Among baseball’s many virtues is the wealth of statistical data that it produces. At least this is the virtue for economists.
Yet despite this wealth of data, it is difficult to determine who is the best manager using the available statistics. The leading home run hitter is obvious. So is the winningest pitcher. The league MVP is debatable—but the debate generally reduces to an analyzable statistic of one sort or other. Determining the best manager, however, is a much trickier proposition.
Exactly what does a manager do? Set the lineup? Change pitchers? Call for a hit and run? Or do they just inspire the players to perform their best? And how do we measure their success? Is it simply the number of wins? If so, then Connie Mack would be the greatest manager of all time with 3,731. But he also has the most losses (3,948), so maybe he is also the worst manager.
As an economist, I am interested in efficiency. The best manager is the one who produces the most with the talent he is given. After all, how hard can it be to manage the deep-pocket Yankees, who can purchase the best players each year to satisfy their manager’s every desire? What a dream for a manager. Need a cleanup hitter? Enter Mark Teixeira. A mound ace? Enter C.C. Sabathia. Each earns upward of $20 million per year. Quality does not come cheap, but cost is no object when your average ticket sells for $98 and your television revenue rivals the GDP of some nations.
Managing the Yankees is easy. Just buy the best players and put them in the lineup. But what if you have to manage the Brewers? What if you don’t get to spend a fortune to pluck the best talent from the rest of the league, but you have to manage on a budget? After all, the owner of a team is looking for a return on his investment, so producing on a budget is not a crazy concept.
If efficiency—getting the best output from your available inputs—matters, which it should, then Ron Roenicke is your man. He was the best manager in baseball in 2011 because he was the most efficient. The manager can only work with the players he is provided, but it is his job to make the most of the situation. Let’s consider the job the Brewers’ skipper did this year.
First of all, the Brewers won 96 games, capturing the central division crown and securing home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It’s hard to ask for more than that. Consider that Roenicke, in his first year at the helm, accomplished this with a lineup that was largely unchanged from the same team that won only 77 games the previous year. That accomplishment alone merits serious consideration for Roenicke.
When we consider what he had to work with, Roenicke looks even better. The Brewers had the 17th highest payroll this year, but only two teams managed to win more games, and both spent more than double what the Brewers did to win those additional games. At a cost of a mere $890,000 per win, only the Arizona Diamondbacks made the playoffs at a lower cost per win than the Brewers did. Compare that to the more than $2 million the Yankees spent on each win for a first-round playoff exit, or the $1.8 million per win the Red Sox spent for the privilege of watching the playoffs from home.
Under Roenicke, the Brewers won often, and they won where it counted most—at home. Winning on the road is nice, but winning at home is better. The home team gets a bigger percentage of the gate, the media revenue and the luxury box rental, and each of those is positively correlated with winning. They also get the concession and parking income, both of which are determined by attendance. The economics of winning are simple: If you have to lose, do it on the road. If you’re going to be dominant, do it at home, as Milwaukee did this year when they were a league best 57-24 in their home ballpark.
The fans responded, all 3.1 million of them. The Brewers were one of only nine teams that drew more than 3 million fans. And Milwaukee is by far the smallest of the cities that accomplished that feat, all because of the marvelously efficient job Ron Roenicke did as manager. Not only did he lead the Brewers to victory, he did it where it was most valuable to the team. That’s a production every boss would love to have.
Michael Haupert is a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse.
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