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April 24, 2012
The Manager Narrative
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With age, comes wisdom. And not practical wisdom, like that of the 1000-year-old man, but a more important kind of wisdom: the kind that gives you a better grasp and understanding of the game of baseball.
When you're young and first learning the game, you're kind of lost. Things don't always make sense. You wonder why pitchers can't swing the bat, or why hitters don't belt home runs every single at-bat.
But as you get older, these nebulous concepts start to make sense and are in turn replaced with newer, more abstract questions. And before too long, you come to understand those as well: why pitching wins and RBIs are almost useless statistics in player evaluation, for instance.
For better or worse, those questions never really go away. Even now, as an adult who blogs about baseball on a daily basis, I still find myself asking the same ones. The latest in the line of brain teasers pertains to managers, their actual usefulness, and the narratives that surround them.
I've had this thought for some years now, dating back to when I first came upon the notion that a manager is comparable to a personal assistant who establishes the CEO's itinerary. He serves a function, which is to set everything up, make sure that meetings are scheduled, and keep things running smoothly, but it's ultimately up to the other person (in this example, the CEO) to execute or not. Similarly, in baseball, the onus is on the players, not the managers, to perform in a manner that allows them to win baseball games.
That's not to say that managers don't have some impact. On a move-specific level, they absolutely do, and throughout the course of baseball history, games have been won and lost by their decisions, the most famous incident in the last decade or so being Red Sox manager Grady Little not pulling Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees. That snafu cost him his job, but it was just one incident on the grandest of stages. The Red Sox made the playoffs and were in a position to advance to the World Series, but the guy in charge just happened to have a brain fart at the worst possible time.
If there is one thing that I've learned thanks to the statistical revolution, it's that things like bunting—something which the manager typically puts into motion—often does more harm than good, which would seem to imply that the best thing a manager can do is fill out the lineup card, do a crossword puzzle while the game is going on, and look up occasionally to see if he needs to bring in a relief pitcher. Of course, the effective usage of relief pitchers is, in and of itself, an entirely different and much more complex discussion that also ties into the effectiveness of a team's manager and his ability to pull the right levers.
My take on the efficacy of managers aside, I think that the narrative surrounding the manager's role and his job performance is far more interesting than the argument about whether he even matters in the first place.
Take, for instance, Charlie Manuel. As a Phillies fan, I've watched Manuel preside over the team since his first season in 2005, right up through five straight division titles, two pennants, and a World Series Trophy. And in that time, I've also witnessed a great evolution in the public perception of the skipper.
When Manuel came to the team in 2005, he was replacing the fiery Larry Bowa, who failed to lead the Phillies to their first playoff berth since 1993 in his four years as manager. The two men were polar opposites: Bowa was a hothead and prone to blowing his top, while Manuel was a slow, Southern speaker with a drawl that made him seem all the more genteel.
Like Bowa, Manuel failed to lead the team to success in his first two-plus years of managing the team and was placed on the hot seat early in his Philadelphia tenture. Things started to boil over in early 2007, when the team once again lurched out of the gate in April. The fans, who were already not sold on Manuel as a manager, wanted him gone. Bloggers started a campaign to get him fired. And talk radio hosts, forever stirring the pot, ripped Manuel on a daily basis, so much so that Charlie eventually challenged one of them to a fight during a post-game conference.
In truth, I didn't think he was doing a good job, either. He didn't really get the concept of bullpen management, he'd make curious lineup decisions, and he seemed overmatched when it came to late-game strategy.
But here we are in 2012, and Charlie Manuel, once the owner of the least amount of job security in the state of Pennsylvania, is still in the employ of the Phillies. Not only that, but he is now the winningest manager in the history of the franchise and the recipient of a contract extension that will take him through 2013.
So, how did that happen? How was Manuel able to keep his job and rebuild his reputation?
The answer, of course, lies with the nine guys on the field and the 25 in the clubhouse. When Manuel came to the Phillies, his ace was Jon Lieber. His dynamic offense, which included the younger and healthier versions of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard, was not able to overcome the poor pitching. That began to change in 2006, when Cole Hamels arrived on the scene to be the first pitching pillar of what would eventually became a team that excelled at preventing runs more so than scoring them.
After the Phillies took advantage of the historic 2007 collapse of the New York Mets, the perception of Charlie Manuel began to change. The fans weren't calling for his head anymore, and his reputation as a manager who could extract the best possible performance from his team began to take shape. He was still the same man that he was in 2005 and 2006, and he made the same types of tactical mistakes, but the big difference was that his teams were deeper and more talented, which not only left him with fewer opportunities to make mistakes but also made them more easily masked and overcome.
Not surprisingly, the calls for Manuel's head became less frequent. Bloggers took a shine to him, fans would routinely chant his name when he left the dugout to argue bad calls, and eventually, no one said anything at all. That's what winning five division titles and a World Series will do. The previous imperfections and blemishes are still there, but they are hidden by all the wins, which make an excellent concealer.
The same kind of narrative can be found whenever a manager gets canned for managing a bad ballclub. Terry Francona, who was fired from the Boston Red Sox after they collapsed down the stretch in 2011, was not a popular manager in Philly, when he managed the team to a 285-363 record between 1997 and 2000. That didn't stop him from managing the Red Sox to two World Series titles within the next decade.
Then there’s Willie Randolph, who was lauded as the manager for the New York Mets and came within an out of the World Series in 2006. His reign ended less than two years later, when he and his coaches were fired during a west coast road trip due to a poor start to the season. To be fair, his firing came under much scrutiny given the circumstances, but the perception that he was in over his head persisted.
Between Manuel, Francona and Randolph, we have three examples of managers who were perceived in a certain way thanks, almost entirely, to the performance of their players. If you had talked to a Philadelphian in 1999 and a Bostonian in 2007, you would have gotten two completely different opinions on Terry Francona, despite the fact that he was the same person who ostensibly managed in much the same fashion. The only difference was the caliber of players on the roster.
It's anecdotal, for sure, but a narrative always is. It's concocted by the fans, beat writers, and analysts. Its only purpose is to further a storyline. Charlie Manuel, who was vilified by fans in his first few seasons, was the toast of the town not less than three years later, and it had nothing to do with his actual performance. It's just what the narrative called for.
Legitimately measuring the performance of a team's manager is a difficult talk. It’s almost impossible to conclude whether certain moves are right or wrong, much less evaluate them in the aggregate over the course of several seasons. Mangers don't have an OPS or a FIP to be graded on. They have only their team's record, which says more about the players than it does anyone else.
In 2010, Sports Illustrated's Cliff Corcoran tackled that topic, cited findings from Bill James, among others, and concluded that the best thing a manager can do is put the best nine players he has on the field on any particular day. But even then, the performance of those nine players is going to be dependent on their talent levels. And if a manager has a roster of replacement-level players, then it really doesn't matter what he does, no matter how effective a motivator he might be.
Once you get your nine best players on the field, it's of little consequence where you bat them, at least according to James Click’s chapter in Baseball by the Numbers, in which he concluded that an ideal lineup, compared to the standard lineup that most team's employ, would make a difference of about one win over the course of a season. That sort of result makes the manager's gig seem like an even greater lesson in futility, almost as though he’s a bus driver who has very little control over which way his vehicle’s wheels point. There is a certain level of despair in knowing that, I think.
Ultimately, I suspect that there will never be a way to accurately and sufficiently measure the contributions of a team's manager to a team’s on-field performance. There will be individual moments that make them look like goats or geniuses, but over a long enough timeline, in a game in which randomness plays a large role, few definitive conclusions about a skipper’s value are easily attained. In the end, a manager’s reputation hinges heavily on wins and losses, and all we are left with is the record-driven narrative.