- With front offices assuming more control than ever before, they're prioritizing youth and personability over experience when making a managerial selection.
LAS VEGAS — At 37 years old, new Twins manager Rocco Baldelli is not only the youngest skipper in the majors but also, as revealed during his first Winter Meetings press conference on Wednesday morning, the first born in the 1980s. That can be a galling fact in a game where Bruce Bochy and Ned Yost have been writing down lineups for literal decades. But that extreme youth—and the lack of managerial experience that naturally accompanies it—is MLB’s new wave when it comes to managers.
Last season, five teams—the Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies, Mets and Nationals—handed the reins to men who had, between them, 139 games as managers, all belonging to Gabe Kapler. This year, two more squads—the Twins and Rangers—followed suit, hiring Baldelli (formerly a major league field coordinator with the Rays) and Dodgers third base coach Chris Woodward, respectively. Neither has spent a day of his life as a manager, and both will have to navigate the potentially treacherous waters of skippering a big league club without previous knowledge of just how to do that.
“When you jump in and you get involved in something that you haven’t actually done before, I think those are challenges,” Baldelli said. “There’s in-game stuff. There’s this sitting with you guys right here. These are all part of a job I haven’t done. So I’m just trying to figure it out, some of it as I go.”
Once upon a time, that idea was tantamount to lunacy. The job and role of a manager was the kind of thing you had to work your way toward, scraping through minor league jobs and major league coaching positions before you earned your shot at the top gig. The Platonic ideal of this is Braves manager Brian Snitker, who spent 15 years bouncing between minor league managerial gigs in Atlanta’s system, then was named interim manager of the big club in 2016 and was named NL Manager of the Year for last season’s division-title-winning effort.
That career path isn’t dead. Toronto’s Charlie Montoyo and Cincinnati’s David Bell, both hired this offseason, put in their time as minor league managers (though Bell’s roundabout route took him to the Giants’ front office before depositing him on the Reds’ bench). But in recent years, several managers have skipped plenty of steps. The trend reached a head last winter, with the hirings of Alex Cora, Aaron Boone, Mickey Callaway, Kapler, and Dave Martinez. Though all of them are former players and all but Boone were coaches at one point or another, some were non-traditional picks. Boone joined the Yankees out of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball booth. Callaway was Cleveland’s pitching coach—not usually a position that leads to total team control. And Kapler was, like Bell, a front-office employee—in this case, the Dodgers’ director of player development.
The results were mixed, but Boone and Cora shone: The former won 100 games, the latter 108 and a championship. “If you win the World Series, like the Red Sox did, that’s the best advice I can give you,” joked Astros manager A.J. Hinch, for whom Cora was a bench coach, when asked what he’d tell the new set of first-year skippers. Cora didn’t just survive his first season; he thrived.
“There’s no secret formula to what managers do,” said Diamondbacks boss Torey Lovullo, and it feels as if teams believe that too. It makes sense, given the way the league has evolved, particularly when it comes to front offices. Analytics and development groups have expanded exponentially in the last decade; GMs are younger than ever, and their teams are more inclined toward advanced stats. The decision-making process that used to be left to the managers—building a lineup, who to play at what position, etc.—now falls mostly under the purview of the front office. Managers still take part in that conversation, but their responsibilities have shifted. The primary concern of a manager in today’s game lies in the clubhouse, and the management of the egos therein.
“I think a big part of the job is dealing with people on a day-to-day basis and getting the players in a great frame of mind,” Baldelli said. “I know the in-game stuff is extremely important and challenging at times, but I think the most important part of the job is making sure people can come to the field and have a great environment to show up and have a smile on their face.”
This kind of friendlier, more cheerful style may feel like an anathema to the older stereotype of the manager as field general—a man there to lead, not be a player’s best friend. But as teams get younger, it makes plenty of sense to have managers who can relate closely to the concerns of their charges. Nor, it seems, do teams want established managers with their own set of gruff ideologies or tactics that don’t mesh with the new-school stats. Better to hire someone pliable and well-versed in the language of the game as it is now.
There’s risk to this as well: the possibility of hiring a manager who isn’t up to the task of running a team. “There’s a lot to be said for experience,” said Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, one of the league’s older stalwarts. “There’s a lot that goes on that people don’t understand about managing in the major leagues, managing 25 guys with personalities, young guys that have been given a ton of dough and trying to make them understand how you’re going to work together as a group. It’s not easy.” Boone learned that in the Bronx. Reflecting on what he learned in his first year, he said, “You're never totally prepared, I guess, for all the different things that do come across on a daily basis. So I would say that's the biggest challenge, the unknown of what's around the corner, all the time.” And winning over that clubhouse without the big résumé to back you up can be tricky. “They’ll test you,” Hinch said. “They want to know not just what you know, but also how real you are, how ready you are for the leadership role of the manager.”
What each manager stressed, though, is the importance of communication and honesty. “You’ve got to be vulnerable,” Hinch said. “You’ve got to admit your mistakes and connect with players and be bold based on your processes, but players respect consistency. They respect the passion you show, the effort you put in, the preparation you put in.” Adds Brewers skipper Craig Counsell: “You have to be yourself.”
The landscape of managers is irreversibly changing. Institutions like Mike Scioscia and Buck Showalter are gone. Reliable presences like Bochy, Yost and Joe Maddon may not be around much longer. Just like rosters and front offices, the manager ranks will keep getting younger. For now, Baldelli, fresh-faced and looking like he could easily get back into uniform for a few more at-bats, is the game’s resident baby. By this time next year, as teams keep searching for the best and brightest minds to lead the way, he may be considered relatively ancient.