LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – When the 15 American League and 15 National League managers, clad in designer sport coats and expensive shoes, assembled Wednesday afternoon for their annual group pictures at the baseball winter meetings, someone who didn’t know any better might have wondered whether they were actually players gathering for their team pictures, with all those youthful faces and bodies interspersed with a few older ones.
Some familiar faces were absent from the photo lineups this year, among them Dusty Baker, John Farrell and Joe Girardi, all of them fired by teams – the Washington Nationals, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, respectively — that made the playoffs this fall, and replaced by managers who are, on average, 12 years younger. All told, six teams changed managers this offseason, and all but one hired someone significantly younger than his predecessor.
As a result, the fraternity of current big league managers is younger on average than perhaps at any other time in recent memory. Seven managers, including four of the new hires, are the same age or younger than Ichiro Suzuki, the free agent outfielder who intends to play this season at age 44. And an eighth, Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is just a year older.
These new managers don’t sound much like the older ones they replaced. Sometimes they say things such as: “All of the various departments around a baseball organization are the soil, and our players are the plants and the trees that are going to grow in that soil. … So as I think about managing a ballclub, I think about being really nutrient-dense soil.”
That was Gabe Kapler of the Philadelphia Phillies, a 42-year-old first-time manager who replaced 66-year-old Pete Mackanin. Two of the Phillies’ rivals in the NL East also changed managers, with the Nationals going from the 68-year-old Baker to the 53-year-old Dave Martinez, and the New York Mets pivoting from Terry Collins, who is 68, to Mickey Callaway, who is 42.
Meanwhile, the two AL East titans, the Red Sox and Yankees, replaced their veteran managers with untested rookies — Alex Cora, 42, and Aaron Boone, 44, respectively — whose primary post-playing careers had been as television commentators. (Cora did spend 2017 as the Houston Astros’ bench coach.)
“There’s a saying in the industry that you have to pay your dues to get to the big leagues. Maybe we pay our dues through [working in] the media,” Cora said. “People think that that’s an easy job, [that] it’s just, ‘Get behind that desk and put that tie on and just talk baseball.’ It doesn’t work that way, man. The way I see it, that prepares us for [managing]. … You had to be prepared. You only have an hour to let the [viewers] know what you know about the game, how you feel about certain situations. I think it was good school for us.”
The new wave of managers this offseason has also altered the sport’s racial makeup in the dugout. Four of the six new hires were white, but the hirings of Cora and Martinez has tripled the number of Latino managers. (They join Rick Renteria of the Chicago White Sox.) The Nationals’ dismissal of Baker leaves Roberts as the sport’s only African American manager.
Cleveland Indians skipper Terry Francona, 58, said some of the new, fresh-faced managers – including two, Boston’s Cora and Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash, 41, who played under him and who count him as a mentor — are “shortcutting” the traditional pathways to getting those jobs, but he doesn’t hold a grudge about it.
“You know, it’s not necessarily the route that some of us took,” said Francona, who managed in the minors for five years and spent one year as the Detroit Tigers’ third base coach before getting his first big league managing job in 1997. “But it doesn’t mean they won’t be really good, because they’re obviously really qualified.”
It’s no coincidence that so many teams this offseason sought younger managers from non-traditional pathways. It has been an industry trend for several years now – fueled largely by front offices that are increasingly led by analytics-driven general managers — and one that undoubtedly accelerated after 43-year-old A.J. Hinch led the Houston Astros to the World Series title this season, beating the Dodgers and skipper Roberts, 45.
Hinch, a former catcher with a psychology degree from Stanford, may have been the prototype for this trend, when he was named manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009 at age 35 – a move widely criticized at the time because Hinch, who had been working in the Diamondbacks’ front office but who had no coaching or managing experience, was seen as someone who hadn’t paid his dues.
The trend toward younger, less traditionally groomed managers has been fueled by a fundamental change in the way front offices view that job. With more teams’ baseball operations now headed by analytics-driven general managers, strategic decisions that once belonged to the field manager – such as making out the lineup, shifting the defense and even deciding when to lift the starting pitcher – have been taken over by the “quants” in the analytics department.
As a result, the job of manager is increasingly viewed as that of a clubhouse custodian – some in the industry deride the role as “middle management” – whose primary attributes are a sunny personality, a natural manner with the media and a knack for relationship-building, and whose primary duty is to receive the front office’s strategic initiatives and sell them to the players. And if the idea is to be relatable to the players, it stands to reason a younger manager would be better at that.
“I think that’s one of the reasons that you’re seeing some younger managers — that maybe some of the older-school guys [were] reluctant to adapt to some of the analytics,” said Oakland A’s Manager Bob Melvin, 56. “And now, I think maybe some of the organizations are bringing in some younger guys that they can [mold] along those lines. [The job] now is looked at as you’ve got to have good relationships with the players.”
Indeed, the days of the crusty, old, iron-fisted skipper, holed up in his office amid a cloud of cigarette smoke, are long gone. In Melvin’s rookie year as a player, with the 1985 Detroit Tigers, his manager was the late Sparky Anderson, perhaps the purest distillation of the nearly extinct old-school skipper.
“When I was a rookie, I didn’t go up to Sparky and sit down next to him and talk to him for 15 or 20 minutes before the game,” Melvin said. “He was kind of a guy that I kind of stayed away from.”
It’s difficult to imagine someone like Anderson speaking openly with his players about “loving and sharing and feelings,” as Arizona’s Torey Lovullo said he does, or making a point of visiting with all 25 players on his team before every game, as Roberts does with the Dodgers. It’s also safe to assume Anderson never equated his players with plants or himself with “nutrient-dense soil,” as Philadelphia’s Kapler did.
At the same time, one can only wonder what Anderson would have said to a youthful, Ivy League-educated GM who tried to dictate his batting order or tell him when to pull his starting pitcher. But it is fun to imagine.
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