How much impact do managers really have on their teams?
Joe Torre, Tony La Russa among top managers who could be free agents soon
There's too much gray area about decision-making to accurately judge managers
A manager's biggest impact is deciding who to put on the field every day
Lou Piniella's recent and somewhat sudden retirement as Cubs manager last Sunday has made managerial maneuverings a hot topic, and appropriately so. With Piniella's departure, the Cubs became the sixth team to change managers this season, only two of which have yet committed to a new skipper beyond the end of this season. Meanwhile, seven other managers are in the final months of their contracts, including Bobby Cox of the first-place Braves and Cito Gaston of the Blue Jays, both of whom have announced they are stepping down at season's end. Rounding out the group are Ron Washington, skipper of the first-place Texas Rangers, and the big-name quartet of Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, Dusty Baker and Joe Girardi, who have a combined 13 pennants between them, and three of whom are still deeply involved in this year's pennant races. Add in the Mets' Jerry Manuel and the A's Bob Geren, who have options for 2011 that have yet to be picked up, and exactly half of the teams in the majors will have had to make decisions about who their 2011 manager will be between July 28 of this year, when the Orioles gave Buck Showalter a four-year deal to be their new skipper, and next Opening Day.
All of which begs the question: Just what kind of impact does a manager have on a team's performance anyway? In the essential 2006 book Baseball Between the Numbers, analyst James Click tried to tease some signs of managerial impact out of the statistical record but came up empty. After examining the measurable impact of in-game strategies (bunting, stolen bases, intentional walks), wins and losses relative to run differential, playing time distribution, in-game substitutions (pinch-hitters, relief pitchers, and defensive replacements), and direct impact on player performance (coaching), Click was unable to find evidence of a repeatable skill in any one of those five areas for any of the 456 managers he studied. That is to say that, much like clutch hitting, individual performances varied so much from season to season that the results appeared to be as much the result of chance as anything else.
The comparison to clutch hitting is apt here. The analytical stance on clutch-hitting is often misrepresented along the lines of "those eggheads don't believe clutch hitting exists." That's not exactly true. If a batter hits a three-run homer in the ninth inning with his team trailing by two runs, that is undeniably a clutch hit. However, the statistical record strongly suggest that clutch hitting for the most part is not a repeatable skill. In part because of the small sample sized involved, a player's performance in clutch situations will vary too much from season to season for that performance to be considered a meaningful indicator of future performance. Over the length of a career, as that sample size grows, those performances will trend toward the player's baseline level of production. Consider Derek Jeter, a.k.a. Captain Clutch, who early in his career was lauded for coming up big in the postseason. Now that he has had roughly a full season worth of postseason plate appearances (637 PA in 138 games) we can see that his performance in the postseason (.313/.383/.479) has been roughly equivalent to his career performance in the regular season (.315/.385/.455).
However, in a 2004 article in The Baseball Research Journal, Bill James famously, and controversially, described this method of determining the persistence of a phenomenon as "the Fog," as in "just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not there." Indeed, in Baseball Between the Numbers, Nate Silver did manage to tease out some minutely measurable amount of repeatable clutch hitting ability. Though no similar breakthrough has occurred in the field of managerial evaluation, both James and BP, in their respective annual publications The Bill James Handbook and Baseball Prospectus, have begun to list managerial statistics as best as they can compile them.
The problem is that even those purely cumulative statistics contain a significant amount of gray area. In tallying the in-game strategies of the 2,430 regular season baseball games played every year, it is impossible to definitively determine when a sacrifice bunt or pitchout was called from the bench or instigated by the players on the field, when a runner in motion was stealing or part of a hit-and-run, whether a base stealer was explicitly told to go or simply had a "green light," when a sign for any of those tactics was missed or misinterpreted, when a day-to-day injury, illness or even absence rendered a top pinch-hitting or relief pitching option unavailable, or when an in-game injury prompted a substitution. Lacking the ability to accurately determine exactly what a manager is up to, it is no surprise that it has thus far proven impossible to determine exactly what impact he has had.
It's interesting to note, however, that Click's 2006 study did make one relatively firm conclusion regarding the impact of certain in-game decisions. "Only six times in thirty-three years has any manager used sacrifice attempts, stolen base attempts, and intentional walks to increase his team's win expectation over an entire season. Even the best managers cost their team more than a game per season by employing these tactics. At worst they can cost a team three games per season." Over multiple seasons, no manager employed those tactics for a positive effect.