November 4, 2011
The BP Broadside
Exorcising the Ghost of Leo
Back in February, I wrote about how the Chicago Cubs had never had an iconic general manager. The dismissal of Mike Quade is an opportunity to ask a similar question of the Cubs. It’s not that they have never had a great manager—Hall of Famer Joe McCarthy got his start in the majors with Chicago, taking the team to the 1929 World Series, in the process becoming the first and last manager to get Hack Wilson focused on baseball, but McCarthy was forced out in a power struggle with Rogers Hornsby 71 years ago. That’s a lot of baseball under the bridge without a skipper putting his mark on the team in some way.
Some might point to another Hall of Fame skipper, Leo Durocher, who coached the team from 1966 to 1972, but despite the Lip’s helping the Cubs go from 50-103 in 1966 to 92-70 in 1969, he never did win anything with the Cubs, clashed with key players such as Ron Santo, and wasn’t exactly focused, wandering off on the team from time to time to deal with personal matters that somehow seemed more important than his job. Durocher is also, correctly, far more identified with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants than he is with the Cubbies.
Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker, Don Zimmer, Charlie Grimm, and Jim Frey all had their moments, and of course Frank Chance and Gabby Hartnett shone as player-managers, but the Cubs have never had the great skipper that dominates the memory of other clubs. Instead, they’ve had Bob Scheffing, Bob Kennedy, the College of Coaches, Jim Essian, and now—fairly or unfairly—Mike Quade.
In the general manager’s piece, I offered each franchise’s great builder, it’s iconic general manager. Let’s try something similar with managers:
You can see that not all icons are created equal, and you can dispute some of these choices, but for the most part, these managers really made a difference to their teams. The Cubs have not had that manager in three-quarters of a century, despite bringing in some big names from time to time. This underscores the inseparable relationship between managers and the talent supplied to them—you can’t have a great manager without at least a competent general manager, and since the Cubs haven’t had the latter, they’ve also missed out on the former.
Of course, the time for the former may be done. The once great procession of managing has devolved into a cesspool of conventional thinking and decisions made according to how the media will react to them. There is no galvanic Herzog to create a wide-open style of dashing baseball, no Stengel to create elaborate platoons, no Weaver to do away with the Hit and Run sign and just hit, or even a McCarthy, whose signature was crushing offense and demanding leadership but might have been more interesting for having eschewed a conventional starting rotation (something emulated by Stengel). The closest we have today is Joe Maddon, who uses Ben Zobrist’s flexibility to platoon at two positions. There will be a great deal of speculation as to who the Cubs manager will be, but the field is such a drab lot it might not matter at all beyond receiving a certain basic competence.
For the Cubs, that basic competence includes an awareness of on-base percentage. The Cubs have consistently been a non-walking, low-OBP team for decades, with the result that they have often been outscored in their own generous ballpark. Since 1950, Cubs have been outscored by their opponents at Wrigley in 37 of 61 seasons.
This is a song I’ve played before, mainly because it’s true. Selective Cubs in the postwar years have been few and far between, with the 2011 unit ranking 10th in the league in OBP. It’s the obvious, obvious, bleeding need, but few with the Cubs have wanted to see it. Theo Epstein, with his grounding in good sabermetrics, will undoubtedly be aware of it, and his managerial choice will subsequently be made aware of it if he doesn’t come equipped with religious feelings about selectivity. In the short term, though, little is going to change. Short of holding Alfonso Soriano at gunpoint in each plate appearance, he’s not going to change his ways and suddenly become patient at 36 years old.
That means that Epstein will have to have patience with his hire; it’s going to take some time to get this right. In the past, Cubs GMs have covered for their massive failure to staff the team correctly by displacing blame onto the managers. This has led to a great deal of turnover. The last manager to last five seasons with the club was Jim Riggleman from 1995 through 2000. The last manager to last more than five seasons was Durocher. In this century alone, 21 of the 30 teams have had at least one manager complete a term of five or more years. Only the Diamondbacks, Orioles, Reds (Dusty Baker will enter his fifth season next year), Marlins, Astros, Royals, Pirates, and Blue Jays join the Cubs in this distinction. When the Yankees have a more stable cast of managers than you do, you know you’re doing something wrong.
One of the reasons Epstein took the Cubs job is because of the historic opportunity to be the man who ended two of the game’s great championship droughts. Unless he hires Terry Francona, the manager won’t have the same opportunity, but the chance to be the man who can dine free in Chicago for the rest of his life is not insignificant. More than that, though, this hire can put a stamp on the franchise that’s as indelible as any single player acquisition.
The Cubs haven’t won 100 games since 1935. They haven’t lost 100 since 1966. Despite six playoff appearances from 1984 to present, they have mostly rolled along in the bland area between unexcitingly good and unexcitingly bad. One of the reasons the managers of those 21 clubs lasted five or more years is that they were seemingly good enough that their worth transcended transient swings in standings or the fluid nature of modern-day baseball rosters—even if team hadn’t won this year, this was the guy who gave you the best chance of winning next year. Putting aside the perennially perverse problem franchises that are the Orioles, Royals, and Pirates, the Cubs are one of only six “serious” teams that has, at no time in the 21st century, had enough confidence in their own personnel evaluation to feel that they had hired that guy (it is odd that the failure of a manager to hold his job is somehow the players’ or the manager’s fault rather than a sign of yet more bad judgment by a problem general manager). It’s hard to believe, but then, much about the Cubs’103-year championship drought is hard to believe. Epstein may or may not break that streak, but at the very least he can bring the Cubs on-field leadership that they feel like they can stick with for the first time since the days of Durocher.