Piniella Loses His Marbles

In the last month, the Cubs have played 27 games. 15 of those have been started by Geovany Soto, while 12 have been started by Koyie Hill.

Soto is hitting .268/.409/.458, good for a .387 wOBA.
Hill is hitting .236/.267/.292, good for a .245 wOBA.

It gets worse. We’re over halfway through the month of June, and Soto has 22 plate appearances. Hill has 27. As the Cubs season slips away, Lou Piniella has decided that one of the ways he can get his team to win games is to change catchers, despite the fact that Soto is one of the best hitting catchers in the game while Hill is one of the worst.

The reason, of course, is the old manager crutch: handling pitchers. Since Hill can’t hit, he’s earned the reputation as a good defender. Piniella believes he’s simply exchanging offense for defense by putting Hill in the lineup. The problem is that there is absolutely nothing in the record that he could possibly lean on to support playing Hill with such frequency.

Soto is poor at throwing out basestealers. He is just 8 for 41 this year, a 20 percent success rate. Hill? 3 for 16, a 19 percent success rate.

Lou doesn’t like the way Soto handles a pitching staff, and believes the guys on the mound perform better with Hill behind the plate. Opponents are hitting .253/.324/.392 when Soto catchers, and .236/.308/.383 when Hill catches. The difference is tiny, and is entirely wrapped up in BABIP – the team’s BB/K rate is actually slightly better when Soto catches.

In fact, if you look back over the last three years, the Cubs have allowed 4.18 runs per game when Hill starts and 4.27 runs per game when Soto starts. Even if you believe in something like catchers ERA (you shouldn’t, but that’s another story), the observed difference between Hill and Soto is less than a tenth of a run per game.

The observed difference between Soto and Hill at the plate is much, much larger. Even using a regressed projection like the rest-of-season ZiPS, we would see a .362 wOBA for Soto and a .289 wOBA for Hill, which translates to about .25 runs per four plate appearances.

Plain and simple: Piniella is screwing up. He’s playing a bad player over a good player in an effort to win more games. It’s not like the team is responding to the move, either. On May 17th, the Cubs were 17-22, 5 1/2 games out of first place. Today, they are 29-36, 6 1/2 games out of first place. They’ve gone 12-14 since Piniella decided to make Soto a part-time player.

The Cubs are almost certainly going to have a house cleaning at some point in the near future. In the best interest of the organization, their manager should probably be part of that, and the franchise should make “Is Geovany Soto a better catcher than Koyie Hill?” the first question they ask in the interview process.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

66 Responses to “Piniella Loses His Marbles”

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  1. Pat Andriola says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    “We’re going to face two left-handers tomorrow and the next day, so Soto will be there,” Lou said. “We’re going to face a couple left-handers over the weekend against the Angels. We’re just trying to win baseball games right now. Hill’s been swinging the bat OK. He does a nice job behind (the plate). Actually, both catchers have done a nice job behind the plate. But I don’t know. We can go either way with that. Tonight, Hill’s catching because we won the other night. This is basically the same lineup that played the other night. We played a good ballgame. So we’re sticking with that, not changing it.”

    Ah, they won when he was in there, so Lou obviously can’t take him out. Now I get it.

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  2. Kevin says:

    I wonder if any other teams are, or should be, starting to look at Soto as a potential long term solution. Thoughts?

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    • Shane says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      The Red Sox need a long term solution at C,and Soto is only 27, but I don’t know his contact status or the Cubs need to speculate on some sort of deal. It would have to be in the off season, and presumably Piniella won’t be managing after this season, so the Cubs might not be shopping him.

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      • Kevin S. says:

        Soto’s making less than $500k this year, doesn’t become arb-eligible until 2012, according to Cot’s.

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      • Rich says:

        “it would have to be in the off season, ”

        Why? The cubs are out of contention, and if the offer was reasonable, the sox would hop all over it.

        Soto would be a much better platoon option for the pennant race/post season than Varitek, and would allow them to let Victor walk.

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    • B N says:

      As a Red Sox fan, I’d totally bite on Soto for the right price. While he’s been a bit inconsistent, he’s got some upside and hitting in Fenway can’t be all bad for a guy like that. And heck, with him throwing out 20% of base runners- that would be a significant improvement!

      Though more seriously, I assume he will regress back to throwing out closer to 25% which is passable.

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    • Eric B says:

      We (cubs fans) will hope to hell that Hendy and Lou are gone long before Soto. But it is the Cubs, so they will probably deal him to reacquire Kevin Gregg.

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  3. Jeff says:

    Thanks for writing this, Dave. In a season full of baffling decisions and bad-news-bears moments, this has been the most frustrating aspect of the season for me.

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    • Paul says:

      Worse than taking Zambrano out of the starting rotation and putting him in the bullpen? That would’ve driven me absolutely crazy if I was a Cubs’ fan. Has to be one of the most insane decisions in baseball in a while, up there with Edgar Renteria playing the whole season at SS for the Giants last year, even though he was hurt and one of the worst position players for the year…i really hope he doesn’t go back into the starting lineup over Juan Uribe, please please no!!!

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    • MikeS says:

      Moving Zambrano to the bullpen was probably a worse decision.

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      • GrouchoM says:

        You forget that up until a week ago, Xavier Nady had as many at-bats as Tyler Babe Colvin. I stopped watching Cubs’ games weeks ago after one too many mind-boggling bullpen decision by that jerkoff in the dugout.

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      • Chad says:

        Moving Zambrano, or El Torro Loco as he should be called, to the pen was a great decision. The only better decision would have been designating him for assignment. He is awful and has gotten progressively worse ever since he signed that huge contract.

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  4. Nate is not nice says:

    Soto is awesome. He can drive the ball, and has an absolutely excellent eye at the plate. With average defense behind the plate, that’s a really valuable player. As a long time Cubs fan, I can tell you the problem goes beyond just Lou- the team still operates like its the 1960s. They think Soto is too patient sometimes, wishing he’d make “productive outs” instead of getting on base. I was waiting for the “What should the Cubs do” post to come out to say this, but I’ll say it here: they should quit, and move on to a different industry, like maybe circus or theme park. They have no idea whatsoever what they’re doing, and new ownership has made it worse not better. I’ve been seriously considering changing allegiances to a team that has some idea what’s happening. Soto is one of my favorite Cubs players, and for his sake (and many of their other players that I like), I often find myself hoping they’re traded for their own good. Sad.

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    • PL says:

      “They think Soto is too patient sometimes, wishing he’d make “productive outs” instead of getting on base.”

      Ok, so winning is absolutely NOT something they are trying to do then, good to know.

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    • Norm says:

      “and new ownership has made it worse not better.”

      How can people say this? It’s not even 3 months into ownerships first season. I just don’t understand.

      I hope you’re prepared for it to get worse first, and not better. This team will not be players in big money players for a couple seasons and there’s a good chance Hendry stays since he’s signed through 2013. I don’t think Ricketts is prepared to pay for two GM’s after dropping what, $800 million on the team and who knows what on Wrigley improvements?

      “Year 1” is the slogan. This is the first year of the rest of Ricketts life. He’s going to do things right by building through the farm system and turning the Cubs into the Yankees of the NL…beginning from the bottom up.

      That’s my dream anyway. I’ll give him 3 years instead of 3 months.

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  5. DCH says:

    Hey, keep this sort of criticism up, and you’re going to make Sweet Lou very, very angry. He’s won a lot of games and therefore knows how to win, little buddy! How dare anyone who hasn’t won a lot of games criticize someone who has? Sweet Lou sits in that dugout every day. Sometimes he grows a beard. It is obvious that you’re just not able to see the raw baseballness that Koyie Hill has in spades and that Soto lacks. So lay off Sweet Lou, okay? His feelings get hurt when people who haven’t wont a lot of games say things about him. (At the very least, Sweet Lou thinks you owe him the courtesy of running any future blog posts by him first so you can get his opinion, okay?)

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    • Everett says:

      I agree. The Mariners will offer uberbaseballness catcher Rob Johnson and designated hugger Mike Sweeney for Soto, just to take him off the Cubs hands. Deal?

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    • China Brown says:

      “Look, what can you say? Look, you put the names in the lineup card and you hope the players perform. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they don’t. Look, we’ve gotta work on having some more consistency. Look, let’s just focus on getting a good ballgame out of the Starting Pitcher and get our Third Baseman back on the right track.”

      One of my favorite Piniella attributes was that he always seemed unaware of what was really happening. I thought that helped the Cubs since he was less likely to overmanage.

      His post games are always just really, really bad verbal highlights of the game, with players (other than maybe the game’s starter or key player of the game) referenced by position only… like he doesn’t know anyone’s name. Even today, he referred to Larry Rothschild as “our Pitching Coach”. Then about 90% of sentences are started with the word, “Look”. The pregame shows with him and Santo on the radio are something to behold.

      All that stuff was just funny when the Cubs were winning, now I guess it’s not very cool for me anymore. The Soto/Hill move, Zambrano to the pen, the Colvin deal, and him using that ‘he’s never been a manager’ argument with Steve Stone… I just don’t get. As annoying as Steve Stone is, he was right that Lou’s criticism was w-e-a-k.

      “Look, we’re gonna be patient, but at the same time, we’re gonna play the players who produce. But we’re going to be patient. Look, let’s just see how this thing goes, so we can perform with a little better consistency.”

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    • Matt Murton says:

      “Sweet Lou sits in that dugout every day. Sometimes he grows a beard.”

      Can I make a song out of that quote? Best thing I’ve ever read.

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  6. Paul says:

    Is it just me, or does there seem to be a heightened degree of over-managing in general this year? Jim Tracy is over-managing almost as much as his predecessor, but is being bailed out by having the top pitcher in the game pitch even better than he is. Seen some baffling stuff out of Pittsburgh. It goes on and on. Seems odd considering the trends in front offices that they don’t hire more managers like Geren or Francona.

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  7. Buttermaker says:

    Lou has bought into the “must make the defensive upgrade no matter how marginal it may be” approach made famous by the ever so successful Seattle Moroners. If makes the guy who constructed the last place team in the worst division in baseball a genius, it has to be good!

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    • Joe R says:

      Cause the Mariners should have totally known Chone Figgins, Jose Lopez, Milton Bradley, Casey Kotchman, etc would simply not hit.

      Not to mention, if you want to build a strawman to take down, that approach seems to be working well for the Red Sox right out, given they’ve won 21 of their last 29.

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  8. Tim Kelly says:

    The splits tell the story of why Piniella is benching Soto:

    None on: .280/.398/.549 (100 PA)
    Runners on: .246/.419/.316 (75 PA)
    RISP: .133/.381/.133 (42 PA, and only 7 RBI in those PAs!)

    Soto has *two* extra-base hits with runners on so far this year and *zero* with runners on 2nd or 3rd.

    I’m not saying that these numbers are predictive, and I’m not saying that Piniella is justified for sitting him in favor of Koyie Hill. But what I am saying is that I can understand Piniella’s frustration in having to watch this guy continually disappoint in RBI-spots for a team with serious run-scoring problems. I know this is some old school BAD baseball thinking, but it really does seem like the guy has been cracking under pressure like an overmatched kid in Little League “hoping” to be walked…

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    • B N says:

      I see what you’re saying, but honestly I would totally take a guy who can prevent an out almost 40% of the time with runners in scoring position. If Lou truly thinks that Soto can maintain a 40% OBP or a 0.133 AVG, he should bat him either first in the lineup every single day. With the pitcher in front of him, he wouldn’t need to get too many hits and everybody could knock him in.

      And also, having BEEN that Little League kid- just because you’re overmatched and hoping to be walked does not mean you’re cracking under pressure. Sometimes you’re just bad at making contact and your opposition can’t throw strikes. Is that so wrong?

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      • Tim Kelly says:

        To your one point – of course I think you’re right. If he’s able to put up a .350 OBP, let alone .400, then he’s got value and should play.

        To your second point – I wasn’t trying to draw a parallel that said the Little Leaguer was “cracking under pressure”. The Little Leaguer is doing the best he can. I’m saying that it appears that Soto is not fundamentally the same hitter in pressure situations as compared to when the pressure is off. If he’s not able to produce in high Leverage situations, then that is a problem…

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    • GrouchoM says:

      Stats Fail

      Why don’t you look at where Soto was batting while putting up those number? HE WAS HITTING IN THE EIGHTH SPOT! Don’t you think that they were pitching around him to get to one of their brethren? Anyone with half a brain realizes this.

      Also, here’s Hill’s stats :

      None on : .206/.229/.265 (35)
      Runners on : .263/.317/.316 (43)
      RISP : 444 /.524/.556 (22)

      So those numbers disprove your lame point. Soto is much better than Hill with runners on base. Only a fluky BABIP in a excruciatingly SSS keeps Soto from wiping the floor with Hill in all three slash lines. Nice try, Koyie’s brother.

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  9. joe says:

    I’m equally disappointed that Fontenot rides the bench for any of Theriot, Castro, or Baker. Especially vs RHB.

    Also the worst OBP guys are at the top when the best, Soto, is at the bottom.

    That and just horrendous bullpen/zambrano management.

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    • BX says:


      If he’s up in the bigs, he should be playing every day.

      Send him down to the minors otherwise. In a nearly-lost season, Castro should be playing every day, whether in Chicago or in AAA.

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  10. H.Villanueva says:

    I myself used to scratch my head at the moves made by cubs managers/management until started to look at the big picture. The Red Sox can keep their sabermetrics and cohesive organizational strategy. The cubs employ a different approach that is garaunteed to work in time, it requires only patience. I am referring of course to the “Infinite Monkey Theorem”. ( The concept is so easy even a …well Pinella or Hendry can do it. Simply do whatever comes into your silly little head. Be careful not to think about it to much or the approach is ruined. Insert Koyie Hill over Soto here, a sacrifice bunt there, move Zambrano to the bullpen, then back…an on and on. Trust me, eventually we’ll win the WS or write Shakespeare.

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  11. CircleChange11 says:

    Just don’t tell Lou to play Tyler Colvin unless you’ve won more games than he has.

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  12. Andy S. says:

    He’s also stopped playing Fukudome. I understand that he’s trying to play a rookie, but with the way Fukudome was hitting?

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    • GrouchoM says:

      Somebody had to sit for Colvin to get some playing time and Dome has always Lou’s whipping boy. Though personally I would have done what Lou said at the start of the season and give Tyler 3-4 starts a week. That means you only have to sit each OF once or twice a week. But what do I know? I haven’t won 1800 game in the major leagues ….

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  13. Adam S says:

    Lou lost his marbles a long time ago. I believe this is the last year of his Cubs cotract and I hope/pray the Cubs move in a different direction next year even if Lou wants to come back.

    The use of Soto — he’s one of the Cubs best hitters and has SIX at bats higher then 7th and is now a part-time player — is just the latest in a series of -WExp moves Piniella has made. He’s clearly the most overrated manager of his generation.

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  14. Thomas says:

    Ill take someone who gets on base with RISP at .400 any day. A walk is a productive non-out.

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  15. lvnvn13 says:

    anyone have a link to a discussion of catcher’s era?

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  16. Franco says:

    This would be a bad move if he was benching a good hitting RFer for an average hitting RFer over a perceived clutchiness. It’s doubly stupid when you actually have a good hitting catcher that you’re benching.

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  17. Jishwa says:

    I’m sure somebody mentioned this, but Pinella has been a joke ever since coming to Chicago. I’m not even a Cubs fan, but a lot of my friends are(I live in Iowa, who else are they gonna follow?) so I pay attention to what they do. Pinella screws around with the lineup all the time, and I think it’s because he’s bored, though it took him 3-4 months of Soriano batting .220 to finally put him near the bottom of the lineup so perhaps he’s just stupid now. Whatever fire and skill Pinella had in the Seatle days are clearly gone as every move of his is questionable. Zambrano to the bullpen? Sean Marshall STILL not being able to start on a regular basis? EVER playing Koyie Hill if Soto is rested? Putting anyone aside from Theriot at leadoff? So many questionable decisions by this guy and with Chi-town managers, or managers in general really, being under such a microscope, it’s unbelievable he hasn’t been canned yet.

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  18. Flharfh says:

    I knew the Cubs were in trouble when I watched one of Piniella’s post-game press conferences last year – he actually forgot the name of one of his relievers who pitched in the game not an hour before, and he had to be reminded by the press section. Yeah, that actually happened.

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  19. Joe R says:

    Remember, kids, have a good year or two as a defensive catcher, and you, too, can latch onto MLB rosters while hitting .218/.283/.302 for your career.

    Look how well it worked for Jason Kendall!

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    • Jishwa says:

      Aaah but Kendall was actually a pretty solid hitter for a few years until he got hurt. And even now, with no pop whatsoever, he’s still better than Koyie Hill. Certainly good enough to be the Royals catcher. Hill is not, let alone the Cubs who should be a winning team.

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  20. dickey simpkins says:

    Ah, but Bob Brenly tells us Koyie Hill is an outstanding defensive catcher! He’s won a WS so he knows what he’s talking about. How many championships do you have Dave Cameron? None? Yeah, that’s what I thought you sabr-dork. Eamus catuli!!!!!!

    This comment was brought to you by

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  21. Dana says:

    Soto * has* hit better with bases empty over his career. .875 empty, .758 men on, .724 RISP.

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  22. ToddM says:

    I’m a Soto owner and a fan, but some of his ridic OBA is coming from batting 8th in front of the pitcher. He has a great eye and doesn’t swing at too much crap, so pitchers just let him go in the early innings if he gets ahead in the count.

    That said, Piniella needs to sack up or ship out. He’s had some kind of baseballobotomy, clearly.

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  23. Rich says:

    I agree with most of this, but:
    “It’s not like the team is responding to the move, either. On May 17th, the Cubs were 17-22, 5 1/2 games out of first place. Today, they are 29-36, 6 1/2 games out of first place. They’ve gone 12-14 since Piniella decided to make Soto a part-time player.”

    12-14 : 46% winning percentage.
    17-22 : 43% winning percentage.

    So, it actually has been “working” if you want to judge by winning percentage. Piniella could argue that its won them an extra game at this point (43% of 26 is 11)

    Now, thats a crock of shit, but your justification was terrible.

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  24. Bobby Boden says:

    Fire Lou Pinella! He can’t manage a bullpen. I can’t count the number of times in the 7th and 8th inning, that a starter gets into a jam, and then an opposite handed batter comes to the plate..and Pinella has a same handed pitcher up and ready in the bullpen, but he elects to stick with his starter, who has already faced this guy 3 times in the game, with predictable results. He has no idea how to evaluate the skills of his players. And he has no clue how to put together a lineup. Why in the hell are Theriot and Baker hitting at the top of the lineup (.284/.319 wOBA) while Soriano, and Soto hit at or near the bottom (.383/.392), oh and I can’t wait till Ramirez gets back from the DL so he and his .231 wOBA can get slotted back into the 4 hole. He made a comment in an interview recently about how “maybe I shouldn’t have kept throwing Lee and Ramirez out there in the middle of the lineup while they were struggling”. I’m sitting there thinking to myself “you think???”. That day he sat all his regulars and played all the bench guys. Next day….Ramirez, and Lee back in the middle of the lineup . It’s really getting to be laughable at this point.

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    • Jishwa says:

      Soriano should NEVER bat leadoff. I don’t care how well he’s playing. After checking Theriot’s stats a little more closely, I realize he definitely shouldn’t be batting leadoff this year either, but Soriano never should.

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  25. Hohenlohe says:

    Piniella’s stupidity is really hurting me in my sabermetric pool. In limited PAs Soto is doing great but I’m wasting Buster Posey in the utility slot. Should I trade Soto for an OF e.g. Jason Bay? I don’t want to do that and have Piniella come to his senses and watch Soto produce for another team. It may not be a bad move – but only if Soto is used the same way for the rest of the season. Tempted to just wait out Piniella – but Soto sat out the Cubs’ 12-zip win today.

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  29. HELLO..I knew the Cubs were in trouble when I watched one of Piniella’s post-game press conferences last year – he actually forgot the name of one of his relievers who pitched in the game not an hour before, and he had to be reminded by the press section. Yeah, that actually happened.

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  30. Hi,Thanks for writing this, Dave. In a season full of baffling decisions and bad-news-bears moments, this has been the most frustrating aspect of the season for me.

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  31. hello, I knew the Cubs were in trouble when I watched one of Piniella’s post-game press conferences last year – he actually forgot the name of one of his relievers who pitched in the game not an hour before, and he had to be reminded by the press section. Yeah, that actually happened.Thanks

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