Passionless Managing, Numbers Crunching and Outsiders

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The new managerial template of eschewing experienced minor league managers or veteran big league managers and bringing in the likes of Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura has developed into a two-way street. Teams are making the hires and the managers aren’t fully invested in doing the job, putting forth an almost blasé sense of, “Oh, I’ll manage the team if that’s what your really want me to do until something better comes along.”

According to Matheny’s own account during the revelation of his financial issues, he had no intention of returning to the dugout if he didn’t have to find work. Intentional or not, Matheny saying that he wouldn’t be managing had he not lost all his money in real estate came across as arrogant and condescending. Considering that everything the Cardinals accomplished last season had more to do with the foundation left by Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan than with Matheny, it’s not the right attitude to have.

In a similar vein, Ventura turned down a contract extension because he wasn’t sure how long he wanted to manage. For a lifer such as Jim Leyland and Terry Francona, this would be totally foreign tack for a relatively young man such as the 45-year-old Ventura. Lifers manage, of course, for the money. They also love the competition and, in spite of the success they’ve had, there’s a certain amount of insecurity that comes from the journeyman way they were reared in baseball. Leyland rode minor league buses forever as a player and manager, got his chance as a coach with LaRussa, then began his long ride between Pittsburgh, Florida and Colorado. He spent several years as a semi-retired adviser/observer insisting he was done managing, then returned to take over the Tigers in 2006 and has been there ever since. With all he’s accomplished and his resume, there’s still regular talk that his job is on the line.

Francona is fending off the perception that his two championships managing the Red Sox were a byproduct of the organization and he was an on-field functionary. As was detailed in his new book (my review is here), the reputation-bashing he endured when he left Boston was such that it could have festered into him becoming toxic to other clubs. I believe he took the Indians job in large part to put that talk to rest.

Both Matheny and Ventura were old-school as players, but this new school of managing is something that front office people have to decide is worth it.

The tree of coaches and managers has branches that sometimes grow in strange ways. In football, Bill Parcells was known as much for his brilliance as his constant vacillation, threats of retirement and resignations only to rise again in a different location. Two of his most successful assistants—Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin—have been on the sidelines constantly without needing a break due to burnout, failing health or exhaustion. Some clubs prefer short-term contracts with their managers and coaches and can live with not knowing one day to the next whether they’re going to stay or go. Others want a full commitment. I believe it helps the organization to have a coach/manager who wants to be there and has a passion for doing the job.

Passion. It must be there for long-term success. The job isn’t a hobby or a pleasant and brief diversion like going to the park and having a picnic. As Bill James said in his guest appearance on The Simpsons, “I made baseball as much fun as doing your taxes.” It’s the truth. With the new age people like Jeff Luhnow running the Astros like an ambitious startup, is there a love for the game or is it something they enjoy and see as a challenge, but don’t have a deep wellspring of passion for?

I don’t get the sense of passion from Matheny or Ventura. With Ventura, he’s so laid back that there are times that he looks like he needs to have a mirror placed under his nose to see if he’s still breathing. The White Sox functioned for so long under the volcanic Ozzie Guillen, that they sought someone who wasn’t going to create a crisis every time he opened his mouth. That’s exactly what they—from GM Ken Williams on through the coaches and players—needed. By 2014, Ventura might not have a choice in staying or going if the team looks disinterested and needs a spark.

Some veteran managers use their growing reputations and success to exact some revenge for years of subservience. Joe Torre and Francona took short money contracts to get their opportunities with the Yankees and Red Sox and when the time came to get paid and accumulate say-so as to the construction of their clubs—no rebuilding projects for them anymore—they took them.

We can debate the baseball qualifications and merits of hiring outsiders to work in front offices or run a baseball team. Many of these individuals are people with degrees from impressive universities who never picked up a ball themselves and haven’t the faintest idea about the social hierarchy and nuance necessary to handle a big league clubhouse or put a cohesive club together not just on the field, but off it as well.

Crunching numbers isn’t analysis and is decidedly not all there is to running a baseball team, nor the final word in determining the future. This is how we end up with the Pirates’ assistant Kyle Stark living out his tough guy fantasies by entreating his minor league players to follow Navy SEALs training techniques and telling them to think like a Hell’s Angel without understanding what that truly entails. It’s how insecure “analysts” such as Keith Law continually try to find excuses for the Orioles’ success in 2012 and why he and other “experts” were “right” in spirit about them having a prototypically terrible Orioles year, but the Orioles made up for their lack of talent with luck. Rather than simply enjoying an unexpected rise for a historic franchise as a baseball fan would, it turns into an egocentric treatise to bolster one’s own credentials and dissect why it’s not “real.” Is it necessary to find a “why” to justify the Orioles being lucky complete with turning one’s nose up in a pompous, snobby, sighing and eye-rolling dismissiveness?

Matheny and Ventura are running toward the mistaken path that other coaches and managers have taken in assuming that because they did what can be perceived as a good job, that they’ll always have another opportunity to manage if they need it. It’s not the case. The attitude of “I’m doing you a favor by being here” only lasts for so long. Perhaps Ventura doesn’t need to manage or to have the job, but with Matheny’s financial plight now known, he does need the job, making that attitude worse.

As Parcells repeatedly showed, it’s a tradeoff to take his ambiguity from one year to the next to have his coaching expertise. With Ventura and Matheny, it can be seen as an advantage to have a replaceable overseer rather than a difficult and well-compensated manager with a track record like LaRussa. Whether they realize that it won’t cost much to fire them is the question. Maybe Matheny will think about that if the transition from the veterans that performed under LaRussa and maintained that performance under Matheny evolves into youngsters who must to be nurtured and guided with strategies a legitimate manager must impart. His strategic work was wanting in 2012 even though the Cardinals made it to game 7 of the NLCS. If it becomes clear that the Cardinals don’t need him, that flippancy will dissolve, but it might be too late. Front offices will tolerate it while it’s working. When it’s not, they won’t. It could come back to haunt them. When they realize the job wasn’t such a bad deal after all, it will no longer be theirs to keep at their discretion.

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Your Final 2012 Manager/GM Hotseats and Predictions

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Some managers have already been dismissed and others will be gone as soon as the season ends tomorrow night. Let’s go through the list of the obvious and otherwise.

Manager Joe Girardi/GM Brian Cashman—New York Yankees

The Yankees are in the playoffs and barring a dreadful stumble in the final two games against a Red Sox team that’s waiting to be put out of its misery, they’re going to win the division. But, as the Yankees from top-to-bottom have repeatedly said, they’re not in it to make the playoffs. Anything short of a good showing in the ALCS and the manager could be in jeopardy. It’s not Girardi’s fault and if he’s going to be tossed over the cliff, I would advise him to handcuff himself to Cashman as they’re going over because it’s Cashman who should be in trouble.

From the trade that sent Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos (both on the disabled list), to his questionable development of pitchers (Manny Banuelos is going to have Tommy John surgery), and his off-field mishaps, there are many reasons to say enough’s enough with Cashman.

In an ordinary situation, firing the manager/GM for a team that has won 90+ games and made the playoffs would be ludicrous, but the Yankees have a World Series or bust attitude and a $200+ million payroll. Add it up and people will be held accountable for a fall.

Manager Bobby Valentine—Boston Red Sox; Manager John Farrell—Toronto Blue Jays

I’ll discuss them together since they’re all tied together.

Valentine’s putting up the front of expecting to be back because no one’s said anything to him directly and he has a contract for 2013, but he’s gone and he knows he’s gone. This Red Sox disaster was not due to the manager. He was part of the problem, but even had they kept Terry Francona or hired one of the candidates preferred by GM Ben Cherington, 2012 wouldn’t have gone much differently.

Farrell and the Red Sox are eyeing one another like desperately lonely singles at a middle-aged mixer and the Blue Jays will take advantage of that and get a player in exchange for Farrell. I doubt it’ll be someone as significant as Daniel Bard, but they might get something of use and not have to pay Farrell off if they wanted to fire him.

The Red Sox had better get Farrell better talent because his stoic countenance, handling of the media, and remembrances of years gone by as the Red Sox pitching coach aren’t going to yield any better results than what Valentine got without massive changes to the personnel. In fact, since Farrell’s in-game managerial skills are poor, the Red Sox might be worse with Farrell than they are with Valentine.

The Blue Jays know what Farrell is, are unhappy with his open flirtation with the Red Sox, and have seen his “strategery” on a daily basis for two years now. If there wasn’t this clear lust between Farrell and the Red Sox with the Blue Jays thinking they can get something out of it and not have to pay Farrell for 2013, they might fire him.

They need a manager who will handle the youngsters and correct mistakes as they happen; someone they can trust to make the sensible game decisions. I’d go with someone older and uncompromising like Larry Bowa, but if (when) Farrell leaves, they’ll hire a Don Wakamatsu-type. Most anyone would be a better game manager than Farrell. After a short honeymoon, the Red Sox will learn, much to their dismay.

The Blue Jays should wait to see what the Yankees do with Girardi. He’d be a great fit in Toronto.

Manager Jim Leyland—Detroit Tigers

Much was made of the Tigers underachievement and that Leyland is working under a 1-year contract with no deal for 2013, but the Tigers problems weren’t the fault of the manager and they came back to win the AL Central. He’ll be back if he wants to come back, but I’m getting the inkling he might retire. The Tigers are a great spot for Francona.

Interim Manager Sandy Alomar, Jr.—Cleveland Indians

The Indians are interviewing Francona, but the team is restarting their rebuild and won’t have the money to pay Francona or to bring in the players he’s going to want to win. It’s a no-win situation for him because he’d be risking his reputation by overseeing a team that’s starting over and would revert to the “nice guy and meh manager” rep he had with the Phillies before he wound up in Boston.

Alomar is a top managerial candidate, is popular in Cleveland and will get the fulltime job.

Manager Mike Scioscia—Los Angeles Angels

The Angels missed the playoffs after spending a ton of money on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson; GM Jerry Dipoto and Scioscia are not exactly buddies; and owner Arte Moreno is understandably upset.

They’re saying that Scioscia will be back, but I’m not so sure. This is another great situation for Francona.

GM Jack Zduriencik—Seattle Mariners

Zduriencik should be safe to at least fulfill the final year of his contract and see if the team improves in 2013.

The entire Marlins baseball ops

From President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest on down to manager Ozzie Guillen, it’s been speculated that the baseball people in the front office were in trouble, then that was quashed after which it was said that Guillen is on the firing line.

I don’t see anyone as safe and I think owner Jeffrey Loria is simply going to fire everyone in a “Kill ‘em all and let God sort them out,” manner.

Team President Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington—Pittsburgh Pirates

After the Pirates came apart in the second half and the scandal of putting young prospects through Navy SEAL training, Huntington’s and assistant GM Kyle Stark were rumored to be in trouble; Coonelly put the kibosh on that, but Coonelly himself isn’t all that secure.

I think they all get fired.

Manager Jim Tracy, Colorado Rockies

There’s an odd dynamic in Colorado in which everything is done in a friendly, agreeable manner. Former GM Dan O’Dowd willingly took a demotion in favor of new Bill Geivett wielding the power in the baseball ops. Manager Tracy has an indefinite, handshake agreement to stay as manager, but it sounds as if they’re going to make a change with Tracy staying in some capacity.

Presumably they’ll go with someone younger in the Chip Hale variety as the new manager.

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Managerial Tornado, Part I—Acta, Mills, Valentine, Pirates, Marlins

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The managerial tornado is touching down. Some, like the fired Manny Acta and Brad Mills, were caught in its path and disappeared; others landed to clean up the wreckage. The Indians fired Acta yesterday and, predictably, replaced him with Sandy Alomar Jr. In spite of the designation as “interim,” Alomar is going to get the fulltime job in part because the Indians are restarting their rebuild, in part because they don’t have any money to pay a big name manager, in part because if they don’t give him the job another team is likely to hire him, and in part because he’s popular in Cleveland. He’s a top managerial prospect and very nearly got the Red Sox job last year.

With the Marlins preferring a cheaper, younger, calmer presence than Ozzie Guillen and Alomar’s ability to speak Spanish, he’d be a good choice to take over that mess. The Angels’ situation is unsettled and the Rockies job might come open.  Regardless of his denials, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington slipped up by essentially saying straight out that he’ll use a different strategy to replace Bobby Valentine. Cherington later tried to “clarify” his remarks. Just stop it, huh?

Firing the manager is the easy thing to do and sometimes unavoidable. Acta has functioned in bad luck for his managerial career with a lack of talent on his rosters. He was the Nationals’ manager as they were losing so relentlessly that the were able to secure the top picks in the draft two straight years and were lucky enough to have once-in-a-decade franchise players sitting there waiting for them with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Two managers later, Davey Johnson is reaping the benefits. With the Indians, injuries and underperformance did Acta in. His firing was fait accompli even though upper management itself, GM Chris Antonetti and team president Mark Shapiro, are under siege for their mistakes. Some have wondered why the Indians didn’t wait until the season was over, but they’ve done this before with Eric Wedge and they were firing Acta anyway, so what’s the difference? He’s a Rene Lachemann-type: someone who knows what he’s doing, is well-respected as a baseball man, and hasn’t had the luck of other, inferior managers like Bob Brenly. Brenly could’ve been replaced by a mannequin, few would’ve noticed and the strategic mishaps would’ve been far fewer.

The mistake that owners and top bosses make is even acknowledging the media’s questions about the managers and GMs when said managers and GMs have long-term contracts. Whether or not they’re thinking of making a change or the decision has already been made, there’s nothing to be gained by replying as if the speculation has validity. Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington and his gung-ho assistant (to the point of sociopathic behaviors) Kyle Stark are said to be on the firing line because of the Pirates’ collapse and Stark’s ridiculous Navy SEAL training regimens for low-level minor leaguers. Team president Frank Coonelly was asked about their job status of his staff and said they’re going to be back for 2013. That’s funcutioning under the assumption that Coonelly is safe and I don’t believe that Coonelly’s job is particularly secure, so if Coonelly is fired, one would assume that the rest of the front office will be out the door as well. I’d have fired Coonelly two years ago.

The Marlins are a disaster and after initially believing that Guillen would survive in part because of his 4-year contract, the team has quit, Guillen dared owner Jeffrey Loria to fire him, and they’re scaling back payroll to $70 million. First the front office led by Larry Beinfest was predicted in jeopardy, now it’s implied that the front office is safe and Guillen is going to be dumped. I believe that Loria’s going to fire everyone and start over.

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