At Notre Dame Stadium, there is a narrow stairway that leads from the home team's locker room to the football field. As players come down the stairwell, each is reminded by a sign hanging overhead to "Play Like A Champion Today." To reinforce the message, every Notre Dame player touches the sign.
I suspect even the legions of fans who root, often intensely, against Notre Dame, would have to admit that the sign, a last reminder prior to competition, is one of the most iconic motivational symbols in sports.
If I owned a Major League Baseball team or were appointed general manager of one, I too would hang a motivational sign. Each game, the manager would see it on the way to the dugout and be reminded of an overriding philosophy, to cast aside infrequently and only after great deliberation. It would read:
DON'T JUST DO SOMETHING -- STAND THERE!
During MLB's Sunday Night Baseball showcase, Royals manager Ned Yost put his inability to simply sit still on full display, until finally his hands were tied.
First, let's set the stage for Kansas City: Beat the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, and the Royals are three games behind Baltimore for the second wild-card spot and just four games behind Boston for the first one. Lose, and not only do those numbers move to four games and six games, respectively, but the Royals fall behind three other teams in the wild-card race. A team in seventh place in the standings instead of tied for fourth, with 42 games left in the season, has entered the perilous it's not the distance, it's the traffic phase of chasing. It's clearly not a win-or-go-home situation, but it's a very important game for the defending World Series champions. In such a situation, no chances to win the game should be squandered.
In the top of the second inning of a scoreless game, Salvador Perez got the visitors on the scoreboard with a lead-off solo home run, followed by a single by Alex Gordon and a walk to Alcides Escobar. That brought Raul Mondesi to the plate, who perhaps is best known for making his major league debut during the 2015 World Series. Yost predictably ordered Mondesi to bunt, and he did, successfully advancing Gordon and Escobar.
It was a terrible decision, even noting that Gordon subsequently scored from third when Paulo Orlando hit a sacrifice fly to center. A run expectancy chart and its derivative, a win expectancy chart, can display mathematically why it was the wrong decision, but relying on those cheat sheets, like a first-time blackjack player, vastly underestimates how poor the decision was. Expectancy charts are based on baseline, league-average situations, but this was not a baseline situation. The Royals were playing the highest-scoring team in the majors, in the American League's highest-scoring run environment over the last three seasons. You cannot construct a situation in the American League in which a single run has less marginal value for winning a game than what the Royals faced Sunday night.
With 24 outs to go in the game, and two pitchers in the game with 2016 ERAs of 4.27 and 5.11 on the mound, bunting with a runner on first and second and nobody out is foolish.
Yost couldn't contain himself, and clearly felt like he had to do something. Perhaps he thought Mondesi, as a rookie, couldn't handle the pressure of the situation, or that with his blazing speed, he might beat out the sacrifice, or that as a struggling .184 hitter entering the game, Mondesi had to be treated like a pitcher.
Every one of those thoughts should have been suppressed, because they all lead to justifications for the wrong answer. Either Mondesi is a professional baseball player, or he's not. If his true talent level is that of a sub-Mendoza Line hitter, then the Royals are guilty of terrible lineup construction for a crucial game, and that falls on the manager as well (and perhaps the front office). Further, the primary reason it's proper to sacrifice pitchers isn't because they have poor batting averages or because they strike out a lot, it's because they are a huge threat to ground into a double play. That's the downside of swinging away with runners on first and second and nobody out. Mondesi has blazing speed. In 101 career plate appearances, he's grounded into one double play. (A deep dive into the invaluable Baseball-Reference.com reveals that Mondesi has batted with a runner on first and fewer than two outs 22 times. His double play rate of 4.6 percent in that situation is way below the 2016 league average of 11.1 percent.)
Yost treated Mondesi like a pitcher -- essentially yielding the DH advantage to the team with the best DH in baseball -- all due to his urge to do something, and there's nothing to indicate he wouldn't make the same sub-standard decision again -- unless, of course, his hands were tied. Four innings later, that's exactly what happened.
With one out in the top of the sixth, and the Red Sox now leading 4-3 (remember the comment about the game's run environment?), Mondesi came to the plate again in a high-leverage situation, only this time there was nothing Yost could do to take the bat out his young second baseman's hands. The bases were loaded. Some crazy suicide squeeze thought may have crossed Yost's mind, but if so, it was thankfully subdued, because Mondesi swung away and promptly crushed a triple to the deepest part of the park.
Any contrived narrative that Yost, or his supporters of the decision to bunt Mondesi in the second inning, relied on was disproven two Mondesi at-bats later. Based on the coverage of beat writers and reporters who are very well connected to the game, Yost gets high marks for his ability to lead a clubhouse and earn the respect of his players. That attribute should never be understated, as anyone, sabermetrically inclined or not, who has participated in the work force should acknowledge. He's often referred to as a "players' manager."
That may be the case, but once a game begins, a true players' manager would be a manager who puts his players in the best position to succeed; as exemplified by his handling of Mondesi on Sunday night, Yost falls short of that standard. He may be the perfect man to lead his team into a game, but in lieu of installing the "STAND THERE!" sign in his office, once the game starts, the Royals would be best served to tie him to the bench and let the game play out. Kansas City's eight-run sixth inning Sunday night served as a perfect example of what's possible when the skipper's hands are tied.