From Terry Francona to Tony La Russa, why there’s no such thing as the best manager in baseball

Rob Carr/GETTY IMAGES - Former Red Sox Manager Terry Francona went from beloved to blamed in the course of a season.

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on the best managers in baseball today.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool baseball guy. I went to my first major league game in 1949 at Griffith Stadium to watch the Washington Senators play, and still upon occasion nostalgically don my No. 3 Mickey Vernon itchy, all-wool replica jersey. In 1954 I attended the glorious welcoming parade for the former St. Louis Browns, turned Baltimore Orioles—and subsequently listened to every inning of  the Birds’ first World Series triumph in 1966 on MARS radio from Da Nang, Vietnam.

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Add it up, and I’ve got more than half a century of dead-certain opinions on everything baseball. So you’d think I would be quick to tell you who the best manager in baseball is these days.

But turns out, my favorite hobby is statistical calculations—though I’m no baseball-metrics guru—and, well, the studies on what managers contribute to their teams over the long haul spit in the eyes of us old, self-certain, fast-talking fans.

I unearthed a bushel of analyses, though conflicting and inconclusive, which all in all suggest that over a lengthy career, an effective manager is worth about one more win per year than the team would otherwise have. I also seem to remember a study a while back that put Atlanta’s recently retired Bobby Cox at the top the heap—worth, as I recall, a staggering two incremental wins per season during his amazing run with the Braves.

Even though murky, this makes a bit of a mockery of top-manager selection. To be sure, in a given season a manager might, like a player (or a big-bank CEO), have a hot year. But over the long haul, a contribution worthy of labeling “stellar” is questionable.

I grew up in Annapolis with my Senators and Orioles, and then spent 35 years in the San Francisco Bay Area with our Giants and Oakland A’s. But now I’m a Vermonter. And we are required by state law, or so it feels, to dote unquestioningly on the Red Sox. I do try.

Which brings us to the Great Disaster of 2011.

Among other things, Terry Francona seems to have gone from best manager to something like worst manager in the course of 180 turbulent days. (See my point about “sound” analyses of managerial excellence?) Although the excuses are numerous, the favored explanation for the Sox fall from grace is that Mr. Francona “lost control of the clubhouse,” where, among other things, off-duty pitchers were allegedly drinking.

Frankly, I don’t know how any of the modern-day major league managers and coaches—in any sport—ever do keep even a semblance of “control” of their clubhouses. They’re chock-a-block with kids just out of their teens with stratospheric salaries often tied to rock-hard, long-term contracts. Even a passel of saints might well turn into a cauldron of prima donnas.

A few bosses have seemed able to keep their charges under control from one year to the next—for example, raging Patriots coach Bill Belichick in modern-day football and zenmaster Phil Jackson in modern-day basketball. Well, at least until last year.

In baseball, the one who has consistently done the trick, with no peer, would be Joe Torre during his Yankees stint. His unflappability in the face of sports’ highest payroll and most volatile owner was, to me, staggering. But what works in one situation may not in another, such as, say, Los Angeles. Perhaps over a career, Torre will be deemed one of those super-managers who added a full 0.9 wins to his teams’ annual performance!

Add all this up, toss in my purported expertise in observing what makes organizations tick, and I can say for certain that I don’t have a clue about best and worst managers in 2011. Or any other year, for that matter.

So instead, I’ll fall back on the old diehard-fan subjectivity. In my Bay Area years, I retained my American League roots and leaned a little toward the A’s (though I wore a double-billed cap to the ‘89 World Series—only in San Fran, eh?). As an A’s devotee, I became an avowed Tony La Russa fan. Mr. La Russa seems to have done more than he might have in 2011, so he gets my affectionate nod.

But as I said, in the end I really don’t have a clue.

Tom Peters is a management expert, co-author of In Search of Excellence and author, most recently, of The Little BIG Things .

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