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February 10, 2011

Purpose Pitches

Farrell, Mattingly, and Roenicke

by Christina Kahrl

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Yesterday's column and my comments about the increasing importance of staff management are my cue to touch on what we do know about the three genuinely new skippers. The first of them is an ex-pitcher with no managerial experience, but someone who will be coming to the job with plenty of management experience.

Blue Jays: John Farrell

Playing experience: He was a pitcher, and notched a 36-46 record in a brief run as a rotation regular in the late '80s. He was drafted in the second round in 1984 (one pick after Greg Maddux), and came up through the Indians' system after pitching for Oklahoma State, debuting late in 1987 as part of the wave of talent that had to arrive after the honeymoon of the SI front cover-cursed club of that campaign had long since curdled into ignominy. He was a rugged finesse right-hander and a sinker/slider guy who didn't generate grounders or fool too many people all that often, so he was perhaps necessarily nibbly. He never topped 5.0 K/9 in his three full seasons in the minors, or in his first complete big-league campaign in 1988, but managed to goose his strikeout rate in '89 while producing a career-high 3.8 SNLVAR and a .519 SNWP.

At this point, he'd given the Indians two useful seasons as someone they could count on beyond Greg Swindell and Tom Candiotti, and adding Bud Black to the rotation in '89 had given the Tribe a better rotation collection than anything they'd had going for them in '87. At least, that was the case until John McNamara let Farrell make a 148-pitch start against the Red Sox on June 8, 1990, which heralded career-derailing elbow woes to come. Farrell lasted just three more starts with decreasing effectiveness before breaking down, tried to come back in September, and then spent the next two years on the shelf. That was followed by four seasons of declining effectiveness and an unsuccessful attempt to make it back and stick in the majors, as he flitted from Anaheim to Cleveland to Detroit, but really spent more time pitching for Vancouver, Toledo, and Buffalo.

Who were his managers? It was a short active career, so by that weak standard, you'd think Doc Edwards, the only man who was his chief through the good times of '88 and '89, would be his template. He also pitched for Pat Corrales, John McNamara, John Hart, Buck Rodgers, Marcel Lachemann, Mike Hargrove, and Buddy Bell, but never for a full season in any instance.

Other possible influences? An association with Terry Francona is taken as a good thing these days, but remember, the association goes all the way back to their days as players on the Indians in the '80s. Hart's example as leader of the Indians' organizational pack from those times and the years that followed seems worth noting, since like Farrell the former exec worked at every level of organizational management, coaching players, skippering, developing talent, and more.

Recent work experience: After the end of his active career, Farrell went back to Oklahoma State, where he was an assistant coach, handling the pitching while also charged with recruiting responsibilities. Five seasons in that line of work got him his next job as the Indians' Director of Player Development (2001-2006), joining the well-regarded front-office team Hart had assembled: Marc Shapiro (who hired Farrell), Neal Huntington, Chris Antonetti, and John Mirabelli. After overseeing one of the most successful player development programs (if awards from Sports Weekly and Baseball America are any measure), Farrell moved back into coaching from operations following the 2006 season, landing the gig as Boston's pitching coach, which is where he's been for the last four years. As assignments go, it had to have been interesting, overseeing a staff with a full spread of challenges over four years, whether working with high-profile imports (like Dice-K), veterans old and young (Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett), or breaking in top youngsters (Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Daniel Bard out of the pen).

His security blanket? His bench coach is former Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu. "Wak" was once considered one of the game's best managerial prospects after long years as a bench coach in Texas (under Buck Showalter, starting in 2003) and later in Oakland. Not that managing an offense is particle physics, but Farrell should find Wakamatsu's considerable experience with game management and day-to-day scheduling and planning useful.

Expectations? They should be set high, although you can expect he isn't going to be a fully formed genius from day one, like he was some latter-day Athena, springing from Zeus' brow. Farrell is getting this opportunity despite a lack of managing experience for good reason, as he's been reliably associated with success as a coach and in player development. He's taking over a team well-stocked with young veteran talent in the rotation in particular, but while he's had to coach in one of the highest high-visibility markets imaginable, working with some of the game's biggest stars, he also had considerable experience coaching amateurs and handling young farmhands. That sounds like what the Jays need now: a coach-in-chief to help the pitching staff, but also someone familiar with the challenges of getting young players ready. While I've been as guilty as anyone of hyping the Orioles, the Jays will be worth watching in 2011 as well, and Farrell's potential impact on youngsters like Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow, and Travis Snider should be critical. It figures to be the most interesting AL East season top-to-bottom in more than a decade.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Don Mattingly

Playing experience: Donnie Baseball? Well, shucks, he was extraordinary, one of the best hitters of the '80s, and then he was this guy with a bad back everyone felt sorry for as the guy stuck being a Yankee during the team's most inglorious era since the age of Horace Clarke. I think we can assume a general familiarity here.

Who were his managers? The full rogue's gallery of rotating skippers from the worst of the Boss' bad old days, starting with Bob Lemon, but also Billy Martin and Lou Piniella and Yogi Berra, and then into the dark days that saw Bucky Dent, Dallas Green, and Stump Merrill rotate through Yankee Stadium, before finally ending his career playing for the ubiquitous Buck Showalter during the reinstitution of sanity in the Bronx.

Other possible influences? Joe Torre. As often happens with “face of the franchise” stars, Mattingly was brought back in as a spring training coach, starting in '97, but seven seasons of that sort of work got him taken seriously as a candidate for in-season coaching responsibilities, as he became Torre's hitting coach for three seasons (2004-06) before becoming his bench coach in 2007. Groomed as Torre's designated heir in New York, he instead followed the man west after the Pay Cut Coup d'Etat following the 2007 season, but only after first interviewing and then failing to get the job in the Bronx. There's some irony to be found in the fact that Torre, like Mattingly, fell short of the Hall of Fame as a player, but the hope is that, like Torre, he'll get there on the basis of the great managing career to come. Now, he just has to make that happen... easy enough, right?

Recent work experience: Following Torre around and waiting for the old man to call it quits has worked out fairly well for him, obviously.

His security blanket? Whatever else, he's layered up. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt is still in place. One of the game's great ur-LOOGYs, he took up the task in 2006, so before Joe Torre and thus also outlasting Mattingly's mentor; this will be his sixth season on the job. For a bench coach, Mattingly has brought in dethroned Royals skipper Trey Hillman, which might seem strange given Hillman's unfortunate recent track record in KC, but remember, Hillman managed in the Yankees' farm system for 12 years before heading to Japan to manage the Nippon Ham Fighters for five seasons, so he and Mattingly know each other well.

Expectations? I'd keep things modest while playing wait-and-see. The presumption all along is that he'll be Torre 2.0, but we'll see if he deals with some of the recent problems with the Dodgers in the same way or provides his own solutions. How effectively he addresses the “hustle” issue with Matt Kemp has necessarily already come up, with Mattingly pointedly reminding people of his playing days with the oft-accused “jaker” Rickey Henderson, a man who was nevertheless also a popular teammate and all-time great. His ability to resolve that leftover frustration from the last several seasons far outweighs the development of any particular brand of tactical acumen. Mattingly's staff is an interesting blend of Dodgers coaching lifers (like bullpen coach Ken Howell or third-base coach Tim Wallach) and ex-Yankee mercs who headed west with Torre, plus baserunning guru Davey Lopes as the first-base coach. We'll see how well it all meshes—making sure that works as effectively as it did under Torre is going to be a significant part of Mattingly's job, and Mattingly's celebrity isn't a one-for-one replacement for Torre's gravitas and track record.

Milwaukee Brewers: Ron Roenicke

Playing experience: Roenicke was a first-round pick and 17th overall selection in the June (secondary) phase of the draft back in 1977. To give you a sense of how that worked out, the only better players selected in the entire draft were Hubie Brooks (14.4 career WARP; third overall) and Bud Black (20.8 career WARP; second-round selection, 44th overall), with Roenicke (3.4 WARP) in a dead heat with Bill Laskey (3.7 WARP) for the third most successful player selected.

That's very nearly the only career highlight worth mentioning. A local boy done good, Roenicke was picked by the Dodgers, but was immediately trapped in the Tweener's Quandary: If he isn't an everyday center fielder defensively, and he doesn't hit for power, what is he for? The answer that Tommy Lasorda came up with was regular-use pinch-hitter in 1982, where Roenicke's excellent patience at the plate—he'd go on to post a career walk rate of just under 15 percent in almost 1300 major-league PAs—was useful, but it was also his only reliable skill.

The other significant problem was that, within the organization, he was in danger of being swamped by a crowd of second-rank outfield prospects with some future value. Candy Maldonado was younger and had more power, while R.J. Reynolds was on the way up, and he was younger and had a nice line-drive stroke going for him. In July of '83, the Dodgers released Roenicke because they apparently preferred Maldonado, which left him adrift for the remainder of his career. He floated to the Mariners for the rest of '83, appeared on the Padres' bench in '84 (where he got to watch the World Series from the dugout), participated in the epically awful Giants' offense of 1985, drifted into a center-field platoon with Milt Thompson for the Phillies in '86, cycled through the Reds' system in '88, and saw his career come to an end in Oklahoma City in '89.

Who were his managers? Del Crandall in the minors, then Tommy Lasorda initially in the majors, then Crandall in Seattle after his '83 release. After that, the guy he played for the most was John Felske, with limited exposure to Dick Williams, Pete Rose, Jim Davenport, and Lee Elia.

Other possible influences? How about the man he played with for Albuquerque in 1980, a young catcher named Mike Scioscia, who also happens to be the man he's been coaching for over the last decade? Roenicke followed Scioscia out of the Dodgers' organization to join the Angels in 2000, and has been with him ever since. Since no manager can match Scioscia's track record for delivering teams that do better than their expected records, you can understand how that association would be a big positive.

Recent work experience: At first he was Scioscia's third-base coach in Anaheim, but then replaced the departing Joe Maddon as the bench coach in 2006. Before that, and in obvious contrast with the untested Mattingly and Farrell, Roenicke racked up an admirable career skippering in the minors in the Dodgers' system in the '90s, winning Cal League Manager of the Year in 1995, and then the Texas League's managerial award in 1997. He's also marked time as a hitting coach in the minors, but his first baseball job after the end of his playing days was as an outfield positioning coach in the majors in '92-'93. In short, he's a long-service soldier with as good a slate of credentials and demonstrated utility as you might find. That he was given his first shot at skippering in the majors at 54 serves as a nice reminder that sometimes good things come to those who wait.

Proof that Buck Showalter is baseball's Kevin Bacon? None so far, but I haven't bent my noodle on the possibilities for all that much time. Though they were contemporaries as players in the minors in the late '70s and early '80s, Roenicke was playing in the Texas League and the PCL, while Showalter was in the Southern and International Leagues. Roenicke's big-league career was over before Showalter might have been able to employ him, and as a product of the Scioscia family, Roenicke has been essentially been affiliated with teams that never had cause to employ Showalter.

His security blanket? Given his considerable experience, he may not need to bundle up as much as his fellow rookie managers, but he's well-stocked with support. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz arrives with fine credentials from his five years in the job, first with the Marlins, and then the Orioles. Former manager Jerry Narron is his bench coach, while ever-present Brewer Dale Sveum is around as the guy who's been in Beertown for a while, having coached for the club in three different roles (bench, third, and hitting), and briefly skippering the club during its late-season run to the postseason in 2008 after the shocking September firing of Ned Yost.

Expectations? In some ways, I'd liken Roenicke's lot to Mike Quade's further south, in that he's put in the time, he's a preparation fiend, and he should certainly know the job. After Doug Melvin's bold winter acquisitions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, expectations should be high, and with a fairly set rotation and lineup, there isn't a ton of major decision making for Roenicke to do in terms of who plays. To wit, his big playing-time decisions will be picking a fifth starter, figuring out what to do in center field (pick Carlos Gomez, or platoon him with Chris Dickerson, the way Roenicke was platooned by Felske in '86?), and sorting out the pecking orders in his bullpen and among his catchers. Those are fairly normal, resolvable issues as camp conundrums go, so Roenicke will have the time to figure out how he wants to run his club, give time to setting up his player usage patterns and lineups, and get used to the talent on hand to see if he can deliver a contender. If he does, you can bet he'll show up on a lot of Manager of the Year ballots at season's end.

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

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