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The Existentialism Of MLB Managers

Joe Girardi will not be the next manager of the Cubs. No one has any idea if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Scott Olson

So Joe Girardi isn't coming to Chicago. Is that a bad thing?

Managers are a funny thing. With players we can look at their stats and evaluate how good each player is. We're even starting to compensate for the contributions their teammates made to their statistics and things we believe to be the result of luck. But with managers? They don't contribute to a single play on the field, yet their hand is involved in everything that goes on.

The only real statistic we have to evaluate managers is their won-loss record. That's fine as far as it goes, but anyone with even a basic knowledge of baseball has heard the cliche that the manager can't play the game for the players. Bo Porter has a career winning percentage of .351. That's terrible. Is Bo Porter a bad manager? I have no idea. I do know that Tony LaRussa, someone whom everyone thinks is a brilliant manager, would have lost 100 games with the Astros this season.

As fans, we tend to focus on just one aspect of managing, the tactics of winning an individual game or what I call the "Strat-O-Matic" aspect. We all know what that means. It's filling out the lineup, making pitching changes, knowing when to pinch hit, bunting, stealing, etc. All the things you or I would do if we were playing a game of Strat-O-Matic. And that's why managers come in for so much criticism, because you or I could beat a lot of major league managers in a Strat-O-Matic league. It seems easy, and yet many managers seem to struggle with it.

I have little doubt that if I were in a Strat-O-Matic league with Dusty Baker, I'd beat him pretty badly. Does that mean I'd make a better manager than Dusty Baker? Of course not. Because there's a lot more to the job than that. There's teaching ballplayers the best way to play the game and improving their results. There's hiring a coaching staff to help you do that. There's handling 25 ballplayers from different walks of life and even different places on the globe. All 25 of them were the greatest player ever to come out of their school, neighborhood or village, but now many of them aren't even good enough stay in the majors. It involves managing egos. When I bench my starting shortstop in Strat-O-Matic, the piece of paper doesn't complain. It doesn't have an agent. My owner is not going to ask why he's paying $10 million to someone sitting on the bench. The media is not going ask me about it. Nor are they going to ask the other pieces of paper what they think of their friend getting benched.

We criticize Dusty Baker a lot around here, and I'd say most of it is justified. But Baker has managed three different teams over sixteen seasons and has a .526 winning percentage. He's made the playoffs seven times over those sixteen years Over 16 years, Baker's clubs have averaged 85 wins a season. You can't argue that those numbers are not impressive.

Does Baker win because he has good players, or does he win because he makes the players he has better? There's no way to answer that question. You can argue that managers have no effect on wins and losses beyond their on-field tactics, but in such a case you might as well hire the cheapest good Strat-O-Matic player you can find.

I believe that managers do have an impact outside of what goes on the field. Dusty Baker might not know who to bat leadoff, but he knows how to get 25 players to work together. There's some evidence that he knows how to get veteran ballplayers to improve. He knows how to handle 25 egos and what to do when they don't get along. Dusty Baker knows how to send a ballplayer down to the minors convinced that he's still an important part of the team and that he'll be needed again any day now if he just tries hard enough.

Managers have an impact on the ability of players to succeed. It's just that nobody knows what that impact is. Can a manager make a team improve by twenty games? The Cleveland Indians went from 68 wins in 2012 to 92 under Terry Francona. That's 24 games of improvement. How much of that is Francona responsible for? How much of it was adding Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in free agency? How much of it was the new unbalanced schedule that gave them a ton of games against the Twins, White Sox and Astros? I have no idea. I can tell you there's no way that Francona is responsible for all 24 games of that improvement. But how much less? Ten games? Five games? None of it? There simply isn't a way to answer that question.

All managers are not alike and not every manager is suited for every team. A hammer and a saw are both equally valuable tools, but you wouldn't use a saw to put a nail into the wall. Take the example of Joe Torre. Torre started his managerial career as a player-manager with the Mets in 1977, although he gave himself two pinch-hitting appearances before he retired for good. He spent five seasons as the Mets manager and had a .405 winning percentage.

OK, those Mets teams were miserable. He then took over an Atlanta Braves team that was six games under .500 in 1981 and led them to 89 wins and their first playoff appearance in 13 seasons. But the Braves were swept in the NLCS and then the Braves collapsed down the stretch in 1983, blowing a 6.5 game division lead in mid-August. After a mediocre season in 1984, he was fired.

Torre was then hired to manage the Cardinals, replacing legend Whitey Herzog. The Cardinal under Herzog had been consistently the best team in the National League in the 1980s, winning three pennants. Under Torre, they became a .500 team. Few Cardinal fans spoke favorably of his time there.

We all know what Torre did with the Yankees. Did he just become a better manager as he got older? Or did he just inherit the best team of the last 20 years? Probably some of both, but I'd argue that he also finally found a team that he clicked with. In New York, his strengths of dealing with veteran players and protecting the team from the media finally found a home. Torre was a hammer who just never found a nail until he got to the Bronx.

This brings us to Joe Girardi. Steven Goldman is a Yankees blogger, and he wrote an article arguing that Girardi was all wrong for the Cubs situation. Like all fans, he's not happy with Girardi's in-game tactics, in particular his bullpen usage. But mostly, he see's Girardi's strengths as getting great performances out of 37 year old veterans. The only time Girardi ever had to develop young players, which presumably he'd have to do in Chicago, was his one year in Miami. He was praised for his work there and he won manager of the year, despite getting fired. But in retrospect, that team had a hell of a lot of talent. Miguel Cabrera was only 23 years old, but already a veteran presence on the team. The team also had Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Josh Willingham, Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez. In retrospect, a team with all that talent that only won 78 games isn't as impressive.

But wait, didn't Girardi make those players better and help their development? I don't know. Did he? I assume he did, but I don't have any evidence. I'm pretty sure that Cabrera, Ramirez and some of the others would have still ended up as great ballplayers had Joe Girardi never managed the Marlins. Maybe they wouldn't have been as good. Or maybe some of them would have been even better.

So that brings us to Joe Girardi and the Cubs. Yes, it's disappointing, although not really surprising, that he decided to stay in New York. But was he the right man for the Cubs? He's got a lot of strengths other than just getting veteran ballplayers to play better. He's a real leader, as demonstrated in his time as a player with the Cubs. He commands the respect of his players and they play hard for him. Most of all, he kept a steady hand and projected a calming influence as all hell broke loose, seemingly every day, with the Yankees this past season. As a Strat-O-Matic player, I might be able to beat him, but it's not obvious either way.

Manny Acta is one of the candidates who has interviewed for the Cubs managerial job. From what I know about him, he'd clean my clock in Strat-O-Matic. Yet he's managed for six seasons in the majors and his teams have all been terrible. Is that because Acta was given bad teams or because he's a bad manager? I know he was given bad teams, but the two positions aren't mutually exclusive. He could be a bad manager of bad players. I don't know what went on in the clubhouses of Washington and Cleveland. The same thing could be said about A.J. Hinch, although he has less of a track record.

It's possible that Acta and Hinch did a bad job in their previous jobs because they weren't the right man for those particular jobs but they'd be right for the Cubs job. (I think this is more likely in Hinch's case than Acta's because Hinch only managed parts of two seasons and never seemed to have the support of anyone in the organization other than the general manager.) Terry Francona's teams in Philadelphia were awful. He hasn't had that problem in his next two managerial positions.

I admit I wanted Joe Girardi to be the next Cubs manager. I think he would have done a good job. But I don't know either way and I never will. That's the great existentialist dilemma of MLB managers. I have to make a choice based on incomplete and confusing evidence and without knowing the outcome in advance. Perhaps Manny Acta would have been better all along, but I had to make a choice. It's a crisis of faith worthy of Søren Kierkegaard.

I'm going to finish this essay with something I'm likely to regret. But my whole point is can be encapsulated by modifying a quote from Forrest Gump: Managers are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get. And there is no point in being happy or sad about it until after you take a bite.