Keep up with the latest news, notes and developments with Fungoes, a daily journal for all things baseball that will last all season long.
Wild Card: How Will They Manage Without Them?
On June 18, the Orioles’ Sam Perlozzo became the first manager to lose his job this season. Two weeks later, Cincinnati’s Jerry Narron became the second. That same day Mike Hargrove stepped down as the manager of the Mariners, expressing a need to spend more time with his family. All of this got me to wondering about the effects of mid-season managerial changes.
The Mariners’ situation is unique. After three losing seasons (two of them under Hargrove), the team finds itself only 2.5 games out in the wild card race. Managers rarely step down in the midst of a contending season. Sure, Billy Martin resigned from the defending—and eventual—world champion Yankees in 1978, but the team was in third place, 10 games out, at the time, and Martin was forced out. Paul Richards resigned from the Orioles at the end of August in 1961, when the team was sporting a .578 winning percentage, but that was the year of the M&M Yankees and Richards’s Orioles were in third place, 11 games out. Meanwhile, the expansion Colt .45s had invited Richards to become their first-ever general manager. By contrast, Hargrove stunned the M’s by tendering his resignation in the middle of the playoff hunt. As general manager Bill Bavasi said, “It caught me off guard . . . I tried to talk him out of it. . . . This is not something that we were prepared for, that we wanted.”
Perlozzo and Narron, on the other hand, were piloting last-place teams that could hardly be said to be underperforming given their underwhelming rosters. I’ve been critical of Perlozzo’s inability to get top effort from his charges in the past, but there’s only so much he and Narron could have done with what they had. Reds GM Wayne Krivsky admitted as much when announcing Narron’s firing, saying “It comes down now to the performance of the team. I share in that . . . My job is to acquire talent, bring in talent, and he does what he can with what he has available to him.” Later, however, team owner Bob Castellini added, “We are still out there with an effort to put a contender on the field. . . . Have we given up on the season and putting a contender on the field? No. Is it reasonable to say we can overcome a 16-17-game deficit? The division isn't the strongest, but there would be a high probability that wouldn't pan out. That doesn't mean we're not going to attempt to put a contender on the field from now [through] the rest of the year.”
What are the chances that the Reds, who had .378 winning percentage and were 15.5 games out of the wild card and 17 games behind in the NL Central when Narron was fired, could suddenly turn into a playoff team as a result of a mid-season managerial change? Essentially none. In baseball’s modern era, no team with a losing record has ever fired its manager more than 70 games into the season and rallied to make the postseason. Remove the split-season playoff rules of the 1981 strike season and no losing team in the modern history of major league baseball has ever fired its manager more than 62 games into the season and rallied to make the postseason. The 2007 Orioles and Reds fired their managers after 69 and 82 games, respectively.
As if that weren’t discouraging enough, only four teams since 1900 have fired a manager with a losing record during the season and gone on to make the postseason, all of them coming after the arrival of divisional play (see chart, below). Prior to divisional play, the 1932 Cubs were the pennant winners that had the worst record at the point at which they fired their manager mid-season. Those Cubs had a .535 winning percentage after 99 games when they fired 36-year-old player-manager Rogers Hornsby (who was hitting .224/.357/.310 two years after a gruesome knee injury essentially ruined his career). The Cubs replaced Hornsby with first baseman Charlie Grimm, who not only hit a roughly league average .307/.349/.425, but led the team on a 37-18 (.673) run, taking them from five games behind in second place to a first place finish four games ahead of the Pirates and a World Series date with the Yankees, who swept the Cubs in a Series made famous by Babe Ruth’s called shot.
As for the Mariners, regardless of their postseason fates, it’s almost unprecedented for a team with a record as good as their .577 mark under Hargrove to change managers while still in contention. Indeed, only one playoff team has ever switched managers midseason with a record better than the .577 mark Seattle boasted when Hargrove resigned, and that team did so under very bizarre circumstances.
In the bifurcated 1981 strike season, Gene Michael led the Yankees to the first-half AL East title on the strength of a .607 winning percentage. When Michael’s charges started the second half with a 6-10 record, however, owner George Steinbrenner, who was then at his manager-devouring worst, meddled and hounded Michael to such a degree that Michael invited his own firing. Although the Yankees rebounded with an 8-2 stretch under Michael, Steinbrenner happily complied, replacing Michael with Bob Lemon, who had led the 1978 Yankees’ comeback after Billy Martin’s resignation. This time, however, Lemon stumbled to a paltry 11-14 record the rest of the way and, though he got the team through two rounds of playoffs and into the World Series, sweeping a grudge match against Martin's A’s along the way, Lemon oversaw a brutal World Series choke that ushered in a decade and a half of frustration and futility in the Bronx.
One wonders if Hargrove’s departure will have a similarly harmful effect on the fortunes of the overachieving Mariners. The M’s have started out 1-3 under replacement skipper John McLaren. As McLaren himself confessed after that lone win "We needed a win as a team. We went through a shock, me included, when Grover stepped down." As well they should have. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen.
posted by SI.com | View comments |
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)