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Matt Williams and Evaluating Baseball Managers

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Matt Williams

Dead manager walking Matt Williams has been putting on a clinic on bad in-game tactics, culminating last night in having  Anthony Rendon bunt on a 3-1 count in front of Bryce Harper in the 9th inning.   And yet, it’s not really has tactics that are the reason why he’s a miracle away from losing his job.  Ned Yost is nobody’s idea of a master tactician, but since the Royals figure to finish 15 or so games ahead of where they were projected at the beginning of the year, he’s not going anywhere.  And the thing is, he seems to be good at things that are more important than in game-tactics: evaluating and motivating talent and constructing a bullpen.  (You can live with having excessively rigid bullpen roles when everyone in your bullpen is unhittable.)

Because the effect of managers on player performance cannot be determined with scientific precision in a given year, analytic types tend not to take it seriously.  The favorite sabermetric method of evaluating managers is to compare the teams record with the Pythagorean record.  For the reasons Bill James outlined in his fine book about managing, I’m skeptical of the approach theoretically — a manager works through his talent, not against it.  The data compiled by Chris Jaffe’s even better book — the most important sabermetric work of the past decade — shows the effects to be not very large and unstable for the most part.   Still, if you look at the best records vs. Pythagorean expectations of all time, there’s a lot of good-to-oustanding managers there — McKechnie, Cox, Torre, Alston, Alou.  The managers on the list tend to be defense-first managers who are good with relievers, and I suspect this data may be a proxy for that, but…while it might be overrated it’s worth noting.

Still, by far a manager’s most important job is evaluating, developing, and motivating talent.  And both James’s team-level data and Jaffe’s more sophisticated data comparing player performance to projections make it clear that baseball players are not in fact the only people in the world who perform the same way regardless of who’s managing them.  A baseball player is simply not equally likely to play up to their potential whether they’re being coached up by Joe McCarthy or Bill Virdon.  Obviously, no manager wins without talent — Casey Stengel’s teams in Brooklyn and Brooklyn exceeded what could have been expected of them like his Yankees teams did, but obviously only one the latter won 7 World Series.  But “talent” can’t be neatly separated from coaching, in any sport.

Which brings us back to Matt Williams.  In a typically excellent piece on the Nationals, after noting the underachievement of much of the roster, Jonah Keri concludes:

When a team with big expectations disappoints, the blame inevitably falls on the manager’s head. The winner of the NL Manager of the Year award in his debut season last year, Matt Williams has come under heavy fire from fans and media for the Nationals’ struggles this season. Yet despite our best efforts, ascribing credit and blame to managers is still a tricky endeavor. If Williams was regarded as such a skilled leader a year ago, how and why did he suddenly and supposedly become so bad in that role in 2015?

As we saw during Game 4 of last year’s NLDS, Williams has struggled with bullpen management. His biggest problems are that he’s almost pathological about using specific relievers only in their pre-assigned roles, and he doesn’t think ahead well enough in tight situations. Granted, pretty much everyone still refuses to do things like use their closer in tie games on the road, but Williams has made the kind of little mistakes that eventually add up into big ones.

One stark example came in the July 31 Wilmer Flores Game: It went to 12 innings, the Nats lost, and neither newly acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon or former closer Drew Storen pitched. While Papelbon was stuck under the “don’t close until you can close” edict, Storen didn’t pitch because Williams didn’t want to use him three days in a row. He’s strictly an eighth-inning guy for Williams, so two nights earlier he pitched the eighth in a game Washington was winning by five runs. Because of the manager’s strict rules, then, one of his best relievers pitched in a game that was already salted away and couldn’t take the mound in a tie game against a direct rival.

Williams has also been frequently criticized for issuing too many intentional walks, but the Nats are right in line with the National League average. There could be deeper issues with when he’s issuing these freebies, but at that point, the effect on the team’s results would be minimal. And this is the problem with all the critiques of Williams: We don’t really know! There are problems with his bullpen management, but on the whole, Washington’s relief corps ranks in the top 11 in both Wins Above Replacement and FIP — better results than were expected at the start of the season. Much of the anti-Williams sentiment could very well be accurate, but right now it seems more representative of the issue with the team as a whole: The Nationals are a thoroughly mediocre team made up of very good players, and we’re still searching for reasons beyond, “Sometimes good players play poorly.”

I can understand why one wouldn’t want to much too much weight on Williams. There are obviously a lot of reasons why Washington has underachieved. However, it should be noted that — as James first showed and Jaffe confirms — the Nationals are following the most familiar pattern of managing. You might expect a generic manager — one who’s not a Maury Wills or cranky old Bobby Valentine-level flameout but doesn’t have sustained success — to have an essentially random impact on the team. But, actually, even under an ultimately not-very-good manager a team generally overachieves in its first season, but gives that back and more the next year. And it makes sense theoretically: every managerial approach is different, and the fresh approach can be expected to produce positive short-term results. But for all but the best managers, the diminishing returns set in quickly. I’m not saying Williams is solely responsible for the underachievement of the Nationals roster, or even primarily responsible — but he bears some of the responsibility. Maximizing performance is the most important part of a manager’s job.

It’s also worth noting that the biggest American league underachiever in terms of both objective and sophisticated subjective evaluations, the Mariners, also feature…a manager with an undistinguished resume in his second year, who overachieved in his first year. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but the evidence suggests that this it probably isn’t.

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