Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The Good, The Bad, and The Managers

In the wonderful world of baseball blogs, writers are very quick to criticize Dusty Baker for his rather injudicious attention towards the pitch counts of his young arms. In fact, we here at Talking Baseball have taken on Baker a few times. I criticized him for Mark Prior's extensive absence, and Jon went after him for his comments on the relative importance of on-base percentage. Clearly, lots of metaphorical ink has been spilled online about what makes a bad manager bad.

But what makes a manager good? A way back in November of 2002, All-Baseball's The Cub Reporter gave us a hint of this in a post on, you guessed it, the Cubs' hiring Dusty Baker. In this post, as in many other articles around the web, the Cub Reporter lists the qualities that make Baker a bad manager. He doesn't always do a great job developing young players; he doesn't always know exactly how to utilize his bench; and woe are you if you decide to criticize Baker in the media. At the same time, the article discusses how Baker is a good motivator and how he manages egos fairly well.

Now, I'm curious to explore this aspect of managing a little bit more. Are the good managers simply the ones that are diplomatic and political when it comes to battling egos? Or is there more to being a good manager than just that? Let's start where the egos are biggest: New York City.

Now in his 8th season as Yankee manager, Joe Torre has compiled an impressive résumé. His record, as of games played on Sunday, May 23, 2004, stands in at 811-524, nearly 300 games over .500. He has guided the Yankees to 4 World Series titles and 6 appearances during his tenure in New York. But when looking over his managerial stats as compiled in the Bill James 2004 Handbook, the stat that sticks out the most is that Torre goes to his bullpen only about 368 times per year. The league average is well over 400 relief changes. Does this mean Torre's discovered that the trick to good managing is to leave your starting pitching in for as long as possible? Not at all.

Joe Torre is probably going to end up in the Hall of Fame as a manager, and he has now been embraced as a great manager. But is he? While managing teams that weren't the Yankees, Torre was 894-1003. That doesn't sound like a great manager to me. One of the obvious secrets to Torre's success and his willingness to rely on his starting pitching has been the fact that he manages teams that are consistently composed of the best players money can buy. Literally. When Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Roger Clemens, and Mike Mussina are your starters, there's no need to go to your bullpen before the 7th or 8th innings. So Torre's secret, therefore, is not leaving the starters in.

Nor is Torre's secret to great managing pushing the right buttons to win. Even the worst managers in the world would know to bring in Mariano Rivera in the 9th. It certainly doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure that one out. Rather, I believe that Joe Torre's — and many other managers' — secrets rest in the ability to control the team and have them work together as a team. At first, this may seem silly; it is, after all, what they say in high school. TEAM is Together Everyone Achieves More. But there's truth in this overly cheesy expression.

In all of Joe Torre's years as Yankee manager, never has a player spoken out against Torre's managerial decisions. No player ever critiqued his lineups or his pitching moves. No one has whined about more playing time, and in an age when the Yankees are made up of Kevin Brown and Gary Sheffield, this is no small feat. It seems that Torre has found managerial success in his ability to diplomatically handle the fragile egos that go along with the Yankees' big contracts.

As the Cub Reporter article said, this ability to control the clubhouse was one of Baker's assets as well. But where do Baker and Torre differ? In my view, they differ in the men with whom they surround themselves. Many members of Torre's coaching staff act as second managers. Torre would not second guess a call from Mel Stottlemyre to remove a struggling pitcher from a game, and up until last year, Don Zimmer was invaluable on the Yankee bench. On the opposite side of the spectrum, I believe that managers such as Dusty Baker do not respect or trust their pitching coaches enough. If Larry Rothschild suggests that maybe Kerry Wood doesn't need to throw 131 pitches as he did a few weeks ago, Baker may not be as inclined to listen to him as Torre is willing to follow Mel's advice.

Maybe you're skeptical. Maybe you don't like my Yankee bias. Let's take a look at a man who should be in the Hall of Fame as a pitching coach: Leo "The Rocking Chair" Mazzone. And let's look at Bobby Cox as well, a man whose managerial style has influenced Torre's. Mazzone is famous for turning pitchers around and leading them to greatness. Mediocre pitchers arrive in Atlanta and leave All-Stars. If Cox didn't trust Mazzone, his right-hand man, then the Braves' pitching for the last 12 seasons would not have been the stuff of legends. Cox, as Torre has done, trusts those around him, and has led his team to greatness.

Additionally, Cox, like Torre, has done a great job handling big egos. He had Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield in the same clubhouse, and nary a word was heard. Mazzone respects those around him, and those around him respect Mazzone. When all is peaceful, the players are compelled to play.

Now, these post is not meant as a slight on Dusty Baker. It's hard to fault a man with a career managerial winning percentage of .540. Rather, this is a lesson in what I view as good managerial tactics. Grady Little could not build a peace in Boston and neither could Jimy Williams. Terry Francona so far has succeeded, and while the jury's still out on Francona for this season, Pedro's been well-behaved and Manny has yet to be sighted in the hotel bar instead of on the playing field.

Some might argue that Grady was a good manager. He did, after all, average 94 wins in two season in Boston. But his player didn't really believe in him and respect him, as evidenced by Pedro's remaining in the game in the 7th. When the players don't trust his decisions, it's hard to consider him a good manager. For us to really judge whether or not a manager is good, we have to look beyond the records. For the most part, the good teams will win with anyone managing. It's how well they win and how they deal with success that determines a manager's legacy. For the bad teams, it's how well they stay together during failure. Alan Trammell deserves more credit for getting the Tigers on the field every day last year to play out a miserable season than Joe Torre deserves for inspiring the Yankees to 101 victories. It is, in my opinion, all about the little intangibles when it comes to judging a manager's legacy. The bad, in this case, is much easier to pinpoint than the good.

Disproving an Old Theory

As the saying goes, pitching wins ballgames. The Marlins proved that last year, and the Diamondbacks proved it in 2001. Yet, one team this year it's doing it's best to disprove this theory. The Montreal-San Juan-Washington D.C.-Portland-Las Vegas-Monterrey Expos have great pitching this season. At 3.81, they have the 5th lowest ERA in Major League Baseball, having surrendered only 173 runs. (As an aside, they also have great fielding, as only 8 of those runs were unearned. Their fielding ranks them one in the league.) Additionally, they have throw up 4 shut outs this season, second only behind the Florida Marlins, who have 5. Unfortunately, for the Expos, 4 of the Marlins' 5 shuts out have been twirled against them, and they have been shut out 8 times this season, en route to scoring a whopping 118 runs in 44 games. That, folks, is just 2.68 runs per game. The Expos are working hard to show that pitching and fielding does not win games. Rather, mediocre hitting — that's all I'm saying, not great, just mediocre — and outstanding pitching win games. If the Expos can find a slugger or two, they could be competitive. And it's clear that the loss of Vladimir Guerrero hurts them more than anyone ever expected.

Trivia Question of the Day

Depending upon your knowledge of no hitters and how much you've been following the recent spate of 1-hit games, you may already know this. And again, no cheating. Don't use the Internet as a tool; the answer is easy to find.

When Randy Johnson threw his perfect game against the Braves his last, his no-hitter became the first in the short history of the Arizona Diamondbacks. When Tom Glavine threw his one-hitter over the weekend, he almost became the first Met ever (in 42 years of play) to throw a no-hitter. Besides the Mets, what three teams have never thrown a no-hitter? And for extra credit, which of these teams has never been on the wrong end of a no-hitter? As always, leave your answers in the comments section, and I'll reveal the correct answer in my next post.

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