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August 10, 2010

One-Hoppers

Getting Wakked

by Ben Lindbergh

Before yesterday’s Mariners-A’s matchup, Don Wakamatsu became the fifth manager to get the axe this season, dragging the rest of his coaching staff with him in an ignoble exodus from Safeco Field. The consensus among informed observers seems to be that Wakamatsu’s firing stemmed from unstable chemical reactions taking place in his clubhouse, not the Mariners’ woeful record. Of course, if you believe nearly everyone who’s ever played professional baseball and lived to talk about it, the two may not have been entirely unrelated.

Not having any inside knowledge of Napgate or its aftermath, I don’t have much to add, though given the centrality of establishing a harmonious work environment to the major-league manager’s role, open clubhouse discord seems like sufficient grounds for dismissal. Running afoul of a few of the reportedly immature personalities populating major-league clubhouses doesn’t make one a bad person, but it might make one ill-suited to manage.

While I can’t speak to Wakamatsu’s ability to win friends and influence people, I can take a look back at mid-season firings of yore to see what might be in store for the Mariners. Five mid-season firings (by mid-August, no less) isn’t an unprecedented amount, but it is a bit more than the norm. From 2000-2009, only 34 managers failed to finish what they started, so what we’ve seen thus far qualifies as a profusion of managerial heads rolling around major-league clubhouses.

Those 34 firings, in addition to the most recent bloodlettings, came, on average, 80 games into the season; Wakamatsu made it through 112 before being forced to seek alternative employment. Let’s take a look at where the last decade's teams stood when the pink slips rained down:

The average winning percentage of a team whose original manager left mid-season was .441. The .577 team at the top was the 2007 Mariners squad managed by Mike Hargrove, who resigned with the M’s sitting pretty at 45-33. The lowly data point at .000 goes on the record of Phil Garner, who never got a chance to turn things around after his 2002 Tigers started 0-6.

Post-firing, those .441 teams went on to play at a .457 clip for the remainder of the season. Over 162 games, that disparity in winning percentage equates to a difference of roughly 2 ½ games, a not-unreasonable estimate of the magnitude of the effect a manager might actually have on a team’s record. So can we credit the new arrivals with the improvement? Not exactly. It stands to reason that most managers were fired when their teams were underperforming their true talent levels, so we’d have forecasted an improvement regardless of the man in charge. In general, the earlier they were fired, the greater the underperformance, and the larger the disparity between pre-firing and post-firing records. Garner serves as an extreme example; it’s safe to say that the Tigers wouldn’t have gone winless over a full season with him at the helm, so we needn’t credit his replacement Luis Pujols with the entirety of the post-Garner improvement (if one can call a 55-100 record an improvement). Of course, it might not be fair to dismiss the manager’s role in the turnaround as regression—perhaps some portion of the original underperformance should be laid at the outgoing skipper's feet.  

This season, the fired five’s charges were winning at a .383 pace when the leadership changes came, and have gone 92-118 (.438) since, including Seattle's first victory under new management last night. Whether or not ones blame Wakamatsu for the anemic batting lines of Kotchman, Figgins, Bradley & Co., slightly better play might be in store for the Mariners down the stretch. After that, their future likely depends more on Jack Zduriencik than Daren Brown.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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