October 17, 2011
Venturing into Ventura Territory
Signed manager Robin Ventura to three-year contract. [10/6]
I was hesitant to put this piece beneath the “Transaction Analysis” banner, since as Kevin pointed out last week, we don’t have much to analyze about Robin Ventura the skipper—his next game as manager will be his first, unless you’re inclined to give him credit for coaching experience in Little League. About Ventura the player, there’s plenty to say: the lefty swinger was one of the best players not to have cracked an extremely exclusive group of Hall of Fame third basemen, although—perhaps not surprisingly, considering the only black ink (black pixel?) on his Baseball-Reference page is a league-leading IBB total from 1998—he fell somewhat short of the lofty standards at the position, at least according to an outdated formulation of WARP.
He and Ozzie Guillen, whom Ventura replaces in Chicago, were teammates on the left side of the White Sox infield for parts of nine seasons (next in the line of managerial succession: Craig Grebeck? Chris Snopek? Norberto Martin?), but Ventura probably wouldn’t have been one of Guillen’s pet players had he stuck around long enough to play for him, since the outspoken former skipper tended to favor those who hit like he did. Both had career batting averages in the mid- to high-.260s, but while Guillen was a speedy, overaggressive slap-hitter whose single-season highs in steals (36 in 1989) easily surpassed his single-season highs in walks (26 in 1990) and home runs (four in three separate seasons) combined, Ventura was slow, patient, and powerful, walking more than he struck out in each of his first four seasons and topping 20 homers nine times (though if you thought Guillen’s 61.0 percent success rate on the basepaths was bad, behold Ventura’s 38.7 percent, the sixth-worst rate among the 2400-plus players with at least 20 career steals).
The enduring image of Ventura’s career might be the beatdown he received at the fists of Nolan Ryan, whose mound he was attempting to charge (unless you prefer the revisionist history version in which Ventura wins), though I remember him more for his time in New York, where he made his mark with the Mets with a walk-off grand slam and John Sterling’s overenthusiastic “Robin becomes Batman!” calls accompanied each of his home runs across town. His departure from the Yankees at the 2003 trading deadline made room for Aaron Boone’s fateful arrival, and my 16-year-old self was sorry to see him go—not so much because of his play, which had declined by that point, but because of his laid-back demeanor and superb sense of humor (which Keith Olbermann captures faithfully here).
Those qualities may or may not lead to a lengthy managerial career. Ventura’s La Russa-approved personality is about as far as one could get from Guillen’s, which probably isn’t a coincidence—replacing an outgoing skipper with his diametric opposite is a time-honored baseball tradition. As was the case with Guillen, its prevailing perception will likely depend on how the White Sox are doing. When the Sox were succeeding, Guillen’s fiery attitude was seen as inspirational; when they were struggling, it was portrayed as a distraction. Similarly, Ventura, who often looks like he just woke up (and also a bit like Michael Cera might in the seventh or eighth sequel to the wildly successful Arrested Development movie—hey, a man can dream), could be praised for bringing calm to the clubhouse when the White Sox are winning, but he also runs the risk of making like Ken Macha (or Jerry Manuel, whom he played for in Chicago in 1998) and earning fans’ ire for not showing frustration when the team is in trouble. Perhaps having played for Joe Torre will give Ventura some insight into succeeding as a stoic (the secret: plenty of Bigelow tea).
The White Sox reached this decision so quickly that it’s tempting to spew some snark about their hiring the first candidate who wasn’t on Twitter (for now, at least, @robinventura remains registered but dormant), but from the sound of it, this move was long in the making. According to Kenny Williams, Ventura’s interview for the position essentially began in 1994, when he was still in uniform and Williams was named a special assistant to Jerry Reinsforf, and continued through this year, when Ventura was named a special assistant himself, in his case to Chicago’s farm director, Buddy Bell. Williams, who became a GM for the first time in Chicago, seems to have something of a fetish for anointing previously unproven skippers; Guillen, too, had his managerial cherry popped on the South Side, though he had at least served as a coach for the Expos and Marlins, with whom he won a World Series in 2003. If the Sox bring back Omar Vizquel, the 44-year-old Ventura won’t even be older than all of his players, since the ancient shortstop would still be his senior.
Williams’ out-of-the-box approach to hiring—he even considered making Paul Konerko the first major-league player-manager in decades—is somewhat refreshing in light of how often teams line up familiar, increasingly leathery faces to fill their vacancies; after all, newly-minted managers have to come from somewhere. Ventura might be at least as well-liked by the Chicago fanbase as Guillen—who received a standing ovation from the crowd at U.S. Cellular before his first game at the helm—was when he was hired, and if you subscribe to the notion that managers are largely interchangeable when it comes to wins and losses, it doesn’t hurt to have one who can at least increase interest in the team.
Breaking in a manager is always a risk, more because it gives second-guessers an easy opening than because of any record of spectacular incompetence on the part of past rookie managers—even Don Mattingly survived his rocky first season. Sometimes picking a former player who’s new to the job works well, and sometimes it doesn’t—Alan Trammel’s tenure in Detroit was at best undistinguished, but Kirk Gibson is off to a successful start in Arizona–so we can’t condemn the decision on general principles, though there is something to be said for choosing certainty in situations where the potential payoff is fairly low.
Ventura’s introductory conference call and press conference were heavy on platitudes and light on strategic specifics. To the dismay of sabermetrically-inclined Sox fans everywhere, he didn’t immediately disclose his philosophies on sacrifice bunts, intentional walks, lineup construction, and all the rest of the moves fans tend to fixate on, either somewhat excessively (since their impact pales in comparison to minor details like, you know, whether the team has good players) or entirely appropriately (since what are managers for, if not to give their clubs the edge on the margins?), depending on your perspective. Regardless of how Ventura performs as an in-game manager, the Sox are on the hook for three years, which might seem like an excessive commitment to a relatively unknown commodity but was probably necessary to give Ventura the security to grow into the role without looking over his shoulder. There are much more important questions facing the White Sox than how Ventura will adjust to the job—also signed for three more seasons: Adam Dunn—but it will be intriguing, if inconclusive, to see whether the more harmonious atmosphere of the post-Guillen era coincides with increased success. And the best part is, Ozzie is still out there, as eloquent as ever.