Sunday, October 30, 2005

How to Pick a New Manager

(Be sure not to miss this post from SuperNoVa smacking a weak, hanging slider by Tom Boswell so far into the upper deck at RFK it would have stuffed that annoying siren Boz snuck into RFK when he was a geeky teen).

In the offseason I try to replace my daily baseball-watching with reading about baseball, spending time with many baseball books that I have bought but not yet had the time to read. I'm currently in Leonard Koppett's The Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball, something of a "old school" book that has a lot of good insight, even (gasp!) before the advent of Bill James, Baseball Prospectus and Michael Lewis.

In his chapter on managing, after explaining that there are a good many things a manager cannot do, he sets out the five things a manager does. It's a helpful list, particuarly for evaluating managers. Given that some are speculating that our skipper Frank Robinson might not be around next April, and we might be in the market for a new leader, here's Koppett's list, annotated with my view of how Frank measures up, to give the abstract some more concrete:

He can, and pretty well must, earn the respect of his players -- respect for his technical baseball knowledge, and respect for his integrity in dealing with them as a boss.
Frank's Grade: D. I'm sure Frank has earned enormous respect from his players for being an Hall-of-Famer, Triple Crown winner, and for being the first black manager and role model. Note that none of these are the type of respect that Koppett notes as important.

He can, and must, maintain sufficient discipline to keep it clear that he is the boss (in the limited sense noted above). He may or may not use fines, curfews, little rules or maxims, strict work schedules, and minor punishments to this end, but one way or another he must meet the challenge whenever his authority is flouted.
Frank's Grade: B-. Frank's strength is strength, but an blunt, brute force application of strength, not a nuanced, targeted show of force. Case in point was the ill-conceived ban on music, and his yanking of pitchers in San Diego like a tired, haggard parent dealing with unruly children. Also, all this discipline can cause problems with the third item in Koppett's list.
He can recognize the varying needs of different characters, and treat them accordingly -- without creating a group of special, privileged cases. He must know who has to be pushed, to be encouraged, who can take criticism, who can't, who needs help, and who can't be helped -- all without turning into a babysitter, or a tyrant, or an unapproachable autocrat, or a friendly buttinski.
Frank's Grade: F. "Creating a group of special, privileged cases" is not only something that Frank can't avoid, it's what he's good at, given that he was, and certainly believes himself to be, a "special, privileged case." One special case we saw this year was the "proven veteran non-pitcher" category, of which Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman were charter members. And as for the stereotypes Koppett lists at the end of this item, Frank is a hybrid of tyrant and unapproachable autocrat.

He can evaluate correctly each player's capabilities, and try to use them in ways that bring the team maximum benefit. This is probably the most important single contribution he can make.
Frank's Grade: Incomplete. By most accounts Frank delegated this task, his "single most important contribution", to Eddie Rodriguez, so we cannot give him a grade for this. If we were grading Eddie R. he'd be sent to reform school.

He can run the game -- the individual game.
Frank's Grade: C. Frank showed some skill in pulling pitchers and controlling umpires, so he gets some credit here. But his game strategy is awful, unless he is also delegating this to Eddie R., which means Eddie's game strategy is awful.

No surprises here, of course, with respect to Frank, but Koppett's formulation can help us evaluate other managers, ideally ones that might be candidates for the Nats job come next Spring.


At 10:24 PM, Blogger SuperNoVa said...

I like to think I simply put that hanging slider where it belongs, a la Albert Pujols vs. Brad Lidge.

At 10:35 PM, Blogger Basil said...

Good analysis; I do wonder what the availability of better alternatives to Castilla and Guzman would have wrought re: Frank/Rodriguez's lineup selection, but maybe the Short/Harris situations shed some light on that . . .

I'm not sure where this fits precisely, but Brick's theory is that Robinson is good at motivating poor teams to mediocrity but poor at harnessing mediocre teams into good ones.

At 10:47 PM, Blogger DM said...

Koppett also says elsewhere that a manager can lose a lot more games than he can win, which I agree with. I take that to mean the margin of effect of most managers on wins is +5%/-20%.

With respect to Brick's thought that Frank can take a poor team to mediocre, I think in those cases the team was inaccurately labeled as "poor".

At 11:07 PM, Blogger Basil said...

Maybe, maybe not.

He has historically done fairly well outpacing Pythagoras, for what it's worth.


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