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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

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