Brad Ausmus, Managerial Reform and the Great Spring Hope

For the second straight postseason, Jim Leyland completely botched the management of his bullpen.  But after no playoff appearances in 19 years, the Tigers have made the playoffs four times in eight seasons since Leyland took over.  Also, by all accounts, the players adored and respected him.  He wasn’t going to get fired, period.  So when Leyland announced his retirement this offseason, man, was I relieved.

But where’s the relief in getting rid of a strategically-challenged manager only to replace him with another one?  With candidates like Dusty Baker, Charlie Manuel and Lloyd McClendon being mentioned for the job, I have to say that I agree 100% with the choice to hire former catcher Brad Ausmus.  Because even though Ausmus has no managerial experience and we have no idea what to expect from him as a manager, the unknown is better than the known garbage.

The hope is that Ausmus turns out to be a superior in-game strategos while also commanding the same respect that Leyland enjoyed.  And that’s how I would break down the primary roles of a baseball manager:  Strategy and People.

  • Strategy: This includes all of the manager’s roles as the field captain (i.e. determination of lineups, substitutions and rotations; managing bullpens; making calls for pinch-hitting, pinch-running, defensive subs or double switches; defensive alignment).  Strategy gets the most scrutiny in the media, because it’s the most visible.  We see Grady Little decide to leave Pedro Martinez in the game in the 2003 ALCS and we all have an opinion as to whether or not it was the right decision.  (For the record, I think it was a justifiable decision.)
  • People:  This role regards the management of human capital.  This is where the term “manager” makes the most sense, because in this aspect the baseball manager’s role isn’t any different from the manager of any other kind of business.  The manager needs to be able to understand and connect with his personnel.  He needs to maximize the results of the team by understanding how to motivate his troops.  When the media refers to a manager that has “lost” his players or a clubhouse that is out of control, this usually reflects a perceived failure in the People portion of the job (e.g. Terry Francona with the 2011 Red Sox or Bobby Valentine with the 2012 Red Sox).

Both roles are crucial to the performance of a manager.  But few managers actually appear to be competent at both.  As most managers tend to be former players and/or older men who are, uh, perhaps, more set in their ways, they tend to make in-game decisions relying on either a.) not enough statistical data (i.e. rely on their guts) and/or b.) the wrong statistical data (e.g. small sample size batter vs. pitcher data).  With all of the information that is becoming available to us through more and more advanced statistics, it seems like we are getting closer to understanding the ideal choice in nearly any game situation.  But given the level of mathematical inclination required to truly understand advanced stats (much less develop newer and better models than your competition), it almost seems too much to ask for one man to be responsible for both Strategy and People.

So how about having co-managers, one for each role?  Alternatively, each team should employ a strategy guru that would be on the field and have discretion to make most on-field decisions, while ultimately reporting to the manager or the front office.  Look, I can tell you right now that I think I could handle the Strategy role for a major league baseball team; but from the People perspective, I don’t know if I could command the respect of a clubhouse with no baseball experience whatsoever.

But then again, maybe it doesn’t matter.  I do think the People role is important, but how much does it really matter?  Is there any way to quantify this in terms of wins and losses?  Most people would say that Leyland was good at the People part of his job, but I would say that his Tigers teams of the last few years have underperformed, despite the playoff appearances.  We have enshrined Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre into the Hall of Fame as managers, but we still don’t know definitively whether they were great leaders of men or just lucky enough to have been carried to championships by amazing players.

Do we even need field managers at all?  Honestly, they kind of look bored most of the time.  Can’t all of the Strategy decisions be handled by someone like the general manager, who can make those calls from a luxury box?  Can’t one of the players, like a team captain, handle the People portion of the role?  The demise of the player/manager role in baseball makes me slightly sad; I remember getting a Pete Rose baseball card when I was a kid and saw his position listed as “1B-MGR” and my mind was blown.  He’s a player…AND a manager???  How cool is that?!

Ultimately, stats have come a long way in determining the value of what players do on the field.  And it seems like we are getting closer, at least, to understanding the value of what managers do on the field (check out this paper from MIT Sloan’s Sports Analytics Conference).  But we’re still a long ways away from being able to quantify the effect of good managers on an organization off the field, much less figure out which managers are actually good and which are bad.  I mean, I have a pretty good idea, but it’s pretty hard to prove that because Joe Maddon brings magicians into the Tampa Bay clubhouse the Rays actually win more games.  Maybe these effects can’t be quantified.  And if that’s true, I guess that’s fine.  I’m okay with the mystery.  I’m okay with not knowing anything about how Brad Ausmus, the manager, will perform this season.  Because it’s spring, and because hope is the answer to every unanswered question in the spring.  Everything is going to be okay.

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