The Best MLB Managers Stay Cool in September

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The age of sabermetrics has ignited a plethora of debates. What is the value of evaluating talent by old school scouting versus new school analytics? How can numbers measure the ethereal contributions players make to team chemistry and leadership? A major league manager processes all this information and formulates a daily strategy to optimize an owner’s investment and a general manager’s roster. He has to weigh each player’s potential, quantifiable output, psychological triggers, and endurance. He is hired to be fired; and when a team underperforms he becomes the most disposable piece of a payroll worth hundreds of millions of dollars. What can analytics tell us about the value of a manager? Can his contribution be quantified? And what do current trends tell us about the successes and failures of today’s managers?

Sabermetricians have produced numerous methods to quantify the value of baseball managers. Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carelton, using a complicated formula, writes that the difference between the best and worst managers is about 35 runs. Bill James compiled statistics on managerial experience dating from 2001-2012. He wrote:

Taking a stab at an explanation that is supported by this data: it is best for a manager to be young enough to relate to his players (under 45), but not so young as to not command their respect (under 40). Once a manager is over 50, though, he becomes wise enough to handle his players, although newly hired managers are so out of touch by 55, that even that extra wisdom doesn’t help them. However, by 60, they are well respected in a grandfatherly way.

The most recent trend for general managers is the hiring of younger high profile players with little or no minor league managing experience – and sometimes no managing experience whatsoever. Most MLB managers sipped at least a cup of coffee in the big leagues, but after their playing careers some spent more time riding the buses between minor league towns as coaches, scouts, or roving instructors. There is inherent value in learning the top-down operation of a major league franchise. Some recent successes and failures bolster this assertion. A team photo of this year’s playoff contending managers is an interesting mix of old and new school.

American League

Toronto – After a few stints as a major league catcher John Gibbons was a minor league coach for four years and a manager for seven years in the minors. He started as an MLB manager for the Blue Jays in 2004, was fired in 2008, and rehired in 2013.

Kansas City – After a respectable career as an MLB catcher Ned Yost managed for three years in the minors. He joined the Braves and spent eight seasons as their bullpen coach and three seasons as a third base coach. Yost was the Brewers manager from 2003 through September of 2008. Yost took over as Kansas City’s manager in 2010.

Houston – A.J. Hinch didn’t play a game of MLB baseball, but his playing career took him around the world in international competition playing for the Baseball World Cup and the Olympics in 1996. He chose to play catcher at Stanford rather than sign as a third round pick. He served as the Diamondbacks Director of Player Development until he was named manager of the big league club in 2009 with no previous managing experience. He managed Arizona through July 2010. He joined the Padres in 2011 as Vice President of Professional Scouting until he was hired at the end of the 2014 season as the Astros manager.

AL Wildcards

New York Yankees – Joe Girardi spent a long career as an MLB catcher ending in 2003. He coached for a year for the Yankees before he was named the Marlins manager for 2006. He spent one year in Florida before he took over for Joe Torre as Yankees manager at the end of the 2007 season.

Texas – After an extended minor league career as a catcher Jeff Banister had one MLB at-bat. He began his managerial experience as a player-coach in 1993 and continued to manage minor league teams through 1997. From 1999-2008, Banister worked with Pittsburgh as their Major League Field Coordinator and Minor League Field Coordinator. He was a minor league pitching coach until he took over as the Pirates bench coach in 2010. After the 2014 season Banister was named manager of the Rangers.

National League

New York Mets – Terry Collins never played a game in MLB. He spent 11 seasons as a minor league manager before joining the Pirates as a coach. He was hired by the Astros as manager from 1994-1996. He also managed Anaheim from 1997-1999. He spent two years managing in Japan before taking over as the Mets manager in 2011.

St. Louis – Mike Matheny played 13 seasons as an MLB catcher before a concussion ended his career in 2006. He became an instructor for the Cardinals organization until he was hired as their big league manager in 2011. He had no previous managerial experience.

Los Angeles Dodgers – Don Mattingly played 14 seasons with the Yankees before he was forced to retire due to chronic back pain in 1995. He spent three years as the Yankees’ batting coach before he was hired as Joe Torre’s bench coach in 2007. He followed Torre to the Dodgers in 2008, and after a brief respite he became the Dodgers’ hitting coach in July of 2008. Before the 2011 season Mattingly was named the successor to Joe Torre as the Dodgers manager. He had no previous managerial experience.

NL Wildcards

Pittsburgh – Clint Hurdle was a bonus-baby prospect whose career was derailed by back problems. After a 10 year career as an MLB first baseman and catcher Hurdle spent six years managing in the minors for the Mets. He moved on to the Rockies organization as hitting coach for five years before he was hired as their manager in 2002. Hurdle managed the Rockies from 2002-May 2009. In 2010 Hurdle was the hitting coach for Texas, and later that year he was named the manager of the Pirates.

Chicago – Joe Maddon never played a game in the major leagues. He was a minor league catcher before he became a scout with the Angels organization. Maddon managed in the Angels farm system for six years, from 1981 to 1986. He served as the Angels’ minor league roving hitting instructor from 1987 to 1993. He coached with the Angels’ big league team from 1994-2005 with two stints as an interim manager. In 2006 he was hired by Tampa Bay and managed the Devil Rays/Rays until 2014. He was hired by Theo Epstein and the Cubs prior to the 2015 season.

A couple of trends stand out. Eight out the ten current playoff contending coaches were catchers at some point of their minor league or major league careers. Only two, Mike Matheny and Don Mattingly, were hired with no managerial experience whatsoever. Hinch and Girardi both had brief experience as major league managers before they were hired in Houston and New York.

There are myriad factors for franchises to consider when they hire a manager. Ultimately, they must accurately assess the best fit for the organization’s stage of development. The Dodgers, with a $300 million investment in their current roster have different needs than the Cubs or Astros who have invested millions in minor league development. Toronto has gambled on 2015. The Royals and the Pirates spent years and millions building for a chance in October. The Yankees and the Cardinals always expect to play for a World Series.

General Managers should be wary of hiring the good-guy fan favorite who enjoyed great success as a player. He might just be overmatched when it comes time to instructing younger superstars, soothing veteran personalities, and maintaining the endurance of a pitching staff for 162+ games. Some former players who enjoyed the adulation of their stardom might not adjust to the pressure of media and fan criticism.

October is time for fireworks, but September is the proving ground. Managers make a difference when rosters are expanded, bullpens are depleted, and legacies are on the line. There is no composite of a championship manager, but when it’s time to pinch hit, double switch, or go to the pen teams are going to want someone who is unafraid. From steady Joe Torre to Trader Jack McKeon to mercurial Ozzie Guillen to central casting’s Bruce Bochy – they made the game breaking decisions. Look for the best managers and the eventual winner to start making these decisions now. Who will be healthy enough and prepared for high leverage situations out of the bullpen? Who will have been held accountable for their defense and base running? Who will be ready to steal a base or lay down a bunt? The tournament starts today.

Soaring temperatures and a hot seat are what MLB managers can expect in the summertime. But when the leaves change colors owners, GMs, and fans need that cool breeze that ushers in September and October nights.

 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – JUNE 17: Mike Matheny #26 of the St. Louis Cardinals looks on against the Minnesota Twins on June 17, 2015 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Cardinals 3-1. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)