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Mike Wise

Intuition, Not Numbers, Guides Nats' Robinson

By Mike Wise
Monday, April 11, 2005; Page D09

MIAMI -- However compelled you feel to help, do not e-mail Frank Robinson a pitch-by-pitch breakdown of Antonio Osuna. He won't read it. He may not even see it.

"Do you run the computer at all?" the manager of the Washington Nationals was asked before Sunday's 8-0 loss against the Florida Marlins.


"No, sir," Robinson said. "I barely know how to turn the computer on."

Robinson knows Osuna, Washington's struggling right-handed reliever, has an ERA that would lead the NBA in scoring (42.43). He saw Osuna give up a tater of a grand slam to Juan Encarnacion against the Marlins in the bottom of the eighth inning to blow a winnable game and series open.

But Robinson does not need to know what pitch was thrown or the count at the time. Clarity, for him, came the instant the ball went over the wall: Encarnacion good, Osuna bad. Jose Guillen's home slugging percentage vs. his road slugging percentage does not matter, either. Or a scouting report on Josh Beckett's curveball. Robinson knows the Florida right-hander was the same guy who five-hit the Yankees to win the decisive Game 6 of the 2003 World Series.

"How often do you use the numbers?" he was asked.

"Me? I don't use them."

"You just manage with your gut?"

"It's not all gut," Robinson said. "Of course, I read them. But numbers-wise, the only time I look at numbers is to see what a guy is hitting against us. I know he's had great success against us. I know [Miguel] Cabrera has had great success against us; I don't need to look at any damn numbers. I know he does. I don't rely on numbers."

Frank Robinson baseball is about feel, faith and knowledge gleaned from 69 years. He does not understand how these young executives with their power ties and their CD-ROMs suddenly took over baseball.

"In the past, experience in this game used to mean something," Robinson said. "It really did. You went after people that had experience, and put them in these jobs. And all of a sudden, the computer age coming in and whatever. . . . The experience didn't count. It was whether you can handle the computer and read the charts, and whether this guy is 15 for 20 against this guy, plus this and that."

The old-school sentimentalist wants to applaud a man who will be a septuagenarian in August. Bless any senior citizen for not giving into modern, corporate convention and computer spreadsheets.

The voice of Internet culture, of course, wants to ask, "Are you nuts? Tony La Russa sleeps with righty-lefty charts. Billy Beane, Oakland's general manager, was the subject of a book titled 'Moneyball.' It detailed how Beane used numbers -- specifically slugging percentage and on-base percentage -- to judge a player's worth, how the Athletics taught players to work counts, take pitches, be selective and patient at the plate. How can anyone discount 'Moneyball?' "

"I didn't read the book, and I won't read it," Robinson said. "I'm not knocking Billy Beane or anything. That's his approach to it. Some players can hit late in the count. Some players cannot hit late in the count. I'm not going to force a player to work the count and make him take pitches early in the count or take strikes, and try to get a walk or get in a more-desired hitters' count if he's not comfortable. Why try to force that on them?"

In some ways, Robinson's approach is refreshing. At a time when baseball's recent history and character are being severely tested by steroid use and internal obfuscation, along comes one of the game's genuine legends, using his heart, mind and gut to determine risk vs. reward. He's not breaking out his homework in the dugout.

In other ways, it's frightening. How a major league manager in 2005 could not use every possible bit of statistical information at his disposal is curious at best.

At some point, Robinson will insert a pinch hitter in a key spot because he sincerely believes that player will get a hit -- even if that pinch hitter is 2 for 49 against Atlanta's Tim Hudson. But Robinson may not even know that the player is 2 for 49 against Hudson. He may not care.

"Numbers don't win you ballgames, I don't care what they say," Robinson said.

"How many at-bats does it take for you to actually feel like a hitter has a very good read on a pitcher? How many at-bats?"

Someone guessed 30. Another reporter guessed 50.

"Fifty and above," Robinson said, answering his own question. "And none of those numbers takes into account balls you hit hard or the plays that the defense makes against you. All it is is hits against at-bats."

Robinson paused for a while, thinking about what he would say next the way aging, thoughtful men do.

He knows the culture clash in the game is trying to push old baseball men like him and Jack McKeon, Florida's 74-year-old manager, off to the side and into retirement.

The spreadsheet, workaholic crowd can say all they want how their purpose is to bring the game into the new millennium. For better or worse, Robinson believes they are essentially robbing baseball of its soul.

"This game to me is done on sight and feel and knowing your personnel and having some idea about the players and the people that you're competing against," the manager of the Nationals said, convincingly.


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