SAN FRANCISCO – Bruce Bochy is a major league manager. Every waking moment, he is evaluating.
A player’s ability. A pitcher’s stuff. A game situation. An alternative in the minor leagues. And yes, in the midst of a lost and disappointing season, he is evaluating himself.
If the season ended today, the Giants would be the third team in baseball history to win the World Series one year and finish in last place the next. It’s even more embarrassing when you consider the context; the 1998 Florida Marlins were dismantled under owner Wayne Huizenga, who appropriately enough, made his fortune in the waste management business. That team had no expectation to repeat, or at least make it back to October baseball.
The Giants did. They reassembled. They re-signed Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan and Jeremy Affeldt, stretching their payroll over $140 million for a big-budget sequel.
It’s a hit at the box office, at least. The sellout streak at AT&T Park, officially (and artificially, you might argue), is still alive.
But in every other respect? This season might be the worst follow-up production since “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.”
When this happens, the blame gets served in jumbo tubs, with optional butter flavoring. And absolutely, that will cover Bochy and GM Brian Sabean. Indeed, if the Giants hadn’t gone 52 years without a World Series, then paraded down Market St. twice in the last three seasons, there would be throaty calls for the manager’s head beyond the far right wing of the Lunatic Fringe.
So what is Bochy’s self-evaluation? With all that’s gone wrong, in what ways did he err?
In a candid interview in the visiting manager’s office at Marlins Park over the weekend, Bochy said he knows one thing he could have done differently.
“Well, the frustration … I think personally I could have handled it better,” the 19-year veteran manager said. “With the season and some of our play, the way it went for us, there’s ways you … You deal with every player in a different way. Some can handle constructive criticism or maybe a snap in the dugout. Other times, that might not help things during some tough times.”
Jeff Francoeur recently told a story about his time in Atlanta. Bobby Cox, after an infuriating loss, would shout profanities and raise holy hell in his office. A foam-walled recording studio wouldn’t have muffled the noisy tirades.
“Then he’d come walking out, pat guys on the back and say, `Let’s get ‘em tomorrow, guys,’” Francoeur said. “We were like, `Bobby, we could hear everything you said.’”
And that was the point.
That was Bochy’s style, too. This year, though, he acknowledged that some of those snaps happened beyond the confines of his office.
He looks back at the losses as they piled up in June and July and can own up to it: The man known for his even-keel demeanor didn’t always keep his cool – especially when correcting a player immediately after he made a mistake in the field or on the bases.
“I think there were times when they might have felt added pressure because of it,” Bochy said. “Believe me, I know how hard this game is to play at times. You’ve got to say something, you’ve got to address (a mistake) when it happens.
“But in the dugout, more than a few times, I had to grab guys. You find out who can handle it. Sometimes they can go the other way. They can tighten up. That’s why I say maybe … as bad as things get, you’ve got to stay as positive as you can be. And I think overall the group and the staff, we’ve been as positive as we can. But the heat of the moment in the dugout, when it’s pretty frustrating for everybody – that’s what I’m talking about.”
The Giants began the season 23-15 but are 32-53 since May 14, and it’s going to mean that, for the second time in three years, they will not get a chance to defend their World Series championship in October. They’d have to finish 26-13 just to even their record.
Their freefall cost Bochy something else. A dozen payroll-poor years in San Diego, where he still found a way to win four division titles and an NL pennant, left him with a losing career managerial record. He finally nudged it over .500 last season.
But he went back under July 27, when the Giants lost the second of three one-run defeats in a home series against the Chicago Cubs. He’s now 1509-1512.
And while a manager is only as good as his players, there have been a couple of notable lapses on the bench this season. For the first time in Bochy’s career, his club got penalized for batting out of turn July 6 against the Dodgers. Sure, there was a technical snafu with the new electronic lineup display in the clubhouse. And the Giants won the game. But it was embarrassing nonetheless.
Bochy also copped to screwing up a double switch June 18, preventing Buster Posey a chance to bat in a 5-3, 13-inning loss to the Padres.
“I got distracted,” Bochy said at the time. “I was out there arguing, and I totally brain-cramped on that.”
Those missteps were visible, but they don’t explain a collapse of this magnitude. Not by any stretch. And it’s not like the players quit on each other or stopped putting forth the effort or the clubhouse became an open wound – all of which Bochy can take some credit for helping to avoid.
So what happened?
Bochy said he wouldn’t change anything he did from spring training – “They went through their drills and were crisp, and we got off to a pretty good start” – and he wasn’t allowed to flat-out tell players like Ryan Vogelsong that they couldn’t take part in the World Baseball Classic. (The Giants had eight participants in the tournament, more than any big league team except the Milwaukee Brewers.)
More than anything, the collapse this season was “a tale of two seasons,” as Bochy sees it. The starting pitching was awful in the first two months, but the offense blasted its way to comeback victories. (They had seven walk-off wins in April and May alone, and just one since then.)
When the pitching perked up, the hitters completely tanked.
In retrospect, depth was a killer issue. The Giants went into the season thin in the outfield, where Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres were supposed to platoon in left field. Both of them were overexposed as everyday players following Angel Pagan’s hamstring injury in late May. Outfielder and former No.1 pick Gary Brown wasn’t ready to contribute. Neither were Mike Kickham, Chris Heston or Eric Surkamp – the upper-level starting pitchers who were supposed to provide rotation insurance. In those matters, the buck stops with Sabean and his staff.
But the Giants still had Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval, Marco Scutaro, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford – enough major league talent, it would seem, to form a consistent, productive lineup.
“When it just stopped, that’s one of the hardest things to figure,” Bochy said. “We’re not the only team. Talking to Davey Johnson in Washington, talking to others, it does get hard to explain when it stops, particularly when you’ve hit so well. But to look back at what we could’ve done different, I can’t say that there’s anything.”
That’s going to make the evaluations going forward awfully tricky, isn’t it?
“It is,” Bochy said. “When you go into a season you figure, well, you’ve got to stay healthy, and you’ve got to get the years from the guys you expect and hopefully there’s a surprise or two and someone steps up.
“But what hit us, what surprised us, really, is how all facets of the game left us at times, particularly the defense. Now, I do believe that long games play a part in that. But our defense has not been good, even in the outfield, and we have gifted athletes out there. We’ve lost games out there because of our lack of execution.
“Now I have to look at myself when that happens and there are some things we’ll change, and we have changed a little during the season. As we go into spring training next year, there’s things I have written down that stood out that I think we’ve got to work on and get better at.”
Bochy did not want to go into specifics, but Torres’ defense has cost the Giants more than one game. Pagan was a below-average center fielder even before he got hurt; perhaps his hamstring surgery will allow management to justify moving him to left field next year. Scutaro’s 37-year-old legs have betrayed him often enough at second base for his defense to emerge as a concern. And Sandoval, who didn’t come to camp in acceptable shape, is only now beginning to move as a capable third baseman should.
What are some of the more general thoughts that Bochy has written down?
“Well, concentration,” he said. “I think there’s times when we don’t quite have the focus we’re supposed to have on defense. Some things happened that should not have happened, I think, because of a lack of focus.
“Sometimes the struggles with hitting can affect a player’s defense. We have talked about that. But for us to be where we’re at and play the way we’ve played, that can’t happen. Because to me, the hitting, as frustrating as that is, it’s going to go at times. As good as any offensive club might be, every team going to go through it. But defense should be fairly consistent.”
Bochy has to evaluate his own coaches as well, although he said he hasn’t spoken word one with Sabean about that yet. Don’t expect any turnover; Bochy hasn’t made a change since Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens joined the staff as the hitting coach in 2009, and the man he replaced, Joe Lefebvre, is now the assistant hitting coach.
For all the hitting issues, Meulens is believed to be safe. If there’s any change the Giants might contemplate, it’s first base coach Roberto Kelly, who has outfield defense under his umbrella of duties.
Here’s one sure bet: There will be changes on the roster. And Bochy, who often reads books on motivation and leadership, will keep evaluating how he can get the most out of those players.
He agreed with the suggestion that with the proliferation of social media, ballplayers these days essentially can be heckled from the stands 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And they’re different as a result.
“No question,” he said. “Today’s player, there is a level of scrutiny that they go through. And they probably need to be coddled a little more. Not all, but some of them. It’s not easy, dealing with the pressures of playing this game.”
Especially when you wear the crown.