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The Cooperstown Three and Evaluating Managers

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In response to Erik’s post, I think I’ve mentioned this before but in fact the subject of evaluating managers is the subject of Chris Jaffe’s book, which I think is the most impressive work of sabermetrics in at least a decade. Combining cutting-edge empirical evidence and careful subjective profiles, it does an exceptionally good job of sorting through the thorny issue.  The most important job a manager has — getting the most out of the talent available — is also the hardest to measure objectively. Ingeniously, Jaffe uses the historical projections developed by Phil Birnbaum to compare the performance expected of a roster and the performance the roster actually achieved. (He further breaks down the data to measure a manager’s impact on pitching and defense, etc. He combines this measure with sabermetric analysis of a manager’s tactical choices.

Anyway, all three of the managers inducted today rank as among the greatest ever. As of 2008, LaRussa ranked second all-time behind Joe McCarthy with an impact of +1, 012 runs. Cox ranked 11th all time at +655, and Torre ranked 21st at +475. (And that standing for Cox especially is probably too low. He ranks below Billy Martin, but that’s because Martin would get fired before the deleterious long-term impact of his short-term focus would fully manifest. That cumulative positive impact is a lot more impressive for managers who stay with jobs long-term, because the typical pattern of a manager is to overachieve in the first year and underachieve after that. Overachievement with the same organization year after year is a very rare, and is what defines a Hall of Fame manager to me.)

In at least two of these cases, I also don’t agree with Erik that the success of the manager was just a function of payroll. LaRussa never managed a high-payroll, big-market team. Cox did for part of his tenure in Atlanta, but that’s not his full career. In Toronto, Cox turned a .349 team into a .549 team in two years working largely with retreads considered to have little value when Toronto acquired them. His first pennant-winning team in Atlanta — which had lost 97 games the year before — was also a team that had neither a lot of ex ante impressive young talent or premium free agents. (Nobody would have looked at Tom Glavine in March 1991 and seen a future Hall of Famer.) Torre — and I agree with Jaffe’s methods that his overall record is the least impressive in context of the three — did have a high payroll and a lot of premium talent to work with, plus he had failed at his previous job in St. Louis. (His performance with Atlanta looks pretty good in retrospect; with the Donald Grant Mets, he had a hopeless situation, and I wouldn’t really count it for or against him.) That’s not to say Torre deserves no credit for the performance of the Yankees — high-level talent or not, winning in the high nineties every year isn’t easy, and plenty of teams have won nothing with impressive bases of front-line talent — but I think he was more limited that the other two. In a job that involved managing veterans and dealing with the media, he was nearly perfect. But I would love to have LaRussa or Cox managing a young team too, while making judgements about and integrating young talent was never Torre’s strength.

Of course, if Torre was not as great a manager as Cox and LaRussa, he’s also pretty well-qualified for the Hall of Fame as a player, so he’s just as big a no-brainer overall.

One final point about Cox. The only possible knock on him is his relative lack of post-season success. I’m open to a showing that this was in part the result of poor tactics. As I think I’ve said before, though, I think a lot of this perception is based on an argument that’s clearly wrong. Bill James, in his lengthy account of the Royal’s World Championship in 1985, argued that Dick Howser outmaneuvered Cox in Game 7 by compelling the later to make platoon substitutions in the early innings. He repeated this criticism in his own excellent book on managers, and I think he has elsewhere. The thing is, though, that the criticism is transparently incorrect — James is viewing this through the lens of a Royals fan still smarting over Quisenberry blowing game 2 by giving up hits to left-handed line-drive hitters who were a terrible matchup for him. So while I understand why James was happy to see Mulliniks and Oliver pulled from Game 7 early, two points seem pertinent:

  • The Blue Jays lost 6-2.  They didn’t lose the game because of the marginal impact of some managerial moves.
  • Cox’s decision to put in his right-handed platoon players after Saberhagen got pulled was pretty obviously right.  Liebrandt, after all, pitched 5 1/3 innings.  Particularly when you consider that Johnson was a better hitter than Oliver and Mulliniks had a lifetime .642 OPS against lefties, leaving his left-handed platoon in just in case they could face Quisenberry in a game situation would have been insane.

Again, if anyone has done a careful analysis of later years showing that Cox screwed up a lot of big games I’m happy to see it.  But his reputation for a poor post-season tactician seems to rest on large measure on a game where his decisions were quite clearly correct.

One final note: Tom Kelly’s impact was modestly positive, at +75.  He was very good at constructing defenses, but wasn’t great working with hitters (as Jaffe says, his teams had the worst Beane count of any long-term manager.)  It’s true that he won two World Championships, but one of those was with a team that had a solid core of young offensive talent and won 85 games.  (I’ll guarantee that Cox’s postseason record would look a lot better if he managed his whole career only one series away from the World Series.)  Kelly was a decent manager, better at his best than that total impact would indicate, but he wasn’t in the same league as Cox or LaRussa.

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