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November 4, 2004

Lies, Damned Lies

Fresh Blood

by Nate Silver

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Politicians are a lot like baseball managers. Dick Gephardt resurfaces every eight years or so for another unsuccessful run at the Democratic nomination for president, just as Gene Lamont resurfaces every eight years or so for another unsuccessful run at turning around a moribund franchise. Al Gore goes from upstart candidate to Vice President to almost-president to lecture-circuit veteran, a path that somewhat parallels the career of Kevin Kennedy. Pat Buchanan bubbles up every other primary season or so, makes a lot of noise, then disappears back into the ether of cable television; in 2008, we can expect another presidential bid for Buchanan under some or another party's banner, and another managerial stint for Hal McRae. As disappointed as I was with the result on Tuesday, I could do without ever hearing John Edwards' drawl again; the chances of that are only slightly better than Kerry pulling out the election when an undiscovered cache of punchcards is discovered next week in Cuyahoga County, and only slightly worse than never seeing Larry Bowa scratching his balls again.

I think the reason that politicians get recycled in this fashion is that with the exception of a once-a-decade savant like Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, most of them aren't worth a damn. The same is true for baseball managers. With few tried-and-true methods in place to evaluate managers, it's only natural that those with longer resumés tend to get resurrected when there's a vacancy, an undistinguished track record being preferable to none at all. (I detected a similar pattern, by the way, when I worked for KPMG. We'd bend over backward to hire a candidate who had experience at another Big Four firm, ignoring the notion that the candidate looking for a new employer was pretty good evidence of his old employer's opinion of him. "Ooh, Terry Bevington is available!" There's a damned good reason why).

You'd think, though, that in this era of analytical enlightenment, we'd avoid this old pattern of hiring the devil we know rather than the one that we don't. Thus far this autumn we've gone 3-for-5, with the Phillies recycling Charlie Manuel and the Mariners giving Mike Hargrove another try, but the Mets, Diamondbacks and Blue Jays opting for new managerial blood.

Indeed, there is some evidence that teams are being more open-minded about hiring skippers with no previous big-league experience. Let's zip back a few years. Between the last day of the regular season in 1998 and the last day of the regular season in 1999, six teams changed managers (a low number as these things go). All six "new" managers (John Boles, Florida; Jim Fregosi, Toronto; Davey Johnson, Los Angeles; Jim Lefebvre, Milwaukee; Jim Leyland, Colorado; and Joe Maddon, Anaheim) had previous big-league experience.

Contrast that to 2001-2002, when 11 managerial positions changed hands. Eight of the 11 new managers (Clint Hurdle, Colorado; Wendell Kim, Chicago; Grady Little, Boston; Tony Pena, Kansas City; Luis Pujols, Detroit; Jerry Royster, Milwaukee; Joel Skinner, Cleveland; and Carlos Tosca, Toronto) had no previous experience. Granted, that list is about as inspiring as one of Heisman-winning quarterbacks is to Mel Kiper, Jr.--only Hurdle and Pena are still managing their clubs, and their jobs could conceivably be in jeopardy--but recent years have also brought the additions of genuinely good new managers like Jim Tracy and Mike Scioscia.

If we look at managerial turnover over the course of the past ten years or so, we can detect at least something of an increased willingness to take a chance on "unproven" candidates:

Between 1995 and 2000, 19 of 46 managerial hires (41.3%) had never managed in the big leagues before. Since 2001--including the exit poll results from this year--28 out of 46 (60.9%) hires were newbies. That difference verges on being statistically significant.

We can also look at the percentage of managers at any given time in the big leagues who were new to major-league managing when hired by their current employer.

I've included the results at five-year intervals starting in 1979, and then for every season since 1994 (for purposes of the chart, the relevant fact is who was managing the team on the last day of the regular season, so there are a few guys included here and there who took over at mid-season and never shed the "interim" label.)

The results suggest some degree of cyclicality, as the available pool of Gene Mauch types ebbs and flows, but the trend in recent years is away from recycling old resumés. Indeed, this trend somewhat mirrors that of the new approach that teams are taking in player acquisitions. If there's a Buck Showalter available--or, yes, even a Dusty Baker--you might pay a premium for him, just like you would for Curt Schilling or Carlos Beltran. But it's cheaper to hire Wally Backman or Ken Macha than it is somebody like Bob Boone, and there may be subsidiary benefits if the man-in-charge was groomed in your organization and understands its philosophy.

There is also something to be said from the perspective of industry-wide welfare. It is very difficult to predict how well a manager is going to perform in the big leagues until he actually gets that chance, and there are also only a finite number of positions available. Sure, if there's a lot of turnover, you'll have to sort through your Grady Littles and Tony Musers, but you also have a chance of finding a Tracy or a Scioscia. If instead the industry preference is to give Chuck Tanner another shot, talented managerial candidates may never be given the opportunity to prove themselves. Indeed, I suspect that this explains some of the cyclicality that we described earlier: if there is a lot of recycling of managers going on, then fewer talented new ones will have the chance to strut their stuff, which in turn creates a perceived dearth of qualified candidates, and a tendency to fall back on the old reliables.

Here, too, there is a useful political analogy. The Democrats in particular have been reluctant to throw their resources behind candidates with appealing skills but unproven track records, which in turn prevents these politicians from gaining the exposure they need (or are perceived to need) to run for higher office. It's a self-perpetuating problem. So we're going to get Hillary Clinton running for the White House in 2008. And we're going to lose again, just as surely as if the Diamondbacks had tabbed Jimy Williams for their managerial vacancy.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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