bit of a black hole in their number six guy, as well as about four other all-but-black holes on the same roster. But beyond the age and experience gap between Ryan and Miller, I'm not sure the situation was entirely that different.
In 2009, Brendan Ryan hit .292 on the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2011 on the Mariners, he hit .248. A yearly drop in his wOBA saw him getting on base less and less each year, and by 2012 he was hitting below the Mendoza line despite walking at a career high. Struggling still a year later in 2013, it appeared Wedge (and Ryan) had no clue how to reverse the trend.
So Eric Wedge did what he knew he had to do. He benched Brendan Ryan, and inserted Robert Andino in at shortstop. The wheels, if you remember, all fell off this day, rolling down the hill and landing in a fiery grave filled with blogger hatred and rage.
I remain somewhat convinced that this was nothing more than a passive aggressive move by Wedge to try and knock some fear into Brendan Ryan, as if he was hitting so poorly because he thought his glove was enough to get him to stick in the starting role and started to get lazy. Especially because it only lasted for a few games. Ryan was hitting poorly, for sure, but it seemed a bit silly to think that a wakeup call was all that stood between him and his old .250 average.
Let's look at a few quotes from Eric Wedge about that day, and try and (perhaps dangerously) extrapolate the type of environment and culture surrounding that locker room as they faced a bit of difficulty in the early part of the season. In accordance, I'm going to plug in a few quotes from Lloyd McClendon about his handling of Brad Miller, in an attempt not to excoriate either one of their managerial skills or their in-game decision making, but instead, their leadership styles.
Here's Wedge, from Geoff Baker's Times article on April 24th, 2013:
"I’ve actually talked to both Robert and Brendan and I’m going to give Andino an opportunity to play a little bit more," Wedge said. "I wanted to be upfront with both those guys, I was, but I had very strong coversations with both of those guys because of the responsibility that goes along with playing more, with Andino. Of course, with Brendan, what I feel he needs to do to get to where he needs to go."
Obviously, a manager doesn't need to share his managerial strategy with the media or anything, and they are in a position of leadership--sharing opinions on strategy is kind of the job description. I'm not saying you should feel bad for Brendan Ryan, but this seems pretty clear that Wedge was trying to apply stress to an already stressful situation, hoping for the best. You know how that worked. Now, McClendon, from Bud Withers on May 9th, 2014:
...McClendon said before the game he has seen (Brad's slump) before from a lot of guys in the past and offered encouraging words.
Thursday night, McClendon said Miller "needs to step it up and knows that." A night later, McClendon noted how the game is a struggle even for the best.
"Like I told him," said McClendon, "those guys on the mound, they drive Mercedes, too."
I'm not sure this is necessarily better, but it certainly is different. Now, sure. Ryan was older. He didn't necessarily need to hear this rookie message. But lets go further down the rabbit hole, shall we?
"You know, we stuck with him last year because we felt like we were going to give him every opportunity and quite frankly, we had every opportunity to give him every opportunity...if that makes any sense. I'm saying it without saying it."
He's obviously talking about the inability to put Munenori Kawasaki out there every day in 2012. But also, he's basically saying that Ryan only started throughout 2012 because the team had no other choice. It's as if they didn't want to start him every day, and I'll bet you more than one dollar Ryan knew full well that was the attitude in the dugout.
"The one thing (Miller)'s got to understand is, struggle is a part of this game. The biggest thing for him right now, I'm not so sure it's the physical part, it's the mental part, believing you belong, knowing you can go out and compete. I think he's real close to getting there...you look at his minor-league numbers, and he's going to hit. Right now it's a tough go, but he'll be OK."
Night and day. While Wedge was stressing "a level of accountability and a level of responsibility," by benching Brendan Ryan one night after bobbled a play in 2012, McClendon defends his players against former hitting coaches and shags balls during batting practice so players can take a quick mental break before the game. Michael Saunders echoed this sentiment about McClendon, knowing Eric Wedge full and well himself:
"We feed off (McClendon's) attitude. He's very relaxed. He wants us to have fun. He wants us to play hard, so he's not going to get angry or scold us for making aggressive mistakes...It's nice knowing you can go out there, play your game, and he'll be behind us 100 percent."
So yes. I know what you are thinking. This is ridiculous. And you're kind of right. Performative leadership tactics are silly whether they are passive aggressive symbolic benchings or throwing your hat into the stands post-ejection to rally the troops. But players spend almost every day of the year in a tiny concrete tunnel with coaches and managers who wouldn't know wRC+ if it stood up and bit them in the ass. Goofy crap like this really does matter to the people playing the game, despite everything else that makes sense on paper.
I never heard any player say anything negative about Eric Wedge during his time in Seattle. I also never heard anyone say that his managerial style was refreshing or exciting. It should be noted that both these managers dealt with struggling offense from their shortstops, and neither seemed to be able to fix them, at least yet. Brad Miller is still pretty awful, and Nick Franklin is wearing a uniform that says Seattle on it now. I'm not sure McClendon actually knows how to fix his struggling shortstop, and with each passing day Tacoma is looking more and more like the answer.
It's a bit unfair to blame all this on Eric Wedge. For all we know, he was just as rah-rah in his early days in Cleveland, eventually worn down by empty promises and struggling hitters he realized no empty platitude could fix. The universe looks down and laughs, indifferent, cold.
But for the time being, it seems pretty clear that Lloyd McClendon wants his players to take him at his word, and doesn't give a damn what anyone outside the clubhouse thinks about it. I have no idea if he is a good baseball manager. I have nothing to say about his often puzzling strategy. But if I had to bet which .500 team was capable of riding some energy into an August winning streak, I'd choose Lloyd's, as silly as it all sounds. Plus, they have Robinson Cano, so you know.