What Kind of Player Makes a Good Manager?

by Whitey Stengel, Baseball Evolution

October 13, 2005

 

And What Makes a Good Manager Anyway?

 

Let's play a game, shall we? I am going to give you the career stats of 8 of the most significant major leaguers of this past season. Each of these major leaguers played a vital role in their team's success, each of these major leaguers is generally given credit for the level of their team's play, and each of them took their teams to the post-season. See if, based on their career stats, you can figure out who they are:

 

 

Player

Position

Experience

OPS+

AVG

OBP

SLG

Player

1

SS

16 seasons

69

0.264

0.287

0.338

Player

2

C

13 seasons

99

0.259

0.344

0.356

Player

3

2B

176 at-bats

54

0.199

0.292

0.250

Player

4

2B/3B

16 seasons

99

0.260

0.323

0.389

Player

5

C/1B

18 seasons

129

0.297

0.365

0.452

Player

6

1B/OF

10 seasons

81

0.274

0.300

0.351

Player

7

C

802 at-bats

92

0.239

0.298

0.388

Player

8

3B

628 at-bats

87

0.225

0.310

0.309

 

If by my conspicuous labeling of these players as "major leaguers," you figured out that these are not current players, that is very good they are not. These are the statistics of the eight major league managers who led their teams into this year's post-season. (To see who each player is, go to the bottom of the page)[i]

 

Why do I bring this up? you may ask. Simple. I bring this up in the spirit of something I believe Earl Weaver once said about bad players making good managers, or vice versa, or whatever. Anyway, as we all know, one of the finest young managers in the game today is Eric Wedge, who was a hotshot catching prospect in the early 1990s with the Red Sox, but was out of major league baseball by 1994. A little more than a decade later, Eric Wedge has turned the Cleveland Indians around to the tune of 93 wins this season, and a near-miss run at the title. Wedge, by the way, is 37 years old, which means (fill in Julio Franco reference here).

 

As we can see above, Earl Weaver's sage comment (or rather the sentiment I have attributed to him whether correctly or otherwise) seems to resonate amongst this year's crop of playoff managers only Player # 5 was a "good ballplayer" (that will be important later).

 

Another bit of conventional, yet not completely verified, wisdom advises that former catchers make good managers (Wedge is 2 for 2 at this point). As we see above, there is a good representation of catchers (3 out of 8), but certainly not a dominant position. In fact, player #5 (again, this will be important later) did not even spend his entire career as a catcher.

 

What is somewhat surprising (to me at least the average reader may have anticipated this, in which case I am an idiot) is that infielders are very well represented. In fact, there is not an outfielder amongst this group (player #6 spent about a third of his games out there). In actuality, this may be an obvious result of the fact that outfielders are not nearly as involved in the game as infielders and catchers, and thus don't ply the subtleties of the game which make for a good manager as regularly as the infielders and the catchers (I would be willing to bet that most hitting instructors are former outfielders, but that answer need not be answered here as the issue is not before me).

 

What I think is most surprising is the fact that, while bad players certainly seem to make good managers (perhaps more appropriately, good managers often happen to have been bad players), these managers were, nonetheless, major league players. Is this some bias towards employing retired major leaguers? Some sort of collusion amongst major league good ole boys designed to insure that former pals are taken care of? Or perhaps a ploy by general managers to insure that a recognizable face is at the helm of their team?

 

I don't think so. If you think about it (and I am sure you have), you'll realize that all bad major league players have two things in common they all spend a lot of time on the bench, and they all have to work very hard to stay in the big leagues.

 

Think about it who works harder on the San Francisco Giants, Barry Bonds or the 25th player on the roster? Sure, Barry Bonds works hard, but he knows what he is doing. But the 25th guy on the roster has to really work. He has to try anything to better his marginal skills. He has listen to any coach who will spend some time with him. He has to watch film of himself, analyzing, figuring out what works, and what doesn't. And constantly. Never actually getting better, they are constantly trying new things out. It would seem to me (and this is just a theory) that constantly analyzing yourself would create a very analytical approach to the game, and an appreciation for fundamentals. Things like breaking down a swing, focusing on better fielding, better positioning, better training, better off-season routines, etc. The good players stay fit, stay in shape, and practice regularly, but the bad players have to constantly analyze every aspect of the game. Which person would you rather have at the helm of your team? (Is it any surprise that the most natural of talents, Ted Williams, was terrible as a manager?).

 

So, what is it that makes a good manager, then? I do not know, but I know what I have seen, and I know what has impressed me. For example, what impresses me is the way manager number 8 has regularly lost players, pitchers and hitters, to free agency and yet has repeated developed young guys and retreads while leading the Atlanta Braves to the 15 NL East Division titles. I am also impressed by a guy like manager #7, who has a team full of marginally talented, and often injured players, plus under achieving pitchers, and yet managed to guide the San Diego Padres to their third NL West Division title in 9 years.

 

I find myself very impressed with manager # 3, who led the Oakland Athletics to three straight World Series in the late 1980s, and then came over the St. Louis Cardinals and has since won 4 NL Central division titles in the last six years while overseeing the development of one of the greatest young players in baseball history. He was particularly impressive this season, winning 100 games despite injuries to two of his star players.

 

Also impressive is manager #4 who, for the second year in a row, led the Houston Astros to a fantastic second half after a dismal start and for the second year in a row finds himself in the National League Championship Series. This consistent success and a return trip to his league's League Championship Series is also a quality that impresses me about manager #2, who despite his merely solid pitching staff and disappointing offensive seasons from his free agent acquisitions has managed to instill in each Anaheim Angel a sense of their role on their team.

 

Much to my chagrin, I must also admit to being impressed with the exploits of manager #1, whom Scott and I heckled mercilessly from only a few feet away in Spring Training when he was a third base coach for the Marlins. Manager #1's team, long a power-hitting but under-achieving squad, served as the poster-team for the return to the hard nose, pitching and defense, speed and sacrifice of the pre-offensive explosion era. Manager #1 got peak performance out of no fewer than 5 marginal players this season, and managed to hold his team together long enough to survive what was almost a catastrophic collapse before finally winning the AL Central division in the last weekend of the season.

 

Yet another example of a good manager is manager #6. Although eliminated in the first round by manager #1's team this season, no one can forget how manager #6 ended 86 years of cursed baseball by the Boston Red Sox last season. As if winning the World Series alone would not have insured that he would forever be immortalized in the hearts and minds of Bostonians, his team did it by overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS, an unprecedented feat which would give even the most leather skinned rough neck the goose-bumps.

 

Which brings us to Manager #5. Manager #5, of course, has had a great deal of success during his time with his team, going to the World Series 4 times in 5 years, winning the AL East 9 times out of the last ten years, and winning 87 or more games in each of the last ten seasons. But, are we that impressed with Manager #5's credentials?

 

Of course, we have to be somewhat impressed with Manager #5 his record demands it. But his record does not survive closer scrutiny. He won the World Series in his first year with the team, a victory made famous because it was the first of two teams to win the World Series the season AFTER firing Buck Showalter. This is simply a coincidental, chicken-or-the-egg, half-empty-half-full thing. But it is a good place to start the analysis.

 

Manager #5 does win a lot of games, but for good reason his teams have had BY FAR the biggest payroll in the Major Leagues during his tenure. In fact, when you consider the consistency with which Manager #5's team has snatched up high priced talent, it is somewhat remarkable that he has not managed to win more World Series than he has. But remarkable and surprising are not the same word, and upon a closer look the reasons for his teams continued come up shortness is actually quite evident.

 

Manager #5's team is a team laden with incongruities. While the team has spent oodles of money on high priced pitchers (Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina, Jaret Wright, David Wells, Orlando Hernandez, Jose Contreras, David Cone) and high priced hitters (Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Chuck Knoblauch), Manager #5 has failed to remedy the one obvious defect with his team up the middle defense. Bernie Williams has, for years, been an inferior defensive center fielder. Derek Jeter (despite messing his face up by diving into the stands) has been ridiculed for his defense almost just as long as Bernie. Second base has been an on-going joke defensely for Manager #5, as he has moved from one defensive disaster to another, mowing through defensive liabilities Knoblauch, Luis Sojo, and Alfonso Soriano, before landing with halfway decent Robinson Cano this season. This up the middle issue was demonstrated most recently by the embarrassing collision between Bubba Crosby and Gary Sheffield in right center field which led to an Adam Kennedy two run triple, and an Angels lead which they held for the rest of the deciding Game Five of the opening round of the American League playoffs.

 

Other than his apparent inability to make adjustments where they are most clearly needed the most, Manager #5 has also failed to demonstrate an ability to develop players. Though he is often hailed as one of the greatest clutch hitters in post-season history (an overrated and overblown distinction), Derek Jeter has never materialized into the five tool player Yankees fans like to think he is. The two Cuban pitching phenoms signed by the Yanks in recent years, Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez, never realized their potential, and Hideki Irabu spent an embarrassing three years with the Yanks after a celebrated arrival before the Yanks let him go. The 2005 Yankees had four starters developed by the organization in Jeter, Posada, Cano, and Williams, and the team hasn't developed a pitcher since 1995 produced Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.

 

Manager #5 does an excellent job of taking what he is given. Unlike manager #1, he has not instilled a team philosophy in his players (no, Yankees fans, "winning" is not a philosophy). Unlike Manager #8, he has not demonstrated an ability to develop young players or get top performance out of lesser players. His teams lack the understanding of fundamentals and their roles on their team which manager #2's team has demonstrated.

 

In short, Manager #5 has demonstrated little in the way of managing. Rather, Manager #5 seems instead to sit on the bench, and wait to see what his high-priced talent is going to do, taking no active role in the game or attempting to personally have an effect on the way his team plays. He watches while his players play, and he lives with the outcome of their efforts, doing nothing to remedy that which ails his team.

 

It is actually not surprising that George Steinbrenner regularly discusses firing Manager #5. Imagine what Managers 4, 6, or 8 could do with a team that was constantly able to resign its free agents while also bringing in addition firepower every year.

 

In the end, while Manager #5's statistics as a player put him at the top of the list of these players turned managers, his credentials as a manager most definitely put him at the bottom.

 

Perhaps Earl Weaver was correct.

 



[i] 1. Ozzie Guillen; 2. Mike Scioscia; 3. Tony LaRussa; 4. Phil Garner; 5. Joe Torre; 6. Terry Francona; 7. Bruce Bochy; 8. Bobby Cox