During an interview with Jonah Keri in August, Hall of Fame broadcaster, Jon Miller, recounted a moment where he had walked into Giants manager Bruce Bochy’s office without his World Series ring on. This was recently after the Giants players, coaches, and personnel had received their rings, so Bochy asked, "Where’s your ring?" Miller replied, "Well, you know, skip, I didn’t play in any of the games, I didn’t throw a pitch or take an at bat. I don’t really feel like I deserve it." Bochy’s response was, "Neither did I."
Bruce Bochy is a good manager. Whether his response was out of humility or not, it’s indicative that even the best managers are only as good as their players. If Jeremy Affeldt didn’t get out of that jam in Game 7 of the 2014 championship, Bochy doesn’t look nearly as smart. If Barry Zito doesn’t have the game of his life in St. Louis in 2012, he doesn’t look nearly as smart. If Brooks Conrad doesn’t boot a ground ball, he looks like an idiot for leaving Romo in against Eric Hinske in 2010.
Managers, as a whole, have less of an impact on the game than we give them credit for. Sure, they can do inexplicable things like go to Ubaldo Jimenez when Zac Britton, who has a nonzero chance of becoming the first reliever since Eric Gagne in 2003 win the Cy Young, is ready in the bullpen. Poor bullpen matchups, unnecessary bunts, and speedy-but-low-OBP lead-off hitters are frustrating to watch, but these things have very low impacts over the course of a whole season. An optimal lineup only produces 26 more runs over the course of a season than the worst lineup imaginable, though a manager has never hit a pitcher lead-off, followed by the lowest OPS guys in ascending order. A move to the bullpen is generally judged by the results. If he gets the guy out: smart move. If he gives up a dinger: terrible move. Bunting is generally worse for run production but not something that can tank a season.
Now, I want to be clear on one thing: Robin Ventura is not a good manager.
Ventura has a history of making some dubious decisions during games including not walking the bases loaded with runners on second and third with less than two out in the bottom of a ninth inning or later game, leaving his starters in too long, and starting Avisail Garcia. He’ll end his tenure with the White Sox with four consecutive losing seasons, the first Sox manager to do so, and a record of 375-435, good for a .463 winning percentage.
But Ventura doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the White Sox failings.
The past few offseasons, the White Sox have made splashy moves that have been generally regarded as good moves. Before 2014, they added Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton. Before 2015, they added Melky Cabrera, Jeff Samardzija, and David Robertson. Before 2016, they added Todd Frazier. With the exception of Samardzija, who was last in the league for qualified pitchers in ERA, these moves added generally valuable players though Robertson had a bit of a meltdown this year, and Samardzija is no longer with the team. On paper, though, these teams were never supposed to content. In 2014, PECOTA had them projected for 75 wins. In 2015, they were projected for 78 wins and in 2016, 82 wins. Turns out, PECOTA was pretty close every year as the White Sox uncannily finished two, two and four wins shy of their projections in each year, never finishing above fourth place.
When seemingly good teams go bad, the fan base needs someone to turn on. Earlier this year, the Giants went on a five game stretch where, as a team, they were hitting below .100 and fans started calling for hitting coach Hensley Muellens’ head even though hitters tend to improve under his tutelage. Naturally, this blame will fall on the manager unless they’ve proven themselves to be a genius in the past. Ventura hadn’t done that, not even close, so when the seemingly good but actually average White Sox teams failed to meet exceed expectations, Ventura took the brunt of the blame.
A lot can go wrong for a baseball team over the course of a season. The projection systems at PECOTA run millions of simulations of the upcoming season every spring. This spring, there was a season in which the Cubs were the worst team in the majors and another where the A’s won over 100 games. A real-life season like that in unheard of, but it should show that a team’s success isn’t always a given and there are tons of what if’s before each season. For example, what if Jeff Samardzija goes from being one of the best pitchers in the majors to being the worst? What if Jose Abreu goes from all-star to replacement level? What if David Robertson falls into an open manhole? What if your starting shortstop for several seasons is literally Alexei Ramirez?
In order for the White Sox to have had a successful year, they would have needed to be in the postseason. For the last three offseasons, they’ve behaved as a contending team. Merely finishing above .500 wouldn’t have been good enough. This season, the White Sox were projected to win 82 games and they won 78, a difference of 4. To put that in perspective, Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, was worth 9.7 WAR this year. That’s less than what they would have needed to clinch a postseason spot as they finished 11 GB of the second wild card. To believe that Ventura was responsible for all of the White Sox failings, one would need to believe that Robin Ventura is as bad at managing as Mike Trout is good at playing baseball, that there were 11 games that the White Sox lost because Robin Ventura called for a bunt at the wrong time or went to the wrong reliever or had Jimmy Rollins hitting second instead of Jose Abreu.
Managing a baseball team is really more about managing personalities. A good manager is someone that inspires players to win and defuses tension when things start to go south. Ventura has certainly received some criticism in this regard, which is fair. But he’s also had bigger problems to deal with in his clubhouse like Adam LaRoche’s insistence that everyday be Take Your Kid to Work Day and Chris Sale’s irrational hatred of collars. Did these outbursts occur because Ventura didn’t demand enough respect in the clubhouse? Possibly. But some players defended and applauded Ventura’s handling of the situations.
The 2017 White Sox will almost certainly be better off without Ventura, but the difference won’t be made up by Rick Renteria. It’ll be made up by the guys who actually play.