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A headline for a recent Baseball Weekly cover story described Dusty
Baker
as an "inspirational manager" in charge of "overachieving Giants."
The article included gushing praise from players, fellow managers,
and even an opposing general manager who stated that Baker "handles
people like nobody I’ve ever seen … I’d get rid of my own guy right
now if I knew I could have Dusty Baker managing for me."
Throughout the avalanche of compliments, one matter comes up
again and again: Dusty is a supreme leader of men, a true "manager"
as one might imagine a manager in any business, not only baseball.


Stat-based analysts often bemoan the use of so-called "intangibles"
as markers of value for baseball players. While no one denies the
existence of intangible contributions, there is enough tangible
statistical evidence describing a player’s contribution to make
intangibles largely irrelevant to the analyst’s task. What a player
does on the field of play is recorded in detail in the statistical
record, and while writers with a romantic or philosophic bent might
draw delightful word pictures about things that "don’t appear in the
boxscores," the analyst is concerned mainly with what happens on
the field. A tangible run scored is always worth more than an
intangible contribution, or rather, if the intangible DOES contribute
something, it WILL appear in the boxscore. As Bill James pointed out
long ago, if an elephant walks in the snow, there will be footprints.


James’ most recent book, the fascinating and excellent "Bill James’
Guide to Baseball Managers from 1870 to Today," isn’t about
baseball players, but instead focuses on the people who direct the
players in their efforts. As always, James offers an inspired read:
intelligent, catty, confident of his opinion no matter how right or
wrong he is, James is ultimately a great writer as much or more than
he is a great analyst. (And it always bears repeating that the
quality of James’ writing is what sets him apart from the large
majority of statiscally-based analysts of baseball.) However, James falls
victim to certain pitfalls of the stat-based approach that are
instructive for all of us who would examine baseball under the
statistical microscope. For it is one thing to assert that statistics
are extremely important to the analysis of baseball player
performance, and to claim that a player’s contribution can be accurately
reflected in his stats, but quite another thing to assume that
everything in life can be reduced to tangibles. Anti-statheads,
obsessed with dismissing quantifiable evidence, too frequently reject
the entire notion of quantification; their arguments are all intangible,
even proudly so. But statheads must also be aware of the dangers of
falling too much in love with our own tools, and must remember that what
works in one situation (evaluating player performance) will not
necessarily work in other situations.


Take baseball managers, for instance. Analysts continue to make fine
progress in breaking down the "percentages," helping us to
understand the relative value of bunting, stealing bases, and other
aspects of the game that are controlled by the manager. These
tangible parts of a manager’s job are important, and any evaluation
of a manager’s contributions must take into account the value
(negative or positive) of his in-game tactical decisions. James does
much to advance this aspect of analysis in his book, including an
interesting discussion of what information should go on a manager’s
baseball card.


Furthermore, it is becoming more clear with time that the way a
manager uses his pitching staff is vital not only to the short-term
success of a club, but also to the long-term success of both the
club and the individual pitchers. The increased attention to pitch
counts is only one area where stat-based analysis is offering vital
information which contemporary managers (hello, Jim Leyland) ignore
at the peril of their pitchers’ arms.


Nonetheless, I want to argue here that for managers, unlike for
baseball players, the intangibles are indeed important. As James
notes on the very first page of his book, "There is one indispensable
quality of a baseball manager. The manager must be able to
command the respect of his players. This is absolute; everything
else is negotiable."


James then spends the next 300 pages leading up to the above-
mentioned manager’s baseball card, which lists tangible, quantifiable
evidence about a manager’s performance but, unavoidably,
completely ignores that which he claims on the first page is absolute.


Now, we can safely ignore speculation about a player’s intangible
contributions, because we have footprints in the snow: the
statistical record. I don’t care how Barry Bonds hit that homer. I
care that he hit a homer rather than struck out. But I suspect data
about how often Dusty Baker calls a pitchout is the wrong kind of
footprint. If we follow those footprints, we’ll end up at the end of
the wrong road, in a way that doesn’t happen when evaluating
player performance. It is the player’s job to produce on the
field, which is what the statistics explain. But what is a manager’s
job? To lead the team, to "handle people," to extract the best
possible performance from the players he is given, to "command the
respect of his players." And I don’t think we’re ever going to be able
to quantify that part of the manager’s job. Again, a player might
have some influence on his teammates in this regard, but the far
larger portion of his contributions come on the field, while the
manager’s influence can only be felt off the field.


Dusty Baker does many stupid things during a baseball game. He
bunts too much, he overworks his bullpens, his lineups are often
oddball, he seems to have a preference for "proven" veteran players
over young guys who might actually be able to play well. But Dusty
also has two Manager of the Year awards, given for seasons where
his team seemed to outperform expectations in a huge way.
Coincidence? Mere chance? Perhaps. But it’s possible that opposed to all
the negative stuff Dusty does with strategy, tactics, or lineup construction is
one huge positive that more than overcomes anything else you can say about him:
he commands the respect of his players. Maybe they play better for Dusty than
they would for other managers. How do we quantify that?
How important is it that Dusty gets the best possible season out of
guys like Rey Sanchez, when Rey Sanchez isn’t much good to begin
with? That’s pretty hard to say, but Baker’s success with two different Giants’
teams tells me that he is doing something right, and it doesn’t seem
to have much to do with knowing when to bunt.


The great Earl Weaver was another master at maximizing the
performance of his players, although you couldn’t find two more
different managerial styles than Weaver’s and Baker’s. While Weaver
liked players who, in the contemporary parlance, played "within
themselves," he also firmly believed that "there is no such thing as a
‘winning’ or a ‘losing’ player. It comes down to a player’s ability and
how he produces." (This quote comes from the indispensable
"Weaver on Strategy.") What Weaver attempted to do as a
manager was to draw on the player’s ability. He looked, not at what
a player was bad at, but instead at what a player was good at, and
then tried to find as many opportunities as possible to get the
player in the game when what was needed was what the player was
good at. So he’d have his lefty-hitting slugger and his righty-
hitting slugger, his defensive specialist and his utility man, and he’d
maneuver the team so that each player got plenty of chances to
perform his specialty. He wasn’t friends with his players; on the
contrary, he felt "a manager should stay as far away as possible
from his players," and claimed he didn’t say ten words to Frank
Robinson
in Robby’s entire Oriole career. Nonetheless, by focusing
on a player’s ability and accentuating the player’s strengths,
Weaver got the most out of those players.


But that’s not what managers like Dusty Baker do. Baker focuses on
what Weaver claims doesn’t exist: ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ players.
Dusty Baker has an apparent ability to make each player on his
team feel like a winner. Whatever the motivational tools, Dusty’s
players believe in him and believe in themselves, a fact made clear
in the Baseball Weekly article. Rich Rodriguez says the Giants are
winning for one reason: "It’s Dusty." Robb Nen states that "you
want to play for a guy like that." Even the opposition takes notice:
Gary Sheffield chimes in to claim that "It doesn’t matter how the
cards are dealt to him, Dusty gets the most out of it, and the man
finds a way to win." As noted earlier, Baker’s strategic moves are
not always as clearly helpful as those of a controlling manager like Weaver.
But perhaps Baker is indeed creating ‘winning’ players.


It’s important to note that baseball is the most individual of team
sports. While teamwork is paramount in sports like basketball,
football, and soccer, where each player continually interacts on the
field with other players, in baseball, it comes down to a pitcher and
a batter. If the leftfielder and the catcher don’t get along, it hardly
matters, whereas a shooting forward who gets on the wrong side of
a point guard might not see the ball as often as he should. And
again, this seems to be where a Dusty Baker shines. Dusty would
get a guy like Glenallen Hill, who was down because he’d lost his
starting job, and somehow he’d convince Hill to keep from letting his
disappointment affect his play. The problem wasn’t that Hill might
have poisoned the "teamwork," the clubhouse atmosphere. The
problem was that Hill might have poisoned his own attitude to where
he couldn’t reach even his own low potential. Baker makes each
player feel good about himself, creates ‘winning’ players, then hopes
the result is a winning team. Which is backwards from Weaver’s
argument that "A winning player is nothing more than a player on a
winning team."


I think Earl Weaver was the greatest manager in my lifetime, partly
because what he did taught statheads how to think like statheads. Weaver was
also one of the most successful managers of all time. But for managers, there
is more than one road to success, and some of those
roads come down to intangibles, those very things which are so
maddeningly useless when analyzing players. I don’t think there’s
any way for us to know how much respect a manager commands
amongst his players, but I agree with Bill James that it is
indispensable to the manager’s success or failure. In this case, at
least, intangibles matter.


[Steven Rubio would like to add, as bitterly as possible, that yesterday’s
trades close the book on whether or not Brian Sabean is an idiot.]

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