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November 8, 2012

Manufactured Runs

What the Recent Trend Toward Inexperienced Managers Means

by Colin Wyers

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The Colorado Rockies have announced the hiring of new manager Walt Weiss, and it’s an interesting case study in what might be a new trend in managerial hiring. Weiss had a long and fine career as a player, split mainly between Oakland and Colorado. After that, he turned to coaching… at the high school level.  Weiss is making the jump straight to the majors from Regis Jesuit High School (although notably he has been a minor-league instructor and scout in the Rockies’ system until now.)

Weiss wasn’t even the most inexperienced manager under consideration by the Rockies; they were seriously considering Jason Giambi, who actually played for the team in 2012. Such a thing would not have been entirely unprecedented—through much of baseball history it wasn’t unheard of to have players themselves managing—but it’s certainly not very common these days.

It’s really hard to know what to say about Weiss in particular—evaluating major-league managers is hard enough as it is, and evaluating high school managers with an eye to how they’ll do as major-league managers is several orders of magnitude more difficult. What we do know is that he’s hung around the Rockies’ organization long after his days there as a player ended, and so the team is very comfortable with whom and what they’ll be getting. To the rest of us, he’s a cipher.

This is the second time this offseason that a team has hired someone with no major-league experience to manage. The Marlins hired Mike Redmond to fill the vacancy that Ozzie Guillen left when he opened his mouth so wide he swallowed himself.

(In the brief history of their franchise the Marlins have had 12 different managers, and two—John Boles and Jack McKeon—have had multiple tours of duty. That’s a lot of managers. And let it not be said that these were guys nobody else wanted. Three of these ex-managers—Jim Leyland, Joe Girardi, and Fredi González—were managers of teams that made the postseason last season. What’s striking is how unstable the Marlins have been at manager—they used five managers to get through three seasons of baseball, which is rather exceptional.

So nobody should be surprised if Redmond is fired soon. And given the franchise’s history, I don’t know that anyone should read much into how that reflects on Redmond. It’s not you, it’s the Marlins. They’re just not ready for commitment. You’re a great manager and maybe if things were a little different they could see themselves spending the rest of the next four seasons with you, but they’re not ready to be tied down yet. They hope you understand and wish you the best of luck. Now give them back their CDs and stop calling.)

So what can we say about Redmond? Well, he last played in 2010—there are players who played that recently and been absent who are more likely to make a return to playing than they are to turn to managing a major-league team. And he’s a catcher, which isn’t shocking in a managerial hire. Catchers are unique among position players in that they think about pitching in terms other than just how to hit it. Many of them have leadership and mentorship responsibilities even as players. And they spend a lot of time with scouting reports on both sides of the ball. So there’s a lot to being a catcher that makes someone seem managerial.

Both Weiss and Redmond seem to resemble recent hires Robin Ventura and Mike Matheny, both of whom had never managed at all before being hired by the White Sox and the Cardinals, respectively. Another trait Weiss and Redmond share with those two managerial hires is a strong association with the franchise from their playing days.

Is four teams the start of a trend? Maybe, maybe not. A lot depends on how well these managers do—few teams churn quite as fast as the Marlins have, but managers are (as they say) hired to be fired. Teams like to copy what other teams have done, but only if they’re successful. And some clubs clearly are still looking for experienced managers—the Indians hired Terry Francona, the Red Sox went so far as to trade a player to the Blue Jays to nab John Farrell, and the Jays are said to want an experienced manager to replace him.

But we have a new crop of rookie managers who haven’t been made to pay their dues as they might have been in the past. What could be driving teams to look for this sort of managers?

Let’s get something out of the way. Most sabermetric discussion of managers has to do with their in-game tactics and strategy. This really isn’t the focus of most MLB teams when evaluating managers, though, and it tends to be an area of focus mostly because it’s what’s most visible, not necessarily what’s most important. (And as my colleague Russell Carleton hints at, sabermetric evaluation of certain strategies may focus on the micro at the expense of the macro.)

So what do teams look for a manager to do? I consulted three people currently working for major-league teams in a capacity related to the front office on background (none of them former BP writers, I should note) about what they felt clubs looked for in a manager. As is to be expected, they weren’t entirely in agreement (I’ll come back to this in a bit). But broadly, the roles of a manager they mentioned were:

  • Dealing with the media and being the public face of management. This was mentioned as a particularly important aspect of the job—the manager is the one who most often speaks to the press about decisions the team makes, and even if the manager wasn’t the one making the decision (maybe it was the GM, maybe it was ownership, maybe it came from the team’s doctor or trainer), he’s the one who has to be out in public being accountable for it.
     
  • Dealing with personalities in the clubhouse. To tie into the above, the manager doesn’t deal just with the media, but also with what players are seeing and reading in the media—if a player sees a rumor concerning him, the manager is the one the player is going to come to. The manager also has to deal with conflicts between players and conflicts between what a player thinks his role should be and what the team thinks his role should be.
     
  • Providing instruction and mentorship to players. This varies from team to team; on a team stocked with veteran players this obviously isn’t as big of a concern. But every team uses at least some rookies, and those players will still need coaching.

There’s one more big role a manager fills, but before we go into that we need to deal with something we’ve been overlooking—the role of manager (and general manager, for that matter) is not exactly the same thing across 30 clubs. Some managers, like Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa, wield a lot of influence in their organization. Others are far less influential. This shows up the most in a manager’s ability to set up the roster and distribute playing time.

In some organizations, playing time is considered the sole purview of the manager, and the front office wouldn’t dream of meddling in what is clearly the field staff’s responsibility. In some cases, the front office is more proactive in telling the manager how to use the players he’s been given. And some managers have a lot of input over what players they’re given, to the extent that they have significant say in free agent signings and trades, while others have very little input in those regards.

So put yourself in the shoes of a general manager about to hire a new manager. Suppose you have a certain vision of how much input you want to have, versus your manager, on roster construction and usage. And you may have other ideas on how you want the manager to do things—some teams, like the Yankees and Red Sox, have a very specific offensive identity they go for, while some clubs are notorious for having certain philosophies in how they build a pitching staff, like the Twins and Cardinals. And if you’re that kind of club, you want everyone in your organization from the low minors to the big leagues to behave accordingly. So what do you do?

You can try to sort through the roster of experienced managers and dues-paying managerial candidates and find the guy you think is the best fit. Or you can turn to a fresh face who you think understands the way you want things done and is on board with it.

So let’s look at our four new managers. All of them have playing experience, and so you know they have experience in dealing with a clubhouse. They’ve all dealt with the media before. And most importantly, all of them have been with your club before. You know them. In three cases, they’ve been working with your organization for years, even if not in a managerial capacity, so you know they understand the way you do business.

If your vision is that as a GM you have substantial input into roster construction and usage, you’re not really all that worried about your new manager being inexperienced there. (In fact, you may well prefer it over a manager who wants a larger amount of input than you really want to give him.) In terms of tactics, all of these men have played in the majors and so have seen everything before. And if you have strong opinions on tactics, again, it may be easier to find a manager who doesn’t and provide him with guidance. Or you can find coaches that help supplement a manager’s abilities there.

From an outsider’s perspective, hiring an inexperienced manager provides a lot of uncertainty—we know very little about this kind of candidate. For the teams doing the hiring, though, these aren’t strangers: these are people with whom they have very close relationships. Ventura and Matheny, by most accounts, have done fine in their first seasons, dispelling the idea that first-time managers face a steep learning curve. There are still plenty of teams out there who will look for an experienced manager, of course. But for some teams, promoting from within and encouraging the spread of their organizational viewpoint may be a more attractive option. And that means that we might be seeing the start of a new trend in managerial hiring. 

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

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