June 20, 2007
Getting the Manager Right
The Orioles shuffled a deck chair or two Monday, firing manager Sam Perlozzo and replacing him with bench coach Dave Tremblay. The move will have no impact at all on the Orioles' 2007 season, which is now all about positioning for the 2008 draft. Perlozzo didn't bring a whole lot to the table, and his mismanagement of a rebuilt bullpen certainly contributed to the Orioles' 6-15 record in one-run games this year.
That's not to say that Perlozzo stood in the way of a great story. While the Orioles' pitching staff has been essentially average, the offense is simply offensive. The Orioles have no adequate corner players, so the above-average production they get from their middle infield goes to waste. This has been a problem for the Orioles for years, as they've suffered through mediocre veteran pickups while overvaluing the likes of Jay Gibbons. The farm system hasn't generated real solutions; Nick Markakis has been a disappointment this year, and Val Majewski hasn't developed as hoped. The talent level here simply won't support contending in the AL East, so dumping Perlozzo, while arguably warranted, isn't going to change the Orioles' fortunes.
Should we expect it to? The practice of changing managers in midseason is fairly well-established, but it's hard to argue that it's the best way to run a ship. Firing a manager midseason is reactive and necessarily done in haste, often to relieve outside pressure. It is, in other words, a decision made under the worst possible circumstances. Choosing what amounts to a VP for a $200-million enterprise should be done with the utmost care. There should be interviews and second interviews and headhunters and background checks.
When you replace a manager in-season, you don't get any of that. You get a process that consists of looking around the room and picking the least offensive of the seven guys hanging around, all of whom have been associated with the current failure. If you're just going to judge an organization by its processes, whether it makes managerial changes at midseason is arguably a bright-line test of its competence.
From 1997-2006, there were 27 managers replaced during the season. (I'm disregarding two final weekend changes, Cito Gaston with the 1997 Blue Jays and Larry Bowa with the 2004 Phillies.) Thirteen times, the team doing so did it just once in that time frame. Six other teams did it at least twice.
Take in that list for a second. Now, take a look at the following list, which is teams that have only made managerial changes in the offseason in that timeframe:
If you knew nothing else but those two lists, which group would you prefer to be associated with? Root for? Work for? Sign with? The Reds and Royals are two of the game's worst-run franchises over the last decade, and the Blue Jays, Tigers and Brewers have mostly failed over that period as well. The seven teams on the latter list are largely stable, well-run organizations with many seasons as contenders among them.
It amounts to this: firing your manager at midseason is a sign that you're going in the wrong direction.
This is especially true if you decide to retain the interim manager. It's one thing to decide that you have to get rid of the guy who's currently in charge. It's another to fall in love with the new guy, so much so that you forego a diligent, careful search for the right candidate in the offseason. Look again at the first list above. The last two Reds managers, Dave Miley and Jerry Narron, were midseason replacements held over into the following year. The Reds haven't finished above .500 under either man. The Royals' last three managers have all been hired in this manner; their best season since 1993 is a fluky 83-79 in 2003. I wrote about J.P. Ricciardi's disastrous decisionmaking on Monday. He's made two managerial changes during his tenure, in both cases replacing the incumbent with a coach on staff, then retaining him beyond the current season.
The counterexample, and it's a strong one, is the case where you replace a manager with a staffer who has considerable managerial experience. In 1997, the Reds swapped out Ray Knight for Jack McKeon. McKeon guided the Reds to a 96-win season in '99, missing the postseason by one game, and to another second-place finish in 2000. In 2003, McKeon replaced Jeff Torborg in Florida, and managed the Marlins to a World Championship. In 2004, the Astros fired Jimy Williams and plugged in Phil Garner in July; Garner presided over a 48-26 run that got them into the playoffs, then managed a pennant winner in 2005.
You could, I guess, boil this exception down to the idea that Jack McKeon is a hell of a manager, and you should hire him whenever you can. I have no real explanation for Phil Garner and the Astros. I may not be smart enough to figure that one out.
Twenty-seven managers have been hired as midseason replacements in the 10 seasons covered, and those two are the only ones to go on to helm that team into the postseason. Looking at the bigger picture, making a change at midseason doesn't seem to change the team's fortunes much: of the 19 franchises to have made midseason managerial changes, just six have made a postseason appearance in one of the next three seasons after the change. (In addition to the two above, the 1999 Angels, 2001 Red Sox, 2001 Marlins and 2002 Cubs. None of these four were run by the immediate replacement.)
Feeling like you have to do something is the quickest path to making a rash decision. Firing a manager during the season is as rash a decision as there is in baseball, and the track record of such moves is terrible. Unless a manager is taking a crowbar to the starting rotation or organizing craps games during the seventh-inning stretch, suffering through the current lost season and undergoing a thorough search for his replacement is a better choice than firing him and making a poor selection.