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February 9, 2011
A Dozen New Skippers
“When you're a manager all the worries of the team become your worries." —Al Lopez
December's Viking funeral–by–press conference at the Winter Meetings gave Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Cito Gaston, and Lou Piniella the opportunity to collectively say sayonara, with Bud Selig himself acting as the officiant. Maybe Cox had heard about the torches getting lit, but he missed out on its symbolic passing to a purportedly new generation of managers.*
The fact that there will be a dozen new dudes in the dugout on Opening Day since the last time around sounds like a lot of new faces, but it really isn't remarkable on an industry level, either in terms of the raw number of “new” managers, or as a percentage of skippers rousted and replaced. We've seen 13 new managers show up from one season to the next twice in the last 20 years, as recently as 2003, but also in 1992, when that unlucky number represented a 50 percent turnover among the managers of the 26 teams. There might be nothing beyond coincidence to the fact that five teams—the Mets, Royals, Mariners, Brewers, and Cubs—were active participants in both of those two dugout purges and also helped create this winter's new dozen.
It's also interesting to find that Buck Showalter shows up in all three of these waves of managerial changes. He got his first shot at managing in the majors with the 1992 Yankees, joined the 2003 Rangers in his third turn playing Moses to a future pennant-winner, and of course is now with the new-look Orioles. But Showalter's presence in all three groups also reflects the fact that this year's dozen new men in the dugout really aren't all that new to the scene. Consider the breakdown of how many of the managers from these three high-turnover seasons were retreads making their latest peregrination, holdovers hired during the previous season after inheriting the job from the recently axed, or actual new managers getting their first opportunity:
By way of explanation, "New" means new, as in the gentlemen in question were or will be rookie managers on Opening Day, and running their first big-league ballgames. In the middle, "Retreads" are those new-to-you managers with previous mileage on the odometer. And then "Holdovers" are either the interim hires made permanent or the outright replacements for skippers fired in-season the previous year; they're already somewhat familiar to the fans and the players, and they have varying levels of experience as major-league managers, from lots to little.
So where 1992 and 2003 gave us five noobs, 2011 is giving us just three: Farrell, Mattingly, and Roenicke. Maybe it's just me, but in the abstract, that's a whole lot less exciting a proposition than “Look, 12 new guys!” Given that we're seeing many of the same faces in the dugout, there's also the expectation that most of this year's dozen new managers won't be going anywhere anytime soon. Well, that's probably true of 11 of them; the Marlins' Edwin Rodriguez could be forgiven if he's keeping his bags packed after the Lorians' extended, fruitless pursuits of big-name alternatives, initially fixing on Bobby Valentine, and then later generating enough Ozzie Guillen-related conspiracies to keep the rumor mill churning for months.
In this, both 2003 and 2011 make for a marked contrast to '92, when axes were wielded much more readily. “New” Expos skipper Tom Runnels wouldn't make it to season's end after replacing Buck Rodgers in-season in '91. Bill Plummer's first campaign managing the Mariners would also be his last in the majors in a season that got off to a bad start—barely two weeks into his debut season in the dugout, he flubbed the lineup card, writing in both Pete O'Brien and Tino Martinez at first base, losing the DH slot by the second inning. Things went downhill for the Mariners from there, en route to a 98-loss campaign that ushered in Piniella's arrival in Seattle.
Generally speaking, it's easy to anticipate that there won't be a ton of mystery from the old/new men in their new gigs. But that isn't entirely fair: Watching how Rodriguez and Mike Quade and Kirk Gibson run their first camps and select their first Opening Day rosters will be worth following, for what it will tell us about how they think out their rosters, how they design roles for their players (or not), and whether they move quickly to correct any mistakes.
Similarly, it will be interesting to see if Yost or Wedge or Collins makes a run at winning the title of “the next Terry Francona” by becoming the latest example of a skipper who flopped in his initial incarnation and learned something from the experience—or, in Francona's case, perhaps from his time as Ken Macha's bench coach in the gloried Moneyball days of 2003. (There's that year again!) Yost earned a rep for well-designed benches employed to good effect, but also came under fire for how he ran his bullpen, especially in the big, ugly space between starters and the closer. If Yost's rep in this regard was bad, Wedge's was even worse, although his adaptations, like leaving starters out there to finish their innings whatever the damage, were one way to try to stanch the bleeding.
As far as evaluating them, one of the reliable fuzzy spots of performance analysis is getting a good handle on any manager's impact on his team, in part because the diagnostic tools are effectively as crude as those we use to describe defensive performance. Jim Riggleman or Bud Black might have busily built platoons to compensate for what their casts lacked, but that doesn't make them “good” or “bad” as much as it reflects that they're active operators creating solutions to problems with the material at hand.
Ironically enough, there has perhaps been no time ever before where the evidence of what a manager might be up to, as found in game logs or in measurable tactical decisions, has been less noteworthy on offense. Sure, we know that Clint Hurdle will bunt more with his position players than the average bear, adding a new cause for teeth-gnashing in Pittsburgh. We also know that he won't be mistaken for Gene Mauch and order up more than a hundred non-pitcher sac bunts, because that's just not how the game is played these days.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you won't find a lot of managers popping the hood to the extent that the celebrity skippers of the past did—this generation of managers has no Earl Weaver or Whitey Herzog, no Sparky Anderson or Billy Martin, men who would talk or write (or retell to willing co-authors) prolifically about what they wanted to do from the dugout. That's not to say that today's managers aren't every bit as knowledgeable about the game, but that instead they reflect the era they're skippering in. You won't hear Mike Scioscia talking smack about what he does well as a manager.
Where the manager retains the initiative is in choosing who plays, how much, and where. And nowhere is that becoming more obvious than the way in which managers tackle their responsibilities for managing a pitching staff. It's that which perhaps goes towards explaining why former pitchers and pitching coaches are taken much more seriously as managerial candidates in today's game. It seems as if the sine qua non for successfully skippering is the candidate's ability to juggle the overlapping logistical and tactical chores of handling a staff that still includes 10 or 11 set pitchers, plus two or three more men selected series-to-series or week-to-week from among an organization pool of at least a half-dozen floaters. As Calvin Coolidge might have quipped, the modern task of managing is management, but it's of people and their workloads more than just ballgames. Kibitzing about who bunted when is still all good fun, but a big chunk of a modern manager's responsibilities are operational and not tactical or merely motivational in nature.
With that in mind, I'll turn to the three completely brand-new skippers tomorrow, to see what little we know about them and might infer from their experiences.
* I know, it was actually a family medical emergency, so no laughing matter.