We now pause for a moment to ponder the mystery of the Minnesota Twins. Up until last week, they were in first place in the AL Central. In the offseason, some made the case that the defending AL champion Royals would win the division. Others argued for the defending division-champion Tigers. A few picked the up-and-coming Indians or the White Sox after they signed Zach Duke. No one expected the Spanish Inquisition the Twins to be in first place for any of 2015. This is the team that has specialized in losing 90 games over the last four seasons.
Rant or no rant, it hasn't been a great month for the Reds manager.
Bryan Price went rather out of his mind for a little over five minutes Monday. There’s certainly nothing good to be said about Price in this: his harangue of C. Trent Rosecrans was unprovoked and abusive, ranking somewhere just behind Hal McRae’s violent tantrum some 20 years ago in the all-time ranking of regrettable managerial behavior. Venting about an umpire or a fan base or a dirty slide is one thing; a direct, unwarranted five-minute rebuke of a fellow professional is another. Price’s apology was 10 times too soft for my taste, as was the Reds’ apparent willingness to shrug off the incident without some form of disciplinary action. Still, everyone has ugly moments, and perhaps it’s for the best that everyone appears to be moving on from this one.
Still and all, I think we should have a non-rant-based conversation about Price, who has been employed as an MLB pitching coach or manager for 15 seasons now, almost perfectly continuously. He was the Mariners’ pitching coach from 2001-06, migrated to Arizona from 2007 through early 2009 (when he resigned in support of fired manager Bob Melvin), then took over the Reds pitching staff after that season. He turned around the Reds, although one could also say that the Reds’ scouting and development teams turned around the Reds. In either case, Reds pitchers had a remarkable run from 2010-2013. Price successfully developed Mike Leake as a big-league starter without Leake spending a day in the minors. Homer Bailey made start-stop progress for a time, but eventually broke out, under Price’s tutelage. In 2012, the Reds’ top five starters (Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Bailey and Leake) made 161 of their 162 regular-season starts, and only a doubleheader cost them the other game. The team’s bullpen was one of the deepest and most dominant in the league in 2012 and 2013, despite relying somewhat heavily on cast-offs and guys who waited until their late 20s or longer to make good in the big leagues.
A look at how the six new MLB skippers could impact players' fantasy values with their base-stealing philosophies.
A half-dozen teams have new managers in 2015. While that fact may have already crawled its way out of our collective consciousness in the first couple weeks of the year, new managers do have some impact on fantasy baseball production. Perhaps most directly, changes atop the totem pole in the dugout can lead to strategic differences on the base paths. In other words, the frequency with which a team runs on the basepaths can change with a new manager.
The Detroit Tigers are a prime example of this. In 2013 with Jim Leyland at the helm, the Tigers stole the fewest bases (35) in Major League Baseball. After Leyland retired and Brad Ausmus became skipper, the Tigers ran wild. Their 106 stolen bases a year ago ranked seventh in the league. Coming into Wednesday’s games, they had stolen the second-most bases in baseball. Different managers, different strategies.
Another way of looking for the hidden geniuses in the dugouts.
What is a good manager worth? More to the point, how do we tell who the good ones are? We can measure what a manager does during the game, but that’s only a small part of his job description. A manager does decide who pinch-hits when, but he’s also in charge of making sure that everything is cool in the locker room. He manages the men as well as the game. We’re pretty sure that the answer isn’t zero, but what is it?
Last fall, the Diamondbacks, Cubs, and Red Sox all finished last in their respective divisions. The Diamondbacks dismissed manager Kirk Gibson in what was widely seen as an appropriate move given the franchise’s decline and Gibson’s grittiness-bordering-on-violence. The Cubs fired manager Rick Renteria, not because of performance but because Joe Maddon became available. Public reaction was one of uncomfortable sympathy; nobody was out for Renteria’s head, but c’mon, it’s Joe Freaking Maddon. The Red Sox retained John Farrell, whose team severely underperformed expectations. Surely he benefitted here from a wildly successful 2013.
Point being, keeping or dismissing a manager is a complicated decision, in which on-field results have to be weighed against history, context, and intangibles like leadership and respect. But of the tangible results, which types truly matter, and how much does each shade the picture? I aimed to build a model to answer that question.
For my data, I included all seasons from 1996 (first full season of the Wild Card Era) to 2013, using information I could find within or derive from the Lahman database. This includes things like win percentage, playoff appearances, year-to-year improvement, and awards won. I opted to include every opening day manager (i.e. no interim guys, whose fates are often pre-determined) and used my data to predict whether or not each would appear as manager for the same franchise next year. I chose to fit a decision-tree model with boosting. (For those interested, the final tuning parameters chosen by repeated CV were: shrinkage=0.01, #trees=350, and interaction depth=3.) I excluded the two expansion-team managers because they messed up variables that relied on previous seasons, and because I felt they deserved unique categorization but were too few to be distinguished by the model. I also excluded 1999 Astros manager Larry Dierker, whose health forced a mid-season hiatus, resulting in two separate 1999 stints in the Lahman database.
Another way that we might find a serious and significant measure of a good manager's effects.
If you talk to a professional baseball player about his lived experience, you’re guaranteed to hear a certain phrase within the first five minutes. Maybe even more guaranteed than hearing phrases like “throw a fastball”, “swing the bat”, or “comport with the platypus.” You’ll hear about “the grind.” By the time a baseball season reaches August, it's hot, he's tired, he's been living out of a suitcase for four months. Every night he has to play a game that requires intense concentration and lasts for three hours. Yeah, I know, it's hard to feel pity for a guy making $10 million per year, but these guys are human and those are rough working conditions, no matter how you slice it.
The Cubs have work to do, to be sure, but Joe Maddon's arrival is the clearest sign yet that the next era is here.
Any hopes for a surprise run from the 2014 Cubs didn’t last long. By May, most were already counting down to the inevitable moment that Jeff Samardzija would be moved. However, after the annual trade deadline dump, an event that in previous years had led to a sinking feeling, the atmosphere around the team surprisingly got more optimistic.
Chicago brought up multiple highly regarded prospects over the final few months of the season (Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kyle Hendricks), and, regardless of how they performed, people who had been hearing so much about these players over the previous few summers finally got to see them in the flesh. Add in that Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Jake Arrieta, and a few arms in the bullpen all proved to be major contributors at the big-league level and it’s understandable that doubters were suddenly starting to buy into the turnaround that’s actually been going rather swimmingly (if a little slower than some might have wanted) since Theo Epstein and company came aboard.
Players respond to adversity differently under different managers. We brought numbers.
When Joe Maddon opted out of his contract with the Rays two weeks ago, there were immediately rumors that he would be joining up with all of the other 29 teams. (Yesterday, we found out that one of those rumors was true. He’s taking his talents and his back pocket card which drips with analytics to the North Side.) The rumors were understandable. After all, Joe Maddon is a certified genius. He’s gotta be better than that bum in our dugout. (Yes, Joe Maddon is a really smart guy, but so are the other 29 managers. All of them. Yes… even him.)
The Angels skipper reflects on what he's learned in close to 15 full seasons at the helm.
Do you happen to remember the catchy tune "Maria Maria" by Santana and the Product G? Not a bad blast from the past, at least not in my mind. The song was the top dog on Billboard’s Hot 100 the very week Mike Scioscia started his managerial career in April of 2000. Doesn’t quite give you perspective on Scioscia’s tenure? Fair enough…a gallon of gas would have run you about $1.50 based on the national average when the new skipper took the helm (about $0.50 more in California). This past Thursday morning, in the back hallways of the Angels clubhouse, just hours before he won his 1,277th game as a skipper, Mike remembered that 41-year-old rookie manager and compared him to the 55-year-old seated behind his desk today.
“You can’t help but change, I think,” Scioscia said. “It’s easy to say that everything’s the same and that your thought process is the same. I do think the process stays the same, but certainly I think the way information’s gathered has changed. I think the nuts and bolts of this game, as far as I’m concerned, haven’t changed, and haven’t changed in a century as far as the fundamentals and what you need to do. The way players are evaluated keeps evolving daily, and I think to be in tune with that helps you to make some cleaner decisions. So yeah, I would say that there’s been some growth in myself as a manager over that time and I think you’d expect that.”