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October 28, 2010

Overthinking It

Ex-Pitching Coach Managers

by Ben Lindbergh

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The Blue Jays unquestionably chose wisely when they named Jay Jaffe GM, but the jury remains out on their signing of Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell to a three-year managerial contract. That’s not to say that Farrell doesn’t seem qualified; on the contrary, the newly minted manager’s resume makes for an impressive read. Farrell spent all or part of eight seasons pitching in the majors—giving him the apparently all-important cultural acclimation to major-league clubhouses that other first-time managers have lacked—before serving as the Indians’ player development director for five years, an experience which, at least in theory, should have imparted the rapport with rookies and appreciation for the bigger picture that some field generals lack.

More recently, he returned to the dugout, earning his first—but, his new employers hope, not his last—World Series ring in his inaugural season as Boston’s pitching coach. In three subsequent seasons spent in that capacity, he presided over the development of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, which made him an attractive candidate to oversee Toronto’s talented young rotation. In addition to his work experience, Farrell is well regarded on a personal level throughout the game, and considered media-savvy (a quality that should serve him well in the, um, bustling Canadian baseball media market), which earned him some serious buzz as a managerial candidate well before the Blue Jays’ extended hiring process got underway.

The brotherhood of MLB managers isn’t the easiest to break into, not least because prior managerial experience is often viewed as the most desirable trait in an applicant. The circular hiring and firing process that prevails within the select group of experienced skippers leads to a high incidence of retreads who can claim to have “been there before” (while glossing over the fact they’ve also been deemed unfit for duty). Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos interviewed 18 candidates for the position that Cito Gaston’s retirement left vacant, so it’s safe to say Farrell was far from a shoo-in, despite the allure of raiding a division rival’s coffers. In fact, in the wake of being chosen as the right man for the job, he’s about to go where few pitching coaches have gone before.

Experience on a major-league coaching staff, while not a prerequisite for being granted the keys to a skipper’s office, usually helps a hopeful get hired. However, all coaching positions aren’t created equal, from the aspiring manager’s perspective. The managerial registers are littered with former bench coaches and base coaches, but relatively few pitching coaches have made the jump. In a game in which the old adage, “pitching wins championships,” qualifies as widely accepted wisdom, one would think that more men acknowledged for their expertise in that area would have found themselves entrusted with more prominent roles.

Perhaps most pitching coaches are happy with their lots in life, content to tinker with mechanics and click their pitch counters in peace while someone else shoulders most of the blame for strategies and seasons gone awry. However, it’s possible that potential employers harbor a perception (whether accurate or otherwise) that pitching coaches simply aren’t manager material; it’s certainly true that the position doesn’t call for the same qualities as a leader of men that managing demands. Farrell won’t be the only former pitching coach to lead a team next season: Bud Black, who nearly steered the Padres to the promised land on a shoestring budget in 2010—and on the strength of his team’s pitching, no less—served as Mike Scioscia’s pitching coach from 2000-06 with the Angels. But does history offer any other convincing evidence that pitching coaches can make fine managers?

I queried the BP braintrust for a list of skippers who first served as pitching coaches; while they’re probably not comprehensive, the results do supply us with a few examples of the latter who made good as the former. Of course, some of them barely had a chance to sit down in the manager’s seat before moving on. After Gaston’s first departure from the Blue Jays (a dishonorable discharge, unlike his most recent exodus), the Jays replaced him with Mel Queen, who served as their interim manager between stints as pitching coach. Queen went 4-1 at the helm, but never got the chance to fill out another lineup card. Actually, considering Queen’s philosophy of pitching—“I just went to the mound and threw as hard as I could”—he may have been lucky to get the nod as pitching coach in the first place.

Joe Kerrigan shared a similar fate, going 17-26 as Red Sox skipper after taking over at midseason for Jimy Williams. He earned a two-year extension from then-GM Dan Duquette, but was axed by new ownership over the offseason. Phil Regan made it through one losing season in control of the 1995 Orioles before being let go, after having previously served as pitching coach for the Mariners and Indians. Marcel Lachemann spent one full season and parts of two others managing the Angels, guiding them to a 161-170 tally over that time. Larry Rothschild managed the Devil Rays from their inaugural 1998 season through early 2001, leaving with a 205-294 record. Clearly, he can’t be held responsible for the Rays’ losing ways, but it might be telling that he returned to a pitching coach position with the Cubs shortly thereafter (where he remains to this day).

The first (and quite likely the most successful) to make the transition was Wilbert Robinson. Technically, “Uncle Robbie” was a manager first, having player-managed the 1902 Orioles after his former teammate John McGraw departed to manage the Giants. After that brief taste of being in charge, McGraw recruited him as pitching coach (perhaps the first of his breed), a capacity in which he served from 1903-13. Robinson followed that stretch with 18 seasons at the helm of the Dodgers—who became colloquially known as the “Robins,” in his honor—during which time he won two pennants.

As a manager, Robinson was, in the words of Steven Goldman, “still a pitching coach.” He helped establish, re-establish, or oversee several Hall of Fame hurlers during his time running the operation, including Joe McGinnity, Dazzy Vance, Burleigh Grimes, and Rube Marquard. Vance didn’t stick in the majors until getting to play for Robinson at the age of 31; Marquard is among the most questionable of the Veterans Committee’s inductions, but “The $13,000 Lemon” often pitched like a genuine Hall of Famer for Robinson. The long-tenured manager eventually entered the Hall himself, despite a 1,397-1,395 lifetime record. His success with mercurial pitchers was often attributed to his playing career as a catcher, whereas most of the few pitching coaches who’ve gone on to manage once toed the rubber themselves.

There has been at least one other catcher-turned-pitching-coach-turned manager: Buck Rodgers, who managed for 13 seasons. His teams collectively finished a shade over .500 at 784-774, but his longevity looks even more impressive in light of the fact that only one of his clubs reached the postseason. Rodgers’s first chance to manage came when a heart attack temporarily put George Bamberger, the Brewers’ skipper at the time, out of commission. Bamberger, who tried his own hand at being a pitching coach before running up a 458-478 record in seven managerial seasons, was a rather accomplished enabler for pitching coaches hoping to move up a tax bracket: just as his departure made way for one to take over in Rodgers, his hiring in Milwaukee left a vacancy in Baltimore’s pitching coach department, which was filled by Ray Miller. On the strength of his performance there, Miller later went on to manage without distinction for the Twins and Orioles.

We’re almost finished with our roll call. After establishing himself as one of the games best-known pitching coaches and an apostle of the splitter in the late-’60s and ’70s, Roger Craig pulled off a fairly successful conversion, leading the Giants to five consecutive winning seasons in the ’80s, and finishing his 10-season managerial career in the black, if only just barely, at 738-737. Three more pitching coaches succeeded in making the leap, all of them with some form of Yankees coaching connection: Bob Lemon, Jeff Torborg, and Clyde King. Lemon was the most successful, while Torborg boasted the best staying power.

If anyone comes up with more managers who fit the bill, leave a comment and let us know. As Marc Normandin observed, it might be instructive to find out whether pitchers perform better under managers who spent time as pitching coaches, which I’ll consider exploring in a future article (of course, it might be just as worthwhile to investigate whether pitchers perform better under certain pitching coaches, an effort that has already been undertaken, at least in the cases of Dave Duncan and Leo Mazzone). Despite the dearth of pitching-coach-to-manager transitions, it’s possible that the exclusion of pitching coaches (and pitchers in general, for that matter) from managerial positions might stem from something other than a baseless bias. In fact, it might even qualify as a backhanded compliment.

 By declining to “promote” their pitching coaches, perhaps teams are simply acknowledging the vital nature of their duties. If a pitching coach succeeds in his original role, he may offer his team the greatest possible value by continuing in that capacity. From a utilitarian perspective, would you rather have Duncan fiddling with lineups and giving injury updates to roving packs of beat writers, or teaching Joel Pineiro how to throw a sinker? The pitching coach’s job requires more specialized knowledge than the manager’s, and once acquired, that expertise is probably better off being put to use in the a position that permits it to make the greatest impact. Of course, that interpretation may come as small comfort to some of the baseball lifers bringing home pitching coach-sized salaries. Should Farrell succeed in his new, more lucrative role, he won’t be breaking untrodden ground, but he will be joining a rather exclusive group.  

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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