It has been brewing for weeks but now it is reaching a boiling point. The Angels post-season hopes are fading fast and the calls to for Mike Scioscia to be fired or coming to the forefront even faster. Fair or not, Scioscia's job security is going to continue to be a topic of great debate until he does or does not find a way to get the Halos back on track for a playoff berth. But rather than wait to see how the rest of these fateful weeks unfold, let's just consider Scioscia's case now because, really, the only thing that is going to change before the end of the season is the Angels' record. Scioscia's positives and negatives are all already well known.
So, without further adieu (and I kind of can't believe I would ever have to write this), let's discuss whether or not the Angels should fire Mike Scioscia...
CLAIM: The Angels will have missed the playoffs three years in a row.
That is far and away the top reason people are mandating Sciosica be fired if the Angels don't turn this thing around before the end of the season. I don't blame them, because that is a wonderful narrative. The Angels are a team with lots of talent and one of the highest payrolls for the last several seasons and they have an owner who has all but mandated a World Series in the very near future. The problem is that the logic behind it is a bit thin.
Yes, Scioscia has never gone three season without a playoff appearance in his tenure as manager, so he has set a high standard. However, not all seasons are created equal. 2010 was a huge disappointment since the Angels won only 80 games after having reached the ALCS the year before. But there were some significant mitigating circumstance that season, the largest of which was Kendrys Morales suffering that gruesome broken ankle in May. Scioscia was also saddled with playing much of the season with Brandon Wood at third and Scott Kazmir as a main member of the rotation. Maybe that team should have been better, but it is pretty obvious that the team was fatally flawed due to a lack of depth.
2011 was also a season in which it is hard to assign blame to Scioscia. Asking many Angel fans before that season, and I did, the consensus was the 2011 Halos were not a playoff caliber team and they would probably win 85 games. They won 86, but it was a better 86 than we give them credit for as the Angels, despite numerous holes in the roster, were right in the thick of the playoff hunt up until the final week of the season. One could actually argue that Scioscia had one of his better seasons as a manager that year considering Vernon Wells, Bobby Abreu, Joel Pineiro, Fernando Rodney (before he got goot) and Tyler Chatwood all played major roles on the team.
All that being said, this is where one could consider Scioscia to be a victim of his own success. Throughout his entire career, he has been credited with getting more out of his roster than anyone else could:
Just look at that diagram. He was finding extra wins all over the place until recently. While his run from 2005 thru 2009 was certainly impressive, baseball is a "what have you done for me lately" business. With him "only" meeting expectations in recent years, it isn't wrong to question whether or not he has been around so long that the Halos clubhouse is tuning him out or that maybe the game has simply passed him by.
Furthermore, some would say that win expectancy graphs mean nothing and only actual wins, post-season wins to be precise, are what count. For all of Scioscia's supposed wizardry, it only led to one AL pennant. The post-season is a crapshoot, but the Angels certainly had enough bites at the apple and all they had to show for it after 2002 was three embarrasing ALDS exits and two controversial/soul-crushing ALCS losses. If you want to give credit for overachieving during the regular season, it is only fair to question his arguable underachievement in the post-season as well.
CLAIM: The game has passed him by
See what I did there? That's called a segue. Of all the claims levied against Scioscia, this might be the hardest to defend. Scioscia has evolved somewhat in recent years, getting away from smallball, being a bit more creative in his handling of the bullpen and using non-traditional lineups. Say what you want about those changes in strategy (we will, later) but he is trying new things. However, the problem is that many of those changes have felt like they were forced upon him. Yes, the Angels play less smallball, but that is because he doesn't really have a smallball lineup anymore. Yes, Scioscia finally seems to have discovered the virtue of OBP and taken Aybar and Kendrick out of the top spots in the order, but the general sentiment was that was done partly because Dipoto made him do it and the rest because Kendrick and Aybar simply played their way out of those slots.
Other areas though, Scioscia seems to just keep getting worse. It took a rumored sit down with Jerry Dipoto to get Scioscia to make Trumbo an everyday outfielder despite his scorching start to the season. The team continues to run itself out of innings because of the overly simplistic mantra of "aggressive baserunning." His devotion to veterans like Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu the last few years have arguably been his fatal flaw... well, except for his massive blindspot when it comes to managing the depth chart at catcher.
In a weird way, both of these arguments are right. The game has passed him by in some areas but not in others. This has led to him incorporating an odd blend of new school, sabermetric-friendly strategies with his tried and true old school philosophy. It is starting to look more and more like those two just don't mix.
CLAIM: The Angels are tuning them out and need a new voice
Since Day One of the Scioscia era, we have been beaten over the head with the "one game at a time" slogan. Twelve-plus seasons later, we are still hearing about it. At a point, that saying gets so played out amongst the players that they don't pay it any heed. That could well be the case right now based on the very little we know of the inner workings of the Angel clubhouse. And I can't emphasize that enough. The central part of this claim is that we somehow know that players are tuning him out, but that is something we can't possibly know. We aren't in the clubhouse. We don't know how the team reacts to Scioscia's speeches and directions. We only know the few tidbits of info the beat reporters pass along to us. Even former OCR reporter Sam Miller recently passed along in his podcast (which is great, by the way) that even the interactions that beat writers get to see only represent a small fraction of what the real clubhouse chemistry is like. The point is only Scioscia and the players know if his message is still getting through.
But just because we don't know for sure doesn't mean we it isn't true. There is definitely evidence that it might be the case. It certainly seems that there have been an inordinate number of "closed door meetings" in the Angel clubhouse the last few seasons. That could be a sign that Scioscia is having a hard time communicating to his team, but it could just as likely be a sign that nobody likes losing. Aside from that, there was a disgruntled player who aired some dirty laundry about Scioscia being an anti-fun, control freak.
Whatever the case may be, this argument has gained some credence after seeing how the Angel lineup magically came to life upon the firing of long-time Scisocia cohort Mickey Hatcher. If it worked then, maybe it could work now? Nobody thinks Scioscia really is a bad manager, but even the best managers have an expiration date with every team.
CLAIM: The bullpen has fallen apart on his watch
A dominant bullpen had been the hallmark of a Scioscia team up until the last few seasons. Some see it as no coincidence that the team is now struggling, especially with the bullpen imploding these last few weeks. While Scioscia can't make the pitches for the relievers, the buck stops with him whenever something isn't working. I'm not so sure how much blame can be assigned to Scioscia in this case though.
It isn't his fault that the relief corps is devoid of talent after Frieri and Downs. It isn't his fault that half of his relievers are in their late-thirties. It isn't his fault that they can't hit their spots, keep the ball down and keep it in the yard. The only thing he can control is who enters the game in what situation. He has had some major hiccups in this area in recent years, but it this season he has shown increased mastery of maximizing the bullpen roles. He should be lauded for the way he has interchanged Scott Downs and Ernesto Frieri in the late innings rather than just pigeon-holing them based on what inning it is, which is something he used to be hugely guilty of. He's tried his best with the middle relievers to bring in groundball relievers or strikeout relievers based on the situation. For months that was working great, but lately it isn't, not because Scioscia is making the wrong calls, but rather because the players just aren't performing.
There are probably a handful of games where you can nitpick his reliever selection. He has had some problems in terms of placing too much trust in the likes of Kevin Jepsen and Bobby Cassevah. But even in those cases, he course corrected quickly, like he did when he yanked Walden from the closer role after one blown save (much like he did with Rodney last season).
I'm sorry, but the bullpen's problems are talent-based, not manager-based.
CLAIM: The rotation is in shambles and he can't fix it
Now the rotation's struggles, that is where things get more cloudy. Talent is obviously an issue right now, but it shouldn't be and some of that you can put on Scioscia's shoulders. Take Dan Haren for example. He is struggling mightily this season because of what appears to be lingering issues from an injured back. Now, Scioscia can't do anything about Dan's bad back, but he could have nipped the problem in the bud earlier in the season. Haren claimed the back issue plagued him for several weeks. Maybe he did a real good job of hiding it (other than in the box score), but if a player is struggling, it is the manager's prime directive to identify the problem and resolve it. Scioscia didn't do that with Haren.
A similar argument could be made for Ervin Santana. In fact, to this day, nobody seems to understand what is/was wrong with him. Of course, that has been the case at several stages of Ervin's career. I suppose one could praise Scioscia for sticking it out with Ervin as he worked through his struggles and now seems to be getting back on track. But one could argue the other way that Scisocia has stuck with Santana well beyond what is reasonable (again, too much trust in veterans). Maybe he didn't have better options with the inconsistency of Garrett Richards and the ineffectiveness of Jerome Williams, but Scioscia undeniably hurt the Angels' chances of reaching the post-season by running Santana out there for as long as he did during the height of his struggles.
The only real question is just how culpable is Scioscia in his underperforming starters? Maybe he could have limited the damage better, but he still can only do so much.
CLAIM: He tinkers with the lineup too much
I've already written a ton, so I won't dwell on this because Scioscia's ever-changing lineup has been covered by me and others at length. Suffice it to say that early in the season when the Halos were struggling to score runs, many considered the culprit to be his unwillingness to pick a lineup and stick with it. Granted, most managers use 100+ different lineups each season, but the degree of variance in his April lineups was ridiculous.
The only defense I can offer here is that Scioscia finally seems to have learned his lesson. For the past few months, the lineup has been fairly static. Even when he subs in bench players, the general shape of the lineup remains intact and there are no longer cases of guys not knowing when they are going to play. But again, this change in thinking was rumored to have been forced upon him via a mandate from on high in the front office.
CLAIM: This team is too talented to not win
If you really boil it down to the nuts and bolts, this is the lone argument that is going to decide Scioscia's fate. There really isn't any arguing against it either. This team has a lot of talent. Trout is arguably the best player alive. Pujols, while maybe not elite anymore, is still one of the top 20 hitters in the game. Weaver, until his last start, had a case for being the best pitcher in the AL. Then they've got other quality players like Trumbo, Kendrick, Aybar, Wilson, Haren, Santana, Downs and they added Frieri and Greinke during the season to a team that many experts predicted to win the World Series. That is what Scioscia is really up against here, the expectations of having a championship-caliber roster.
Taken at face value, not making the playoffs, or even not making it to the ALDS (maybe even the ALCS?), is a fireable offense. Maybe not because it is Scioscia's fault but because it has to be somebody's fault. Arte Moreno paid through the nose for this team to win and he won't be happy if they don't. How intense that unhappiness is come the end of the season will ultimately determine Scioscia's fate, regardless of how well anyone can explain away his perceived failings this season.
If it were me, I wouldn't fire Scioscia. A lot has gone wrong that is beyond any one person's control. As great as Scioscia has been as a manager in the past, he isn't a wizard. Still, maybe there is a need for a new voice or a more forward thinker on the bench. I just don't think anyone knows for sure what is needed and as a result, Scioscia should get the benefit of the doubt and be brough back for 2013, but with the obvious caveat that he better deliver. Of course, this is the part where I should fully acknowledge that I am something of a Scioscia apologist. OK, fine, a total Scioscia apologist. But if I did leave any evidence against him out, I assure you it wasn't intentional.
Photo courtesy of Daylife.com
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