The new face of baseball leadership has fewer wrinkles. Teams have traded craggy sexagenarians for guys who look like they could still bat fifth or squat behind the plate for nine innings. Managers wearing a uniform, suddenly, are more likely to draw confusion than laughter. It was funny when Charlie Manuel waddled to the mound or Jim Leyland cupped a Marlboro on the bench. Mike Matheny emerges from the dugout, and you wonder whether he may pinch-hit himself.
When the Washington Nationals hired Matt Williams to replace Davey Johnson earlier this month, they joined the growing list of franchises that eschewed first-hand knowledge and placed a first-time manager in charge. Once sought after, experience has grown increasingly irrelevant, if not detrimental, for a managerial candidate. The Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds and Nationals all possess rosters with requisite talent to contend for a World Series, and all of them will enter 2014 with a first-time big league manager.
Of the six new managers hired this fall, only Lloyd McClendon, whom the Seattle Mariners picked, had prior managerial experience in the major leagues. In the past three offseasons, 10 of 16 vacancies have been filled by candidates with no prior big league experience.
Some first-time managers, like the Chicago Cubs’ Rick Renteria and the Reds’ Bryan Price, rose as coaches after undistinguished careers. Others, like Williams and the Detroit Tigers’ Brad Ausmus, retired in the 2000s and ascended quickly. Before the Philadelphia Phillies hired Ryne Sandberg, he had both been enshrined in the Hall of Fame and managed six seasons in the minors.
Ranging in age from 44 to 54, they all fit the mold general managers are looking for: younger candidates who can grow with a team, will embrace the game’s explosion of new information and understand the whims and needs of modern players.
“It’s not too different than thinking about prospects,” said Houston Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow, who last year gave former Nationals assistant Bo Porter his first big league managerial job. “I think clubs are more willing to take risks on a managerial prospect who hasn’t proven himself at the big league level. It suggests an open-mindedness among front offices and ownerships to take a chance on somebody who has the tools, even though they don’t have the track record.”
The complexion of the managerial field has shifted rapidly. Johnson, Manuel, Leyland, Dusty Baker, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Lou Piniella managed 185 major league seasons between them, and all eight may have all managed their last game in the past three years. Just one of their replacements — Fredi Gonzalez, who had spent four seasons with the Miami Marlins — had managed in the majors before.
Only two active managers — the New York Mets’ Terry Collins and the Texas Rangers’ Ron Washington — are in their 60s. Just four — Collins, Bruce Bochy, Buck Showalter and Terry Francona — acted as full-time managers in the ’90s.
“First of all, there were many managers that have managed for years that have just all of a sudden have now started to come up, or they’re stepping down, or they haven’t been retained,” Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said. “So it’s left a number of positions available. I think it also points out what a difficult job it is. It’s hard to find people that you think are going to be good big league managers, because it’s a hard job.”
Dombrowski and Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro admitted that hiring a first-timer gave them pause. Before hiring Ausmus, Dombrowski publicly said he would prioritize experience. But as their process unfolded, each realized other qualities mattered more to them.
“I think there are different routes to the manager’s chair,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said. “I think experience is important, but you can get experience in many different ways.”
General managers agreed that the need for a manager to motivate has surpassed the need to master strategy. With more money, media and potential distractions surrounding players, teams will sacrifice small, strategic edges gained through experience for a leader who ensures 25 players will arrive each day ready and eager, devoted to the team.
“I think having a little bit closer social connection, I think that’s something that’s important,” Amaro said. “Because they remember what it was like when they were asked to perform, and I think that that goes a long way.”
When the Nationals hired Williams, Rizzo cited Williams’s ability to communicate as a primary factor. During his introductory news conference, Williams was grateful, almost deferential, to players who had traveled to attend.
“We’re on the same level,” Williams said. “Player-manager, certainly, but I value Jayson Werth’s opinion on something, you know what I mean? That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with this club, with these guys, that they can come to me with anything and I can go to them with anything, and it’s a conversation between men.”
La Russa, who retired at age 67 after he led the Cardinals to a World Series title in 2011, has seen a shift in priorities. Teams used to pick managers on strategic acumen and their ability to improve players. Now, the way a manager prods his players has become paramount.
“I think for any professional sport, leadership is more important than anything,” La Russa said. “And the essence of leadership is the respect and trust that you can earn from your players. If you just take it a step farther, each of these guys that’s been hired had careers where they earned the respect and trust from their teammates because of the way they competed. So they get a real head start.”
The respect the manager earned as a player will fade, and players will judge managers on their efficacy as a leader. Over time, the kind of lineups Williams creates and the in-game decisions he makes will replace the numbers on the back of his baseball card as a defining trait. Poor decision-making can undermine the authority a manager garnered through his playing career.
“It helps explain why initially these guys are having an impact,” La Russa said. “But they need to understand that they’re trading on respect that they’ve earned as a player. At some point, quickly, they’re going to have to earn respect as the leader of their team.”
In some cases, the influx of new managers represents a shift of power from the dugout to the front office. More general managers with business or corporate backgrounds have entered the sport, and the rise of sabermetrics and the proliferation of information gained through new technology has altered the way front offices view strategy. In order to utilize their findings, they need a manager they can sway.
“When you have somebody who hasn’t managed a lot, it’s a clean sheet of paper,” Luhnow said. “The front office can put their stamp on the manager more so than a manager who has more experience. To the extent the front office wants, it gives you a little more influence.”
Today’s managers must interpret and implement more data, and younger, technology-literate managers have an advantage. Those candidates, by their nature, tend to have less dugout experience. “Anybody that has kind of grown up with it over the last few years is going to come at it easier,” Luhnow said.
“I think these guys have probably been exposed to more different things, and so I think they’ll be even more open-minded,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t mean that the other group was close-minded. It’s just these guys have been exposed to more things.”
Luhnow, a former CEO who leans on analytics perhaps more than any other general manager, called hiring a manager the most important job of a front office. In hiring Porter, the Astros were “not looking for someone we could dictate how to do their job,” he said. But he demanded a candidate “curious enough to listen and bright enough” to be open to new ideas.
New managers also afford front offices a measure of control. Rizzo fumed when Johnson would reveal certain information to the media and sometimes pushed Johnson to be tougher on players. Johnson had the stature to remain set in his ways. He was too old to care.
“The people that report to me, which would include Ryne, you’d like to have some influence over what they do,” Amaro said. “But I believe if we hire the right people, we should let them go ahead and do their job. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t influence them in some way, shape or form. That’s our philosophy.
“From our perspective, autonomy’s important. We’re hopeful we’re hiring the right people to take the jobs and do them. It doesn’t mean that we’re totally hands off, obviously. I’m not going to go down there and write out lineups for Ryne Sandberg. But I can suggest certain things.”
Persuasion from the front office, though, can lead to fissures within the clubhouse. La Russa believes too much influence from above can hurt a manager’s standing among his players. In his travels as an assistant to the commissioner, he has spoken with many coaches and managers who have bemoaned meddling.
“For one thing, there’s a real basic problem,” La Russa said. “If the players believe that the decision-making is coming from some place other than the coaches and the manager, you’re totally undercutting their chance to earn respect and trust. You’re cutting them off at the knees.”
Another reason the trend of first-time managers continues is because, so far, it’s worked. Matheny’s success as La Russa’s replacement, leading the Cardinals to a National League Championship Series and a World Series, stands out. In his first year, Robin Ventura led an unheralded White Sox team within three games of a division title. Don Mattingly led the Dodgers to this year’s National League Championship Series. The Diamondbacks won the NL West in Kirk Gibson’s first full season.
“Watching Matheny in the World Series lends some credibility,” Luhnow said.
Despite the success of Matheny and other first-timers, few have broken through to baseball’s pinnacle in their first job. The last manager who won a World Series with the first team to hire him was Ozzie Guillen, who led the White Sox in 2005. The last manager to win a World Series in his first season was Bob Brenly, who guided the Arizona Diamondbacks to the 2001 title with a veteran third baseman named Matt Williams.
Williams will try to match his mentor’s feat this year. In future seasons, the Nationals hope, he will turn into the kind of manager he replaced. Once, La Russa and Johnson and Torre were first-timers. Now that they have left, the next wave of managers, in their own way, will try to become them.