Daily Box Score 9/21: Let the Great Axe Fall

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The title of this post is, alternatively, "Why Cooper is not Sterling." You get no link help in interpreting the title above.

It might seem like being a major league manager is a cushy job. Your primary job responsibilities are to fill out the lineup card, consume tobacco products/sunflower seeds, argue with grown men, pinch hit for batters, and make pitching changes (in that order, unless you're Tony LaRussa, in which case the last is first). Maybe, if you're feeling ambitious, you'll motivate your players.

But it's got some serious downsides. There's a very real possibility your boss will be less experienced and more idiotic even than you; the pay isn't nearly as good as it was back in your playing days; you'll be the subject of interminable critical newspaper articles.

Finally--and don't forget this one--the job security stinks.

Table of Contents

Job Security
Speculation
Incentives
Discussion Question of the Day

 

Job Security

Today, Cecil Cooper lost his job. He was fired with 13 games left to play in the Astros season. He took over late in the 2007 season, and managed a barely-winning 171-170 record with the Astros. Houston went 70-79 this year under Cooper.

It is perhaps telling that Astros owner Drayton McLane, Jr. and GM Ed Wade waited until the Astros were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention (as they were after Sunday's 6-0 loss to the Brewers). The pattern of 2007 (when Cooper replaced Phil Garner after 141 games) is repeated here in the firing of Cooper. Astros' third base coach Dave Clark ascends to the throne of Denmark job of manager.

To add insult to injury, Cooper also had his record for most RBI by a Milwaukee Brewer broken, the damage being dealt by Prince Hamlet Fielder against Cooper's own Astros. What tragedy.

Speculation

Of course, managerial firings have always struck me as exhibiting the characteristics of herd behavior. Owners and front-offices are reluctant to be the first mover for fear of looking disloyal in the eyes of the rest of baseball, or looking cold and calculating in the eyes of fans. 

But once one goes down, boy, all bets are off. Gentlemen, start your speculation machines!

First target: Bobby Cox! The AJC's Mark Bradley opines:

1. He has nothing  to prove. [...]

2. He’s 68 years old. [...]

3. He’s not quite the manager he once was. [...]

4. He’s getting even more stubborn, which is never good. [...]

5. Put simply, it’s time. [...]

I guess if you're a beat writer, and you want to draw eyeballs to your beat-blog, a good way to do it might be to make a very controversial statement about a much-beloved figure. But let's, for argument sake, take Bradley at his word.

As far as I'm concerned, the only legitimate reason to suggest someone should be pressured to leave his/her job is because he/she is no longer effective in that capacity. And maybe Bradley is hinting at that in #3. But of course the marginal (in both senses) benefit of replacing Cox with a (theoretically) superior manager has to be balanced against the cost of fan outrage at sending the old guy to the glue factory. I'm not sure that's something the Braves front office wants to do.

But at least Bradley is willing to grapple with the ostensible benefits of replacing Cox by evaluating his potential replacements:

1. Brad Mills, Red Sox bench coach [...]

2. Jose Oquendo, Cardinals third base coach [...]

3. Dave Duncan, Cardinals pitching coach [...]

4. Terry Pendleton, Braves hitting coach [...]

5. Scott Ullger, Twins third base coach [...]

My question, of course, is why not stay in-house, where you have perhaps the only man who could possibly challenge Cox's record for most ejections

Let me be clear: I do not mean to pick on Bradley in particular. Here's a roundup of ominous rumblings about Nationals interim manager Jim Riggleman:

All of which leads me to ask...Were these three writers, the main MSM writers who provide coverage of the Nationals, simply happy to have two equally blunt reactions to play off one another for a good read at a tough time for the team, its management, the writers who follow them and the Nationals fans, or did they all include and feature Adam Dunn's reponses to Mr. Riggleman's commentary as a sign of the first rifts developing between the "Interim" Manager and the team many believe will have a new skipper next season?

Ed Chigliak at Federal Baseball sees the writing on the wall. Most likely, these are trial balloons being floated for Riggleman's potential replacement. 

It's worth noting how bad these teams have been. Cooper's Astros featured both Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton in the rotation for extended periods this season. I'll give you a second to re-read that last sentence. And they pitched WELL! Riggleman's Nationals not only couldn't even afford to buy a vowel, they had a starting rotation with a fourth-starter for an ace and predictably declining talent at the back end.

Are we really supposed to believe that the poor records of these two teams can be laid at the feet of the manager? Perhaps the question is better phrased a different way. Do front-offices think fans are so stupid to be satisfied--like vengeful gods--with human sacrifice? Actually, don't answer that.

Conversely, if your team pulls off a mid-season turn-around and is currently on-pace for a playoff berth, you get to look like a genius. Or, I should say, your team's success is ascribed to your "quiet confidence." Seriously, they'll even put "quiet confidence" in quotation marks

Jim Tracy doesn't want any standing O's. All he did, he said, was something his mentor, Felipe Alou, taught him years ago: Trust your players. Put them in position to do what they can do. And don't ask them to do things they can't do. It may sound awfully basic. But sometimes, managing really is that simple.

I'm not sure if Jayson Stark is an evil genius, drawing people in with his nebulous descriptions of Tracy's "sense of right and wrong," only to convince them that a team's manager has, at best, minimal impact on its team's outcomes. Or rather, that the best managers affect their team through a policy of salutary neglect. Either way, he appears to have stumbled upon a great truth. 

The first great truth of managing is that, while it may be difficult, the best managers have impact that is impossible to separate from the performance of a team's players. There is no way to measure motivation. That doesn't mean motivational factors don't exist, but (skeptic that I am) I tend to require non-anecdotal evidence of a phenomenon to believe it exists. So I remain agnostic with respect to the question of managerial motivation.

The second great truth is that managers are hired and fired not for their own greatness, but for other, more contingent factors.

Incentives

I was all ready to give you anecdotal evidence of this second truth (which would of course be unsatisfactory), when RJ came to my rescue. Writing for Fangraphs, he has done a nifty bit of regression, the upshot of which is to suggest that managerial tenure is described by a power-law distribution. 

RJ cites this article from Advanced NFL Stats, which describes a power function:

The power law is all around us, and is a fundamental property of natural organizations of all types. City sizes, for example, are distributed according to the power law. There are a few extremely large cities, more average sized cities, and very many smaller towns. Earthquake sizes, the structure of the Internet, stock market gains and losses, body mass indexes, gravity, social network connections, wealth distributions, and even Kevin Bacon movies all follow power law distributions. If you've ever heard people refer to the "fat tail" or the "long tail," this is what they're referring to.

(It's worth noting, as an aside, that many of the popular claims made about "long tail" distributions have recently been questioned.)

But RJ's regression does a nice job of demonstrating the possibility that managerial tenure is described by a power law function of the type

y = ax^b

Where a and b are constants, and in this particular case,

0 < b < 1

What this would mean is that the most common result for a managerial tenure is extremely short. I think RJ's case would be helped with two modifications. The first, standard, perfect-world amendment would be for more data. But here we run against the miserable constraints of the "real world."

But the second amendment would be to use buckets of two years, as managers are generally given a grace period of a year when they first start. You might simply combine the first two buckets, and leave the rest alone. However, you could accuse me of applying ex post modifications on the analysis.

In any event, you might think that managerial tenure works this way because some managers are really great, but most are actually lousy. And baseball, the argument would go, is a meritocracy. If that were true, however, we would expect tenure to correlate strongly with team winning percentage. In fact, RJ finds only a weak correlation. He concludes:

Most managerial contracts seem to last 2-4 years, which is the average lifespan, and we can’t evaluate mangers well enough to say there’s a huge difference between any two skippers, which means firing a guy is more of a "gut" feeling. If the manager is friendly enough to the media he can probably buy time even if he makes questionable in-game decisions.

If this were true (and I find it plausible), I think the best path a team could take would be to find a laissez-faire manager who is able to entertain the media and is friendly with the players, and keep him on the books for a long time, thus building his reputation into that of a legend. Put another way, teams should just fake it. And that, in a circuitous way, is why I think managers like Bobby Cox should stay put. And I would add to that list guys like Charlie Manuel and Joe Torre. They have their faults and foibles, but the legend sustains them.

Plus, they're so darned entertaining.

Discussion Question of the Day

If the job doesn't matter that much, should we just let them be? Or should we fire 'em all?

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