Tuesday, August 21, 2012

And finally, some thoughts on Brad Mills

I imagine that Brad Mills and I are starting to process his termination from last Saturday night at about the same time. 72+ hours later, I both completely understand and am completely baffled - not by his firing - but by the timing of the decision, and more importantly, the legacy of Brad Mills.

Let's take the timing into account. If you read the comments made by Jim Crane and Jeff Luhnow about Mills, they really didn't have much negative to say. "The Chemistry Wasn't Right" sounded to me like it was the, "It's not you, it's me" excuse that I heard all too often in high school and college. How heartfelt those words are, only Crane and Luhnow know.

Buster Olney ripped the Astros in his Insider-Only blog post from yesterday (you can find it on your own, if you so choose) for the timing of the Mills firing, coming on the heels of Arizona's bi-annual nut-punching of the Astros, so that it looked as though Mills was being fired for losing a 12-4 game at home, and it was DISRESPECTFUL, and HOWDARETHEY....

I honestly do not believe that was the Astros' objective. Keep in mind that the new Apparatus has a fairly keen sense of timing. Jim Crane set Houston abuzz by floating the possibility of a name change in the middle of January. In retrospect, it was genius (even if it took me a few days to see it as such). The Texans were done. There was nothing on the horizon in the Houston sports landscape when Crane had his press conference. All of a sudden, everyone was talking about the Astros in January. Most likely, more people were talking about the Astros in January than they are now.

So I don't believe Olney's critique, for no other reason than it seems like he only pays attention to the Astros in terms of "THE ASTROS HAVE LOST ELEVENTY-NIX GAMES IN A ROW." If you take Crane and Luhnow's statements at face value, the Astros had been pondering a move for about a week. Yet they fired Mills and two coaches on Saturday night, after the loss.

If they wanted to make a spectacle of the whole situation, they would have done it when it made the most sense - yesterday, during an off-day. Yet they did it on Saturday night, about 11pm. What had just finished? The Texans' 2nd preseason game. And what do the overwhelming majority of Houston sports fans care about now? The Texans. My own father, who loves the Astros (and Mariners - he's going to have a hard time next year), called me yesterday and said, "When did the Astros fire Mills?" He totally missed it, because he was watching the Texans game, and the post-game reaction. How the Astros treated Mills felt - to me, and you're welcome to disagree - like a mercy killing. It was a back-door out of the Astros in a way that would bring as little publicity as possible.

Still, it's Mills' legacy that is the most troubling. Brad Mills' .383 win% is the worst winning percentage in team history among managers who were at the helm for more than 13 games (Dave Clark has the record at .308, going 4-9 filling in for Cecil Cooper at the end of 2009). That's worse than 1962-1964 inaugural manager Harry Craft, who won 20 more games (in 27 more games managed) than Mills. Was Mills a bad manager?

Who knows? Mills signed up to manage Bourn, Berkman, Pence, and Oswalt. After leading the Astros to a 76-86 record in his first full season, he actually finished 6th in the NL Manager of the Year voting - the only manager with a losing record to receive a vote that year. And that was after dealing with the loss of Berkman and Oswalt. Then came the loss of Bourn and Pence mid-season 2011. All that was left was a replacement-level Carlos Lee, and then Lowrie got hurt. Also remember that, though Jed Lowrie hasn't played since July 14, he's still leading the team in homers. What manager could have done more with what he was given? He didn't sign up to be the manager of a complete rebuild. But herein lies Mills' legacy:

He could have been The Hero. By the time he was fired, Mills had been around longer than anyone else in the organization, except for Wesley Wright. Mills could have been the rock. He could have embraced his role as the caretaker of a decrepit mansion - and likely been embraced by the fans. We love a good steam-rolling story. A guy comes in, does his job, gets flat-out rolled by circumstances, yet keeps his head up, he earns the respect of his fans.

No fan spent any amount of time looking at the Astros' Pythagorean Record and thought, "By God, if we had a halfway decent manager, we'd be 44-78!" Mills had been given every opportunity to take a pass, and ultimately - years down the road - be the hero for sticking it out through the lean years.

Every GM has the right to hire their own guy - they'd be silly not to. But Mills had been given an extra year to make his case to be The Guy and, somehow, nutted it. We have no idea how much of Mills' strategy, movement, lineups were in response to what he was being told by the Organization. A well-placed interview (call us, Brad Mills) would clear an awful lot of that up. He won't, because he seems like a class guy. For God's sake, he went to Panama to tuck Carlos Lee in at night, and make sure he knew when his plane left for Kissimmee. Yet the bunting, defensive positioning, and lineup creation enraged fans - fans who honestly weren't expecting the Astros to win.

I ultimately think that what happened to Mills was a result of a host of numerous external factors, and like a young hitter, could not adjust to the adjustments.