Sunday, June 13, 2010

I Heart John Russell

Take a quick glance at the official pirates message board and the vitriol directed towards the Pirates front office is readily apparent, to say the least.

It seems that 90% of posters' avatars feature a picture of Bob Nutting framed by a large red circle diagonally divided by a fat red line.

For many Pirates fans, it is the fight of the flea. It's throwing rocks at tanks and hoping that eventually one of them will blow up. It is the frustration of diehard baseball fans and seventeen losing seasons. It's seeing Tim Lincecum with a 3.12 ERA in a season where he's been struggling. It's knowing we could have drafted him. It's why Kevin McClatchy and Nate Mclouth could not be seated in the same room if they were to by chance pick the same restaurant some night.

John Russell is the frequent focus of this rage due to his disposition of supreme, nearly-unflappable calm. Or, as detractors might put it, comatose indifference. Many long for the days of Lloyd McClendon stealing first base after an argument with an ump over a blown call. Such displays of frustration far more closely mirror the feelings of disenchanted fans than John Russell, who has comparatively only ever been kicked out of three games throughout his career.

I'm writing this because Ryan Doumit played first base last night while Garrett Jones was the DH. Doumit has very little experience at first base; Jones, on the other hand, is adept at the position. Furthermore, Doumit's defensive skills have regressed to a point where a DH role is just about the only thing that makes sense for him. When Doumit gets traded, it will almost certainly be to the American League.

So why play him at first? Doumit missed a perfect pitch from Evan Meek in the top of the seventh, committing a two-run error that resulted in the seventh consecutive loss. One is tempted to blame Doumit, but the blame should be saved for the man who made the decision to put him on first without sufficient training.

The question, then, is: whose decision was this?

Many might blame John Russell, but John Russell isn't responsible for trading Doumit. Ultimately, if someone tells Russell that they're trying to increase a player's trade value and that he has to play them, he is obliged to do so. Someone is deserving of the blame, but John Russell is not that man. And I'll also say this: whoever did make this admittedly-bad decision has also made many other good ones, but that's a topic for another post.

As for Russell's personality: while it might not match the frustration that so many fans feel, it is nevertheless the right one for his job. John Russell has to prevent the fans' frustrations from making their way into the clubhouse.

The problem with hothead managers is that they tend to have short tempers that explode at struggling players either directly or in interviews. The Pirates are one of the worst teams in Major League Baseball; the piss-and-vinegar tactics of some coaches can't work in this situation because there is no obvious target. The Pirates aren't a deflated balloon waiting for hot air, and they also aren't a team with one weak link. If Russell yells at the starting pitchers, he ignores the huge roll our struggling defense has played in undermining their efforts.

This points to the other reason why an Al Pacino Any Given Sunday-style inspirational speech won't work, either. A baseball team's various components rely far too heavily on each other, and when bad defense affects contact pitchers affects batting etc., the possibility of a rift in the clubhouse is very real. A 'we're all in this together, we all help each other' atmosphere is what prevents Evan Meek from choking Ryan Doumit in the bottom of the seventh last night. This is what Russell's calm provides, and it's commendable. He even found something complimentary to say about Daniel McCutchen's performance after the historic 20-0 loss to Milwaukee.

McClendon could yell at the umpires all he wanted; it may have looked good to the fans, but the umpires were the least of the Pirates problems. It's not the movies: sometimes there's really no one to yell at, and sometimes a gentle demeanor is far more effective than a rabble-rouser.


  1. I suspect John Russell knows baseball and is a solid manager. It's tough to tell, though, because of the lack of talent on this roster.

    Plus, one can't help but get the feeling that Neal Huntington has very strong input regarding the lineup and who plays where and when.

    It's yet another head-scratcher, but that's the ONLY logical explanation behind playing Doumit at first base while Garrett Jones was at DH the other night. It still makes no sense, but that has to be the rationale behind THAT.

    They must be shopping Doumit for a possible trade to an American League team. Just speculating here, but Huntington must have the California Angels on his radar screen for shopping Doumit.

    The Angels have Hideki Matsui at DH, but with the season-ending injury to Kendry Morales, Doumit might fit nicely there, and not just as a DH (although that's probably the safest role for him). Manager Mike Sciosa, a former catcher (an an excellent one at that) could provide catching tutelage for Doumit -- if there's any kind of a catching role for him in the future.

    Historically, though, the Angels are notoriously reluctant to surrender valid prospects in trades.

    So much of what the Pirates do makes us fans scratch our heads. It's tough to figure them out and try to infer what they're really thinking.

  2. Shopping Doumit is the only logical explanation, and it's times like this when you find out whether you're at heart an optimist or a pessimist, at least in terms of the Pirates.

    An Irate Fan (love that t-shirt) would say that it's yet another example of incompetence in the front office.

    I say it's a mistake made by a management team that has one of the most difficult jobs in professional sports whose every action comes under intense scrutiny.

    It's also a mistake made in the absence of Perry Hill, whose absence has been a huge setback for this team.

    Come back, Perry Hill.