What is a manager worth?
In an era when baseball thinks it can calibrate everything, even the velocity at which the ball leaves the bat, there is still one unmeasured mystery — the value of the manager.
If you can figure it out, put a number on it in dollars or wins, you’ll have the game’s next theoretical breakthrough. But good luck. Others have tried in vain for 145 years.
The average major league salary is $3.4 million. The average rookie manager starts at about $1 million. An efficient market theorist would say a manager’s value must, therefore, be akin to a utility infielder or maybe 1 percent the value of his whole roster.
Yet no one in baseball, today or ever, believes such a thing. Announcing a new manager is accompanied by everything except a plume of white smoke. The Braves once made Bobby Cox their general manager, not their manager, so his bad players would not damage his reputation. When the team was deemed good enough, he moved into the dugout — theoretically a demotion — and stayed there the next 21 seasons.
The 21st-century manager generally has a lower profile and higher boiling point than most famous managers in the previous century, but he remains important because he is an extension of the analytical thinking of the entire organization. Like good upper-middle managers, they implement the business plan. Cox, with his front office background and ability to think organizationally rather than individually, was a partial prototype of the new, but he also kept his all-time-ejection-record flair of the old school.
When the Nationals switched from Davey Johnson to Matt Williams after last season, it was emblematic of the era. Johnson, one of the last of a breed, was a character, a performer, a maverick, an original thinker, a storyteller, an ego to contend with, a man who defined himself by his “baseball judgment” and regarded his views as better than those of anybody else in the room. So, sometimes, he was also a problem — or simply an unintentional impediment — because the value others might add wouldn’t fit his vision.
Williams, like Don Mattingly, Ryne Sandberg, Robin Ventura, Brad Ausmus, Kirk Gibson, Joe Girardi and others, earned fortunes as a player; he doesn’t need the money, he craves the aggravation — and the sense of being part of a team that extends from the front office and scouts, through minor league instructors and coaches. He’s a collaborator, an aggregator and a facilitator of organizational policy and wisdom — not the sole protagonist. He’s “we,” not “I.” He plays down his importance, treats his tactics as proprietary business advantages, not the subject of colorful stories about . . . well . . . himself. If he ever has to brace a player, it will be done privately, not in a dugout as done by Billy Martin.
That doesn’t make Williams colorless or corporate. It means that, like Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay, Mike Matheny in St. Louis and Terry Francona in Cleveland, he will ultimately not be judged on his ability to bring The Plan with him, but his ability to devise a plan with the sharpest minds and best evaluators in his franchise. This is the age in which general managers such as Theo Epstein and Billy Beane want their organization to win, and the manager, though central, needs to understand his place at an expanded table.
The role of modern managers, and therefore those who hold the jobs, has changed so completely in the past 30 years — as player salaries have rocketed — as to be unrecognizable. For generations, men such as John McGraw and Leo Durocher challenged players to a fist fight if all else failed. Or if they just felt like it. Once, Earl Weaver and Rick Dempsey, furious, threw equipment at each other in the dugout as the team looked on, laughing.
The last manager to try to punch a star player in plain view in his own dugout was probably Martin — in 1978, three years into free agency. Now, if Mattingly took a poke at $215 million ace Clayton Kershaw, there’d be lawyers lined up to Santa Monica.
Most managers are now former players who know the game at the broken-bone level but also grasp advanced statistical metrics. The range of skills and personal qualities requested is now so broad that, perhaps, no one actually has them all. Genius isn’t needed. It’s still just baseball. But you sure have to combine a lot of people in one skin.
A big league manager should blend knowledge of numbers with gut-level intuition about game situations and men under pressure. He leads and hands out discipline, yet also plays psychologist — both to the individual and the group. He speaks for the team, yet never plays. He is at the mercy of the performance of his athletes and their injuries as well. In bad times, he’s easy to fire, yet he must never panic. In what sane business would such a vulnerable man also be a key man?
There are fewer objective ways to measure a manager than the scout who can point to the players he’s discovered, or the farm director who can detail the developments in his whole system, or the GM who can point to his trades or draft record. The manager just has wins and losses. Some, like me, have tried to show that a few managers, like Weaver, have a career-long ability to get more wins out of their team’s “run differential” than should be statistically likely. But even then causality is vague. Others focus on the use of various tactics — steals, number of bunts and such — to try to make distinctions in style. But the goofy lengths necessary just to generate a theory show how inscrutable the manager’s value actually is.
Yet, half the people in at least a dozen countries think they could manage a major league team. Make out a lineup, change pitchers — what’s so tough? Ex-minor league manager Rocky Bridges made half the baseball quote anthologies the day he said, “There are three things the average man thinks he can do better than anyone else: build a fire, run a hotel and manage a baseball team.”
Ask a room of veteran players, such as the Nationals who have played for several skippers, to define the value of a manager and you get a huge range of opinion. Ryan Zimmerman thinks it’s almost nothing at all, though he chuckles, “But I’m different.”
“Depends on the team. Some need a manager,” he says, implying others barely do at all. “If [the NBA’s] Phil Jackson coached the Bucks his whole career, how great would he be? Players win games. Managers can help. They influence people. But let’s face it, you do what you want to do. You’re a grown-up.”
Jayson Werth, staying in outlier werewolf character, says, “It depends on if they win or they lose. If they lose, they aren’t worth a whole hell of a lot. If they win, they are very valuable.”
Several players note that as analysis of the game has gotten more sophisticated, there is less room to be different. “It seems everybody has figured everything out,” reliever Tyler Clippard said, “and we all follow the same theories.” However, since he lives in Tampa and follows the Rays, he adds, “Joe Maddon seems different with his shifts and placing guys in weird spots in the lineup. ‘How the hell did he know that would work?’ ”
If Maddon, or the Rays’ front office squadron of ex-Wall Street quantitative analysts, really are still a step ahead, then they evoke a rich past when the best managers truly could be far ahead of their times — and live to see their foresight praised.
Casey Stengel used platoons at multiple positions long before it was popular. Sparky Anderson was sarcastically called Captain Hook, but now most teams use their bullpens much as he did in the ’70s. Weaver hated early-inning sacrifice bunts, loved on-base percentage and believed in the Big Inning Theory of offense just before the Society for American Baseball Research was founded.
Whitey Herzog did his own multi-color charts, by hand, detailing where every opposing batter hit every pitch so that he could refine defensive positioning or force batters to “hit into the defense.” Johnson, with a math degree, used computers and studied Professor Earnshaw Cook’s “Percentage Baseball” more than 30 years ago when “Moneyball” was unknown. Martin had the paranoid’s gift of shafting you before you could backstab him and once taught his whole rotation how to cheat. Sorry, that probably doesn’t count.
The closest we may come to a consensus view of managerial value may be second-generation big leaguer Adam LaRoche’s. Coaches in football and basketball, he says, have more direct, constant impact on their games, including play calling and in-game strategy shifts. “Baseball is a feel sport,” he said. Pitch to pitch, bounce to bounce. “Managers can’t make those decisions for you.
“The personal side of it is more important in baseball. Bobby Cox, you never saw him. [He] went straight to his office, never walked into the clubhouse. That was our place. You never saw him until the game started. But he always had the player’s back. Even if everybody in the world knew the player was wrong, Bobby would defend him. That gets your respect. Whatever he asked you to do, you didn’t just do it, you were happy to do it because it was for Bobby.
“I’ve had managers who never could develop that authentic respect. When a manager doesn’t have respect, you can tell, even by the tone of the players’ answers to questions in interviews. They’re ‘losing the room.’ And it’s hard to get it back.”
Managers stay up at night concocting lineups that maximize matchups the next day. They resist the temptation to try to win every game and burn up their bullpen in three days, a sin that can lead to decreased chances of winning for the next three weeks. They scrounge up playing time to keep secondary players fresh and productive. And on and on.
But to a degree the managers of the autocratic age that lasted for generations could never have imagined, big league managers are now students of people, even if they often couch that understanding in dugout slang, not multi-syllables.
“These days managing is managing personalities,” Clippard said. “It’s a trickle-down effect. If everybody is happy, the team takes on the personality of the manager.”
Yet each manager does it differently. “With Davey, you sensed he genuinely cared for you,” said Drew Storen, who suffered an elbow injury, came back to his closer role, had a horrid playoff loss and a shocking demotion to the minors and finally returned to form late last year — the whole roller-coaster under Johnson. “Communication is so key, for the manager just to be able to explain what’s happening [to you] and you can believe it.
“Matt is fun but he’s also intense. He’s the good cop and the bad cop.”
A veteran such as 40-year-old Jamey Carroll, with 18 professional years through four levels of the minors and seven major league teams, seems to remember his career through the prism of the men for whom he played. “As the manager goes, the team goes. He sets the environment more than people think, especially in tough times,” said Carroll, who was released by the Nationals late in spring training. “Can you manage emotions? You walk in the clubhouse after a loss — the manager sets that tone. Whatever it is, you take that home with you and maybe bring it back the next day, too.”
To Carroll, Joe Torre was “like your dad. You didn’t want to disappoint him.” Ron Gardenhire was intense, but “under the red cheeks you get this big sarcastic humor.” But for Carroll, the most indelible is old-and-new school Clint Hurdle, who managed the 2007 Rockies. Left for dead in the wild-card race in mid-September, they went 21-1 and woke up in the World Series.
“Clint could give a speech like no other — booming voice. He could put together some words,” Carroll said. Do the Rockies go 21-1 without him? “No.”
Last year, Hurdle managed the underdog Pirates to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years. Yet Hurdle’s career record is 87 games under .500, 626th out of 684 managers in history. Inspiring leader or just another man at the mercy of his men?
What is a manager worth? Like every player in every dugout since 1869, discuss among yourselves. And if you get the answer, please, don’t keep it a secret.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.