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Dan Bickley

Diamondbacks’ bizarre lineup choices continue to confound

Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo works in the dugout before a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Managers wear uniforms in Major League Baseball. Their game-day attire is nonsensical and without function. But they all feel honored to pull up the stirrups and tug on their caps, rooted to the game at its highest level, dressing no different from the players they command.

Managers of good teams learn something else this time of year. They discover their uniforms and reputations can get very dirty during high-stakes baseball, and how post-game press conferences soon become interrogations.

Nobody knows better than Torey Lovullo, the pound-for-pound champion when it comes to stress in the dugout.

By all accounts, the Diamondbacks’ manager ranks among the best bargains in the sport. He’s the reigning National League Manager of the Year and among the lowest paid leaders in MLB, where his $900,000 salary ranks 25th in a profession of 32 men. Where three of his peers earn more than $6 million annually and 21 command over $1 million.

Lovullo far exceeds his price tag, a manager with charisma, perspective, a sense of humanity and communication skills that put most of the competition to shame. He’s also guilty of resting his best players during hot streaks and pennant races, when our prized manager transitions from underpaid to under fire.

It happened Monday in San Francisco, when Lovullo rested A.J. Pollock, who has already had a great deal of rest in 2018. It happened again on Tuesday, when he sat David Peralta against Madison Bumgarner, despite Peralta’s track record of success against the left-handed starter and his clutch reputation on the big stage.

The decisions also came in the wake of a breezy stretch of schedule, when the Diamondbacks enjoyed two days off during their last home-stand, a rare occurrence in the last week of August. So who is making these bizarre decisions, and why?

There is reason to believe that Lovullo doesn’t act alone in his strangest decisions. The Diamondbacks have pledged full allegiance to new-age analytics, where algorithms overshadow gut instinct and matters of the heart. An erratic franchise sorely needed this paradigm shift, a middle-class team with little margin for error, forced to compete with wealthy franchises in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Only a fool would argue that general manager Mike Hazen and his crew might not eventually go down as some of the most important additions in team history.

But if the 2018 Diamondbacks turtle down the stretch, thinking and playing themselves out of the postseason, the honeymoon will end in fiery fashion.

Many elements of modern baseball disorient and disengage the average fan. It started with complicated statistical measures that muddled the conversation, a new language an older generation never learned from the back of trading cards. It continued with defensive shifts that threaten to make position players irrelevant, where shortstops and second basemen are nothing more than middle infielders. The tolerance of strikeouts is alarming, boring and counterintuitive to every Little League manager who told us to put the ball in play and wait for chaos to ensue.

Lineup cards hit even closer to home, when sitting a player during a hot streak has terrible human consequences. Never mind that a hitter never wants a day off during good times, when spin rates are irrelevant and a baseball resembles a softball fluttering toward home plate.

Baseball players are also extremely superstitious. They believe a day off during profitable times will throw them out of their groove. They believe their time in the zone is not a result of talent but a gift from the gods. That’s why slumping players still bake their bats in the lunch-time sun, hoping for some sort of divine intervention.

To the contrary, unwanted days off become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making hitters expect the worst when they return to the lineup. It makes them question their bosses, no matter how much they conform to a manager’s wishes.

Rationing days off during a pennant race is equally infuriating for average fans. A deep-dive into the numbers can detect strengths, weaknesses, trends and identify underrated players who provide more value than cost. But they can’t quantify how the best players react to the biggest stages and single moments in time, regardless of who is standing on the mound. Too often, they condemn front offices that rely too much on their laptops and their intellectual influence.

Lovullo had a remarkable debut season with the Diamondbacks. He is the best young manager in baseball. He has endured a trying season, suspended for swearing in the vicinity of Cardinals star Yadier Molina, later sent home from a game for health reasons. He knows how to navigate the between conference room and clubhouse, alternating between raw numbers and real people.

But he too often he seems to wear the results of a collaborative effort in Arizona, when his lineup cards occasionally make you roll the eyes and mistrust the process. And here’s why:

Professional sports represent the pinnacle of athletic competition and human achievement. Complex hitting theories can become obstacles, making athletes think way too much. And sometimes, it’s best to put your best players on the field and let them figure it for themselves.

After all, the numbers are just math. The best players usually win, no matter what Big Data seems to suggest. And it’s about time the Diamondbacks to figure out when to trust their process, when to trust their players and when to get out of the way.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier