In the past few weeks, multiple managers have lost their jobs: John Farrell, Dusty Baker, and Joe Girardi. I can only speak for myself, but they were all surprising. What also caught me off guard is the fact that only Farrell was still under contract, albeit for just one more year. The contracts of Baker and Girardi expired, so their respective clubs chose to simply not bring them back. It is rare to see managers manage as “lame ducks.”
Dusty Baker has 22 years of managing experience since 1993. Joe Girardi has managed for 11 years, the last 10 of which came with the Yankees. These are established, well-respected managers in the industry. The fact that they were not able to secure contract extensions before the season began was the first sign that the times are changing.
Further proof of the changing times is the fact that these managers had great track records with their respective teams. Farrell managed the Red Sox to a World Series championship in 2013 and three division titles. Baker managed a Nationals team that won 95 games last year and 97 games this year. Girardi’s Yankees teams never finished a season below .500, made the playoffs six times, and won the World Series in 2009.
Historically, managers have always been judged based on their records because there is no other way to assess them. This used to make more sense in the days when managers had more say over roster construction. Nowadays, though managers are surely consulted, GMs put the teams together.
Even if that were not the case, managers have little influence on what happens on the field. Unlike other team sports, you can’t run plays in baseball, and in-game strategy does not have nearly the same magnitude of effect. We can reasonably assess how coaches affect winning and losing in football, basketball, and hockey. The same just cannot be said about baseball.
So while evaluating managers with team records is how it’s always been done, it’s also stupid. Really, really stupid. The Dodgers led the league with 104 wins, yet there is no proof that Dave Roberts is a better manager than, say, Andy Green of the Padres. Roberts was just lucky enough to inherit a loaded Dodgers team. It would be more fair to assess managers by comparing their records to what their teams were projected to win, but that just attributes all the effects of randomness to a manager’s hidden skills. How many wins a manager is adding or subtracting from his team is completely unknowable and unprovable.
The only things we can objectively assess about a manager are his in-game tactics and lineup construction. I have seen it estimated by some sabermetricians that this can be worth between -2 and +2 wins. But this is only part of the job. Managers are also in charge of managing personnel and developing their players. These are major aspects of their jobs, the impacts of which are undoubtedly important. We have no idea how these things impact team record. Maybe they are more important than what we see on the field; maybe they are not. Nobody knows.
To be fair, we can get a sense of how a manager impacts player development by seeing how his players, especially the young ones, perform from year to year. There is randomness involved in that, yes, but we can discern some signal from the noise. What goes on in the clubhouse, however, is unknowable except in extreme cases.
Bobby Valentine’s disastrous year with the Red Sox was well documented. The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga wrote an in-depth article on how Matt Williams lost the clubhouse in 2015. It was an excellent piece of reporting. These are just two examples where the public pretty much knew how poorly the managers were performing in all aspects of their jobs. It is easy to defend their firings.
As for Farrell, Baker, and Girardi, we know very little. I can’t go over their in-game tactics in detail, but suffice it to say that firing them on the basis of that is a hard sell. Baker did have some odd lineups, especially how often he batted Anthony Rendón sixth, but it is honestly a minor thing.
I have come across some fair arguments as to why it made sense to move on from Farrell, but it seems that Baker and Girardi surprised people more. It appears that the front offices decided to move on for reasons that we will never know. The point is that the front office knows when there are clubhouse issues, and of course they know if the manager is clashing with them. For the on-field stuff, they can simply consult the analytics group to assess the decision making.
I’m very curious as to what exactly the reasons were behind the firings of these managers. The front offices were unsurprisingly very coy about their reasoning. If this is a sign that baseball is moving towards assessing their managers more directly, then I’m all for it. Team record is just a terrible way to do it.
On the other hand, it is possible that these managers were fired due to a lack of playoff success, especially Dusty Baker. If there is any truth to this, then the decision makers deserve to be excoriated. The playoffs are a crapshoot. Firing a manager for that reason demonstrates a complete lack of the fundamentals of how baseball works. Even if you can point to a specific in-game decision or decisions that cost a team a playoff game, that is a brutal way to for a manager to lose his job.
Back to Matt Williams for a moment, remember that the Nationals won 96 games in his first year. The 2015 season proved how bad he was, so do you think it is reasonable to believe that he was any better the year before? A great team can have a bad manager. A terrible team can have a good manager. It could be that front offices are finally learning this, and therefore putting more focus on evaluating what goes on behind the scenes.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.