Managing My Expectations

Ned Yost is leading the Royals to another deep playoff appearance while Alcides Escobar and his career 74 wRC+ bats leadoff. Alex Gordon, tied for 60th in wRC+ among 290 qualified hitters from 2012-15, is batting eighth. Meanwhile, Terry Francona, widely regarded as an exceptional manager, drives past a dark, empty Progressive Field every time he leaves downtown.

It’s unfair. It’s inexplicable. It’s also reality.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on my way to my weekly trivia night when I heard Joe Sheehan on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius XM. The discussion segued into managers and the talk was about Don Mattingly, who, coincidentally, was fired on Thursday by the Los Angeles Dodgers in a “mutual parting of ways”. Mattingly has had issues with his team, some public, some private, and has been a massive underachiever in the postseason.

Sheehan, who writes a great newsletter and has worked for Baseball Prospectus and Sports Illustrated, among other well-respected baseball publications, said some interesting things about managers. Because I’m getting old, I’ll have to paraphrase the best I can now more than two weeks after the fact. Essentially, Sheehan said that managers are mostly there to manage the personalities in the clubhouse. It’s not about making the correct tactical decisions. Anybody from home can do that. It’s about keeping up morale and also being a liaison between the team and the media. He likened MLB managers to college football head coaches, in that they get all the glory and are there to talk to the media. The only difference is that college football head coaches have coordinators. Managers do not, although there are plenty of people in the dugout and behind the scenes that get involved on a day-to-day basis.

My opinion of Terry Francona as a tactician is very clear. I’ve spoken in private with beat writers who, like me, have questioned some of his decisions, however, they are fully behind the skipper. Why? Because they see how he interacts with the team. They like how easy it is to talk to him. They like interviewing him. He’s mostly candid, always good for a laugh, and, to be frank, seems like the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with. He’s an endearing person. He’s likable. He’s “Tito”.

Francona supporters have a much different perspective than I do. I can only judge a manager based on the results on the field. Others that are privy to the inside can see the full package. Perhaps, because of that, I’m wrong. Perhaps, because of the biases of these media members, they are blinded to his tactical errors. Perhaps we’re both right and both wrong.

My views on sports are very cut and dry. Almost business-like and likely far too serious. You win and you lose. You cover the spread or you don’t. It’s a results business. Managers, no matter how beloved they are, get fired when the results are not there. Players, good clubhouse guys or not, are traded or waived or become free agents based on performance. They price themselves out of one team’s price range and hit the open market. They don’t play well enough to validate their salaries or to validate a spot on the payroll. The good guys that don’t produce always seem to find jobs, however.

I’m not interested in the people side of the business. I played sports in team settings growing up, where leadership roles do tend to emerge from a young age. I didn’t play professionally. Neither did you. Neither did the people that cover the team for a living. We all interpret the personal side of sports in very different ways. I choose to value it less than the tactical side, therefore, I don’t like Terry Francona and I would abhor Ned Yost.

Talking with some people on the other side and hearing Sheehan’s thoughts on this radio segment I just happened to catch has altered my perspective to a degree. A manager’s job isn’t to win games. That’s a player’s job. A manager job isn’t to make the right decision 100 percent of the time. It’s the player’s job to execute regardless of the situation. It’s a necessary evil in Major League Baseball. Just because a player is set up for success doesn’t mean that he’s going to have it. Just because the manager makes the wrong decision doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to work out.

In the grand scheme of things, Mike Aviles batting second instead of eighth or playing center field instead of second base isn’t going to make a huge difference in a game more often than not. A manager having confidence in his player, and expressing that to the media and to his peers, is probably going to do more to help than improper usage will to hurt. That’s a concept that I have a hard time wrapping my head around, but it’s probably true.

We cannot quantify a manager’s performance because it’s solely in the grey area. We can look at tactical blunders, like bunting in the wrong spot or picking the wrong matchup reliever, and assign values to them. We cannot quantify what happens when the manager pulls a guy aside amidst a 2-for-20 slump and he goes out and collects three hits and plays good defense the next day. Did the brief conversation have any tangible impact on the change in performance? We don’t know. One side says yes and probably leaves it at that. One side says no, emphatically, and explains why. The actual answer is that we don’t really know.

Terry Francona has managed a winning team for 11 straight seasons. Some of those teams have been more talented than others. Some of those teams should have gone farther. Some of them should have been below .500. All of those teams would sing the praises of Francona as a manager.

To circle back to Sheehan’s comments, he also expressed a desire to see more managers have a “numbers guy” or a game theory expert in the dugout. Some won’t, because it undermines their authority. Others won’t because the numbers don’t adjust for “the feel of the game”. Others, like Clint Hurdle, do have one and they rely on them in key spots.

As the game progresses and as a new generation of players that are more in tune with sabermetrics comes to the forefront, perhaps this will be a change. Perhaps the “nerd” label will be gone from these stat guys that “never played the game”. Maybe they will get the respect that they deserve, both from old school hard-ass managers and players that turn their noses up at their Ivy League educations.

One thing I’ve always noticed about teams is that they adopt the identity of their manager. Teams with laid back coaches or managers often seem unflappable, calm in the face of adversity. Teams with high-strung coaches or managers play all out, every night. A lot of teams have a solid combination of both. The Indians don’t take themselves too seriously as a team. Sometimes that pisses me off. Other times, it can be kind of fun to watch. Francona, for all of his faults with the tactical side of his game (in my opinion), is strikingly adept at dealing with people, or so it would seem.

Why am I writing this? Because I may need to reevaluate my expectations of managers. The quantifiable aspect of a manager’s performance could be negligible in comparison to the parts of the job that we cannot assign a value to. The ideal manager is a guy that can make the right tactical decisions, manage a clubhouse, keep everybody happy, and handle the media like a PR professional. There aren’t many, if any, that fit this description.

While writing this, I went back and looked at something I wrote during Spring Training in 2013, just a few months after Terry Francona was hired. You’ll note that all of that was written before I saw Francona manage a single, meaningful regular season game for the Indians. The lack of practicing what he preached around that time has soured my opinion of him as well. Others continue to have the same opinion because of what he does behind the scenes or between innings.

Managers will remain one of MLB’s mysteries. How much do they help? How much do they hurt? Is winning games secondary to keeping everybody happy and having a functioning clubhouse? Where is the line drawn? When does the tactical become more important than the personal? My opinion is different from yours, which is different from people with intimate knowledge of the team, which is different from the players themselves, which is assuredly different from the manager’s.

I can’t promise that I won’t get pissed off when Francona calls for, or allows, a player to bunt in the wrong spot. I can’t promise that I won’t get pissed off when a defensive replacement is not made or a reliever is left out there too long. The margins for this team are razor-thin, in this market, with the nature of the game. These decisions matter. A manager executing the gameplan properly isn’t as important as a player executing, but it is valuable.

But, I can also acknowledge that I need to keep the right perspective about a manager’s job description and the hierarchical order of his duties. The most important task in Terry Francona’s job appears to be managing the personalities, the egos, and the individuals in that clubhouse. He’s done a good job overall. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the other side of the job.

As I sit here and watch a tightly-knit Royals clubhouse have success with obvious managerial blunders, it makes me question a lot of the things I thought I knew about baseball. As predictive as certain stats are and as much as we can quantify about the game of baseball, at its core, it’s still layered with unpredictability. It is both frustrating and compelling. It is, unfortunately, a grey area.
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