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February 13, 2002

Managing Montreal

F. Robby's New Gig

by Michael Meehan

Frank Robinson, the new manager of the Montreal Expos, becomes the second most famous Robinson in Montreal's baseball history. Listen closely to his game plan and pay attention to his spring training camp, because managers can have dramatic impact on player performance.

Three of the key questions I'll be looking at in trying to determine what impact Robinson will have are:

  • In what kind of offense does he believe?

  • How will he treat the Expos' young arms?

  • How does he plan on structuring his bullpen?

Because Robinson has a managerial history--stints with the Indians, Giants, and Orioles that combine for a .475 career winning percentage--we can do a quick scan through to get at the answers to these questions. Keep in mind that Robinson hasn't managed since the early 1990s in Baltimore, and his strategy could certainly have changed since then. But you know what they say about old dogs.

To answer the first question, let's look at OBP and stolen bases. Due to his experience managing teams with varied talent levels in both leagues in three different decades, I figured his team's OBP should tell us a little something about his general style in building an offense. Stolen bases are interesting because their added value to an offense is oft-debated, and managerial preference plays a big role in how a team utilizes them.

Robinson's teams averaged a .323 OBP, with the atrocious 1988 Orioles and their .303 OBP dragging down that figure. That .323 is what the league average ended up being during his tenure, so his teams generally fell in the middle of the pack. A glance at recent Expos exploits reveals that they have finished in the bottom three in the National League in OBP in six out of the last seven years. (Don't ever accuse Felipe Alou of telling his players to take a pitch.) The potentially good news here is that Robinson's presence could increase plate discipline and overall offensive performance in this talented, albeit impatient, lineup. He could hardly make it any worse.

When Robinson managed players like Joe Morgan, Steve Finley, and Dan Gladden, he let them run. On average, though, his teams finished in the bottom half of the league in steals throughout his managerial career, with his Orioles near the bottom of the barrel every year. In Robinson's defense, many of those Orioles--guys like Cal Ripken, Chris Hoiles, and Randy Milligan--were not exactly fleet of foot.

The Expos were fifth in the NL in steals last year (when Jeff Torborg took over, he increased the rate of steals per game to 0.67 from Alou's 0.5). Robinson's past indicates that while he might not subscribe to the Jimy Williams School of (Not) Base-Stealing, it would be safe to assume a moderate across-the-board drop. To put it another way, Vladimir Guerrero won't likely be gunning for the 40-40 Club.

It's more difficult to look at Robinson's treatment of young pitchers. There are no pitch counts to be found, but he doesn't seem to have ridden his young arms too hard: not an excessive amount of innings pitched per start, nor an overload of starts. The one data point that stands out is his use of Dennis Eckersley on his Cleveland teams in the 1970s; He rode a 21- and 22-year-old arm fairly hard in 1976 and 1977. That said, even Eck's workload wasn't unusual for the time.

More recent evidence suggests he has evolved with the game. Mike Mussina, who broke in under Robinson, has turned out pretty well, and I don't blame Robinson for the unrealized talent of Ben McDonald. Assuming MLB wants to sell this team sometime soon, the last thing Robinson will want to do is lose a young starter to serious arm surgery. That's good news for Tony Armas Jr. and Carl Pavano.

The results are mixed on the closer question. In the 1970s, Robinson had a left-handed closer in Dave LaRoche. LaRoche went from exclusive closer to a platoon with righty Jim Kern. Eventually LaRoche was moved to the California Angels, and Kern became the full-time closer. In the early 1980s with the Giants, while Greg Minton was the primary closer during Robinson's first two years, lefty Gary Lavelle platooned with Minton in 1983-84, further indication that Robinson shies away from a single closer. On the other hand, when Robinson had a dominant closer in Gregg Olson, he used him as the exclusive closer. Looking at the Montreal situation, unless you think Scott Strickland is a dominant closer (you shouldn't), don't be surprised if he platoons in the closer role with lefty Scott Stewart.

Robinson won Manager of the Year in 1989 with Baltimore, but his overall winning percentage is well under .500. He has the reputation of being a very intelligent, opinionated man. He is sure be under intense scrutiny as an employee of MLB managing a team. My bet is he won't want to shake things up too much in Montreal. No one expects the Expos to win anything, and the last thing MLB wants is trouble in that clubhouse. El Bud wants to deliver a happy, healthy Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, and Javier Vazquez to their future owner, so a significant change in Robinson's approach is unlikely.

Chris Maher is an education policy wonk in Baltimore, Md. His baseball interest has driven him to serve as editor of the Fantasy Baseball Review Newsletter, and as a contributing writer to the Rotowire Fantasy Baseball Guide 2002.

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