Three reasons why a manager's role has changed so dramatically

Tuesday November 5th, 2013

Mike Matheny and John Farrell are just two of the managers hired recently without any previous experience in the job.
Michael Ivins/Getty Images

No experience necessary. The requirements for the job of major league manager have changed dramatically. Brad Ausmus (Tigers) and Bryan Price (Reds) follow Walt Weiss (Rockies), Mike Matheny (Cardinals), Robin Ventura (White Sox), Don Mattingly (Dodgers), John Farrell (Blue Jays) and Kirk Gibson (Diamondbacks) as managers who were hired in recent years without managing experience on any level. The experience of running a game, if not knowing how to run a game itself, is no longer very important.

The Golden Age of the manager as a dugout Yoda -- the wise master strategist who can out-maneuver the guy on the other side -- is over, a conclusion confirmed Monday with the announcement that Tony La Russa, 69, Bobby Cox, 72, and Joe Torre, 73, will be considered for Hall of Fame election next month by the Expansion Era voting committee. The three men rank 3-4-5 in all-time wins for managers. All three deserve election. Adding to the decline of the Old Guard, Jim Leyland, 68, retired in Detroit and Dusty Baker, 64, was let go by Cincinnati and Charlie Manuel, 69, by Philadelphia.

It was just three years ago that six of the current top 16 managers of all-time, as ranked by wins, were still active: La Russa, Cox, Torre, Leyland, Baker and Lou Piniella. Also active in that 2010 season were Manuel, Cito Gaston, Ozzie Guillen, Ken Macha, Jim Tracy, Jim Riggelman and Jerry Manuel -- fellow veteran managers who also saw the window close on them. Has anyone noticed their experience being in demand lately? In three seasons 23 of the 30 big league jobs have opened up at least once, a 77 percent turnover rate in three years. In most cases a team chose to go with a younger candidate with little or no experience.

Experience is so out of favor today that the Pirates' Clint Hurdle, who just finished his 11th season as a major league manager, ranks sixth among active managers in wins. The Royals' Ned Yost (10 seasons) is seventh.

How did it change so quickly? Here are some reasons why managers don't need experience any longer:

1. Big data has created a more homogenous style of play.

When the Mets would play Whitey Herzog's St. Louis teams in the 1980s, there was a saying among the players that they were playing against 10 Cardinals in uniform: the nine on the field and Herzog in the dugout. Managers put their imprint on games, and for Herzog it meant deploying an aggressive running game and a bevy of lefthanded pitchers. The Mets were aware of him.

Today there is only one style. Every manager pretty much runs the same game because everybody pretty much has the same information: matchups, platoon splits, run expectancy charts, etc. You can't tell a Matheny game from a Weiss game from a Gibson game. Deviate from the standard practice and be prepared to be barbecued by the media, which has access to much of the same data. (You let a lefthander pitch to a righthander in the seventh? What a dolt.)

The best example of how data has changed the game is the death of the sacrifice bunt. There were fewer sacrifice bunts per game this year than in any season in recorded baseball history, and the bunt's demise has been a quick one. The rate of sacrifice bunts has dropped 30 percent just since 1993.

In 1982 under Gene Mauch, the first-place Angels executed 114 sacrifice bunts -- 54% more than any team in the American League. You are not going to find such an extreme outlier any more. The team that led the AL in sacrifice hits this year, Houston (46), had exactly one more sacrifice bunt than the team that ranked second, Texas.

You see a similar pattern with intentional walks. The rate of intentional walks also dropped to an all-time low this year, and it has dropped even faster than sac bunts: 36 percent in 20 years. Why? Because every manager plays the same matchup game with his bullpen, trying to gain the platoon advantage with a fresh arm rather than allow a free baserunner. Twenty years ago Sparky Anderson of Detroit ordered a league-leading 92 intentional walks. This year Eric Wedge of Seattle led the league with almost half as many, 48.

Managers run their bullpens as if everybody read the same how-to manual, regardless of personnel. It begins with the specialized use of the closer, i.e. use him less. Over the past four years combined, there have been only 101 saves in which a reliever was asked to get six or more outs -- fewer than in 2000 alone (128). From 1990 to 2012 the number of six-out saves dropped from 320 to 19.

2. Managers have become middle managers.

Managers don't run their own game. They execute an organizational plan. They are not hired to impose their style of baseball upon the team. You will see never again, for instance, a Mauch asking his players to bunt so much or a Tommy Lasorda or Billy Martin allowed to run up innings on starting pitchers as they see fit. Every organization has innings limits for young pitchers. Every organization adheres to similar ideas about pitch counts.

The 120-pitch mark has become the unofficial industry standard at the top end of the game workload spectrum. The number of 120-pitch games has dropped from 498 in 1998 to a record-low 69 this year. Everybody manages around it the same way.

Here's another way to appreciate how fast the industry-wide adoption has taken place: The 2003 Cubs, managed by Baker, had more 120-pitch games (29) than did the entire National League this year (26).

Every team uses detailed spray charts to position their defenders. A manager is simply implementing what his analytics department hands him. One AL general manager this year told one of his advisers, "I will never again hire a manager who goes by his gut."

A manager must stay between the lines of philosophies established by ownership and the baseball operations department, a reality that has created something of a new phenomenon in the game: the general manager as star. How do we know this? You mean besides Brad Pitt playing one in the movies? Rather than everyone thinking they can run a ballgame (that's too easy now), every fan and reporter now thinks they can be a GM, handling $200 million payrolls, player transactions and a player development system as a hobby just as well as the guy who does it for his livelihood. That's how you know it has become a glamour job.

3. Managers are the storefront of an organization.

No one speaks for the organization as often as does the manager, who routinely conducts formal news conferences before and after every game. In addition, he might also have daily one-on-one interviews with the local radio and/or television rightsholder. The manager becomes the de facto White House press secretary for a multi-million dollar international company.

"Communication skills," whether dealing with the media, the fans or especially the players on the team, have become the most important requirement of being a major league manager. Earl Weaver hated talking to his players, so much so that when he would stomp through the clubhouse with his head down, pitcher Jim Palmer would call out, "Hey, how ya doin', Earl?" just to mess with him. Now you better tell every player exactly what his role is -- days off a day in advance, what specific inning he should be ready to pitch in, etc. -- or else you will have a mutiny on your hands.

The manager as the ultimate authority figure is dead. I covered a 1985 Yankees team in which Martin did not use one of his pitchers, Bob Shirley, for 25 consecutive days -- without explanation. Former Phillies, Yankees and Mets manager Dallas Green would routinely rip his players in the media -- something no GM would stand for today.

The young managers being hired today are all said to be "good with the media" and categorized as "a players' manager." Duh. Might as well add "breathing" to the list of things they do well.

In 1997, Bill James published an entertaining book called The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers: From 1870 to Today. He examined the quirks and styles of various managers, often examining them "in a box" to expose and explore what made them unique. Should James decide to examine the 30 managers we have today, he might as well throw them all in the same box. The managers getting hired are more alike than they are different.

Does this trend mean managers don't matter any more? Not at all. There was no better example of the importance of communication skills than how the Boston Red Sox tumbled to last place under Bobby Valentine in 2012 and rebounded with a World Series title under John Farrell in 2013. In the dugout, it's harder to influence a game when managers are running it in such similar fashion, but it's not all push-button baseball. Buck Showalter of Baltimore, for instance, sees details others don't. He is the only manager who teaches his players on first base, when a grounder is hit that brings the second baseman into the baseline for a tag-and-throw double play, to slide into the second baseman, thus breaking up a double play the same way a runner would if the fielder were at the second base bag. I have no idea why all other teams don't do this.

What this hiring trend does mean is that priorities have shifted. Working well with the front office and gaining the trust of the players is more important than ever; actually running a baseball game is less important.

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