There's a book out now by Phil Kaplan, who runs a very famous Web site called f—edcompany.com. His book is basically a re-hash of what has run on his site during the past couple of years, as lots of Internet companies predictably cratered.
Kaplan's basic premise is pretty simple–it's ridiculous to expect to make money when you're giving your product away for free, selling it for less than it costs you to make it, or when you have a product that is either easily replaced by a free alternative, or just not valuable. Kaplan's language is necessarily blunt and somewhat colorful, but the thinking and message are remarkably clear…a lot of these failures were just plain stupid ideas to begin with.
As the Month of Gory Managerial Death fades away, is there some sort of central lesson that can be learned from the various dugout purges? Were the decisions to hire Davey Lopes, Phil Garner, Tony Muser, and Buddy Bell just bad decisions from the outset, or were they good decisions that just didn't have good outcomes? Is there anything at all to be learned from this wave of firings? What will a smart organization take away from all this?
One word thrown around a lot when a manager is fired is "accountability." At the end of the day, managers are accountable for what happens on the field–the wins and losses.
If you think about it, though, does it really work that way? In most organizations, the two people most responsible for the wins and losses on the field are the manager and general manager. And, in most cases, the general manager is primarily responsible for the decision to retain or release the manager. So you have an organizational problem. If the general manager is not doing his job, he has a ready-made scapegoat there that he can basically just fire to cover his tracks. Instead of accountability, you have a complete lack of it, at least until a GM burns through three or four managers and someone else in the organization begins to take notice.
I mean, let's be serious. Did any of the Rockies, Royals, Tigers, or Brewers really believe they were going to contend? If so, there's an ability-recognition problem going on in the front offices of these clubs. Taking the best player at each position from all four teams gives you a roster that looks something like this:
C Mike Rivera/Raul Casanova
1B Todd Helton/Mike Sweeney
2B Carlos Febles/Jose Ortiz
3B Ronnie Belliard/Todd Zeile
SS Jose Hernandez
LF Bobby Higginson
CF Carlos Beltran
RF Larry Walker
SP Jeff Weaver
SP Jeff Suppan
SP Glendon Rusch
SP John Thomson
SP Mark Redman
You could argue for the inclusion of some other guys, but the key point is pretty simple–the on-field talent of each of these four teams is flat-out bad. You'd be hard pressed to pick any other four teams and not come up with a combined squad that wouldn't run away with a division. It's ridiculous enough to hear Peter Angelos talk about how he believes the Orioles have enough talent to play "at least .500 ball." To fire a manager ostensibly because such high-quality ballplayers "haven't responded to his leadership" is nothing short of comical. Does Allard Baird really think that if only Tony Muser could be "more motivational," Mark Quinn would suddenly start drawing walks, or Neifi Perez would improve his OPS by 100 points?
It may well have been the best possible decision, in each case, to let these managers go. However, perhaps it makes sense for clubs to adopt a slightly different structure in some cases. As it is, the accountability that clubs are looking for doesn't necessarily exist. Baseball clubs are small businesses, and it's important for small businesses to keep their organizations aligned with their goals, so you don't want to get too crazy, but perhaps it's time for clubs to experiment with some structural changes. No, Davey Lopes wasn't winning in Milwaukee, but it was patently unreasonable to expect him to do so given the talent he had on his roster–a factor over which he had remarkably little control.
We don't know how much difference a manager makes. We can make some educated guesses, adjusting for perhaps getting better on-field performances out of players, or squeezing more wins out of the production they do get. We can look at injury histories, pitcher abuse, listen to anecdotes about clubhouses, and check previous performances. But after all that is tallied we don't know, and in fact can't know, how to allocate responsibility for success or failure on the field.
Determining the value of the performance of a manager is largely the same task as determining the value of a player's performance. Unfortunately, where we have tremendously detailed and accurate information that helps us determine how valuable players are, we don't have that for managers. Art Howe's record the last couple years in Oakland has been very good. Does that mean he should be rewarded with a raise and extension, where Davey Lopes was fired? How can you tell? Maybe Larry Dierker would have two World Series rings in Oakland, or perhaps he would have missed the playoffs twice. Maybe Davey Johnson would have gotten 50 home runs out of Eric Chavez. Maybe Earl Weaver would bunt less and platoon more, but would that make the club better or worse?
We don't know. We can't really know. There are those who believe a manager's main contribution is to create an environment where the players work diligently, listen to the coaches, and stay healthy. There are those who believe in-game tactics and matchups are of paramount importance, and those who believe a manager should spend most of his time shielding his players from distractions and the media.
One thing I think we can agree upon is that a manager simply can't turn Rey Sanchez into Alex Rodriguez. At some point, the executive management of an organization needs to take a hard look at the performance of the entire front office. If an organization comes to the conclusion that a manager needs to be fired, they should also take a careful look at the GM. No manager can win without adequate on-field talent, and having an organizational structure where a GM can buy himself some time by scapegoating a manager doesn't adequately serve the club, or baseball as a whole.