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September 12, 2012

Painting the Black

How to Fail at Managing

by R.J. Anderson

The circumstances that led to Terry Francona’s dismissal are as played out as they get. His team played and behaved poorly. His bosses figured replacing the manager was easier than replacing the players, so they replaced him with a carbon opposite. Remnants of the story exist in every head coach and managerial firing; it’s the basis of the Great American Sports Story. What we forget about Francona’s final days is how they exposed him as a poor tactical manager.

Take Francona’s usage of Randy Williams. Williams entered the 2011 season with 90 career big-league appearances, a 5.74 earned run average, and a 1.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He looked like a left-handed specialist, but truthfully he didn’t even fit that role. (To this day, Williams has allowed left-handers to hit .253/.356/.420.) Yet, Francona used Williams seven times, against more righties than lefties, and in high-leverage spots. Williams’ average entrance leverage index finished just below that of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, Boston’s two best relievers.

Then there was the bunting. Patrick Sullivan, then writing for Over The Monster, explained how Francona’s upbringing within the game influenced his perception of bunting; confusing it for an act of virtue, as opposed to an act of waste. Sullivan digs deeper at Francona’s strategic failures while also acknowledging that, odd tactical decisions aside, Francona brought plenty to the table. Francona was known as a leader of men, the galvanizer of a group known for its esotericism. The entire piece is worth reading, but one paragraph in particular describes the Francona-front office dynamic, and why Boston did what it did:

When Francona effectively dealt with a challenging group of players over the years, the baseball operations team lived with Francona's tactical clumsiness. How many times do you think Tito covered Manny's ass? Papi and Dustin Pedroia seem to love him. So does Curt Schilling. Heck he covered John Lackey yesterday at the presser. He was nothing if not loyal to his players, and I think that served the organization well over the years. But with reports of the team's conditioning being unacceptable and stories surfacing of a unit less cohesive than in past years, it was harder to see what it was that Tito was bringing to the table.

Months later another Boston fan, Bill Barnwell, wrote about how football teams jump from the cellar to the postseason in late July. Perhaps Barnwell had Francona and Valentine on his mind when he suggested teams seek to hire the inverse of their previous head coach. Teams disposing of a ruthless disciplinarian will seek a sugar-sweet nurturer. Conversely, teams with a naïve babysitter will look for a bloodthirsty tyrant. When Boston opted to hire Bobby Valentine to replace Francona, they were following Barnwell’s premise to a tee.

If Francona is best described as a player’s manager, then Valentine is an analyst’s manager. Although few will admit to it, there was reason to believe the Red Sox were making the correct move in hiring Valentine. His cold, calculating nature would whip those pampered millionaires into shape; or so we thought. Nick Cafardo might have summed it up best when he wrote Valentine cared “more about player performance than player comfort.” The numbers backed the assertion up. Chris Jaffe wrote a book about evaluating managers, aptly named Evaluating Baseball Managers. The methodology used within the book ranked Valentine as the 28th most valuable manager in league history, based largely on his team’s consistent ability to outperform their pythagenpat record. After noting how active Valentine is in using pinch hitters, Jaffe went on to write:

He positively adored displays of in-game strategy. Valentine's managerial actions complement his public image perfectly. He always had a substantial ego. While managing, he gave the impression he thought he was smarter than everyone else. If someone really believes he is that brilliant, he should be that much more willing to prove it by outfoxing the opponents with his numerous in-game decisions. That was Valentine. 

Yet, Valentine has only outfoxed those who hired and believed in him this season.

***

During the offseason, MLB Network ran a show documenting the top managers in the game. The show’s best segment came with former Rangers and Indians general manager John Hart. Brian Kenny, the host, asked Hart about his evaluation process. Hart offered a number of bullet points, from which you can boil down three big requirements. To manage for Hart, you needed to be able to communicate, motivate, and strategize. Unfortunately, the segment does not appear online. 

Another segment featuring Hart’s thoughts on managers, however, in which Hart and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle delve into the finer aspects of the manager-general manager relationship, does exist in an online medium.

Hurdler, speaking from a manager’s perspective, says he aimed to make the general manager’s job easier. In return, Hurdle expected the general manager to lighten his burden. It’s a simple take on an occasionally complicated dynamic. The general manager gets the players, the manager gets the results. Without both, neither will have a job for long.

Eventually the segment talked about then-active players who could become future managers. Barry Larkin, an MLB Network employee, came up. Hart co-signed Larkin, in part by saying Larkin has the respect of the players. This brings to mind an older Joe Posnanski theory on Trey Hillman. Posnanski, with an assist from Bill James, puts forth the idea that a manager needs to have played or coached in the majors to understand the clubhouse dynamics. Otherwise, the players will detect the phony. It’s been said before, but big-league players are the world’s best detectives.

***

It didn’t take Boston players long to figure out why Valentine—who, to be clear, did play in the majors—had spent so long away from the big-league scene: debilitating communication woes. Valentine started spring training by clashing with Kevin Youkilis—which led to a trade—and grated the players to the point where an odd text message saga developed between the team and ownership—which led to another trade. So much for respecting the manager. Valentine and his players have rarely been on the same page. Ben Cherington has had to appease angry player representatives, displeased with their clients’ usage throughout the season. So much for making the general manager’s life easier.

Valentine’s recent stretch of poorly received comments has led to a lot of discussion about managers. What I can’t stop thinking about is how we often make a mistake in evaluating managers, and whether Boston made the same error when they hired Valentine.

*** 

We often evaluate a manager based on his in-game strategy. But, when you think about it, that’s as useful as evaluating a fielder based on his offensive contributions alone. Sometimes, with vintage Adam Dunn, you get the crux of the player’s value. Other times, with vintage Carl Crawford, you miss most of what makes the player special. In that sense, a manager’s communication and motivation abilities are like a fielder’s defensive contributions: Hard to quantify, but real and valuable. To put it another way, every fan wants a spreadsheet-smart manager: Someone who knows how to build an optimal lineup, how to use their bullpen well, and who only bunts when necessary. Jason Parks has said power hitters still need contact skills to be useful. Likewise, managers with great analytical chops still need the interpersonal skills to succeed.

The best managers are the ones who excel at each of Hart’s three requirements. Over the weekend, Larry Bowa was on MLB Network discussing the Rays. I must apologize at this point because mentioning Joe Maddon in a piece about managers is a cliché, akin to mentioning F. Scott Fitzgerald when discussing great American authors. Maddon’s mythology is rooted in reality—he is, almost undoubtedly, one of the best managers in the game. He strategizes well, as far as anyone can tell, and gets his players to buy in and embrace the goofiness, their roles, and the end goal. This was Bowa’s point during his segment: As a manager, your players must buy in to the system. No one will confuse Bowa for Earl Weaver, but it reminded me of this sentence in Weaver on Strategy: “No matter how convincing the stats are, no platoon arrangement’s going to work if the players can’t accept their roles.”

It also reminded me of Ron Washington and Dusty Baker. These two are oft-mocked for their clumsy in-game managing. They drive iconoclasts crazy with irrational moves: bunting at bad times, refusing to use their bullpen in a smart manner, and so on. Both are able to get the results necessary to keep their jobs. You could assume the Rangers and Reds are incompetent, leaving Washington and Baker’s employments as a symptom of systematic failure. But those are two of the best teams in the majors. If they know something about how to evaluate ballplayers, they probably know something about how to evaluate managers, too. 

It’s enough to make you wonder how often we misinterpret managerial moves. When a manager plays the hot hand, is he doing so because he believes in the predictive power of a hot streak, or is he doing it because he knows his players believe in it? Alternatively, perhaps he thinks roles are phooey, but he also knows his relievers believe their preparation and rituals are the keys to their success.

A manager’s job is really about putting his players in positions to succeed. So often, we focus on the physical aspects. Using the right player, the right sub, the right pitcher, or running the right play. Doesn’t that responsibility extend beyond the playing field and being the body and into the mental and emotional aspects of being a ballplayer? Like with Nichols’ law of catcher defense, there’s an inherent danger in assuming some value exists if another brand of value is absent. Managers who make up for tactical failure with interpersonal savvy are difficult to identify, but we should still account for the probability of their existence.

***

We know how this Bobby Valentine saga will end. We knew it before he managed a game. Valentine might last through season’s end (perhaps for some sadistic reasons), but the ax will fall soon thereafter. Boston will then search for a manager with the skills Valentine lacked. Boston will look for a manager that can communicate with his players, front office, and media, that can nurture relationships and convince players to buy into the team ideology, that can keep his players focused on the on-the-field tasks throughout the course of the season. Essentially, when Boston replaces Valentine, it’ll probably be with someone who looks a lot like Terry Francona.

Special thanks to Sam Miller for research assistance. 

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

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