I have asked many baseball people through the years: "How many games does a manager's moves win or lose over a season?" It's a pet question of mine, and generally the answers have hovered in the 3-5 games range. Of course, this means nothing. There is no science behind the poll.
And there's also no agreement behind what "a manager's moves" even means. Managers moves could be pregame moves (setting the lineup, arranging the bullpen, etc.), or it could mean in-game moves (to hit-and-run, to pull a pitcher, to sacrifice, etc.), or it could mean subtle moves (telling a pitcher who is struggling that he has confidence in him, resting a struggling hitter for a day to get his head on straight), or it could mean preemptive moves (having the team work extra on pitchers covering first, instituting a fine for any player who does not run out a ground ball, giving the take sign on 3-0), or it could mean big picture move (naming a player a captain, having a young player's locker set up next to a veteran player's), or it could mean a public relations move (calling out a player in the paper, giving a player a vote of confidence on the radio), or about 12 million other things.
But I think, mostly, when I ask the question, the people who answer are thinking about in-game moves. How often does a manager win a game with strategic excellence (or lose it by making the wrong move at the wrong time)? That, I would guess, is where the 3-5 number comes from. The best answer I ever got on this topic was from
Knight gave the number most give -- five games or so -- and then said something like this: In baseball, great moves fail a lot. Terrible moves work sometimes. And most managers go by the book most of the time.
I thought that was pretty smart -- point being that it's really hard to tell managers apart (a topic that
We can rail endlessly about how this manager abuses the bullpen, how that manager sets up his lineup without any easily accessible logic, how this manager gives up too many outs through bunts and ill-advised stolen base attempts, how that manager always seems to win even though his day-to-day strategies don't inspire thoughts of
But my point is not to argue the best manager ever but to say that when it comes down to it, I really have no idea why Bobby Cox is a great manager. I have theories, ideas, things I would love to explore. But what makes him great is something that I think is not as obvious as, say, what makes
All of which (believe it or not) brings me to
The Royals released Jimmy Gobble this week, and it's hard to argue with the move. Gobble last year was 0-2 with an 8.81 ERA. It was a rather stunning move when the Royals offered him a $1.35 million contract in the first place. As it turns out, the Royals themselves were stunned by the move and cut him now -- and because of the rules of engagement, they owe him about $220,000.
Jimmy is a good soul who has lived several baseball lives. He began his career with that dubious "
Anyway, Gobble, 27, began as a Glavine starter, then he worked his way into the bullpen as a long reliever (and his fastball made the requisite jump in mph) and finally he became what he always should have been: A lefty specialist. Many teams do not have the luxury of carrying one pitcher whose only job is to get out left-handed batters. Plus, it takes great discipline and planning by a manager to make a pitcher like that work over a long season. You can probably see this thing coming around to the point now.
Right-handed batters: .382/.517/.676 in 89 plate appearances.
Left-handed batters: .200/.246/.323 in 69 plate appearances.
That has to be one of the most extreme splits in baseball history. Right-handed batters were
And from 2007:
Of course, I'm cherry picking. In 2007
And that's the general point: As Jimmy developed in his role, he did get lefties out. Now, he was preposterously bad against righties, but it sure seems like a good manager can reduce the sting. For instance, three of the four home runs Gobble gave up to righties in 2008 were:
In many ways, the Jimmy Gobble story is a perfect little synopsis of good managing and bad. A good manager has an uncanny way of consistently putting his players in positions where they can succeed. There are no perfect players, but more than that, there are very, very few players who do not have serious and easy-to-define weaknesses in their game. Some hit but don't field, some field but don't hit, some cannot catch up to hot fastballs, some cannot lay off the outside slider, some throw too many pitches, some cannot get lefties out, some do not walk, some are not aggressive enough, on and on and on and on forever. Seems to me that the part of managing that matters most -- and maybe this is where Bobby Cox shines -- is setting up game after game after game so that more of your players get to play to their strengths.
Does this mean that the Royals made a mistake releasing Jimmy? Well, not exactly. The Jimmy Gobble that the Royals released had an 8.81 ERA and could not get out right-handed batters. There's no room on a big league roster for THAT player. But will a team pick up Gobble, use him exclusively as a lefty specialist, and help him become a valuable big league pitcher?
They might, rabbit. They might.*