Managers are a tough thing for handicappers to deal with when making baseball picks. On the grand scale they are obviously important – the manager sets the tone for the team and keeps them on task and motivated. From game to game, though, I don’t believe at all that managers are particularly important – outside of big playoff games the impact of the managers is far less than other factors to the outcome of an individual game. That means that I factor the manager into the overall perception of a team, but the manager won’t make a difference in a single game – I won’t switch my preference from one team to the other because of the managers.
To evaluate the overall impact of managers I have come up with my own system – the START approach. I look at each manager on these criteria at the start of the season, and then look at them again every 20 or 30 games to see if anything has changed. Here’s what START stands for:
S – Stability. This is a look at how secure a manager is in their job. I think that this is as significant as any other factor in the league when it comes to managers. If a manager knows that he isn’t going anywhere – and his team knows it, too – then it is a lot easier for him to be patient is his approach, make more strategic long term choices, and be sure that the team is going to listen to him. As soon as cracks appear in a manager’s foundation, though, it can be easier for a team to tune out their boss. It can also lead to decision making issues. Baseball is all about long term thinking and sound philosophy, but a manager who fears he has to perform immediately to save his job might not have the luxury of doing the right long term thing. That could mean he uses pitchers in ways he shouldn’t, rushed players into the lineup, or pulls a hitter instead of letting him work his way out of his slump. Less than optimal decision making leads to less than optimal results, so a lack of stability is a clear concern.
T – Talent. I have more faith in the ability of a manager to do something impressive if he has done impressive things in the past. Even great managers are going to lose from time to time if they don’t have a lot of talent. What I want to look out for, though, is guys who have never had any success, or guys who keep making the same ridiculous mistakes again and again. I don’t write off a manager if he has never managed before – I just look back to see where they came from, what they have done in the past, and what their apparent chances of success are. For example, I’d feel a lot better about a new manager entering opening day if they had managed in the minors or had coaching experience in the majors than I would about one managing for the first time at any level.
A – Arms. The manager’s single biggest job is making decisions about when and how to use his pitchers. More than anything, then, I value managers who have an established record of using pitchers well. If a manager has a bad habit of leaving his starters in past their effectiveness, or he goes through his bullpen too quickly, or he never seems to get a fourth or fifth starter established, then I am going to be very uncomfortable with the pitcher. If a manager always seems to get more out of his pitchers than it appears he should on paper, though, then he’ll get good credit here.
R – Response. There are some managers who are very adaptive and creative, and others who stick to their plans no matter what – even if it isn’t working. The latter type drives me nuts. Here’s a good example – if a team loses their productive leadoff hitter to injury and the replacement isn’t nearly as productive then the correct move is typically to shuffle lineup to get more production where it is needed until the leadoff hitter returns to action. When a manager consistently doesn’t make moves like that then he can easily be left behind, and he’s probably missing out on scoring valuable runs over time.
T – Team. Even the best manager can’t accomplish much if he has nothing to work with, and even the worst manager can be made to look good if he has all sorts of talent around him. For example, Trey Hillman is a guy I liked as a manager – he was aggressive, and he was proven in Japan. When he joined the Royals, though, the cupboards were bare, and he was pretty much doomed from the start. Now Ned Yost has taken over in Kansas City. He may or may not be a better manager – I don’t think he is – but he’s almost certain to get better results than Hillman because the great Kansas City farm system is finally starting to produce major league stars. Based on performance, then, Yost is likely to have a much better record than Hillman did. Before comparing the two, though, you would need to factor in not just the records they achieve but also what they had to work with.