The Definitive Sabermetric Guide to Managing

Earl_weaver_1_medium

Earl Weaver got it.  We need more Earl Weavers.

If more and more GMs are getting it, why aren't managers?

Over the last 30 years, there has been a revolution in baseball thought.  Long held, traditional conceptions of player value, in-game tactics, roster construction and organization building which had grown into truisms of the game, and even worse things that "everybody knows," have been re-evaluated, tested, re-thought and in many cases debunked.  Much of the old artifice of baseball theory has been torn down and replaced by a new architecture of ideas which have been widely tested, (informally) peer reviewed, re-tested and improved upon.

While these new ideas and the "question everything" philosophy behind them have not been internalized by all baseball fans, sports media, coaches and players, over the last 15 years, they have found a home in many MLB front offices.  By most accounts, all major league front offices utilize statistical analysis to some degree.  And it appears that many have been willing to change how they evaluate players, build their teams and run their organizations.

One of the key tenets of the new baseball thinking, which I will refer to as "sabermetrics" for the sake of ease, is that teams should try to find market inefficiencies and exploit them to gain an advantage over their opponents.  But this concept has not yet trickled down to the managerial ranks in any significant way.  I contend that there are significant advantages to be had by MLB teams by having their managers act more "sabermetrically".  And I am quite curious as to why general managers have not pushed their managers in this direction.  I would argue that they should. Here's how:

What could a sabermetric manager do?

1. Use optimized lineups.  The standard lineup and the sabermetric optimized lineup can be summarized very generally here:

Standard Optimized
1 Speedy guy who can hopefully get on base One of the three best hitters (high OBP)
2 Good bat handler One of the three best hitters
3 Best hitter 5th best hitter
4 Best power hitter One of the three best hittesr (high SLG)
5 Second best (contact) hitter 4th best hitter
6 Best remaining power hitter 6th best hitter
7 7th best hitter 7th best hitter
8 8th best hitter 8th best hitter (or pitcher if NL)
9 9th best hitter 9th best hitter (ith best hitter if NL)

 

It is generally recognized that the optimized lineup over a full season would score five to fifteen runs more than the standard lineup.  So we’re very roughly talking about one win.  Now one win might not seem like a lot, but as Matt Klaassen’s excellent recent article pointed out, one win is often difference between a good player and a bad player.  It can also mean the difference between making it to the playoffs or not.  It’s worth about $5 million on the free agent market.  In short, should major league teams be turning their back on a win? 

But that’s exactly what every major league manager does.  No MLB team uses an optimized lineup or anything close to it.  Sure occasionally some manager will bat the pitcher 8th or use a slow, high-OBP player as the leadoff hitter.  But other than these small tweaks, managers do their very best to fit their players into the traditional batting order profile.  Why?  Because that’s the way it’s always been done, and therefore it must work best that way.  They are not interested in studies that show that it doesn’t work best that way.  Everybody knows that’s the ways to construct a lineup.

2. (Mostly) stop trading outs for bases.  At least once a week while watching a baseball game, I’ll hear an announcer repeat the old chestnut that a team without a great offense needs to utilize small ball to "manufacture runs," "make things happen," "get the runners in motion," or "diversify the offense."  Often they are quoting the manager of one of these teams.  Conventional wisdom holds that if a team doesn’t have a lot of good hitters they can’t just afford to wait for the 3-run homerun, so they need to steal more bases, sac bunt more, hit-and-run more, suicide squeeze more, etc.  And it isn’t just the managers of anemic offenses.  It is not uncommon for pretty much any manager to sacrifice often even in the early innings. 

These various small ball strategies only serve to rob teams of runs.  Yes, there are circumstances where any of these tactics makes sense.  So I’m not suggesting that they be scrapped altogether.  What would make sense is doing these things when it is likely to improve the team’s chance of winning.  And far too often they are used in situations in which it actually does the opposite.

3. Better base stealing.  For the most part this means fewer stolen base attempts.  Last year, the team stolen base percentage of half of the major league teams was below the break even point.  That means a lot of teams are giving up a lot of base runners and throwing away outs.  But base stealing still has a place in the game.  That place should be with good base stealers in good base stealing situations.  There are a lot of variables to be considered by the manager including but not limited to the base stealing skill of the runner, the pitcher’s ability to hold a runner, the pitcher’s delivery, the catcher’s skill at throwing runners out and the game situation.  But it is clear that far too many bad stolen base attempts are being made and managers are allowing it and even pushing it.

The good news is that sabermetric GM’s actually be making some headway in getting their managers to improve the base stealing of their teams.  These are the seven teams with the best stolen base percentage in 2010:

  1. Phillies 83.7%
  2. Athletics 80.4%
  3. Red Sox 80.0%
  4. Rays 78.5%
  5. Mariners 78.5%
  6. Marlins 78.0%
  7. Yankees 77.5%

I would argue that five of those teams have some of the most sabermetric front offices in MLB.  So are those high stolen base percentages about general  managers pushing their managers to use the green light more sparingly?  Or have those teams just acquired more good base stealers?  I don’t know for certain , but I have a strong feeling that there is a good deal of the former at work here.  Regardless, there’s still a great deal of improvement which could be had by many teams.

4. Fewer intentional walks.  If first base is open (in many different situations), major league managers love to give an intentional walk to set up a double play.  The possibility of getting two outs with the next batter is a siren song which leads many managers to pilot their teams to the rocks.  But this often isn’t a sound strategy.  As Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin found in The Book,

If all batters have equal ability, intentionally walking a batter to set up a double play, force, or other situation is at best a break-even move (or insignficantly better than a break-even move). Doing so early in the game is counterproductive, since it increases the odds of a big inning more than it increases the odds of a scoreless inning.

Sure there are situations where the intentional walk makes sense.  But few if any MLB managers limit themselves to such situations.  Limiting intentional walks to those situations where it truly minimizes the run scoring chances of the opposition would be an easy fix.

5. Re-create the closer role.  Since about 1990, closers have been limited primarily to 9th inning duty when his team is leading by three or fewer runs.  Yes they occasionally get a four or five-out save or come in when the game is tied, but their role and usage is extremely limited.  And this holds true of every MLB manager.  Whether it was because of the creation and popularity of the Save statistic or not, closers have been put in a small box from which they rarely escape.

Of course this was not always the case.  Back in the 1970’s and up to some point in the mid-to-late 1980’s, closers were often used in the highest leverage situations, whenever they came up.  They were often referred to as "firemen" because they came into the game when their team really needed a rally to be stopped.  Also, they were frequently used for multiple innings.  This led to good closers often pitching a lot of innings.

As full time closers:
Rollie Fingers - 7 seasons over 100 ip and 5 over 110 ip
Dan Quisenberry - 5 seasons over 120 ip
Bruce Sutter - 5 seasons over 100 ip

One might think that the fact that closers don't pitch 100 innings anymore is mostly about closers being limited to one-inning saves.  But they are also pitching fewer games.  Look at the games pitched leaders for the 1970's and the first half of the 1980's.  It is full of closers.  You'll see names like Mike Marshall, Rollie Fingers, Dan Quisenberry, Willie Hernandez, Kent Tekulve and Mitch Williams.  But by the 1990's and especially the 2000's, closers give way to setup men.  You'll see names like Jesse Orosco, Steve Kline, Paul Quantrill, Matt Guerrier and Pedro Feliciano.

So closers have been reduced primarily to single inning work, and not in a great number of games.  In short, a team's best reliever is having his contribution to his team severely limited. Wouldn’t it make the most sense to 1) use a team’s best reliever in the highest leverage situations, and 2) have them pitch for more innings, thus maximizing their utility to their team?  This is not some impractical pipe dream which works on paper but wouldn’t work in the real world.  It worked very well for many years until closers started to be treated like hot house flowers.   The return of the multi-inning fireman is very much overdue.

6. Increased use of platoons.  Managers don’t like platoons.  They prefer to pick a player for a position and have him make it his own.  And if he falters, they like to replace him with one player in the hopes that he will flourish there.  That’s a lovely idea, but many teams have one or more positions manned by a poor player, with no good option to replace him.  When this happens, platoons should be utilized much more than they are today.  Managers shouldn’t hope that their sows ears magically transform into silk purses.  They should make the most of what they have by using their poor players in the situations where they are their best

7. Improve decision making processes on who plays where and when. 
          a. Looking at stats in addition to tools, intangibles or reputation
          b. Using the right stats
          c. Not relying on small sample sizes

I should note here that the issue of who plays where (who starts, who is on the bench, etc.) is not strictly a managerial decision.  General managers are usually involved in these decisions in varying degrees, not on a daily basis, but in more of a general sense.  Managers are, however, key decision makers here. 

It appears that in evaluating players, managers look more at skills, the historic reputation of a player and his leadership, competitiveness, etc. than his actual performance record.  I base this both on their public statements and their actual choices.  Gritty, veteran "leaders" who were once good but haven’t been for many years (like Jason Kendall) are made full-time starters over younger players without a reputation for leadership and an ancient history of success, but who have actually performed better in more recent seasons (like Brayan Pena).

And when they do talk about stats, they show that they’re using the wrong ones.  Batting average, RBI and ERA are the stats most often quoted.  While OBP and SLG are occasionally referenced, FIP and wOBA, and other advanced stats are almost never mentioned, except to perhaps deride the proliferation of silly acronyms and the basement dwellers who create and promulgate them. 

And even when they do use stats, it often appears that they are using them incorrectly.  Joe Girardi has shown a willingness to accumulate and make use of as much data as he can.  He is well known for the  large binder of stats he has in the dugout with him.  But he has often said that he has made player usage decisions based on the tiny samples of matchup data he finds in that binder.  In the ALCS last year, Girardi set up his rotation for the series so that Phil Hughes would make two starts in Arlington.  Why?  Because Hughes had performed well there over fifteen innings.  In fairness to Girardi, he’s anything but unique in this regard.  Often managers will say that they gave a certain player a start because he had been 7-for-15 against the opposing starting pitcher, or because a player always performed well against a given team.  Using stats this way gives them a meaning that they don’t really have.   A little data can be a very dangerous thing.

Managers need to be educated about stats and how and when to use them and they need to be influenced and maybe even pressured by their general managers to improve their evaluative and decision making processes.

Why don’t GM’s push their managers in these sabermetric directions?

As this is the titular question of this article, I should have some kind of answer, but I don’t.  I can only speculate.  Perhaps many GM’s see the above decisions as the appropriate purview of the manager and that they should not interfere.  Many in baseball are of the opinion that GM’s shouldn’t try to micromanage their managers and interfere with what happens on the field during games.  Some GM’s may be unwilling to anger or upset their manager by forcing him to change how he does his job.  Some might fear the reaction of fans or the sports media if untraditional approaches are taken.  And they may also worry about potential adverse reactions from players.  But these are all guesses.  Undoubtedly there is some truth to many if not all of the above theories. 

Should managers change?

Each of the above tactics and processes that a sabermetric manager could utilize has a likelihood to increase the team’s wins in a real and for the most part in a measureable way.  But they are not without risk.  Significant lineup changes could upset some players.  A star player may not like being moved from the third spot in the lineup to the first, or from second to fifth.  But is this likely to be a big problem?  It’s not like the optimal lineup would move a star player from third to ninth.  Mostly star players would be moving around somewhere in the top four spots in the batting order.  And each of those lineup positions has it’s own (although not necessarily equal) significance and prominence.  These worries certainly wouldn’t lead me to turn down the opportunity to give my team an additional win.

Relievers might not like changing their pitching roles, or having their roles be more fluid.  Ed Price of AOL News makes this point with the help of a MLB reliever:

More than 10 years ago, when I was covering the Arizona Diamondbacks, I asked closer Gregg Olson about a theory I had. What if a team designated an "ace reliever" instead of a closer, and used him when the situation was most crucial -- maybe in the ninth, as a closer would, but maybe with men on in the eighth, or with the heart of the order up in the seventh?

Olson told me it wouldn't work because relievers want to know their roles. Because of the way bullpens have evolved, players expect to be a closer, or the eighth-inning pitcher, or the seventh-inning pitcher, or the long man, or the lefty specialist.

Baseball people say that relievers want to know it's their turn even before the phone rings. If they are handed a certain role, they know how and when to prepare to pitch.

I have a lot of problems with this.  First, who cares what relievers want?  Shouldn’t we care about how they’ll perform?  Will they perform worse because they are unhappy with the fluidity of their role?  I don’t know.  Bullpen roles were more fluid in the 1970’s and 80’s.  Did that hurt their performance?  I doubt it.  Second, if the problem is that they’ve gotten used to something and changing that would upset them, then can’t they just get used to something new?  Is the status quo really the only thing they could ever be happy with?  Can’t they get used to a "new normal"?  Relievers have done it before.  Third, outside of the closer, do many relievers really have "set roles" and therefore "know how and when to prepare to pitch"?  In addition to a closer, most teams have one or two primary setup men and one or two secondary setup men.  These are the guys you would expect to see in the 8th and 7th inning, respectively, especially in a close game where their team is winning.  But most games don’t follow that script.  Because of that, the supposed 7th and 8th inning pitcher(s) rarely know when they are going to come into a game.  It could easily be the 6th, 7th, 8th, or even the 9th inning if the closer is unavailable.  So would it be so difficult for relievers to change from their current semi-solid role to a semi-fluid role?  I don’t think so.  The downside looks very limited to me.

And then there’s the issue of the possible negative reaction from fans and the media.  Fans want their team to win.  They might not like a given decision or tactic, but they’ll react positively to wins.  So I think it is worth it to mildly increase the disgruntlement of the fan base if it gives the team more wins.  In the end, their happiness for the wins will drown out any distaste they have for nontraditional managerial moves.  And I don’t think media reaction should be considered by the GM or manager.  Yes, I’m sure that gets into their heads, but they need to do what will help their team win the most games. 

Finally, one could argue that the gains to be had from these various tactics and processes are small, therefore they really aren’t worth the trouble and upset they may cause.  I find this argument hard to swallow.  We know that the use of an optimized lineup would add around one win.  I think it is reasonable to conclude that a thorough implementation of the rest of the above changes would add another 2 or more wins.  If we’re talking about managerial  improvements adding three more wins to a team’s season, isn’t that more than worth the costs involved?   Klaassen made this point very well in his article about the value of an optimal lineup:

…wins are wins, and money is money. Teams talk big about doing "whatever it takes." As the league gets smarter, it gets more difficult to find the new market inefficiency, the Extra 2%, as it were. Just as each better move in improving a batting order only adds a tiny bit but can add up to as many as 15 runs (one or two wins), each one-to-two-win-per-season strategy (batting orders, better bullpen usage, efficient platooning, etc.) can add to possibly four wins, and then we’re in expensive free agent territory in terms of value.

So why not do it?  Because it would upset some people?  Because managerial prerogative is sacrosanct?  I’m sorry but I don’t think so.  The bottom line is winning.  And every GM should be looking at anything and everything he can to maximize their teams’ wins.  General managers have been willing to rebuild their front offices and change the way their do their jobs.  Why should managers be insulated from change, improvement and progress in the game?  More importantly, why do GM’s allow their managers to be unreflective, unoriginal and intellectually stagnant?  They do so at their team’s peril.

How could this be done?

I am realistic enough to not propose a revolution in managing.  It is a lot to ask for a GM to bring a manager into his office and tell him that in many different ways he’s going to have to do his job very differently from now on.  But GM’s can exert their influence on managers to make at least incremental change.  I don’t think it would be unreasonable to GM’s to stress to their managers that small ball and the "running game" should be minimized or at least decreased in the manager’s game plan.  Also, managers could be educated with regard to stats (at least bit by bit) and how they could and should use them.

Would many managers balk at this?  Of course.  And they are free to resign.  I think few would take such a drastic course, but if they did, how much would that hurt any MLB team?  It’s not like there isn’t a pool of traditional, by-the-book managers waiting to take any manager’s place.  And I would argue that they’d likely do just as good (or bad) of a job.

But this raises the more important point.  The real opportunity for GM’s to make a significant change in their managers is when they are hiring a new one.  In the interview process, a GM could make clear what he expects from his manager.  Those who show a reluctance to use new tactics and follow new processes  could be passed over.  But there will be candidates hungry enough for a job as a MLB manager that they will be willing to follow his GM’s dictates, or at least guidelines, with regard to the reforms I listed above.

Conclusion

I think it is clear that there is much improvement which could be made to MLB managers, and this improvement would lead directly to more wins.  Is there risk?  Yes.  But isn’t the risk worth it?  It’s not easy to get a team into contention.  It is harder still to get them over the top and into the playoffs.  Shouldn’t some teams at least do what they can to get the most out of the manager?

It is frequently said that the low hanging fruit of market inefficiencies in baseball are gone now.  I don’t really think so.  I think there’s a big juicy apple hanging down to about knee level, just waiting to be picked.

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