What Makes A Great Manager?

Why Was Sparky Anderson A Great Manager? - Darryl Norenberg-US PRESSWIRE

With new manager season in full swing, here's the basic question: What makes a great manager?

Dale Sveum is out. Jim Leyland has stepped down. The list of potentials is changing a bit daily, much like who is available in a bullpen on a daily basis. Would Torey Lovullo be able to win a pennant in Wrigley? Is Rick Renteria the guy to get it done? One basic step is very elusive, but should be a major part of the discussion. What makes a great manager?

Communication is a widely agreed-upon trait, but how can mid-pennant race communication be simulated in October and November? Bullpen usage is key, but playing simulated games with a prospective coach seems a silly way to decide. Playing by the book, but not always, seems a trite assessment. There has to be something better? Right?

I'm going to run through some of the better managers I can recall, and see if someone can divine a deeper truth from my musings.

I was a bit of a White Sox fan when Tony La Russa took over on the South Side. He made two specific changes, and both would become his hallmarks. One was bullpen usage. I'm not going to monitor his pitching changes from the mid-eighties, and pretend they are valid now. He seemed to always be trotting out Juan Agosto, Salome Barojas, or some other anonymous reliever. If the Sox, at the time, were a better team, La Russa would have been there longer.

The other thing La Russa did was bump Carlton Fisk to the second slot in the batting order, which seemed foolish at the time. It worked, and the Sox won the division in a romp that season, with his elevation being a turning point. La Russa was never afraid of making an offbeat move. He would juggle lineups later, as well.

After Chicago, he was successful in Oakland, where he tended to be infatuated with starting grindy middle infielders. Mike Gallego comes to mind. His teams in Oakland usually had very good starting pitching. How much credit goes to him, and how much goes to Dave Duncan, I will let you decide.

Taking Duncan to St. Louis with him, La Russa usually had good coaching staffs. Good coaches (or managers) don't have "Good At Their Job" stamped on their foreheads. Nonetheless, Duncan and Dave McKay made LaRussa's job easier.

***

Earl Weaver made games fun in Baltimore. If his team wasn't doing well, he'd argue for a while, often in a comic fashion. That isn't why his teams won, though. They pitched well, played solid defense, and rarely wasted outs.

In a broadcast in 1984, he noted to announcing partner Reggie Jackson that his Orioles never flashed him a hit-and-run sign. His teams didn't bunt much, either, by my memory, either pre- or post-DH. He would, speaking of DH, use a curious strategy, while it was legal. He would 'start' Jim Palmer or Steve Stone, both slow-footed poor-hitting pitchers as DH. He would do this on days they weren't pitching. Then, when the spot came up, he would send in the guy he intended to use anyway. Unless the opponent changed pitchers. Weaver ticked off the establishment. For this, and all his wins, he was amusing.

***

They called Sparky Anderson "Captain Hook", because he was one of the first to rely very heavily upon his bullpen. His relievers would routinely face a hitter or two, decades before it became de rigeur. His teams were generally good, but when you look at his juggernaut 1984 Tigers, you wonder how. I seem to remember George Scherger following him around some.

I don't remember Anderson mixing-and-matching with his lineups, but I'm confident he did. Rather often. He seemed to get more from his talent, however much talent that was, than you would expect.

***

Billy Martin is included for a curious reason. He ended up with teams that were good for a few years, then would tend to implode. In his only year in Minnesota, the Twins finished first. In his second year in Detroit, the Tigers finished first. In his first full year in Texas, the Rangers finished second, which was unfathomable (they had lost 105 games the year before). The Yankees won a World Series with Martin at the helm, and the Athletics reached the postseason with him. He tended to overwork his starters, as I remember -- that led to downsides later.

***

Joe Maddon was untested as a big league manager until he took over in Tampa. His offense has tended to be a bit sketchy, and his strategy unorthodox, in his stint. His underfunded Rays are among the top teams in the league, after two years of being lousy.

***

I'm sure you can, and will, throw names, and characteristics I omitted. My point with this exercise is that, while 'good' managers help their teams immensely, it's tough to decide in advance which managers will be the real deal. In general, they aren't afraid to be the lone voice. They aren't afraid to be wrong. They get more from their team than expected. However, those are like describing the road you just traveled, not the fifty mile stretch ahead you've never seen.

In an article on the manager search, BCB's Josh Timmers equated it to the 'box of chocolates' comparison in "Forrest Gump". If selecting the manager was easy, they wouldn't get fired so often after three years.

With the current Cubs post, adding to the complexity is the number of highly-touted Dominican prospects in the pipeline. Not only does the next skipper have to be willing to make the curious move, he has to be able to communicate with players like Eloy Jimenez, Jorge Soler, and Arismendy Alcantara, among others.

Communicate, especially to Hispanic/Latin players, hire a good coaching staff, properly use the pitchers you receive, and turn in a solid batting order every day when you might only have five good hitters initially. For the sake of whoever gets hired, I hope a few free agents and youngsters have solid years. The 'being a good manager' thing is still predicated on having more talent than the team has now.

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