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.
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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.”
A look at challenge rates, success rates, and delays so far.
When a totally new system like Major League Baseball’s expanded instant replay—complete with brand-new job descriptions and job openings and technology—is assembled on the eve of the season, you’d imagine its implementation would look more like an evolution than the arrival of a fully formed process.
And by most accounts it has been. Whether it’s the change in the transfer rule that tangentially went along with it, or managers getting used to the silly choreography of how to argue with an umpire while simultaneously looking back at the dugout for a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, everybody involved in the process seems to be getting better at it.
Despite replay, ejections aren't down (or aren't down by much) this year.
I remember last summer, the day after Bob Melvin had been ejected in what would turn out to be an extra-innings loss to the Astros, Melvin talking to the media in the dugout. He was abashed to have been ejected from such a game. I wasn’t trying to get run, he stressed. As opposed to all the other ejections we see.
An attempt to settle an age-old debate: What's more important for a manager to possess, people skills or tactical savvy?
There are two men in front of you who want to be your team’s manager. One of them is fully up to date on all the latest baseball research. He reads Baseball Prospectus religiously, and that’s not a metaphor. He actually has a shrine to Dan Brooks in his bedroom. (We have a support group that meets on Wednesdays, that’s how I know.) He’s fully on board with the analytical movement, dabbles in his own research, drops the phrase “run expectancy matrix” into sentences, and has pledged that he will make sure that the supercomputer is in the dugout with him every night. He’s also rather boring. Not a jerk, just…boring.