The New World of Cost-Conscious Baseball Has No Room for Dave Dombrowski

This week in Nine Innings we delve into what Dave Dombrowski's firing says about baseball at large, the beauty of suspended games and the Return of Blooper.
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Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI’s weekly look at what’s fun, cool, and somewhat stupid around the league. Today’s topics include: what Dave Dombrowski’s firing means for baseball at large; some light time travel; the Red Sox turning their bullpen into a clown car; and much more.

If you have any feedback, questions or angry rants to send my way, please don’t hesitate to hit me up via email (jon.tayler@simail.com) or Twitter.

The midnight firing of Dave Dombrowski was the kind of news jolt that baseball doesn’t provide all that often anymore. Big, consequential moves have mostly given way to smaller, incremental changes or to a kind of executive inertia. Blockbuster trades, enormous free-agent contracts, Steinbrenner-esque firings and hirings—those are less prevalent than the cautious, risk-averse management style embraced in today’s game. Perhaps it’s fitting that Dombrowski—one of the last of the old breed of general managers who aimed and spent big—should depart in like fashion, creating shockwaves with his departure in the same way his trades and signings used to do.

In his place, the ultra-rich Red Sox will either hand power to his subordinates (who are currently in charge) or appoint one person to run it all. More likely than not, that person, if hired, will be from the same mold as seemingly every other GM or president of baseball operations: young, white, Ivy League-educated and married to analytics and process. At least, that would be the implication from moving on from Dombrowski, whose strengths were finishing a championship-caliber roster, not building it from the ground up (or refurbishing one once it entered its post-contention decay). And to that end, if control of the Sox does end up in the hands of a Harvard alum and data wonk, then more likely than not, you’ll see Boston do the same thing the rest of the league has done: tighten the belt.

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At a time when more money is flowing into the game than ever before, teams have become wildly cost-conscious. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the demise of free agency (or at least, an overall weakening of the process) and on the spate of tanking franchises that are content to swell their coffers while the cheapened major league product limps to 100-plus losses for several years. The rebuilders, though, aren’t the only ones putting the bottom line ahead of everything else. Even super-clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees are trying to win on a (relative) budget, doing everything in their power to steer clear of the luxury tax or of what could become onerous long-term contracts even if the players being avoided could be the difference between a championship parade and a year without a trophy.

Dombrowski’s Red Sox stood apart from that pack, as he burned through owner John Henry’s money in the pursuit of being the last team standing. It all came together in 2018, with Dombrowski’s imported mercenaries complementing the young stars who had burbled up from the farm system built by previous regimes. But the magic hasn’t repeated in 2019 despite the biggest payroll in the majors, and as shocking as it can be to see a team let go of the man who just one year ago was being feted as baseball’s top boss, it’s the natural outcome of the results not matching the expense. To MLB’s current crop of owners, spending is only palatable when winning—and in particular, sustained winning—is the result. Otherwise, they’d rather keep the money, especially since financial success in baseball is no longer as tied to what happens on the field.

Process rules now in baseball, and process is in many cases simply shorthand for “doing more with less.” Process implies analytics and new technology; it also requires decision making divorced from emotion, of a soul-deep commitment to a rigid path. Process is about control, particularly financial. There’s no room for big contracts and roster loyalty, and thus, there’s no room for old-school guys like Dombrowski, who were molded in an era in which winning meant everything, regardless of how much it cost.

As it turns out, cost is king now. So when the Red Sox appoint their new GM and they talk about building a sustainable winner and making data-driven decisions, understand what that means. It means that Boston will be thrilled to build another World Series champion; it just has to be one that doesn’t break a budget.

This Week In … The Super Moran Bros.!

As far as fun September stories go, Brian Moran is one of the better ones. The 30-year-old lefty had spent the first decade of his career pitching in the minors, including a couple of stints in the independent leagues, before the Marlins made his MLB dreams a reality last Thursday. And because the universe isn’t totally random, Moran’s big league debut came that night against the Pirates—the team of his younger brother, Colin, who ended up being the second batter Brian faced that night.

Not only was that at-bat the first time brothers had ever faced each other as pitcher and hitter in MLB history, but it also upheld the primacy of the older sibling, as Brian struck out Colin looking. It’s a sweet moment, albeit one tainted a little by how their father reacted when he heard they’d be facing each other.

This Week In … Blooper vs. Vlad Jr.!

When we last left Blooper, the Braves’ mascot was running a check fraud scheme on Bryce Harper like the unrepentant felon he is. Unfortunately, Blooper’s crime apparently wasn’t enough to land him behind bars, and he remained free to continue his reign of terror, which continued last Tuesday, as he committed his stupidest act yet: challenging Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to a home run derby.

Blooper, who presumably didn’t watch this year’s Derby because he lives in a dumpster outside SunTrust Park, can’t even help himself from cheating once again, breaking out a much bigger bat once it’s his turn to sock some dingers. Thankfully, Vlad Jr. put an end to his shenanigans by pegging Blooper with a fastball to teach him a lesson in how to Do Mascot Antics The Right Way. Hopefully this sets this demented creature on a better path.

This Week In … Time Travel!

Time travel has yet to be invented in our world, but why pine for complicated machines when MLB provides the next best thing in suspended games resumed months afterward? To wit: Friday’s A’s-Tigers game, a continuation of a contest brought to a halt on May 19 and picked up four months later, thus creating all kinds of weird temporal displacements. For example:

• Because the game started in Detroit, the Tigers were the home team despite playing in Oakland;

• Nicholas Castellanos, who homered in the third inning of the original game, homered again on Friday … for the Cubs, (technically kind of) giving him two homers for two different teams on the same day;

• Likewise, A’s reliever Jake Diekman, who pitched the eighth, had already pitched on May 19 for the Royals, giving him the two-teams-on-the-same-day two-step as well;

• Josh Harrison, who was at-bat in a 2–2 count when the game was delayed, struck out to resume it … only he wasn’t batting, because the Tigers released him a month earlier, leaving Jordy Mercer to whiff in his place (but for the strikeout to be credited to Harrison);

• Mercer’s—er, Harrison’s—strikeout came against Liam Hendriks, who was on the mound when the suspension halted the original game in the seventh inning and was available to finish the frame in September, getting a one-pitch punchout;

• For Detroit, a lot had changed roster-wise in the last four months. Due up to bat after Harrison: Grayson Greiner (who’s currently on the 60-day injured list) and JaCoby Jones (who suffered a season-ending broken wrist in August);

• Here’s my favorite stat of that day, though. For the A’s, the victory was their 11th straight—well, their 11th straight dating back to mid-May. And for the Tigers, it turned what had been a six-game losing streak back then into 10.

This Week In … Pitchers Stealing Bases!

Unfortunately, because of the deadline trade that sent Zack Greinke from Arizona to Houston, the veteran righty is no longer directly competing with fellow weirdo Max Scherzer for NL Cy Young honors amid what’s been a terrific season for both. But that doesn’t mean MLB’s reigning eccentric hurlers can’t battle for supremacy in a far tougher category: stolen bases. At least, based on their willingness to run, I have to imagine that each is determined to be the Pitcher King of Swipes. To wit, here’s Greinke, apparently too gung-ho in trying to pick up career steal No. 10 and getting picked off by Jordan Lyles last Wednesday:

And here’s Scherzer, showing Greinke how it’s done:

That was Scherzer’s second steal of the season and the third of his career—and he’s a perfect three-for-three in that category. (Greinke is 9-for-11 overall.) Unsurprisingly given those numbers, those two are baseball’s resident speed demons among the ranks of pitchers: Scherzer is the first hurler to steal two or more bases in a season since Greinke stole three last year. (Before that, the last pitcher to record more than two stolen bases in a season was … Zack Greinke, back in 2013.)

I don’t think Scherzer vs. Greinke is going to turn into the Rickey Henderson-Vince Coleman showdown of this generation, but it’s still fun to imagine them going head to head to see who comes out on top. (Side note: I would pay an obscene amount of money to watch Scherzer and Greinke compete in a sprint, or some kind of decathlon.)

This Week In … Too Many Pitchers!

In perhaps the perfect example of the havoc that September rosters can wreak, here’s what Boston’s bullpen looked like last Wednesday, courtesy of Cut4’s Adrian Garro:

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That’s a lot of guys! Seventeen, to be exact—a baker’s dozen plus a few crullers thrown in for good measure, all crammed into one bullpen, waiting to be used. Plenty of teams trot out oversized relief corps in September, but the Red Sox have taken it to a frighteningly high level.

It got me thinking, though: With that many pitchers available, is there any scenario in which the Sox could actually run out of arms? It’s hard to imagine: After all, in that group of 17, there’s almost two entire starting rotations between the former starters in the bunch. That group (seven pitchers) could probably handle 20–30 innings just by themselves—and there are still *nine* more available after that.

But let’s get a hard number, just for the hell of it. First, let’s assume everyone’s fully rested and available and thus able to go the maximum number of innings possible. To that end, I went through the game logs for all 17 pitchers and found their longest stints, either majors or minors, this season. For fairness, I adjusted down in some cases: All of those aforementioned starters, for example, are nowhere near stretched out, so I’ve capped them at three innings apiece.

Add it all up, and you get a bullpen capable of pitching 45 2/3 innings, or nearly a week’s worth of baseball, if all summoned in what would be the marathon to end all marathons. It’s safe to say that Boston may have overdone it with the callups.

This Week In … Welcome Back, Wilmer!

Color me disappointed that, for Wilmer Flores’ return to Citi Field, the Mets didn’t crank the Friends theme song one last time for their dear departed utility infielder and designated crying man. (At the same time, a huge thanks to the Mets for not playing the awful theme to an awful show and getting it stuck in my head.) Still, Flores’s first at-bat in Queens as a member of the visiting team was fun enough, mostly for the little message he sent Jacob deGrom’s way.

Yep, that’s a solid little wink, drawing a smile out of the normally taciturn deGrom. Bonus: Flores cranked a solo homer off deGrom in his next at-bat. Arizona may have lost, but Wilmer came out ahead.

This Week In … Elderly Batting Practice!

Bless the Braves for putting forward an idea I’d never considered but now desperately want to see: coaches taking batting practice before games.

As you can see, Braves bullpen catcher Jose Yepez actually got some good wood on a few balls, while Eric Young threw the clock back about 20 years to crank a few dingers of his own, though I’m bummed we didn’t get a shot of Sal Fasano and his glorious mustache ripping some bombs. Still, I demand this catch on and spread while also being amazed that Gabe Kapler wasn’t the first one to make this happen. 

This Week In … This Week’s Worst Play of the Week!

You know that feeling when you’re at a party, and you're in a conversation group, and it’s bouncing from subject to subject, and all of a sudden someone makes a joke that you don’t understand but that everyone else does, and you look around and everyone’s laughing but you’re not, and you start to panic a little bit and try to make yourself laugh so that no one notices that you’re not laughing, but it’s so forced that you just let out a weird high-pitched yelp, and everyone turns and looks at you and then you die?

No? Just me? Well, not just me, because Kyle Seager more or less lived that moment against the Astros on Saturday.

Here’s the worst part: That’s not even the first time that week that had happened to Seager. Sometimes the joke really is on you, man.