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Human interest story

The Dodgers' Little prefers to read his players and situations, as well as scouting reports

October 04, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

Grady Little is back in the playoffs.

It will be viewed in a few circles, unkindly, as at least three more decisions involving starting pitchers.

It will be viewed in others as a baseball lifer's recompense.

Little will regard it as neither, the first perception casting a single October judgment as a career reflection, the second inferring the game owes him more than it would someone else.

He holds a simpler view of his place in the clubhouse and on the dugout steps. As Saturday afternoon's party in San Francisco ebbed, he sat in an office holding a beer bottle, the mouth of which he jabbed toward a handful of soggy players.

"The end result is they make a lot of us look good," he said.

Four managers -- Dusty Baker in Chicago, Felipe Alou in San Francisco, Frank Robinson in Washington and Joe Girardi in Florida -- have been let go since the season ended. There could be more.

The job is transient and callous. Little won 188 games in two seasons in Boston, managing into Game 7 of the 2003 American League championship series against the New York Yankees, and was fired and ridiculed for it.

They called him Grady Gump because he pronounced his Rs and talked slower than they did. And there, in the months leading to his choice to have ace Pedro Martinez pitch another inning, and the days leading from it, was born his reputation for ignoring statistical data that would have saved the Red Sox, and were written the leading lines of his obituary.

Little, 56, makes his return to the postseason three years later, leading a Dodgers team that won 88 games into a series in which, coincidently, Martinez is on the opposing team. He will not pitch because of a torn rotator cuff.

Little's presence, and his history, also gives life to the broad discussion of statistical analysis, and its place in dugouts of a game played amid slumps and mood swings and bad-hop singles.

In his book, "Feeding the Monster," author Seth Mnookin described Red Sox management's custom of delivering "voluminous" advance reports to Little, and Little's custom of ignoring them.

"Grady Little," Mnookin quotes Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner as saying, "was a hunch manager. That's not our style."

Principal owner John Henry harped to Mnookin about Little's "total lack of preparation."

In 2002, when the Red Sox deemphasized the importance of the closer -- based in part on statistical guru Bill James' advice -- they complained, according to Mnookin, that Little "was not capable of dealing with this degree of flexibility and creativity." By 2004, they too had abandoned ninth-inning creativity, signing closer Keith Foulke.

Recently handed several pages that contained those passages, Little handed them back.

"Nah," he said, "I'm not going to read it. You read it."

He listened patiently, then said, "I'm not going to lower myself to make any comments on what you're talking about right there. And I accent the words 'lower myself.' Because they run a big business around there, they've got to justify everything they do, just like I do as a manager. So, you've got to respect them for that. Whatever they've got to do to justify their decisions and their moves, so be it. But I'm not lowering myself to comment on it."

Asked to compare the baseball resume of a man who had managed nearly 2,500 professional games to those of the Red Sox brass, Little shrugged.

"That's their prerogative," he said.

"I guess the following year, when they added Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke to their pitching staff, I guess that all came from their numbers group. And the following year after that, when Schilling was hurt and Foulke was out, how'd they do?"

It is the manager's job to balance the numbers and the people who produce them. Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, who socializes with Werner, and General Manager Ned Colletti have praised Little for his steady hand, season-long perspective and clubhouse adroitness.

Colletti constructed the Dodgers on the fly, meaning the pieces wouldn't fit quite perfectly, and then closer Eric Gagne, setup man Yhency Brazoban and third baseman Bill Mueller were lost for the season because of injuries. Flare-ups occurred with volatile starter Brad Penny, who began the season as the staff's ace, and there were complaints from the end of the bench over playing time.

In Little's first season with the Dodgers, some analysts wondered whether he wasn't too hasty in removing his starting pitchers, the opposite of their complaint with previous manager Jim Tracy. Dodgers relievers pitched 65 2/3 innings more than they did last season, an increase of about an out a game.

The fact is, Little said, he uses the scouting reports. He knows the matchups, the splits and the spray charts. He also knows the players, and that there is no perfect method for separating the men from the numbers.

"I can't give you an exact formula for that," he said. "I don't have one. I don't know that anybody has one. Maybe there's some smarter people than me that have an exact formula for that, but I've never figured it out.

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