Sunday, October 25, 2009

Disjointed Ramblings on the Indians' Managerial Vacancy

NOTE: I wrote this on Thursday and didn't expect the Indians to hire Acta over the weekend.

While the Indians have been searching for their next manager, it has been amusing to observe the reaction of non-analytical fans on message boards and talk radio. There are a large number of people who are furious at the prospect of Manny Acta becoming manager.

Let me digress for a moment by saying that I hope he gets the job. From everything I've read and heard from him, his outlook on the game is one that I can relate to. He says the right things about being open to analytics and his managing seems to reflect that. His bullpen usage seems to this distant observer to fall into the over-managing category, but I have to question how much of that was conviction and how much of that was trying to squeeze every possible advantage out of a bunch of lemons. In any event, I'm thoroughly unconcerned about his win-loss record in Washington, a franchise that was a basket case before he got there and maybe now with a new GM can finally right itself. (Acta bonus fact: He's the David Aardsma or Hank Aaron of big league managers--first all-time alphabetically.)

I say all of that, but if you asked me whether it was more likely, should Acta become Tribe skipper, that he would be considered a success or a failure when his tenure was over, I wouldn't hesitate: failure. It's a cliché, but it's a cliché with a lot of truth: managers are hired to be fired. Most of them get three or four years to turn around a team that was usually already in some sort of distress (or else they wouldn't have been in the market for a new manager at all) and fail to do so, often through no fault of their own.

I don't want to make it sound as if I think managers are unimportant--I certainly think they are less important than a lot of non-analytical observers believe they are, but I also am much more concerned about the identity of the GM and whether anyone can hit, pitch, and field. I do believe, however, that most of what really separates managers from one another are factors that we as outsiders cannot judge with any sort of accuracy--discipline, motivation, the makeup of their coaching staff, how well they interface with the GM, and the like. Those things may not turn the Royals into World Series contenders, but I believe they matter more than the usually small tactical differences between managers (there are exceptions of course, many of whom do not need to be named).

The amusing part is the ways that fans attempt to evaluate managers. The following is an incomplete listing of some of the criteria I see fans using:

1. Tactics: Of course, this is where your baseball worldview really comes into play. One man's genius is another man's moron on the tactical scale. While sabermetrics certainly has some insight to offer on this front, it's not as if you can just plug some variables into a formula and get a strategic rating.

2. Past success: Fans like it better when the prospective manager has won something. However...

3. Freshness: Other fans don't want a "retread" manager. Of course, there is no definition of what constitutes a retread versus a Proven Veteran (TM) manager. Bobby Valentine managed parts of fifteen seasons, compiling a .510 W%, two playoff appearances, and a pennant. Does that make him a proven winner, a proven mediocrity, a winner, a loser, or something else? Does his tenure in Japan count for anything?

4. Media image

These criteria often result in a bewildering mix of contradictory preferences. With the Phillies winning another pennant, there are now Tribe fans bemoaning that Charlie Manuel was once our manager. But how many of these folks were upset that he was fired? How many of them believed that he was a country bumpkin? How many of them really, honestly believe that he would have led the Indians to victory with the same players Eric Wedge was given, or that Wedge would have flopped with Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins on his team?

My opinion of Charlie Manuel today is the same as it was the day he was fired by Cleveland: Nice guy. Presumably knows a lot about hitting. Makes a lot of inexplicable decisions while managing.

Since I think it's a pretty decent bet that Eric Wedge will be a manager again, I can't wait to see what will happen if he ever leads a team to a pennant. Near the end of his tenure, it was hard to find many Indian fans who had anything positive at all to say about the man (other than perhaps that he had class). I've written some tepid pro-Wedge stuff over the past year and only because no one reads this blog was I able to avoid being labeled as an apologist. Should he win, he will join Manuel as a tool with which to attack the organization--rather than as the cautionary tale about judging a manager on his record in one stop.

Anyway, to sum up my position:

1. Managers matter, but not as much as the average fan thinks they do.
2. Much of what distinguishes managers from one another is almost unknowable to outsiders.
3. I prefer a manager who is open to analysis and/or independently came to a similar view of baseball as the one I possess.
4. It's silly to think that because a manager didn't win during one job, he'll never win in another.
5. It's more likely than Manny Acta will be unceremoniously fired than that he will lead the Indians to a World Series. That doesn't mean he's a bad hire--I'd say that about anyone stepping into this position.

To really beat the dead horse that is the fourth point, try a thought experiment. Right down the names of 5-10 current managers that you think you'd like to have managing your team. It's a pretty decent bet that a lot of your picks have been fired at some point.

Suppose you'd chosen the eight managers who managed in the postseason this year:

Ron Gardenhire, MIN--first managerial position
Joe Girardi, NYA--fired by Florida, although not really for on-field performance
Mike Scioscia, LAA--first managerial position
Terry Francona, BOS--fired by PHI (285-363, .440)
Tony LaRussa, STL--fired by CHA (522-510, .506)
Joe Torre, LA--fired by ATL, NYN, STL (894-1003, .471), not extended by NYA
Charlie Manuel, PHI--fired/not extended by CLE (220-190, .537)
Jim Tracy, COL--fired by LA and PIT (562-572, .496)

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