November 2, 2011
Quade-ing Through the Wreckage
Fired manager Mike Quade [11/02]
On Wednesday afternoon, Theo Epstein fired a manager for the second time this offseason. Unlike Terry Francona, Mike Quade will not receive lavish praise for his performance, nor will he have the career opportunities that Francona is sure to entertain in the coming weeks. News of Quade’s dismissal came in the form of a press release that thanked him for his nine years of service with the Cubs and revealed the process behind the decision from Epstein’s perspective, while focusing heavily on how they intend to identify the next Cubs manager:
Jed Hoyer and I had an all-day meeting with Mike last Thursday at Wrigley Field, and Mike and I continued our dialogue with a lengthy phone conversation yesterday after the press conference. Today, I flew to Florida to inform Mike in person that the Cubs have decided not to bring him back as our manager for the 2012 season.
Such is the perfect ending to Quade’s time as Cubs’ manager, as nobody wanted him in this position to begin with. Chicago’s fan base—the vocal part, at least—wanted team legend Ryne Sandberg, Chicago’s management wanted Lou Piniella—who retired on them late in 2010—and Chicago’s players wanted anyone but Piniella. The players tied management’s hands by responding well to Quade’s insertion as interim manager, winning 24 of the 37 games played under him after going 51-74 with Piniella in charge.
If you place a sheet of paper into a filled bathtub and soon the paper turns soggy and unintelligible, can you blame the paper? Sanity says no. Quade found himself in a similar situation. He inherited a team run by a general manager fighting for his own job and a team with some star quality players and names but lacking in depth. Sometimes teams can survive without depth; other times the universe punches the team in the weak spot and exposes them for what they are. Anyone who follows the sport knows that the Cubs are the universe’s favorite target.
Within the first two weeks, Quade saw his number four and five starters (Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner) succumb to injuries, pushing Casey Coleman and James Russell into the rotation. By mid-August, his number two starter Carlos Zambrano would abandon the team, leaving behind whispers of retirement and memories of implosions. All told, Chicago would use 10 starting pitchers on the season, some who belonged in the bullpen or Triple-A and others who belong in the mist from whence they came. Four starters in particular—Coleman, Russell, Rodrigo Lopez, and Doug Davis—combined to make 47 starts and record just 12 quality starts for an embarrassing rate of just under 25 percent.
Managers can only manage the players they are given, and Quade seemed to do okay with that aspect from a pragmatic sense. He batted Kosuke Fukudome and Starlin Castro leadoff in 140 of the 162 games—a good thing, because Fukudome led the Cubs in on-base percentage during his time in Chicago, and Castro led all Cubs regulars outside of Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez. As for the bullpen, the three relievers Quade entrusted the most in high-leverage spots were Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, and Kerry Wood: the same trio any card-carrying manager who ran the 2011 Cubs would have trotted out there.
The Cubs rotation difficulties deserve more attention, as the one thing you can say about Quade is that he did not blow quality starts when he got one. Chicago finished with the fifth-fewest quality starts in the majors and the seventh-fewest blown quality starts. Only the Rockies finished with fewer quality starts and blown quality starts. It was that kind of season for Quade, who also watched as his two best starting pitchers, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza, suffered 10 losses in quality starts. Add in that the Cubs’ bullpen blew 24 saves—fifth-most in the National League—and you have a recipe for constant managerial second guessing.
Evaluating managers is a hard, inexact, and maybe fruitless analysis, but the two measures people tend to look at are sacrifice bunts and intentional walks given. Quade’s Cubs finished with fewer bunt than the average team and about as many intentional passes as the average team. There are other aspects to consider, of course, but he was not a downright failure in those areas. Even so, Quade did make some noteworthy mistakes.
Quade moved Darwin Barney up to second in the order early in the season, and the lovable second baseman made his manager look smart by finishing April with a .351 on-base percentage. By the time Quade moved Barney down in the order, however, his on-base percentage had fallen below .320. Quade also erred by using John Grabow against right-handed batters 36 percent of the time despite Grabow being better suited to face lefties. The veteran reliever responded by allowing righties to post an OPS over 860 against him for the second-straight season while holding the lefties he did face to a .244/.293/.422 offering.
Perhaps Quade’s greatest failure as manager comes in the form of an anecdote. You may recall that ESPN caught Castro daydreaming during a game, thus missing a pitch. Quade did not respond by yanking Castro, during the inning or otherwise. Asking bad players to play like good players is one thing; asking good players to act like good players is another, and Quade seemed to mishandle the situation as it occurred. No one can blame Quade for the Cubs having the fifth-worst park-adjusted defensive efficiency in baseball, but you can blame him for refusing to hold at least one player accountable for his actions on the field.
What Quade’s firing comes down to is not merits as a big league manager but rather with his association with an organizational failure. Colin Wyers wrote in detail about the Cubs as an organization after Jim Hendry’s firing, relevant because Hendry is the one who moved Quade into the managerial position and removed the interim tag. Quade was not fired for what he did or did not do; he was fired for what his bosses did and did not do during their time. He was fired because he was always meant to be fired. Nothing he could have done, shy of saving his superiors’ jobs, would have been enough for him to keep his own.
The Cubs have had an opening day payroll above $100 million for each of the past four seasons with three postseason games to show for it. They have employed two managers since their last postseason series victory, and more than 30 men have managed them since their last World Series appearance. All of this despite playing in an at-times-anemic division and having the least elastic fan base in professional sports backing the organization. Now they have a new vision—another one, albeit a promising one—in place, and for that new vision to take center stage, the organization needed to make a clean break with all the residuals from the past. That meant Quade.