Managerial Hieroglyphics

Jeff Sullivan · October 25, 2013 at 5:59 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Maybe the most important thing the Mariners have to do all offseason is hire a new manager to steer the team going forward. Or maybe that’s literally the least important thing on their to-do list. Who among us can say? Keep this point in mind. It’s kind of the whole point of this post. The Mariners have to hire a new manager because they couldn’t reach an agreement with Eric Wedge. That would be one not incorrect way to put what all happened here.

The Mariners have already started interviewing candidates, and the names they’ve been linked to are mostly the names every team is linked to when they have a managerial opening. This should be settled within a matter of one or two or three weeks, and then we’ll officially know the name of the team’s next major scapegoat. While the Wedge chapter arrived at a weird and uncomfortable ending, my sense is that fans aren’t too broken up over losing him. He didn’t make the Mariners win, after all. He didn’t feel like a good manager.

And Wedge was in the news today. Turns out he’s going to interview for the open Chicago Cubs position. He isn’t thought to be the favorite, but he’s going to get himself in the offices, interviewing with another team trying to progress from rebuilding to contention. On its own, that isn’t so remarkable, but the reason I bring this up is because of who’s running the Cubs these days. The Cubs have turned themselves into one of baseball’s more forward-thinking, analytical organizations, the kind of organization we thought we had here a few years ago. The Cubs seem like they’re doing things right. They’re going to interview Eric Wedge. Many people here were unimpressed by Eric Wedge.

What the hell do we actually know? That’s the question I always inevitably come back to whenever I’m reading about a managerial hiring process. What we know are the names of candidates. We can research their histories, and we can pay attention to whatever quotes they might offer. We can’t do any analysis. Even if a track record exists, we don’t know how to interpret it.

At least from the fan perspective, the managerial hiring process is like ordering off an indecipherable menu, a menu written in hieroglyphics. You can try to figure something out from what you’re presented, but you’re not going to know anything about the entree. You’re lucky if you figure out a single ingredient. Also, the cooks in the kitchen change by the day, so you don’t know the conditions responsible for your meal. And after the meal, you don’t actually know if it was good. You know whether you had a negative or positive overall experience, but you don’t actually know why. Stretch it far enough and this simile kind of falls apart.

The most insane thing about managers is also the most obvious thing. We have no idea who’s good. We have no idea who’s going to be good. We have no idea who was good in retrospect. We don’t know how much a manager actually matters. We don’t know how much depends on the environment into which a manager is placed. It stands to reason someone who’s a good manager with Team A might not necessarily be a good manager with Team B. Players are different, mood’s different, situation’s different, manager performance is different. We don’t know a damned thing. I’m not even convinced the teams doing the hiring know a damned thing. I mean, yeah, they’ll come away with some preferred candidates, based on the interviews, but those teams can’t tell you what difference the next manager should make. If the Mariners picked up Mike Trout tomorrow, they’d be, I don’t know, eight or so wins better. If the Mariners hired Chip Hale tomorrow, they’d have hired Chip Hale, and that would mean something or nothing, and we’d never know what it meant.

Gun to my head, I’d say the best manager in baseball is Joe Maddon. I’ll freely admit a lot of that is just based on results, and he makes some tactical mistakes, and I’m just biased in favor of the demonstrably open-minded. I feel like Joe Girardi did a great job in New York this year, but I don’t know. I used to think Mike Scioscia was phenomenal, but more recently people have wanted him fired because the Angels, who always overachieved, have underachieved. Terry Francona was apparently good for a while and then suddenly ineffective and he had to go somewhere else to be welcomed. The point is that the whole damned thing’s so mysterious I can’t believe people following a hiring process end up with rooting interests.

Who can really pick a favorite managerial candidate? Or, who can reasonably support such a pick? Every year, this is such a big story for a handful of teams. It feels important, getting a new manager and coaching staff in the dugout. It’s also a story that’s just about impossible to discuss. It should always be reported on — it’s something that’s happening, after all — but what is there to be done beyond the reporting, save for repeating the reporting? How are we supposed to know who could work here? How are we supposed to know how well someone could work here? How are we supposed to pretend we know anything?

This isn’t an original topic, and I’m far from the only person who feels like this. It’s just kind of mind-blowing to me, every time. Here’s this thing, this seemingly important thing that’s happening with the Mariners, and, welp. We’re frequently made to look stupid by baseball when we make our projections or whatnot, but at least we can have facts on our side and the knowledge that over bigger samples, we’ll be right more than we’ll be wrong. There aren’t any facts with managerial candidates, not facts that we know what to do with. So there’s this sense of feeling like I ought to have an opinion, but knowing that I shouldn’t. I’d like the Mariners to keep away from Dusty Baker, but even that I can’t support with meaningful data. It’s just an automatic response.

Pretty soon, the Mariners are going to hire a new manager, and we’ll never have any idea how good of a job he did here after it’s over. We’ll know how the team did and that will color our feelings, if not determine them completely, but that won’t be good analysis. The truth is it’ll forever remain a mystery, or at least effectively forever. Maybe you personally don’t trust the Mariners to hire the right candidate. Who would you trust? A team I’d trust is going to interview Eric Wedge.


21 Responses to “Managerial Hieroglyphics”

  1. don52656 on October 25th, 2013 6:51 pm

    Jeff, I’d be interested in hearing what kind of statistical data you would be tempted to use to try to analyze managers. Looking at actual record versus pythagorean record, Eric Wedge actually ranks among the worst all-time for managers who have managed at least 1000 games. I don’t know if that’s important, but it seems important, and the Mariners would have been able to tell that Wedge’s history was full of Indians teams which had underperformed their pythagorean record. I’m hoping this time they try to pick one who performs better in this regard, perhaps if only to try something different.

    By the way, the best actual vs. pythagorean results I’ve found, in a very small sample size, was Don Wakamatsu, whose Mariners vastly outperformed the record the runs scored/against would have predicted. The former Mariners manager with the best long-term record is Bob Melvin.

    You can count me among those who is glad Wedge is gone; if the young talent was blossoming under him, I seem to have missed it. I’d like to hear what kind of info you would use if you were picking the manager (because I like your opinions and I love how you write them).

  2. Jeff Sullivan on October 25th, 2013 6:55 pm

    Actual record vs. projected record would/could be of some interest, but there would still be countless complicating variables. Including the matter of that projected record including any managerial effect on holdover players. So you’d also want to look at new players, and how they perform relative to projections, and you look at former players, and how *they* perform elsewhere relative to projections. Good luck to somebody brave. I’m staying out because it’s not worth my time.

  3. terryoftacoma on October 25th, 2013 6:58 pm

    I trust the Mariners to hire a manager. Beyond that who knows what kind of team he’ll have to manage.

  4. New England Fan on October 25th, 2013 8:10 pm

    I never really disliked Wedge – I do think he was a kind of a plain vanilla kind of manager, but he was a standup guy who stood up for his players and his GM, and did kind of get thrown under the bus. I think the Ms gave him a raw deal – if they announced and gave an extension to Z, they should have done the same thing for Wedge at the same time. He was not given the same level of respect as Z.

  5. Longgeorge1 on October 25th, 2013 8:44 pm

    We need a manager who is not afraid to tell the entire organization to go to hell and then walk out the door like Sweet Lou did. As for a manager being important someone smart needs to explain to me what Buck Showalter did with the O’s mid season in 2010. How did he take the worst team mid-season in MLB (32-73) and finish the season (34-23)? It was the fastest turn-around of a team by a manager I know of.

  6. MrZDevotee on October 26th, 2013 12:13 am

    My two cents is that the most effective managers are the ones who have the respect and trust of their ownership, and without being a “yes” man all the time, are able to help accomplish the goals of the ownership as far as a) types of players the team wants to develop and foster, b) the team’s overall idea of what “winning baseball” looks like, c) the “attitude” the team presents to the fanbase and rest of the league, and d) are able to juggle media attention in a positive way, win or lose.

    I think all of that is way more important/effective than anything they do between the basepaths, which mostly involves luck at a much lower than 50-50 rate.

  7. maqman on October 26th, 2013 1:47 am

    I want one who has been part of an effective winning team, like the Rays, Pirates or A’s.

  8. PackBob on October 26th, 2013 6:15 am

    Jim Leyland said something along the lines of a lot (most?) of what a manager does is behind the scenes. I’ve seen this elsewhere. What if being a good manager has more to do with this stuff than what we see on the field? I also have no idea what makes a good manager and so can’t get very interested in the process or, likely, the result. It would be nice if the manager had some entertainment value, though, in case the team lacks in that department.

  9. vj on October 26th, 2013 7:47 am

    Some of you may not have noticed this little article. It’s linked on the left sidebar and definitely worth a read.
    PS: I miss DMZ’s contributions to this site.

  10. ripperlv on October 26th, 2013 9:52 am

    I believe a manager is very important in that his weaknesses can destroy a club. He must have the respect of his players or things can go south quickly. He’s got to be able to handle the bad or dissending attitudes. He has to get the most out of his lineup based upon abilities. He has to handle the BS/input of the front office. He must deal with the press all the time. He has to handle the pitching staff correctly. Plus alot of things I’m sure I’m over looking. So finding a person who can handle all the above with outstanding execution and skill would not be that easy in my opinion. But I think Wedge did some of the above very well or the Cubs/Tigers wouldn’t be interested.

  11. Prosser Steve on October 26th, 2013 11:49 am

    Like him or not. Go look at Billy Martin’s record and tell me a manager doesn’t make a difference.

  12. Westside guy on October 26th, 2013 2:03 pm

    Correlation does not prove (or imply) causation.

  13. Westside guy on October 26th, 2013 2:53 pm

    Vj, interesting that Wedge consistently did something that article described as bad – putting fast guys (e.g. Saunders) after the base cloggers (Montero, Smoak).

    And, even worse, often splitting up the base cloggers.

  14. Longgeorge1 on October 26th, 2013 7:22 pm

    Not only did I love Billy Martin as a manager he was fired by Stienbrenner so often it became a media joke. Whether Martin was supporting or berating a player there was no doubt that the buck stopped with #1.

  15. Breadbaker on October 26th, 2013 10:51 pm

    Two things:

    A manager is not “good” or “bad”, but the right or wrong person for the particular job. How often do we see TV network executives work extremely well in one position and then fail when hired away to another position? It seems to happen all the time. I have often used the example of George Karl when he started with the no-name Sonics and couldn’t rein in the same team when Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp turned into superstars. Why should it be so surprising when this occurs?

    The second point is that since he fell out of love with Wakamatsu early in the 2010 season, Zduriencik has not shown himself to be in lock step with any of his managers, which is not an indication that a good manager is likely to accept this job, particularly given the large number of better positions open, starting of course with Detroit. Whatever happened between Wedge and Jack, they clearly were not on the same page.

  16. Mariners35 on October 27th, 2013 10:17 am

    “What the hell do we actually know? That’s the question I always inevitably come back to whenever I’m reading about a managerial hiring process.”

    It’s pretty much the question I always inevitably come back to whenever I’m reading about baseball, now. All these good theories and solid stats and logical conclusions…which puncture the logical fallacies and tired cliches embedded deeply in the sport for decades… and then you get things like Mike Carp being on a championship team and Papi being clutch again for the billionth time and so many teams that were supposed to be in the playoffs (Jays, Nationals, Angels, etc.) getting no where near it.

    No one knows anything.

  17. Ralph_Malph on October 27th, 2013 11:02 am

    Actual vs. pythag ignores one of the things we hope a manager will do — cause his players to score more runs and give up fewer. In theory, a good manager will get the most out of his players, which will improve the team’s run differential. This will be directly reflected in Pythagorean W-L. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

  18. Eastside Crank on October 27th, 2013 2:47 pm

    There is a lot that can be said of Wedge’s management style. He started being a strong company man doing whatever his boss told him to do no matter how ridiculous; such as telling all his players to swing away and try to hit for power in SafeCo. He was fine with having minor leaguers learn new positions at the major league level and playing designated hitters in the outfield. However, once the locals got restless and wondered when they would see an actual major league team at SafeCo, he followed Zduriencik’s lead and started throwing everyone under the bus. A team that wants the manager to stick with the program and not try to interject any thought into the process should have Wedge on their speed dial. Just be ready for the push back when the grand design fails.

  19. Rainiers_fan on October 27th, 2013 10:26 pm

    I wasn’t a big fan of Wedge but felt for the guy and his illness and how he left. I have to admit that I paid little attention to Melvin while he was here. But he seems to do a great job without much of a payroll. So I would go with him or Maddon.

  20. BobbleHeadJunkie on October 28th, 2013 7:11 pm

    I’m in favor of hiring Ron Wotus who was a long time manager in the minors like Joe Maddon and would more than likely do well with a younger squad and developing those younger players at the big league squad. He also has long been part of the Giants organizations (one of the best at doing a lot with a little) who the M’s share similar traits to in a big park with good pitching (used to) and good defense (something the M’s went away from last year). He has been known to be fiery like Pinella was and coming San Fran and having coached under some great skippers, he has my vote!

  21. G-Man on November 1st, 2013 9:52 am

    Reported that Dave VAlle interviewed for the manager job.


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