Wednesday, July 01, 2020

"Replacement Level" Managers

This is an old post that I never published. It's not good, as it just presents something of a freak show stat, but I was mildly interested by it when I re-read it so maybe someone out there will be as well. All of the facts/figures are through 2009 and I did not update them at all. I did not one factual error which is also not corrected - Billy Southworth was inducted into the HOF in 2008.

I put quotes around "replacement level" in the title because this article is not really about establishing a replacement level for managers in the same sense as the phrase would imply when discussing players. It is rather about establishing a baseline for crude comparisons of managerial records, in the same vein as WAR--but without any claim that the baseline represents the point at which talent is freely available.

After all, it's folly to hold up a manger's W-L record as the sole evidence of his quality as a manager. Even the most ardent believers in the importance of managers to a team's record cannot possibly believe that they can separate the manager's contribution from all of the other noise that goes into a team's record.

If you want a crude method to compare managerial W-L records, there are few options that come to mind. Conventional approaches would include just looking at total wins, winning percentage, and games over .500, just as one might do with pitcher W-L records.

Of course, my own initial thought as a sabermetrician is to turn to a baseline that values longevity to some extent. If a manager is allowed to direct 3,942 major league games, yet has a sub-.500 record, it would be silly to assign him a negative number and move on (Gene Mauch). Managers are obviously employable even with losing records, and there are many factors well outside the manager's control that contribute to a team's record.

So my natural inclination is to look at a manager's wins above replacement, which inevitably leads to a decision about how to define managerial replacement level. There are a lot of ways to estimate replacement level for players, but one of the simplest is to look at the aggregate performance of players given very little playing time. The analogous solution would be to look at managerial records for those managers that were replacements, managing less than a full season of games.

When using this approach for players, one must be careful to consider the selective sampling issues involved--players that fail in an initial trial are less likely to receive future playing time, even though it is possible that their true talent is greater (the opposite is also true to some extent). The same is also likely true to some extent for managers--managers whose teams do not perform well in an initial interim role are not as likely to be retained. However, since my application here is just establishing a rough baseline to use for ultimately unimportant comparisons of managerial records, I am simply going to proceed as if these concerns are irrelevant.

The goal is not to devise a rating system for managers; it is to find a crude baseline to use for comparing un-contextualized managerial records. The freak show nature of the exercise is evident, and hopefully will serve to excuse my playing fast and loose with proper research procedure.

What I did was look at career records for all managers with less than 154 games managed (Although I then removed managers who served full season stints in seasons with less than 154 games from the list as well, as well as Cubs managers from the early 60s who were part of the College of Coaches experiment and Stanley Robison and Ted Turner, who owned their teams and weren't real managers.) from 1901-2009. This is my group of "replacement-level" managers. There are 109 such managers, serving in a total of 135 different team-seasons. Their career totals of games managed range from one (ten managers, with either Rudy York or Eddie Yost as the biggest name) to 149 (Tom Runnells with the 1991-92 Expos).

Overall, they managed 5530 games (an average of 41 games each), going 2322-3208 for a .420 W%. So that will be my baseline for managerial records--.420.

By using .420 as a baseline, I don't mean to imply that it is a replacement-level in the traditional sense. It is quite possible that interim managers generally don't keep their jobs if they don't manage at least a .420 W%, but I don't mean to imply that replacement managers are ".420 managers".

If one was to attempt to measure a manager's replacement level in terms of actual effect on a team attributable to the skipper, my intuition is that it would be close to .500. There are simply too many possible candidates for managerial positions for me to think otherwise. Regardless, though, this "study" in no way indicates that the managers lowered .500 teams to .420.

The teams had a total aggregate record (with both the replacement and non-replacement managers) of 9334-11752, a .443 W%. This comparison does not take into account that the games managed by replacements ranged from one to over 140.

A crude way to compare team performance with and without the replacement level manager is to weight each team-season by the minimum of games managed by the replacement and other games. Using this approach, the weighted average of (W% with replacement manager - W% otherwise) is -.019.

Another crude approach is to weight by the harmonic mean of games managed by the replacement and others, rather than the minimum of the two. The weighted average difference is -.025 when using the harmonic mean. Those results should not be used to draw any conclusions, but without any regression or significance testing they imply that a replacement-level manager might lower a .500 team to .480 or .475, a difference in the range of four games a year. I am not claiming that is true, for the selective sampling reasons discussed previously among a myriad of other reasons.

With that out of the way, I will present some data on managerial records above .420 for managers, 1901-2009. I'll call this Austin Rating in honor of Jimmy Austin, who is the only man to serve three such stints as manager (all with the Browns) without reaching 154 career games. Austin's player-manager career started with St. Louis in 1913, replacing George Stovall temporarily (2-6) before Branch Rickey took over permanently. He also did a stint in 1918 (7-9) in relief of Fielder Jones before Jimmy Burke stepped in. His final and longest experience at the helm was in 1923, when he was 22-29 replacing Lee Fohl. His career 31-44 mark (.413) is a little below the .420 baseline, so his own Austin Rating is -.5.

Here are the top 25 career managers (again, through 2009):

There are sixteen Hall of Fame managers from this period; fourteen are in the top 25 for Austin Rating, with Whitey Herzog (270, 28th) and Wilbert Robinson (224, 34th) just missing the top 25. This is not offered as an indication that Austin Rating tracks HOF managerial choices or that it correctly identifies good managers, as any reasonable system based on career wins and losses would likely produce similar results for Hall of Fame skippers.

Going down the list, the non-Hall of Famers are either active or recently retired (Cox, LaRussa, Torre, Piniella) or in the Hall of Fame as a player (Clarke) until you get to Billy Southworth (Clark Griffith is also in the Hall, with a noteworthy career in the areas of playing, managing, and ownership). Southworth does not have wins in bulk (which seem to be the true indicator of HOF selection), but his .597 W% results in a very strong Austin Rating.

Here are the bottom ten managers:

Most of these guys served in the early part of the twentieth century, when competitive balance was less pronounced and multiple franchises had long walks in the wilderness. Protho brings up the rear for managing three teams in Phillies dreadful pre-War stretch (1939-41). The only manager on the list that commanded over half of his games post-1950 was Roy Hartsfield, original skipper of the expansion Blue Jays. Extending the list down to 13th would include Alan Trammell, while Manny Acta ranks 18th lowest, but including 2010 would give him a slight bump as the Indians scraped over the .420 mark.

Finally, here is the leader in Austin Rating for each current team in their current city (except Washington which doesn't have much of a history; record with that franchise only):

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