There’s a Comment Policy for the site, which encourages people to be polite and inquisitive. It also spells out that this place is not a democracy. The goal is to be a benevolent dictatorship. Anyway, there’s a passage in the policy that’s in the front of my mind today after yesterday’s article and some of the comments. Here’s the graph:
I don’t care if you’ve been following the team since 1962. That by itself doesn’t make your opinion any better than someone who started following in 2015. Some of the best commenters at the site have been following the team since the 1960s and they bring with them their knowledge and experience. Some of the worst posters at the site have been following the team since the 1960s and think that makes them special. It doesn’t. Come here curious to learn new (or old) things and consider new (or old) ideas. If you think the only things that matter are Wins, RBIs and batting average – please go somewhere else. If you think everything is done better today than it was 40 years ago, you’re just as bad.
Yesterday’s article was about the manager and some questions and statements in the comments section specifically addressed how the role of manager has changed in the last 20-plus years. The greybeards among us remember a time when managers had absolute authority over what happened between the white lines. Today it seems like the manager’s role is much, much more likely to be carrying out orders from the front office.
In a way, this makes sense. MLB is a multi-billion-dollar business and companies that large don’t let middle managers make key decisions that affect the bottom line. The problem becomes when the front offices now making the decisions end up making rotten ones. Because that happens fairly often. In the old days, if a manager made a bad decision, he would get questioned about it immediately by the press and was held accountable. And if he made enough bad decisions, the GM would fire him.
But if the front office is making the decisions – how often does the press question them and ownership fire them? When’s the last time a beat reporter asked the GM why rotten bullpen moves continue to happen? You know the answer to that – never. Meanwhile, a quick Google search doesn’t show the number of GMs who get fired as opposed to those who step down. Recently we saw Phillies GM Matt Klentak “stepped down” after five years on the job and a record 56 games below .500 at 336-392. All of this despite aggressive moves that added high-price talent such as Jake Arrieta, Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Zack Wheeler and others to the roster.
Was the problem Klentak and the front office as GM or Klentak and the front office as manager?
Klentak inherited Pete Mackanin as manager and soon replaced him with Gabe Kapler. But then Kapler was dismissed – allegedly over the objections of Klentak – and Joe Girardi was brought on as the new skipper. If ownership dictated this change, that was a sure sign of the writing on the wall for Klentak. And when the team again fell short – needing to win two games in their final eight contests to make the playoffs and producing just one victory – the only question would be if Klentak would be allowed to announce he was stepping down.
But the Phillies seem to be the outlier in this regard. Previous Mets GM Sandy Alderson stepped down due to health concerns, along with being fed up with having to deal with the Wilpons. Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos got the gig after previous GM John Coppolella resigned due to his role in the team’s cheating scandal in the international free agent market. Marlins GM Mike Hill got the job following the 2015 season, after the Marlins replaced Dan Jennings after 13 years in the job. Jennings shot himself in the foot when he actually made himself manager. No, seriously, that really happened. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo got the gig in 2009 after previous GM Jim Bowden resigned after the Nationals were found to have their own international cheating operation.
GMs get replaced mainly due to things besides being lousy as managers. Even in Klentak’s case, one could make the argument that the money he spent on Arrieta and Harper, combined with his inability to sign Realmuto to an extension, played just as big of a role in his dismissal as the team’s record. And it was more Jennings’ decision to make himself manager and put on a uniform and sit in the dugout, rather than the team’s record, that ended his tenure. Two cheating scandals, a bizarre decision and a health scare.
So, if it doesn’t make sense to allow middle managers to make big decisions in a big-money business and letting the front office call all of the shots leads to a breakdown of the natural checks and balances of the game – how should the dynamic of the manager-GM function here in the 21st Century? Thanks to Eraff for posting this question in a comment on yesterday’s article.
It’s not an easy question to answer.
Billy Martin was a managerial genius, a guy who inherited a Twins team that went 79-83 and led them to a 97-65 record in his first MLB gig. His next stop was Detroit, a team that went 79-83 the year before he arrived and proceeded to win 91 games. Martin’s next job was in Texas where he took over in the final weeks of a team that lost 105 games. In his first full season at the helm, Martin led the Rangers to an 84-76 record. Martin took over the Yankees in midseason and the team won 83 games. In his first full year, the Yankees won 97 games. His final stop came in Oakland, where he took over a squad that went 54-108. Martin’s first season with the A’s the team went 83-79.
In his first full year on the job, Martin’s teams in five different locations all improved by double-digit games in the standings, a cumulative total of 100 games better than the year before. The problem was that Martin was a high-functioning alcoholic who couldn’t play well with others and maintain relationships with either players, GMs or owners in the long haul of things.
Davey Johnson took over a Mets team that went 68-94 and turned in a 90-72 record in his first MLB managerial job. Next up was a Reds team that he took over mid-year, one that ended up with a 73-89 record. In the first full year under Johnson, the Reds went 66-48 in the strike-shortened season of 1994, in first place when the season ended. His next gig was in Baltimore, which finished two games under .500 the year before Johnson arrived. His first team went 88-74. The Dodgers took a small step backwards in Johnson’s first year but the following season, they improved by nine games. In his final stop in Washington, Johnson took over mid-year for a team that went 80-81. First full year under Johnson, the Nats went 98-64.
Dusty Baker took over a Giants team that went 72-90 and turned in a 103-59 record his first year in the dugout. Importing Barry Bonds might have had a little something to do with that, though. In his next stop, Baker took over a Cubs team that went 67-95 and led them to an 88-74 record his first year on the job. It took a little while for the improvement to come in his next stop but Baker inherited a club that went 72-90 and the Reds’ win totals went from 74 to 78 to 91 under his guidance. The Nationals went from 83 wins to 95 wins in Baker’s first year. And now he took over a talented Astros team rocked by a cheating scandal and the loss of one ace to free agency and another to the IL and has them back in the ALCS.
These are three examples of managers having a substantial impact on teams in multiple locations. Tim McCarver once said that Bob Gibson was the luckiest guy around because he always pitched when the other team didn’t score runs. That same logic applies to these managers. And others, who likely had better people skills and were able to spend time in fewer locations.
The question should be: How can we get the results of these top-shelf managers without the baggage, or at least how to co-exist with their volatile personalities? That should be the goal of every club, not just to have a front office filled with Ivy League grads calling the shots.
Martin’s no longer with us but it seems to me that a shrewd front office would interview Johnson, Buck Showalter, Larry Dierker and every successful unemployed manager and pick their brains, trying to figure out what they did right. And wrong.
One of the hallmarks of leadership is to create an environment where talented people are given both the tools and the opportunity to succeed. There are different skills needed to be a successful GM than a successful manager. And maybe there’s something to be gleaned from a lifetime of riding busses in the minors and riding charter planes in the majors and dealing with ballplayers 24/7 that can’t be developed at Harvard or poring over spreadsheets.
Now, that’s not to put down analytics, which probably deserve an even bigger role in the game than they have currently. It’s just that there’s a human element, a “feel” to the job of manager that clearly guys like Baker, Johnson, Martin and others have or had. Maybe this “feel” can be studied and incorporated somehow. At the very least, it would be great if potential managers were made to simulate seasons with dugout moves they would make in real games. Too many managers seem overwhelmed with making moves on the fly.
A manager in MLB should never give a start to a reliever who has pitched one inning in the previous 12 months.
A manager in MLB should never bat a guy with a llfetime .305 OBP in the leadoff spot.
A manager in MLB should never think an ineffective SP is “cured” by one relief outing.
A manager in MLB should never make a guy a platoon player based on 20 PA.
A manager in MLB should (virtually) never use a middle reliever four times in six days.
So, maybe the GM/front office should have a list of rules that a manager either should or should not do. A list of 10 Commandments, if you will. Maybe there’s 10 “Thou shall nots” and 10 “Thou shall do” principles for the manager to follow. And then the GM should get out of the way and let his manager do the job. And the manager should have the freedom to question the wisdom of any of the tenets forced upon him.
Let’s say Jacob deGrom is cruising and is pulled after the seventh inning because his pitch count is 101 and one of the tenets is that no pitcher starts an inning after he’s thrown his 100th pitch. In the press conference after the game, the reporter asks, “Why did you remove deGrom when he was dealing?” The manager should be able to say, “I wanted to keep him in but I carried out the orders from above to not have a starter throw a new inning once he reached 100 pitches.”
We’ve now introduced creative friction into the equation. Is this guideline good? Should there be flexibility here? This friction is a good thing. My belief is that a static adherence to raw pitch counts is stupid and there needs to be healthy dialogue among various actors to come up with a better plan. If our manager is handcuffed by the front office over this – or any other – issue, the ones responsible for the plan should be held accountable.
There’s too much CYA action from all parties. The goal should be to win games and develop players, not shield oneself from blame and criticism. Despite a miserable performance as manager, Terry Collins shielded himself from blame and kept himself employed by the Mets for seven years. His ability to cash checks for that long is an indictment of the current system, given his team’s 551-583 record.
If there was more accountability, Collins would have been gone after 2012. And maybe they could have hired a Baker or Johnson or Showalter type who could get more out of their players.
The GM should give the manager guidelines but let him manage. The GM should be held responsible for his guidelines and he should hold the manager responsible for the decisions he makes. Some might argue that’s exactly how it’s done today. But if you really think that, then who are we blaming for the five “managerial” issues listed above? And why aren’t they being held responsible?