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October 9, 2012

Out of Left Field

It's a Trap!

by Matthew Kory

Through painstaking research, I have determined that most managers get fired for one or more of the following reasons:

1. Losing

2. Being a jerk. 

Reason Two encompasses, in reverse order of importance, not getting along with people, drinking, drugging, being a sociopath, cannibalism, and/or not removing Pedro Martinez from the game when clearly necessary.

The thing about Reason Two, though, is that any and all of those indiscretions, assuming eating other humans can be called an indiscretion, will be universally tolerated as long as some version of Reason One isn’t met. Managers have been caught in all manner of bad situations, or have made other off-field mistakes and usually, as long as Reason One isn’t met, they’re fine. In other words, go ahead and eat people as long as your team wins more games than it loses.

For example, Tony La Russa was (in)famously arrested for drunken driving. It was late March following a Cardinals World Series win, so, hey, whatever! Had he been drunk with multiple bodies in the truck, maybe we’d be talking about a fine. Alternately, Joe Girardi was named 2006 Manager of the Year following his first season with the Marlins. They’d have to mail the award to him, because within days of the season ending he was fired. He was likely guilty of violating some sub-clause of Reason Two*, but that would likely have been overlooked had the Marlins not finished 78-84, in fourth place.

* In Girardi’s case, he might have been guilty of violating Corollary One of Rule Two which is Being Perceived to Be An Jerk. Like with most things in life, for Reason Two, perception is reality.

Many managers make what more enlightened fans, much like yourself, would consider “bad” moves during the course of the game. Ron Washington may have cost his Rangers the World Series through his highly questionable decision-making last season. That came after Washington failed a drug test, prompting him to admit he had used cocaine while managing the Rangers. He wasn’t fired though. Also the team was coming off a World Series appearance. Coincidence?

Two weeks ago the Cleveland Indians fired manager Manny Acta. There were numerous reasons cited, but Acta was let go in Cleveland (and in his previous managerial stint in Washington) for violating Reason One. On July 31st, the Indians were in third place, six games out of first and three games below .500. One month later the Indians were 22 games below .500 and 17 ½ games out of first place. Five-win months seem to bring out the inner executioner in GMs, and Acta, having clearly violated Reason One, was canned.

Acta was fired twice despite a reputation for analytical thinking and supposed ability to energize young players. Flash back in time 13 years and you’ll find a similarly analytically minded and energetic young manager just finishing up a 65-97 campaign. This after not finishing higher than third nor achieving even a .500 record over his first three seasons on the job. At the conclusion of said and having posted a .440 winning percentage over four seasons on the job, he was relieved of his duties. That manager is reportedly replacing Acta in Cleveland. That manager is Terry Francona.

Francona had much success with the Red Sox from 2004 through his firing at the end of last season. The difference between Francona’s average Phillies team and Francona’s average Red Sox team is 22 wins. While I wouldn’t argue if you said Francona was a more effective and smarter manager in Boston than he was in Philadelphia, did those accumulated managing smarts make a 22 game difference? I suppose you can’t know with total certainty, but it’s worth pointing out that major-league front offices don’t think so. If they did, Francona would be paid $20 million a season instead of just taking a job with the lowly Indians.

None of this is to discount the importance of good coaching and good managing, but to note the team-dependent nature of managerial success. When teams win, managers are smart. When they lose, managers are dumb and if the losing keeps up they get dumber and dumber, and eventually reach a level I like to call unemployably dumb. That’s what happened to Acta, by all accounts a smart and good baseball man. That’s also what happened to Francona in Philadelphia. He was saddled with a young team with mediocre hitting and bad run prevention. Because of that, and not because of him, they never won anything nor came particularly close to doing so. Fairly or not, Francona paid the price for that lack of production on the field.

If there is one thing we know, indeed, if there is one thing Terry Francona should know about managing, it’s that managers win with good teams, not through good managing. In Philadelphia he had a sub-par team. They lost. He got fired. In Boston he had some of the best talent in baseball. They won. He got a contract extension.

Yet Francona is casting his lot in with the very franchise whose lack of on-field talent just did in Acta. Looking at the Indians, you can quickly see why Acta was fired. For starters, their only two pitchers with more than one WARP are relievers Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano. Cleveland finished 27th, 22nd, and 26th in team batter VORP from 2010 through this season. Their pitching staff finished 29th, 14th, and 25th in team pitching VORP during that same time period.

The Indians are not devoid of talent, and the division is a winnable one if the talent level rises to an acceptable level, but it isn’t there now and it doesn’t seem to be coming next year or in the near future. I asked resident prospect guru Jason Parks about the Indians system. He characterized it as below average, although very young. Meaning, if there are impact players they are years away from contributing. It’s not an inspiring picture. And it is unlikely to dramatically improve for the major-league club in the near term.

That all means, unless the Indians invent a new way to acquire talent, they’re probably looking at some leaner seasons on the horizon. Those seasons are likely going to be lean whether or not Terry Francona is the manager. That’s fine for the Indians, but it makes Cleveland an odd choice for Francona. Maybe he thinks he can coach ‘em up, or maybe he’s been assured the team is going to buy on the free agent market, or maybe he just wants to work. There’s nothing wrong with that, and picking a place he wants to be over one where winning is more easily attainable is admirable. But I’m surprised Francona isn’t able to do better. With his experience he should see the Indians job for what it is. In three or four years Francona will probably be back in the same boat he was in when he worked in Philadelphia, which is to say, not working there anymore.

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

Related Content:  Terry Francona,  Manny Acta

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Butler

I keep trying to grasp why a well respected manager who has won two World Series wants to go to Cleveland. Everything else aside this is a small market team with limited resources and no recent history of success. I think you figured it out—he just wants to work!

Oct 09, 2012 05:35 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

His dad cried at the press conference out of happiness. That's enough reason for Francona, beyond having ties to the Indians organization.

Oct 09, 2012 10:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

If, as you're suggesting, Francona took the Indians job because it would make his dad happy, that's wonderful. But I'm not sure it's much of a recipe for long-term success.

Oct 09, 2012 15:10 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

That's what I'm saying... and yeah, his feelings for his dad aren't a guarantee for long-term success.

Oct 10, 2012 01:28 AM
rating: 0
 
jhardman

If you have already won multiple World Series', what baseball challenge is left. Aha! Cleveland!

Oct 09, 2012 06:42 AM
rating: 3
 
Richard Bergstrom

Become president of the Chicago Cubs? :)

Oct 09, 2012 10:05 AM
rating: 4
 
Gotribe31

So, no one wants to look even 6 inches below the surface on this one?

Francona has worked for the Indians before, as a special assistant when current team president Mark Shapiro was GM and current GM Chris Antonetti was Shapiro's special assistant. He's comfortable with the management team in place, he shares their vision on how to build a roster, and will likely have more input on the 25-man roster than he would in many other places. Could he have done "better"? Maybe, but that depends on your definition of better. Could he have found a more talented roster with an owner with deeper pockets? Sure, those are all over baseball. But there's more to finding the right opportunity than just those two factors. He'll certainly have a little more leeway with a front office that knows and trusts him, so the prediction that he'll be out of work in 3 years seems short-sighted.

Overall, an uncharacteristically lazy take from BP, in my humble opinion. We all know the manager has a limited impact on the final W/L record. We all know Cleveland has below-average talent and finances. Go a little deeper and try to answer some of the questions, not just pose them.

Oct 09, 2012 07:46 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

I'm sorry you found it to be a lazy article. Managers with the kind of political capital that Francona had coming out of Boston (and the way that team imploded this year probably made him look even better) can often have their pick of jobs. Familiarity with the front office and a shared vision are both wonderful things, but in the end you can have all the comfort you want and if the team doesn't win then the manager is going to be fired. Francona isn't immune to that. If the Indians can compete in the next few seasons then Francona will likely stick around for a while. But after looking at the roster, the team's history of and ability to spend, and the talent they have on hand in their minor league system, I don't see Cleveland winning much in the near future.

Nobody can predict the future, especially not me, and as the Orioles have showed us this year, predicting baseball is pretty tough, so the Indians could absolutely prove me wrong.

Oct 09, 2012 10:43 AM
 
Gotribe31

I agree with your assessment of both the current talent level and the upper levels of the minor league system. I just expected better than what seemed to be the two main points of the article, which I interpreted as:
1) Manager has far less effect on W/L than players
2) Francona could have done better, and he'll be fired in 3 years

My main point is that Acta was fired not just because of wins and losses, but because of fundamental disagreements with the way the Indians front office went about acquiring talent. Francona won't have that same problem, and a shared vision from the front office goes a long ways towards job security, as does the perception of improvement. Shapiro got promoted to team president because he and Dolan get along, and Antonetti is still GM because he and Shaprio have worked together in the past and they both have similar philosiphies in player acquisition and development. I wasn't trying to be mean, just honest in my criticisim.

Oct 09, 2012 12:59 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

I'm sure there were disagreements between Acta and the front office, but those disagreements didn't exist when Acta was hired. The arose over time. More to the point, as I said in the article, Acta was fired because the team lost. I'm sure that wasn't the only reason, but I'm equally sure it was the over-riding reason. The team lost because they weren't very good, and now with Francona managing, they're still not very good and their chances for getting better in the near term aren't good either. That's all I'm saying.

Oct 09, 2012 15:09 PM
 
timber

I'm with Gotribe, and I'm not an Indians fan. Ever since Francona bit the dust in Beantown, the world has said he would only go to a big market team that's always in contention. Why is that necessarily so? And why he he being portrayed as an idiot for taking the Cleveland job? And why decide that you are "surprised that Francona isn't able to do better?" Since when are you inside Francona's mind? And maybe in his mind this is the best possible situation. In which case, no, Francona couldn't have done better.

I am supremely tired of the baseball world looking down on those they perceive to be worse than them. In this case, it's the Indians, but it could be the Royals, the Padres, the Pirates or, prior to this year, the Orioles or the A's. Or any of a myriad others deemed unworthy. "Why in the world would anybody want to go there?" When you really can get in someone's mind, perhaps you'll know the answer. In the meantime, I prefer that others not tag them with unattractive characterizations.

Oct 09, 2012 08:47 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

I'm not inside Francona's mind and never claimed to be. I'm talking about outside factors that make a managing job appealing. Cleveland has some, but lacks the biggest factor that makes a manager a success.

It's not about looking down at anyone. I'm not looking down my nose at the Indians or Francona, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for.

Oct 09, 2012 10:46 AM
 
BurrRutledge

I have no problem with the gist of the article, and I especially like the sub-title.

Does firing (the manager) for losing also extend to other manager positions? Bench coaches, hitting coaches, scouting personnel, etc.? Who would ever go to work for ... the Astros? There's got to be some more to the backstory then simply wins & losses. Though fewer losses would have been good for his immediate paycheck.

Oct 09, 2012 16:03 PM
rating: 1
 
WaldoInSC

The full sub-title goes like this:

It's a trap.
It's a suicide rap.
We gotta get out while we're young.

Oct 09, 2012 19:05 PM
rating: 1
 
warclub

People were surprised when Buck Showalter took the Orioles' job too. He has succeeded.

Look, the Indians job is a no lose situation. If he wins there, he writes his ticket to Cooperstown.

Is the defense of Acta because he's "analytical" oriented? He's been a big loser wherever he has been. Bringing in someone who expects to win will make a difference with the Tribe.

Oct 09, 2012 16:04 PM
rating: 1
 
Behemoth

The correct statement is really that the rosters that Manny Acta has been given have failed to win. Most of the reasons for that are outside Manny Acta's control (and will be outside Terry Francona's control). The fact that Francona may expect to win won't change that.

Oct 10, 2012 03:34 AM
rating: 1
 
juniusworth

Sigh, I wanted Francona to replace Ron Washington. Oh well.

Oct 09, 2012 09:19 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

I think you need a reason #3... Crazy ownership, which would put the Marlins and the old version of George Steinbrenner in that category for firing a manager.

Oct 09, 2012 10:05 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

With a few exceptions, crazy ownership keeps managers who win. I'm sure '70s era George Steinbrenner bucks that trend in some instances, but he's the outlier by a fair margin.

Oct 09, 2012 15:13 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Angelos fired Davey Johnson after a winning season as I recall. And I lump the Marlins into the crazy ownership demographic.

Oct 10, 2012 01:26 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Right. My take is that the only persons who considered Joe Girardi a jerk was his bosses. Charley Finely famously fired Dick Williams after a championship for playing Mike Andrews after Finley asked Williams not to. Whitey Herzog was fired from the Royals after 3 division titles and a 2nd place finish, because Mrs. Kaufmann thought he was crude. As you sort of said, it is really only being a jerk in the minds of the ownership is what counts against you.

Oct 10, 2012 12:15 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Crazy ownership > being a jerk

There are jerks who don't get fired.

There are non-jerks fired by crazy owners.


A crazy owner thinks anyone who doesn't agree with them, by default, is a jerk.

Oct 10, 2012 13:13 PM
rating: 0
 
AWBenkert

Ron Washington's cocaine use was revealed in the spring of 2010, before the Rangers appeared in the World Series.

Mar 06, 2013 10:42 AM
rating: 0
 
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