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August 28, 2012

Overthinking It

What the New Skippers Have Done

by Ben Lindbergh

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Every year, the new edition of the Baseball Prospectus annual contains a comment about every major-league manager. These comments typically run 200-250 words, which means that each one makes up a very small part of a chapter that runs close to 10,000. But the manager comments might be the part of the book most dreaded by BP authors, so much so that some authors have been known to turn in their chapters without a manager comment and disavow all knowledge that manager comments exist or that they were supposed to do one.

There’s a pretty simple reason why manager comments inspire such fear: it’s very difficult to say anything conclusive about people in baseball who don’t play in games. When we write comments, we like to sound smart, or failing that, at least snarky. It’s very difficult to sound either smart or snarky when we say “We don’t know.” If we said “we don’t know” as often in the rest of the book as we do in the manager comments, you might not buy it. We do track some manager statistics, but they’re less helpful than the ones we have about players. They tell us what happened, but not necessarily whether what happened was good, or even how much of it was attributable to the manager as opposed to the team. And they don’t help us at all with what happens off the field, which might be more important anyway.

So, sabermetrics has essentially shrugged its shoulders at the idea of evaluating managers, either out of necessity or because we haven’t yet cracked the code. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still have some useful things to say, once we summon the courage. Five managers were hired for the first time or switched teams at the start of this season. We’ve watched them for almost five months now, and there are a few conclusions we can draw about their basic tendencies and what might be their strengths. If you wait until early next year, you can read more about them in Baseball Prospectus 2013. But today is August 28, which means:

A)     It’s almost September, when the decisions of managers on contending teams are subjected to additional scrutiny.

B)     After September, it will be October, when the attention paid to managerial moves is magnified even more.

C)     I’m supposed to file something.

In accordance with C), but inspired by A and B, here’s a sneak preview of the comments next year’s annual authors won’t want to write.

Robin Ventura, White Sox
When a manager is hired with no previous experience in the role at any level, the first major hurdle he has to clear is not spectacularly self-imploding. Something of the sort has happened to managers who haven’t spent any time, in any capacity, in a big-league clubhouse. Neither Ventura nor Matheny, this season’s second rookie skipper, fits that description, so we probably shouldn’t have expected either to curl into a ball at their first sight of a lineup card. Still, after letting Guillen go and replacing him with a rookie, it has to be a relief to Kenny Williams that his handpicked choice hasn’t embarrassed himself from a tactical perspective or had any trouble connecting with his players or the press.

Teams often follow fiery managers with laid-back ones, and any subsequent improvement, whether actually attributable to the new recent arrival or the Whirpool Principle, is often chalked up to the new manager being a superior leader of men. Eventually, the new skipper’s message begins to seem stale, and the cycle begins again. Thus far, Ventura’s low-key approach has been a big success. Of course, while the Sox’ situation has unquestionably been calmer this season than it was during the tail end of Ozzie’s tenure, we don’t know how much of that tranquility has translated to wins.

As Sam Miller and I discussed on a recent episode of Effectively Wild, the White Sox have easily exceeded the BP staff’s expectations, but they’ve done it largely thanks to players Ventura inherited, not ones he established. At times this season, the Sox have had 10 rookies on the roster, but few of them have played an integral role in Chicago’s success. Addison Reed made his debut last season but didn’t become the team’s closer until Ventura made it so in May, and Jose Quintana has helped a rotation that lost John Danks for the season around the same time. The team has plenty of young arms in the pen, but on the offensive side, Ventura has depended on veterans, fielding the fourth-oldest collection of position players in the AL. It seems unlikely that he had much to do with Paul Konerko’s or A.J. Pierzynski’s ability to remain productive after age 35, or the resurgence of Adam Dunn and Alex Rios.

If anything, Ventura deserves credit for sticking with Dunn and Rios despite their sabotage last season, though it wasn’t as if the Sox had attractive alternatives. Dunn made it easy for him by homering on Opening Day and hitting well for the first two months of the season, and Rios followed suit with a homer in game two and a productive April. Like his predecessor, Ventura is uncomfortable with his club’s reliance on the home run, for equally unfathomable reasons. The Sox are third in Guillen Number and eighth in team TAv, and their homer hitting hasn’t hurt them. So far, Ventura’s talk about manufacturing runs hasn’t either, though it could prove more destructive if he tries to make too much happen down the stretch.

The Sox have made major strides in the field, improving from 29th in defensive efficiency last season to 11th in 2012. Ventura, a fine fielder himself, may have had something to do with that: returning Alex Rios to right couldn’t have hurt, and his decision to bring back infield practice—a tradition most teams have abandoned—sent a message that he valued dependable defense. Tactically, Ventura hasn’t overmanaged, calling for the fourth-fewest sacrifices and intentional walks in the AL. His most notable characteristic as a manager might be his willingness to let his starters go deep into games. Only Tampa Bay pitchers have averaged more than Chicago’s 100.1 pitches per start, and only the Tigers have had as many starts of 120 pitches. As a result, Chicago is tied with Detroit for the most quality starts in the AL, and they’ve blown only four (a roughly average amount), which suggests that Ventura hasn’t often left his starters in too long.

There isn’t a manager alive who hasn’t done something seemingly wonky with his relievers, which should probably tell us not that all managers are incompetent, but that managing a bullpen isn’t easy. Ventura’s potentially ill-advised tendency has been giving Brett Myers much higher-leverage outings than Nate Jones, which could come back to bite him (as it did in a 4-3 loss to the Orioles on Monday night). Overall, Ventura has silenced any doubters he might have had before the season and put himself in a strong position to take home the Manager of the Year award should the O’s or A’s falter going forward.

Mike Matheny, Cardinals
Like Ventura, Matheny has fought the urge to call for too many moves on offense. He’s the only NL manager who hasn’t signaled for a squeeze, and he’s been sparing with intentional walks. The only area in which he’s been more active than most has been the bullpen, where he’s made more pitching changes than any NL team but the pitch-count-limited Rockies and the lowly Astros and Padres. That’s due as much to the failings of the Cardinals’ bullpen personnel as any hyperactive move-making on Matheny’s part. St. Louis has the 10th-highest bullpen ERA in the NL, which likely has something to do with how far they’ve fallen below their league-best third-order record.

Matheny’s leadership hasn’t inspired quite as many puff pieces as Ventura’s, but his hands-on style is a hit. Earlier this week, Matheny squatted behind the plate and warmed up Fernando Salas while catcher Tony Cruz got his gear on, the sort of gesture that his players appear to appreciate. Matheny has taken some heat for continuing to start Daniel Descalso over Skip Schumaker, but given Descalso’s superior glove, the staff’s league-high groundball percentage, and the moderate difference in true offensive ability between the two players, it’s a defensible decision.

Dale Sveum, Cubs
Sveum sometimes says things that make the sabermetric set angry, like when he called Shawn Camp and James Russell the Cubs’ first-half MVPs. But Sveum was also the one who said the smartest things during Chicago’s exhaustive managerial search. The seeds of a successful skipper are there, but the Cubs have struggled so much this season that Sveum’s performance might not tell us much about what he’d be for a better team—after all, whatever answer he’d given to that MVP question probably would have been depressing.

I asked Harry Pavlidis, who still claims to watch Cubs games, what he thought of Sveum’s first season.

Critiques of his decisions based on standard baseball ‘best practices’ are not useful. He’ll run pitchers out into situations. He’ll ask batters to do things that aren’t the best game strategy but something he wants to see… hard to say how he manages until we see him with a developed roster. Until then there’s a LOT we don’t know and can’t see.

In other words, Sveum is still a cipher, a manager who’s called for the league’s lowest sac total, but whose hitters have converted their attempts at the league’s lowest rate. He’s worked closely with his young hitters, holding their hands while also holding them accountable. His coaching experience with young Brewers teams still seems to make him a good fit for the task ahead, but we’ll have to wait to see whether the skills that serve him well now will serve him equally well in a season where every out matters.

Bobby Valentine, Red Sox
Some fans attribute a team’s over- or underperformance of its Pythagorean record to its manager, figuring that the man whose job it is to extract the most out of his roster is responsible when the club turns out to be more or less than the sum of its parts. That’s bad news for Bobby V, whose detractors don’t need any more ammunition against him: the Sox have fallen nine games short of their third-order record, by far the biggest deficit in the big leagues.  Fortunately for Valentine, the Pythag theory of manager value is flawed and overly simplistic. Unfortunately for Valentine, it doesn’t matter, since any good he’s done will ultimately be overshadowed by the clubhouse turmoil that has sullied Boston’s season.

And there has been some good. Valentine pushed for Will Middlebrooks and Ryan Lavarnway to play prominent roles on the team, encouraged Andrew Miller to ditch his full windup and pitch from the stretch, and saw Franklin Morales as a starter. He also called for fewer sacs than any manager but noted by-the-sabermetric-book skipper Manny Acta. In most other respects, though, “his” stats have been skewed by the waves of injuries that deprived him of an intact team, making it difficult to divine what he would have done had he ever had the roster that Ben Cherington drew up.

Better health would have gone a long way toward easing the clubhouse tensions that have perpetually seemed to be at the boiling point in Boston. The outspoken skipper has brought some of the controversy on himself, but he also inherited a reportedly “toxic” situation that had already ended one accomplished managerial career. The only certain conclusion is that he failed to restore harmony. Fair or not, that failure might send him back to the broadcast booth without a second season. If that happens, this will be one time when replacing an outgoing manager with his personality polar opposite failed to have any appreciable effect.

Ozzie Guillen, Marlins
Ozzie obviously isn’t new to managing, but he is new to the National League. Tactically, he hasn’t stood out from the pack in most respects, although he has ordered more intentional walks than any other manager but Jim Tracy, which isn’t anything new for him. (The White Sox led the AL in IBB last season.) He hasn’t sacrificed any more than the average NL team, though he has tried to be aggressive in other ways, ordering the most double steals and the second-most squeezes.

Ozzie offended everyone in Miami with his comments about Fidel Castro during the first week of the season, which was the worst start to his tenure the Marlins could have imagined. Since serving his five-game suspension, Guillen has delivered some of his usual colorful quotes, but he’s largely avoided controversy. The White Sox’ success has made his role in the Marlins’ lifeless play look even worse. Whatever his failures as a motivator, it’s hard to see what moves he could have made to forestall a fire sale and ensure a full season for The Franchise. He may have stuck with Heath Bell too long before installing Steve Cishek as closer, but the Marlins made a greater mistake by giving big money to an over-30 arm with a declining strikeout rate than Guillen did by deploying him.

Lately, Guillen has come under fire for not giving Giancarlo Stanton better protection in the lineup (which hasn’t seemed to hurt Stanton’s bat). As Guillen said in response to the criticism, “I need the (expletive) FBI to protect that guy because anyone on this (expletive) team, he can’t.” Guillen’s first season with Miami couldn’t have gone much worse, but whether you believe the team’s failures are his fault depends on how much of an impact you think a manager can make on his players. When it comes right down to it, that—not the number of intentional walks or sac attempts or pitching changes—is what determines how you think these five guys have fared in their first seasons on the job.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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