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How Managers Matter, Part 1

[ 18 ] August 31, 2010 |

I’ve been meaning to contest David’s contention that sabermetrics proves that managers don’t matter. I don’t actually think that sabermetrics has proven this, and I also don’t think it’s plausible. As it happens, I’ve just started to read Chris Jaffe’s Evaluating Baseball Managers, which (to the extent that what I’ve read so far is representative) is the most interesting work of sabermetrics I’ve seen in many years. I’ll leave my discussion of the book primarily to a more appropriate weekend slot, but since it’s come up recently I’d thought I’d make a couple initial points.

First of all, I just don’t think that a careful look at how teams develop and perform can be squared with the conclusion that managers don’t really have any impact. To take on obvious example, if you look at Earl Weaver’s teams, you’ll see some clear characteristics: a usually four-man rotation that is unusually effective, healthy, and that absorbs a huge number of innings; extensive use of of the bench, with attempts to skim cream by using matchups; 3)limited use of one-run strategies; and 4)related to the first two, using some one-way defensive players like Belanger, Blair and Dempsey without costing the team ability to score enough runs to win. You’re telling me that if someone like Don Zimmer or John McNamara — a completely conventional manager who doesn’t use the bench and has no particular ability to get good performance out of pitchers — was managing the Orioles in those years, they would have had the same success? Is Earl Weaver in the Hall of Fame just because he managed for a long time “without blowing his brains out?” I think that’s ridiculous. Or to borrow one of Bill James’ favorite example, there’s no way that a good manager — one that wouldn’t have overworked his top two starters, knew that Adock was a vastly better player than Frank Torre, etc. — wouldn’t have won the pennant with the ’59 Braves. It’s just one variable, and obviously no manager can win without talent and a mediocre manager can win in the right circumstances — but it matters.

So I don’t buy the idea that Lou Piniella is just an innocent bystander in 1998, or that management played no role in the fact that the Mariners finished more than 10 games behind a team without an obvious talent edge going into the season. One of the biggest differences between the teams is that Oates got a lot of decent-to-excellent performances out of relievers who (Wetteland aside) had very modest credentials, while the Mariners’ bullpen was a complete catastrophe.  As I said, this isn’t the only or even the most important factor; the inability of the Mariners’ ownership and management to sign Johnson to a new contract and some bad trades were more important factors.   But there was no reason that team should have finished more than 10 games out; the Rangers weren’t exactly solid top-to-bottom either.   I hadn’t read his profile before using the example, but Jaffe shows that in Oates’ case, this was no fluke — in both Baltimore and Texas Oates consistently had overachieving bullpens. Piniella, on the other hand, just as one would expect consistently overachieved on offense but had an erratic (and, on balance, negative) effect on his pitching staffs. There are managers who have the ability to repeatedly construct a functional bullpen out of modest materials (Bobby Cox, Gene Mauch and — more about him later — Cito Gaston would be other good examples); Piniella just isn’t one of them. And in some contexts that can make a big difference. This doesn’t mean that Piniella wasn’t a good manager, but it is one reason that his overall performance isn’t Cooperstown worthy.

Comments (18)

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  1. Armando says:

    How many wins over an Average Replacement Manager does Piniella deliver?

    Earl Weaver was a great manager of course, but that was because Weaver understood what mattered in baseball – getting on base and having power and stopping the other team from getting on base and having power.

    Weaver rarely gave away outs. And in his time, Weaver was innovative, indeed, somewhat groundbreaking.

    Weaver was a Stengel-like figure in this.

    But these are few and far between.

    Managing is not like football – where a coach can innovate and game plan in ways that really make a difference (not to mention the fact that coaching in football is more important than it is in baseball.) New schemes in baseball are “the shift.”

    It is a fairly straight forward game. I suppose some manager some day will go to a 7 man starting rotation or something and prove how that is superior given certain pitching talent in the organization, but there is little opportunity in baseball for managers to matter that much.

    A great manager might mean what – 3 games over an average manager in a season? At the most?

    That’s not nothing of course. But it’s not that much either.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Sure, great managers are few and far between, but then great players are few and far between too.

      but there is little opportunity in baseball for managers to matter that much.

      You’re too focused on in-game tactics here, I think. The difference between having Bobby Cox and Dallas Green managing your pitchers, for example, is a lot larger than 3 games a year, not least because if Green is managing your team you’ll have to mostly find new pitchers in 2 years…

      • c u n d gulag says:

        Same with Billy Martin.
        He was great for a short term fix.
        He could get a team together in a hurry. I think every first year he had with a team, his team contended – The Twins, Tigers, Yankees, A’s. He brought energy and focus. And took some pressure off of players and put it on himself.
        He could also tear one apart just as fast. He played favorites, and was always fighting GM’s and owners, who didn’t see in some of is favorite players what Martin did. And then he put pressure on some of his players to take it off of himself.
        The other question with Billy was, what would blow-up first, himself, or the pitching rotation? If you were lucky, he left before he totally f’d up a Guidry (despite his many unhappy returns as manager). If you weren’t, you were like the A’s, 4 studs turned into soft-tossing batting practice pitchers.
        Martin at his best was a HOF manager. At his worst, he was the most disruptive force on a team, and not worthy of a ballot consideration, even if you were his HOF voting sportswriting drinking buddy.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Not only that, but a couple times Martin took 100-loss teams and put them over .500 the next year, without a lot of personnel improvement. Your summary of his strengths and weaknesses is correct, and he’s another example of why I can’t understand it when people claim that managers are irrelevant.

          • Armando says:

            Martin is an interesting study, but I think that he was much more “personnel decision” oriented than you say.

            Piniella and Martin on Rickey Henderson is a great example. Pinella ran his best player out of town. Martin coaxed the best performances of Henderson in his storied career.

            This is a real effect of managers who have that power of personnel.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              He did have good talent judgment too, and would use a talented young player; I don’t mean to slight that part of it. But if you look at, say, the ’71 Tigers the improvement was driven much more by improvements in existing personnel than by roster changes.

              • What’s really interesting about Martin is that the highs were so high and the lows were so low. He’s an economists dream manager, because on average he was probably the embodiment of an Average Replacement Manager. (Martin was.553 lifetime. Pinella is .517. That’s closer than I’d have guessed.)

          • Richard Hershberger says:

            I think part of the reason people claim that managers are irrelevant is that the arguments for managerial relevancy verge upon the dreaded “intangibles”. Better use of, say, the bench can in principle be measured, but can only matter around the margins. The idea that a manager might get better production from his players through inspiration or creating team harmony or the like? This is the sort of thing that gives the sabermetrics types the hives. The closer any explanation is to the example of using the bench well, the happier sabermetrics types will be, but the more marginal to team performance.

  2. Henry Holland says:

    There are managers who have the ability to repeatedly construct a functional bullpen out of modest materials (Bobby Cox, Gene Mauch

    That’s nice, Gene Mauch knew how to construct a bullpen. Of course, he didn’t know shit about using it correctly in two crucial instances, the 1982 and 1986 playoffs, and was a notorious arm killer, but oh well.

    Of course managers matter a great deal more than 3 games a year, but statheads are loathe to get in to that because running a clubhouse, keeping players focused and not getting in to knife fights with each other over the course of a long season can’t be quantified.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      What, he shouldn’t have used his very effective closer to close Game 5 in ’86?

      • rea says:

        Mauch overused Bunning and Short, his best starters, and mishandled his bullpen in the last games of ’64, bringing about most famous collapse in history.

      • Henry Holland says:

        *sigh* I’m afraid you don’t know what you’re talking about. He pulled his staff ace, Mike Witt, for Gary Lucas, most definitely not the Angels bullpen ace in 1986, because he just had to have that lefty (Gedman) v. lefty (Lucas) matchup. Lucas promptly hit Gedman, *then* Moore and his sore elbow came on to give up the HR to Henderson. Angels still should have won in the bottom of the 9th (winning run at 3rd with one out and the bases loaded) but….no, not going there again.

        Moore only pitched two more years, making only 41 more appearances (after 65 and 49 in 1985/6 for the Angels) in his last two seasons, 1987/88, likely a victim of overuse.

  3. Dave Brockington says:

    Scott, to rush to my defense in suitably pedantic fashion, I didn’t assert that sabermetrics had “proven” that managers don’t matter. Indeed, given my particular brand of social science training, I would only assert that anything has been proven by the literature when drunk or foolish (or, as is so often the case while the former, both). I carefully selected my language in that post regarding my understanding of our knowledge of the effect of managers on outcomes in baseball, what it has demonstrated (not much), and indeed admitted that my own knowledge of said literature is now several years behind. The upshot is that I suggested that the extant literature has had a difficult time showing an effect, “as of yet”. This does not mean that the effect isn’t there, it’s just unobserved.

    I will buy this book before I return to the UK next week. Thanks for the reference. I’m intrigued.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Ah, yes, you’re right — point well taken. Will be interested to see what you think of the book, which doesn’t solve all the inherent problems but has a lot of great stuff.

  4. [...] Scott Lemieux and David Brockington debate the question of whether managers “matter” in baseball. I don’t know much about baseball, but Brockington’s contention is very illogical: These are superficial, anecdotal pieces of evidence; the sabermetric literature (that I am familiar with, I am now a couple years behind I’m afraid, although there is some interesting stuff here) has had a difficult time establishing that the field manager of a ball club has much measurable effect at all, and is negligible at best. [...]

  5. rea says:

    “The French soldiers went to kill and be killed at the battle of Borodino not because of Napoleon’s orders but by their own volition. The whole army- French, Italian, German, Polish, and Dutch- hungry, ragged, and weary of the campaign, felt at the sight of an army blocking their road to Moscow that the wine was drawn and must be drunk. Had Napoleon then forbidden them to fight the Russians, they would have killed him and have proceeded to fight the Russians because it was inevitable.”–Tolstoy, War & Peace

    Brockington seems to see baseball managers in much the same way that Tolstoy saw Napoleon.

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