How much impact do managers really have? (cont.)
That supports the belief that the best baseball manager is one with a strong roster who is smart enough to let his players play and stay out of the way. Think sabermetric hero and Hall of Fame Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who often said he managed for the three-run homer (which is to say, he let his hitters hit), or Charlie Manuel, the hitter-friendly manager of the two-time defending National League champion Phillies.
Rather, a manager's most important job is widely believed to be the distribution of playing time. It's intuitively true that a manager is only as good as the players he's given, but a good manager can get more out of those players than a bad manager by knowing when, how, and how much to deploy those players. One of the secrets to Casey Stengel's success with the Yankees, which he passed down directly to Billy Martin, was his knack for maximizing performance through the use of platoons, a tactic he himself picked up from having been platooned by John McGraw as a lefty-hitting outfielder for the Giants in the early 1920s (Stengel's best season came in 1922 when he made just 10 plate appearances in games started by left-handed pitchers).
Consider the impact Gaston had when he returned to the Blue Jays in June 2008. The Jays had gone 35-39 (.473) under John Gibbons, but surged to 51-37 (.580) under Gaston. Part of the reason for that change was Gaston benching David Eckstein, still playing shortstop under Gibbons, in favor of Marco Scutaro, calling up Adam Lind to take over in left field for the past-date trio of Shannon Stewart, Brad Wilkerson and Kevin Mench, and dropping a then-struggling Scott Rolen down to sixth in the batting order. Gibbons could have done the same, but he didn't.
Of course, as Showalter is already discovering with the Orioles, who have won just four of their last eleven games under their new skipper, such improvements can be fleeting. The Jays went 78-51 (.605) in Gaston's first 129 games back at the helm of the Jays, but just .48-73 (.397) over the next 121 through the end of the 2009 season, and 125 games into this season have effectively split the difference at 66-60 (.524).
Distributing playing time extends to the deployment of pinch-hitters and relief pitchers as well as to the batting order, which at its most basic level is a way of distributing plate appearances, with each successive spot receiving roughly 20 fewer plate appearances than the one above it over the course of a full season and the leadoff spot receiving about 150 more chances at the dish than the ninth-place in the order. Certainly the deployment of the right players can have a huge impact on team performance, but the degree to which we can credit even those decisions to the field manager remains difficult to discern.
Just as we can't be sure when a certain in-game tactic is being ordered by the manager or enacted by players acting on their own (or missing signs), we cannot be sure to what degree a manager is pulling the strings regarding playing time and other broader strategies and to what degree they are being pulled from above by the front office. The A's under general manager Billy Beane are notorious for handing down lineups and other specific instructions to their field managers, and the Red Sox since the arrival of Theo Epstein have a similar reputation. In a very different way, the late George Steinbrenner was known to order his managers, including Martin, to bench or play a given player based on anecdotal evidence at best.
Many mangers and general managers work together to maximize their 25-man roster, but not all managers get their way. It was Brian Cashman, not Joe Torre, who finally and mercifully took the Yankees center field job away from a badly aging Bernie Williams in early 2005 and installed Robinson Cano at second base and Chien-Ming Wang in the starting rotation, and when Torre wanted Williams back in 2007, it was Cashman who refused to offer the faded Yankee great more than a non-roster invite to spring training, an invitation the proud Williams declined, likely to Cashman's relief. Similarly, Billy Martin famously wanted Joe Rudi, not Reggie Jackson, from the first big free agent class in the winter of 1976, calling in to question just how much credit Martin deserves for the Yankees 1977 world championship.
Given all of that, it seems impossible to make any sweeping generalizations about the impact of managers as a group. It makes little sense try to credit Whitey Herzog and Art Howe, for example, with a similar level of influence on their teams' fortunes. Herzog, who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame last month as a manger, was both manager and GM of the Cardinals in 1981and Howe "was hired to implement the ideas of the front office, not his own," as then-A's GM Sandy Alderson told author Michael Lewis in Moneyball. Perhaps that's why even the best-paid managers in baseball -- Torre, La Russa, Piniella -- make roughly as much as a well-paid set-up reliever. For instance, Torre's current contract pays him an annual average of $4.3 million; the Dodgers are playing lefty reliever George Sherrill $4.5 million this year.
According to WXRL, Baseball Prospectus' cumulative win-expectancy based statistic for relief pitchers, the best set-up man in a given season (the White Sox' Matt Thornton last year, the Red Sox' Daniel Bard this season) is worth between four and five wins. According to the market, the best baseball manager isn't worth any more than that. We can't prove that that's true, but I'm willing to believe it.
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