- The Rangers join the ranks of teams looking for younger leadership, as they turned their sights to Dodgers third-base coach Chris Woodward.
If it’s not the Yankees, managerial hires usually get little national fanfare, and they happen when most baseball fans are fully invested in the postseason. As a result, SI’s MLB staff will be introducing you to the six new faces in charge of MLB franchises. Of the six openings that occurred at season’s end, only the Orioles have yet to fill their vacancy. Fourth in the series: Chris Woodward
Who did he replace?
Jeff Banister. Banister got off to a strong start to his managerial tenure, taking a Rangers team that won 67 games the year before his arrival to an 88-win season in 2015. It was enough to win a weak AL West and earn Banister Manager of the Year. The Rangers took a 2-0 lead on the Blue Jays in the ALDS, then proceeded to lose two straight and collapse in a Game 5 that featured controversy, three Texas errors in one inning and the greatest bat-flip of all time. The Rangers won 95 games and their second straight division title the following year, though a -4 run differential suggested they were benefiting greatly from luck. They faced Toronto in the ALDS yet again, except this time lost in a sweep. Banister was fired after winning just 78 and 67 games the last two seasons.
Now, the franchise that won AL pennants in 2010 and 2011 with a manager (Ron Washington) in his upper 50s—and two consecutive AL West titles when Banister was 50 and 51—is following the new norm and turning to a 42-year-old barely removed from his playing days. The concept of going to a young manager isn’t new—examples from this century include Eric Wedge in 2003, AJ Hinch in 2009 and Kevin Cash in 2014—but the rate at which teams are replacing fired managers with younger successors is remarkable.
The five new hires in 2014 were an average of 5.8 years younger than that franchise’s previous full-time manager (we’re ignoring months here and only considering age differences at the time of the new hire in integers, so 55 to 45 is a full ten-year difference). That’s skewed by the Rays going from 60-year-old Joe Maddon to 36-year-old Kevin Cash—the average of the other four was 1.25 years younger. There were seven hires made in the calendar year of 2015; the average team went 2.6 years younger, as youth movements like the Padres going from Bud Black (58) to Andy Green (38) were offset by the Nationals replacing Matt Williams (49) with Dusty Baker (66). Then in 2016, the four new full-time hires were an average of five years older.
Since then, the script has flipped. There have been 12 new hires in 2017 and 2018, with the Orioles pending as a 13th. Of those twelve, just two teams—the Tigers and Cardinals—hired an older manager. The average new manager in 2017 was 12.7 years younger than his predecessor, led by the Mets going from Terry Collins (68) to Mickey Callaway (42) and the Phillies going from Pete Mackanin (66) to Gabe Kapler (42). It’s been more of the same in 2018, with the average sitting at 9.8 years younger while we wait for the Orioles. All four of the managers we’ve covered in this series so far are at least a decade younger. New Twins skipper Rocco Baldelli is 25 years younger than Paul Molitor.
The simpler way to look at this trend is to ignore the outgoing manager and focus on the age of the new hires. In 2015, new hires were 51 years old on average. That climbed to 56 in 2016. The last two years? 47 and 46. That seems significant enough to consider these two years something more than a coincidence. Teams have seen the recent success of Hinch, Dave Roberts, Alex Cora, Craig Counsell and others and are trying to replicate that. They want someone who can relate to their players and has an open mind towards analytics. Woodward is yet another example of that.
Who did he beat out?
GM Jon Daniels, as all good GMs should, began with a wide list of possible candidates. 15 were interviewed. Interim manager Don Wakamatsu was strongly considered, as were Twins bench coach Derek Shelton and Rangers assistant GM Jayce Tingler. There were reports that Texas would’ve loved to hire Michael Young, who made seven all-star teams in a Rangers uniform and works in the team’s front office, but he wasn’t interested. Eric Chavez, Joe Espada and Ron Roenicke are a few other names that lasted at least somewhat deep into the process.
Playing career stats
Unlike the prior three managers in this series, Woodward was nothing more than a journeyman during his career. Ausmus, Baldelli and Bell were each worth at least 10 bWAR; Woodward compiled all of 1.1 during his 12 years in the majors. Woodward spent his first six years with the Blue Jays and returned there for his final season in 2011. By far the best year of his career was 2002, when he hit .276 with 13 homers and a 106 OPS+ in 350 PAs. Woodward also spent two seasons as a moderate contributor with the Mets, one with the Braves, and had brief stints with the Mariners and Red Sox. He played every position other than pitcher and catcher in his 586 career games, though over half of those were at shortstop and only 32 were in the outfield.
Woodward comes from the Dodgers, where he was the third-base coach for the NL champions the last two seasons. He got his start with Mariners organization as a minor-league infield coordinator in 2013 and the big-league club’s infield coach in 2014. His lone experience as a manager came with the New Zealand national team in WBC qualifiers in 2016.
What to Expect
The No. 1 word that has come up in explanations about why the Rangers parted with Banister and chose Woodward is communication. They felt some of Banister struggled connecting with the team at points and that Woodward’s “interpersonal leadership skills” stood out. Having a manager who can listen to and connect with players, other coaches and the front office is what every team is striving for, and it’s what the Rangers believe they’ve found in Woodward. The other appealing thing about Woodward is that he comes from the Dodgers, an organization that was one of the more forward-thinking in baseball under president Andrew Friedman and ex-GM Farhan Zaidi (now the president of the Giants). It’s impossible to truly know what to expect from any first-time manager other than that there will be a learning curve.
The Rangers aren’t very good right now. Their 2018 offense was either mediocre (20th in WAR) or awful (25th in OPS+), depending on what metrics you want to look at. That offense took a blow this offseason when Adrian Beltre—who at 39 was still one of the team’s better hitters—announced his retirement. The Rangers’ pitching was either mediocre (T-17th in ERA+) or awful (28th in ERA, 29th in FIP), depending on what metrics you want to look at.
However, the Rangers are a spot where it’s easy to take an optimistic approach about the near future. They’re moving into a new ballpark in 2020 and have two things—a solid core of major-league players under age 25 and a deep farm system—that inspire belief that this team could be a winner by the team it moves into its new home. Most of the young core at the major-league level consists of talented hitters still trying to figure out how to succeed consistently. Joey Gallo, Rougned Odor, Nomar Mazara, Jurickson Profar and Ronald Guzman have all shown flashes and struggles during their young careers. Young closer Jose LeClerc had a fantastic 2018 season to lead a bullpen that wasn’t great but wasn’t awful.
The biggest issue right now is the team's lack of starting pitching. The Rangers’ starters posted a 5.37 ERA last year, which would have been the worst in baseball if not for the existence of the Baltimore Orioles. They finished last in strikeouts per nine innings at 6.28, a number that tough to achieve in the strikeout-dominant era. The starters for their division rivals in Houston struck out over four more batters per nine innings. Cole Hamels was traded mid-season, leaving a rotation with Mike Minor as its only above-average pitcher. The Rangers gave a lot of innings to washed-up vets Bartolo Colón, Matt Moore and Yovani Gallardo.
So far this offseason, the Rangers have added Jesse Chavez to the bullpen (a solid move), acquired starters Drew Smyly and Edinson Volquez (intruiging) and signed 35-year-old catcher Jeff Mathis (sure). They still need to go out and get another starter or two, given that Minor is the only sure thing in the rotation right now. They could use a right-handed bat or two to balance out a lefty-heavy lineup. Whether or not Daniels will open the checkbook to go after someone like Patrick Corbin or AJ Pollock remains to be seen. The Rangers won’t make the playoffs in 2019, but if young players develop and some of the top prospects—Leody Taveras, Cole Winn, Hans Crouse—pan out, Woodward could have a team poised for AL West contention in a year or two.
Should fans be excited?
Sure, why not? If everything coming out of the Rangers organization is to be believed, Woodward sounds like a great guy and a sharp baseball mind. Like with any first-time manager, everything else is pretty much an unknown. So be optimistic. It’s more fun that way.