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March 28, 2006

2006--Setting the Stage

The New Guys

by Christina Kahrl

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One of the most interesting periods in a team's construction and development is that moment when a new manager takes over a ballclub. Although most new guys are always going to be selected to serve as the factotum of the club's general manager, some new managers are placed in the position to make decisions which fundamentally change the fortunes of the team and the players. Certainly, one of the most interesting periods in a fan's experience is getting to watch what happens to your team when a new manager comes in. Approaching the talent on hand with a fresh set of eyes, he goes to work on deciding who's going to play, who isn't, and who's on the way out.

It's particularly interesting watching to see which players end up making good impressions on the new boss. While stathead orthodoxy might insist on some of sort of performance evaluation-minded determinism, as much as performance matters, so do first impressions and fresh starts. There's nothing like a camp with a new manager for out-of-nowhere success stories, for organizational soldiers or minor league veterans who suddenly break through, and for opportunities given to players who were previously typecast, pigeonholed, or simply overlooked. A new manager has no particular loyalties: most of these guys haven't done anything for him before, if ever.

It's also sabermetric orthodoxy to deride the relative importance of the manager on what happens in terms of the results on the field. We're all familiar with Casey Stengel's observation on his relative importance, that "I couldn't have done it without the players." But these are the easy claims, and like pat assertions that team chemistry doesn't matter--because it isn't something we can measure--the maddening thing about denying that the manager is critical to what goes on in the field is that such a belief skips over the simple fact that managers are the people who choose who's on that field, managers are the people who design a player's usage patterns, and managers are the people most responsible for putting players into situations in which they help their teams. No, they can't do it without the players, but they can put the players into situations where they're more likely to succeed, and through that, build a better ballclub.

As a group, managers have been pretty ill-served by performance analysts, particularly in terms of our creating statistics that might convey useful information about how they run their ballclubs. What is particularly frustrating about how managers get evaluated these days is the reliance on statistics that have next to no descriptive or practical value. Take platoon percentage: it seems sensible enough on the face of it, right? We know that righty-lefty platoon advantages exist, and it seems straightforward enough to "measure" the extent to which a manager exploits that in his lineups, right? But how then does such a statistic compensate for more basic, team-specific considerations? If you're the 2001 Astros, and you've got a lineup with seven right-handed regulars and Lance Berkman, then 'platoon percentage' doesn't tell us that Larry Dierker was ignorant of platoon splits any more than it suggests that he should have found more ways to get Daryle Ward and Jose Vizcaino into the lineup. It's a matter of the numbers being mute on the subject of a team-specific context, and generating data that is, at best, uninformative. These are the sorts of frustrations that have fueled the interest of people like me or Steven Goldman in helping to craft a better collection of statistics to describe manager performance, but these will have to be created over time.

What needs saying is that when we're talking about managers, context matters. Who they're managing, what kinds of teams, what sorts of assemblages of talent, young or old, rebuilding, retooling, contending, competing, all of that matters if we're ever going to get a good sense of which managers are doing good work, and which ones should be haunting network studios instead of clubhouses. It is a question of relying on data to tell us some things, but not everything. It's about studying a manager's history: who he's used and how he's used them, what problems he's solved, what habits he likes to fall into, and which ones he shouldn't but does. It's about recognizing where the manager came from, and understanding that he is the sum and product of his experiences up to that point. Who a manager played for can matter, because his range of experiences as a player might lead to how he thinks a ballclub should be run, and what tactics make the most sense. Will a brand-new manager like Joe Girardi take his cues from what he saw and was asked to do when he was a Cub playing for Don Zimmer in 1989? Did he learn something from witnessing Don Baylor's mismanagement of the Rockies in the 1995 NLDS? Or does everything that he feels he needs to know about managing come from his four years with Joe Torre's Yankees? We don't know, and whatever Girardi might say on the subject, he may not know until he's confronted with specific problems whose answers can only come from the limited choices available to him with his team. Because what's really going to matter here is what the managers do with their new ballclubs, not what they say they're going to do.

If we're going to be serious about evaluating managers, we need to do so on a level more interesting and more telling than simply referring to the values we attach to on-field tactical events. It's about watching and learning how a manager runs a team, and how he gets good mileage out of his players. Because of that, it's particularly interesting when a new manager is dealing with a new group of talent, a new roster, players he may know only from scouting reports and stats and passing impressions from watching them play on other teams a few times per year. A new manager is in a position to shake things up, create new roles for some players, and discard others.

Setting aside the guys who, like Jerry Narron, Buddy Bell, or Sam Perlozzo, are running their first camps but already have the benefit of managing a good chunk of last season, what can we expect from the five new managers in MLB? Leaning on their histories, past patterns, past successes, past failures, what might we get to see once the games start counting?

Joe Girardi, Florida Marlins

  1. The Past: This is Girardi's first job as a manager, and like the Mets' Willie Randolph, he's someone who seems most closely associated with his years of work with the Yankees, first as a player, and later as a coach. But as mentioned before, he also played for Don Baylor and Don Zimmer for good stretches. Beyond those three, you get into brief periods with Jim Lefebvre, Tony La Russa, Bruce Kimm, Joe Altobelli, and Jim Essian. Girardi had a checkered career as a player, where he had to overcome Greg Maddux's preference to work with anybody else as well as his limitations as a hitter. In many ways, Giradi is a throwback to the '30s: Italian, famously good-natured, and a catcher who could at least bunt well. He's done television work, and media savvy is an underrated element of the manager's job these days -- managing the Fourth Estate and keeping it in his face, instead of nagging after his players.

  2. What He's Got: Kids, lots of 'em, and it isn't a Catholic thing. Highly rated prospects like Jeremy Hermida, Hanley Ramirez, and Scott Olsen, but also young stars like Miguel Cabrera, and even guys like Reggie Abercrombie in center and Dan Uggla at second getting their first (and perhaps only) big breaks. And very little veteran leavening. The absence of veterans might mean extra pressure on the coaching staff as far as running herd on new guys not used to larger per diems. Interestingly, Girardi did not find a famous ex-manager to be his bench coach for his rookie campaign, which can either be something about self-confidence, or that the staff's function is going to be more about really coaching.

  3. Who Might Catch a Break: Who won't might be the better question, because this is the best opportunity that guys like Eric Reed, Abercrombie, or Chris Aguila are ever going to get. Girardi's willingness to let Josh Willingham continue catching is a good choice; finding catchers who can hit is hard, and as Mike Stanley demonstrated, you really can make someone into an adequate catcher. Abercrombie and Reed both seem to reflect a fascination with slap-happy speed guys, but it's not entirely clear whether that's entirely to Girardi's taste, or a matter of an organization being conditioned to believe that you want someone like Juan Pierre leading off.

  4. What to Watch For: With this sort of club, Girardi cannot afford to be like Randolph, and mistake stubborn inflexibility for leadership. He's in the most low-pressure, low-expectations job in the major leagues, and he's going to have to admit mistakes and fix them while undergoing his OJT as a big league manager. It'll be particularly interesting to see whether or not Dan Uggla holds onto the job in second base. What will Girardi do with any of the young hitters who struggle: let them play through it, demote them, or jerk them in and out of the lineup? How will he handle the pitchers who start trying to make perfect pitches to overcompensate for their lack of run support, or the ones who are simply in over their heads? Will his experience as a catcher help? Will he get too attached to the immediately available mediocre young pitchers, like Sergio Mitre, or will he be able to move them out of the way for the better talents should they be ready?

Jim Leyland, Detroit Tigers
  1. The Past: After coaching for Tony La Russa, Leyland enjoyed a brilliant career with the Pirates, helping take one of the game's most moribund franchises to three consecutive NL East division titles from 1990-92. Then a lot of misery as the Pirates slowly disintegrated, the decision to flit over to Florida to hook up with fellow former Sox staffer Dave Dombrowski and win a quick World Series, followed by the ugliness of having to manage the Huizenganated '98 Marlins, and then the odd decision to go to Colorado.

    As a manager, Leyland initially made himself famous for his willingness to bunt as a matter of reflex, but he eventually got away from that. He was unafraid to try some interesting things with his pitchers (like starting Ted Power in a playoff game, or starting pitchers on three days' rest with the Rockies), and had the flexibility to come up with some other novel solutions, like making Wally Backman a third baseman in 1990 or Darren Daulton a right fielder in 1997, because that's what he needed. He was able to cope with the annual question of where to put Bobby Bonilla, third base or the outfield, because he was willing to stomach the errors in exchange for the offense. He built effective, lasting platoons at first base and catcher in Pittsburgh, but platooned a bit in the outfield and third base as well, and continued to do so with Florida to some extent. If there's an ominous note to strike, it's that Leyland seems inclined to work some starters pretty hard, notably Alex Fernandez, Livan Hernandez, and Pedro Astacio.

  2. What He's Got: A team more like the Marlins '97 squad that was expected to win than the Pirates he started off with, certainly. But despite that, he's willing to trust some roles to the kids. Curtis Granderson and Justin Verlander might seem obvious, but Leyland hasn't been afraid of choosing them, and not everyone would be as calm about it.

  3. Who Might Catch a Break: Craig Monroe of course, courtesy of the team's decision to cut loose Carlos Pena. That's a "sending a message" move, but it's also one that costs the Tigers runs they won't make up with Monroe as an everyday player. Omar Infante, because Leyland always seems to find a way to use a multi-positional supersub in ways big and small, going back to Bill Almon in 1986, or someone like John Wehner, but also including stars like Bonilla or Jeff King.
  4. What to Watch For: Will he stick with Granderson and Verlander or not? Will Leyland's success with platoons lead to a decision to go looking for a left-handed bat for left field? When the Tigers are in fourth place on July 1, will his enthusiasm flag again, as it did in Colorado?

Grady Little, Los Angeles Dodgers
  1. The Past: We all remember the Pedro Game, right? Yankees fans have to hold onto something these days. But whatever the complaints about Little's failure to effectively manage a bullpen by committee or stand up to a veteran pitcher, he did manage two second-place finishes in the AL East in 2002 and 2003, no better and no worse than expected. Before that, Little coached for Bobby Cox in Atlanta. That sounds good, but keep in mind that Pat Corrales has coached for Cox for a long time, and nobody's itching to give him another shot.

  2. What He's Got: Not exactly an All-Star team, but not far short of that. It's a veteran club, and just about the only complicated significant choice to be made is in left field, where Little could safely stick with Jose Cruz Jr., or he could use Joel Guzman's spring to convince him to give the kid a shot. I wouldn't bet on it, though.

  3. Who Might Catch a Break: Ramon Martinez has already made the team, so he's one. Generally speaking, when you're expected to win, it takes a pretty bold manager (see Cox, Bobby) to keep a couple of rookies for anything from a key role to last man on the bench. Little's boldest surprise picks seem to be his sudden taste for Jason Repko, and the decision to keep Hong-Chih Kuo as the situational lefty. Also, if he's healthy enough, I wouldn't be surprised to see Eric Gagne flirt with breaking the saves record.

  4. What to Watch For: Pushbutton managing in a sense that's far more true to the term: scripted bullpen usage roles, scrupulous observation of veteran pecking order, and nothing resembling a tactical surprise being sprung on the other guys. But with a rotation that's relying on Brett Tomko and Aaron Sele, will he develop a quick hook this summer? Will the enthusiasm for Repko survive the return of veteran Jayson Werth from the DL?

Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
  1. The Past: An upbeat coach from the Angels' organization fresh from several years spent as Mike Scioscia's bench coach, which makes for a huge change of pace from the equally past-caring previous pair of managers, Lou Piniella and Hal McRae. Maddon came up the player development route, coaching and managing in the minors, and doing stints as Minor League Field Coordinator and Director of Player Development. He was a catcher as a player, and has done some time as a bullpen coach, and he was the Angels interim manager during or after the tenures of John McNamara and Terry Collins. Basically, someone who seems to have the right sorts of experiences to handle a young ballclub, and help the organization sort out its homegrown talent.

  2. What He's Got: All sorts of goodies, but more on the hitting side of the ledger than on the pitching. He does still have to move beyond the decision to limit his choices for an outfield job between Damon Hollins and Joey Gathright.

  3. Who Might Catch a Break: It depends on what you think about Aubrey Huff, but moving him to third certainly exploits his position flexibility while making space for the organization's up-and-coming outfielders. It also improves Huff's value on the trade market, and you can be sure that's an active consideration as well. Josh Paul, if only because Maddon seemed to want to forgive him his October postseason boner, and give him another opportunity when most people would have left him in a gutter to be named later. Edwin Jackson, because Maddon's being patient with him so far, and might not share Piniella's fascination with Mark Hendrickson. Perhaps a minor league veteran reliever like Jason Childers or Ruddy Lugo will stick, in part because of how badly the guys who were expected to stick have pitched.

  4. What to Watch For: Whether or not he'll stick with the decision to push Huff back to third, and at what point Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, and Wes Bankston will be given opportunities to push past Gathright, Hollins, and Travis Lee. How he'll cope with the pitching staff, which will probably be ulceriffic all summer.

Jim Tracy, Pittsburgh Pirates
  1. The Past: A brilliant four-year run with the Dodgers, capped by a division title in 2004, followed by the enormous disappointment of 2005. Over his career, he established a reputation for flexibility with lineups and roles, and finding ways to put his bench to work. He broke in a few solid journeyman regulars, guys like Paul Lo Duca, Dave Roberts, Cesar Izturis. He's been able to handle good but not great starters effectively, getting valuable work out of guys like Jeff Weaver and Odalis Perez, and surprising mileage out of Jose Lima in 2004. However, with the arguable exception of Eric Gagne, he's never really had to break in and develop a star player, hitter or pitcher. Instead, Tracy made his reputation by handling veteran players well, and making the most out of the back end of his roster.

  2. What He's Got: A few unfortunate veteran pickups in the lineup, some serious minor league pitching talent, and tough choices in the outfield and behind the plate. In center, will he pick Chris Duffy, the speed and defense candidate? Or will he go far Nate McLouth, the gamer trying to break away from the 'tweener' label? And are either of them worth really getting worked up over?

  3. Who Might Catch a Break: McLouth really seems to have struck Tracy's fancy, and Duffy's not a star in the making, so don't be surprised if McLouth wins the job and turns in a Lo Duca-like career: workmanlike, admirable, and short of greatness. Jose Hernandez and Mike Edwards, because it pays to have played for the old man in his previous place of employ, but this is a matter of having players around to help explain how the new manager does things. Brandon Duckworth, of all people, seems to have nabbed the Giovanni Carrara pity-pickup award, but then Carrara himself is here, and might also make it. Carrara was already past 30 when Tracy put him to good use in 2001, so there's no reason to believe that he might be similarly successful with Duckworth, despite his Carrara-like early career struggles.

  4. What to Watch For: Will the first choice in center field be the last one? Will Ryan Doumit start claiming a larger share of the catching job away from Humberto Cota? Will the spiteful streak that came out during 2005's organization-wide meltdown in L.A. show up in Pittsburgh? How will he handle young starters like Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, given his limited experience with young pitchers? Will he be able to get Kip Wells back on track, or was the magic worked with Weaver a Chavez Ravine thing?

You probably didn't need more reasons to look forward to Opening Day, but these five will certainly bear watching as the season kicks off.

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

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