Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Do Managers Matter?

We humans are stubborn creatures. We form an opinion, grab hold of it, and over time tighten that grip until “changing your mind” becomes nearly impossible. This is true if it is something trivial, like believing defense wins NFL championships, or of life-and-death importance, like believing holistic medicine cures disease better than modern medicine.

When we receive new data about the issue, we filter it through our bias. For example, I can provide reams of data to a “defense wins championships” believer that prove a good offense is as or even more important than a good defense, but he will discard the facts that don’t support his belief, and latch onto the ones that do. “Sure, the Saints scored with more frequency than a rich nerd at a gold digger convention,” he’ll say, “but they didn’t win a championship until Gregg Williams started blitzing like Rommel.”

Cognitive scientists call this “confirmation bias” – we naturally select data that support our existing beliefs, and discard data that refute those beliefs. Think about confirmation bias, and it will change how you look at everything from the Middle East to marital spats.

I bring all this up because I’m changing my mind about a long-held belief, a belief of enormous magnitude: I’m beginning to believe baseball managers matter.


Many of you are saying, well of course managers matter (or you’re saying, sheesh, another sports story? I’m outta here). But I’ve always believed managers had a minimal effect on a win-loss record. Take any intelligent baseball fan and side him up with a decent bench coach, and he could do a passable job managing. Write the lineup. Set your rotation. Change pitchers. Talk to the press. Lose arguments with umpires. Spit. Is that it?

I have no doubt I can perform that job with fewer embarrassing blunders than I would as, say, a plumber or biochemist or Federal Reserve chairman or software engineer or submarine sonar officer or sous chef or air traffic controller or ambassador to Norway* . Or, for that matter, football coach, where you need to not only know what Red-Z Omaha Split means, you have to create it, teach it, and decide when to employ it.

* Sidenote: congratulations to the obscure Norwegian politicians who pick the Nobel Peace Prize winner - you didn't screw it up this year! As for the Swedes who give out the Literature prize, I'm still waiting for you to honor Cormac McCarthy or Philip Roth or pretty much anybody with an American passport, but at least you didn't give it to a total obscurity this year.

In fact, I figured (and still do), it is harder to manage baseball in the minors and college where teaching the fundamentals is a big part of the job. I’m reasonably sure Phillies manager Charlie Manuel doesn’t have to tell Chase Utley how to pivot on a double play or Shane Victorino which cutoff man to hit or Ryan Howard to never ever EVER bunt.

And so, for years, I didn’t particularly care who managed my team. What I mostly hoped is he would be entertaining in interviews, like Bobby Valentine.

But here’s the thing: I’m watching these baseball playoffs and, except for the Yankees and Phillies – which are absolutely loaded with talent – I see a bunch of lineups and rotations that aren’t particularly impressive. And yet, these teams are in the playoffs, and my Mets are home again.

The Elements of Winning

I was recently in Minneapolis and had a chance to visit Target Field, the Twins’ new digs. I looked up at the Twins’ lineup and saw Joe Mauer and…well, a bunch of guys few people outside of Minnesota had ever heard of before. Michael Cuddyer has been on my fantasy teams a couple times, and is a pretty good hitter. But this is not an all star team. Justin Morneau missed most of the season with an injury, closer Joe Nathan hasn’t thrown a pitch since spring training. And yet here they were, in first place as usual.

And it got me to thinking about my team, the Mets, who have most of the elements of a winning team, but were once again muddling through a meaningless September:

Established stars
David Wright and Johan Santana are proven superstars. Carlos Beltran missed most of the season, but has been one of the premier centerfielders of his generation.

Up and coming players
Ike Davis had the second best rookie season by a hitter in Mets history. Mike Pelfrey broke through this year, pitching on an ace level most of the year. Jonathan Niese opened eyes all year long.

Unexpected performances from journeyman

Angel Pagan and R.A. Dickey? Did any journeyman hitter/pitcher combination have better unexpected seasons than these two?

Consistently good starting pitching
The Mets threw 19 shutouts this year. They had a team ERA of 3.73, a ¼ run better than the league average, and the 7th lowest in all of baseball.

A reliable bullpen
Francisco Rodriguez’s season ended in disgrace, and he had a few tough blown saves this year. But look closely and you’ll see that he had his best season since 2006, when he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. His ERA was 2.20, he had a career low walks per nine innings, his WHIP was the second lowest of his career and he struck out an astonishing 3 batters for every one walked. A lot of Mets fan believe he struggled this year, and he had his patches – but those patches were surrounded by multiple weeks and even months of unhittable dominance.

Good baserunning
The Mets led the league in stolen bases. Again. In fact, the Mets have led the league in stolen bases every year since 2004, except for 2008 when they finished 2nd.

Established stars. Up and coming players. Unexpected performances from journeymen. Consistently good starting pitching. A good, occasionally great closer. Speed in the basepaths. The Mets took all of these elements and ended up…79-83.

Ron Gardenhire has been manager of the Minnesota Twins for nine years. In those nine years his team finished 1st six times. In eight of nine the Twins had a winning record. His only losing season was 2007 when they finished with the same mediocre record the Mets finished with this year, 79-83.

Mets manager Jerry Manuel has also managed nine seasons in the majors, with the White Sox and Mets. He had one first place finish. He’s had back to back 4th place finishes with the Mets. And he gives boring interviews.

The Mets just fired Jerry Manuel. Can someone else take this collection of promising talent and bring them to October? As the great Tug McGraw said, Ya Gotta Believe.

1 comment:

Bruce Bochy said...

Keatang, I may be guilty of confirmation bias, as I believe that a good manager throws the best players out on the field and they do all the work and deserve all the credit. Heck, if your Mets could have fellas like Cody Ross and Edgar Renteria instead of what they've got, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't have had to fire Manuel. I like your site and I hope your Mets keep you believin'.