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July 29, 2010

You Can Blog It Up

The Happy, Happy Chuck Tanner All-Stars

by Steven Goldman

Chuck Tanner was the feel-good manager of the 1970s. Before taking over the Pirates, he was best known as the happy manager who could keep Dick Allen focused enough to play (most of the time). He was also cited for unorthodox strategy, bunting or stealing at unusual times and using odd defensive alignments. He won one World Series with the 1979 “We Are Family” Pirates. In 18 other seasons of managing he failed to make the postseason, though he did have five second-place finishes. He was unable to mount a sustained rebuilding of the White Sox. Fired by Bill Veeck, he was signed to a three-year deal to manage an Oakland A’s team that had been devastated by trades and free agency. He lasted a year, at which point Charley Finley dealt him to the Pirates for catcher Manny Sanguillen. This put him in charge of a Pirates team that was coming off of a 92-70 second-place finish and had won the division in six of the seven years before that. He took the team he inherited to one last championship, then watched it fall apart under him at least in part from the rampant drug culture that overtook the clubhouse. “Some guys make so many rules that before they know it they’ve got a dozen problems,” Tanner said, explaining his no-rules philosophy. “I always remember the players are human beings first.”

Unfortunately, human beings need leadership or they slip. Tanner’s last Pirates team went 57-104 and he was let go as the club shifted from private to quasi-public ownership and, not coincidentally, Tanner had to give testimony in the trial of the club's favorite pusher. Ted Turner made him the highest-paid manager in baseball, giving him $500,000 a year to manage the Braves under general manager Bobby Cox. He was dismissed 39 games into the 1988 and did not manage again. He finished with a record of 1352-1381 (.495). The word most used in association with Tanner was “optimist,” but given the losing record, the Pollyanna act doesn’t seem to have been justified.

As always, the format here was inspired by Bill James’ Guide to Baseball Managers, which contains several managerial “best-of” teams picked from throughout history.  

 

 

YR

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

SO

SB

CS

AVG

OBP

SLG

TAv

C

Tony Pena

1984

546

77

156

27

2

15

78

36

79

12

8

.286

.333

.425

.274

1B

Dick Allen

1972

506

90

156

28

5

37

113

99

126

19

8

.308

.420

.603

.363

2B

Phil Garner

1979

549

76

161

32

8

11

59

55

74

17

8

.293

.359

.441

.278

3B

Bill Madlock

1982

568

92

181

33

3

19

95

48

39

18

6

.319

.368

.488

.304

SS

Bert Campaneris

1976

536

67

137

14

1

1

52

63

80

54

12

.256

.331

.291

.263

LF

Mike Easler

1980

393

66

133

27

3

21

74

43

65

5

9

.338

.396

.583

.329

CF

Ken Henderson

1974

602

76

176

35

5

20

95

66

112

12

7

.292

.360

.467

.292

RF

Dave Parker

1978

581

102

194

32

12

30

117

57

92

20

7

.334

.394

.585

.332

 

 

 

YR

W-L

SV

IP

H

BB

SO

ERA

SNLVAR/WXRL

SP

Wilbur Wood

1971

22-13

1

334.0

272

62

210

1.91

9.2

SP

Vida Blue

1976

18-13

0

298.1

268

63

166

2.35

8.4

SP

John Candelaria

1977

20-5

0

230.2

197

50

133

2.34

8.4

SP

Rick Rhoden

1984

14-9

0

238.1

216

62

136

2.72

6.9

SP

Jim Kaat

1974

21-13

0

277.1

263

63

142

2.92

6.3

RP

Goose Gossage

1977

11-9

26

133.0

78

49

151

1.62

8.2

Notes, anyone?

  • This was the hardest list to compile. Tanner had a lot of subpar players, and even his good ones had several seasons of roughly equal value.
  • Offensively, there is no difference between Tony Pena’s 1984 (above) and his 1983 (.301/.338/.435; .273 EqA). WARP says he was the better player in the former year, 5.5 to 4.9, so that’s what I went with here.
  • I called an audible on keeping second baseman Jorge Orta off the team. He was a complete surprise to me at second base. He was a poor defensive infielder and spent half his career playing right field and designated hitter; that’s how I’m used to thinking of him. As with Pena, I had two nigh-identical seasons to choose from, 1974 (.316/.365/.400) and 1975 (.304/.363/.450; .286 TAv). The former seemed just slightly better and WARP agreed, seeing it as the better year, 4.5 to 2.4. Rennie Stennett was very good in 1977 (.336/.376/.430), but unfortunately he only played in 116 games as he suffered the leg injury that would finish him as a useful player. Tanner also had some good second base seasons from Mike Andrews and Glenn Hubbard. I feel pretty strongly that Garner is the better answer here, even though Tanner kept him bouncing between second and third in 1979 so that Stennett could try and make a comeback. Tanner did start Garner at second in every game of the postseason, and he greatly rewarded the decision, going 5-for-12 in the NLCS and 12-for-24 in the World Series. I’m willing to give him some extra credit for that, and WARP says he was a better player than Orta even though he trails in VORP, 44.5 to 33.9. Adding: Reader "J" reminds me that Garner wasn't bouncing but was pushed to second by the acquisition of Bill Madlock. That should have been obvious to me, and I think "J" for the correction.
  • Third base was another tough call because Madlock was so good in the shortened 1981 season (.341/.412/.495), but I just didn’t see how I could justify an 82-game season over a full one.
  • Tanner’s shortstops were an unexciting lot. I had to pick choose among so-so seasons by Tim Foli, Frank Taveras (70-18 stolen bases in 1977), and Bucky Dent before settling on a Campy that was far from his best. In researching Tanner, I came across a discussion he had with Bill Madlock. Madlock (career .305/.365/.442 hitter, .289 TAv in an 1800-game career) was annoyed that he was batting sixth while  Foli (carer .251/.283/.309, .215 TAv in a 1700-game career) batted second. Tanner gave him a lecture stuffed with unquestioned received wisdom, explaining that Omar Moreno had to lead off because of his speed, and Foli had to bat second because he was a good bat-handler, and Madlock couldn't bat fifth because you had to have a power hitter there. Madlock threw up his hands, but credit him for not just throwing up.
  • Mike Easler was just a platoon guy bouncing between left and right field, but he was a very good hitter having his best season. If you prefer a more everyday left fielder, Carlos May ’72 (.308/.405/.438; .318 TAv) would get the nod. May is worth revisiting because he had a strange career. A first-round pick who breezed killed the ball in the minors, he hit .289/.379/.424 through age-24 (better numbers then than now), then rapidly stopped being any good at all, averaging .259/.335/.361 through age-29, after which he was out of the majors.
  • Dave Parker’s 1977 was actually a bigger WARP season than 1978 even though it was inferior offensively because it was his big defensive year, with 26 assists and nine double plays.
  • Dale Murphy’s 1987 (.295/.417/.580 with 44 home runs; .324 TAv) would seem a natural for this list, but Tanner moved him to right field that season. WARP says his season exceeds Parker’s 8.4 to 5.8, but I let Parker’s slightly superior offensive season in a tougher environment carry the day.
  • Rick Rhoden was one of the best-hitting pitchers of his day and even started a game at DH for the Yankees in 1988 (one of Billy Martin’s last trips to the moon on gossamer wings). In 1984, the season listed here, he hit .333/.345/.405 with six doubles in 92 plate appearances.

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

9 comments have been left for this article.

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