Intangible evidence

Housekeeping: Importing stuff from the ol’ Xanga blog here. You can go even further back in the archives, and see how terrible I was at this when I started. But nice to have everything in one spot.

The before and after of the 2013 Blue Jays season isn’t something I really want to dwell on anymore. It was a team with great expectations and excitement that didn’t get to what we thought they would. Why they didn’t get there depends on who you ask.

My dad, like me, is a baseball fan, and we’d talk shop throughout the season. One thing he and I always disagreed on was the Jays rehiring John Gibbons as manager. From the moment it happened, he felt uneasy about it.

As someone who frequents baseball blogs in the Getting Blanked/DJF/Tao of Stieb mold, I was quite happy with the re-hire. Gibbons had been, in the eyes of some (and mine, in hindsight), unfairly scapegoated when he was fired previously, and in his prior tenure, shown tactical prowess and progressive thought in managing players, bullpens, and lineups.

This Dustin Parkes piece at the time of his re-hiring reads quite well now, including this money paragraph near the end of the piece:

On the whole, I believe that the hiring is a good one by the Toronto Blue Jays because I believe that John Gibbons is a smart man, and it’s a good thing to have smart people in charge. It’s not foolproof. It never is. Especially not in baseball, where so much is determined by randomness, despite what we think, feel or pretend to know.

This line proved to be unfortunately accurate. The results of the Jays season did little to prove my thesis, and everything to prove Dad’s. Despite spending on a lot of new players, the Jays struggled to a mere one win improvement on the disaster of 2012.

A lot of things happened. Where there is disagreement- whether at home or in the internet- is WHY things went bad. Injuries in the lineup and ineffectiveness in the starting pitching were the main drivers of the Jays’ failure. Good players missed a lot of time, and the Jays’ starters were second worse in the American League in ERA. But there were those who saw John Gibbons as unable to instill a “winning culture”, and maintained that this was a part of why the players underperformed.

Sports has lived for years on the idea of narratives, and I enjoy a good sports story that weaves into the result. Gibbons having a hand in that would be a good narrative. But one of the things I’ve been challenged on the last several years- whether in baseball or in life- is that sometimes things happen, and we won’t understand why. We don’t have all the information.

So, the Jays sucked. Was it because of injuries, ineffectiveness, or the manager? One could go back to the Red Sox of 2012 for an example as to how a bad manager can submarine a season. Bobby Valentine was a disaster from day one, alienating players and media, and showing none of the tactical acumen he’d had previously.

But that Red Sox team was also bitten by the injury bug, missing key players for large parts of the year, and like the Jays this year, had some players underperform. This year, they got a new manager, and won the World Series. So that manager must be good, right?

Who did they get? John Farrell, who’d managed the Blue Jays during that disastrous 2012 season. So he must be a bad manager, right?

Did John Farrell suddenly become a good manager between Toronto and Boston? Ask Sons of Sam Horn, who could rant for 30 or 40 pages on their message board about him. From my perspective, he improved some tactically, but showed some of the same frustrating tendencies that drove me crazy while he managed my team.

So of course Boston went on to win the World Series, and John Farrell almost won manager of the year. There is one thing that several baseball writers in Toronto noted: Farrell seemed happier on Boston. He was smiling. They’d never seen him that way when he was working for the Blue Jays. Was he in a better organization? Had the winning made him happy? Or did he ‘create a winning culture’?

It can become a bit of a chicken and egg discussion. Do we believe that John Farrell created a culture that allowed the Red Sox to thrive, or did they get better players, who performed better than the 2012 team, and that made them all happier/more successful? My argument with my father and others who want to blame Gibbons shows where I’d lean on this, but like most things, I don’t believe it’s that simple. Most things in life aren’t binary, and a baseball team with twenty five players and several coaches can’t possibly be straightforward.

One of the biggest debates in baseball today is how much influence the manager has on how a baseball team performs. They’re not a football or basketball coach, drawing up plays for their team to execute. Their biggest tangible influence is drawing up lineups, managing a bit of in-game strategy, handling the media, and deciding who pitches at a particular time. But there’s so much more we can’t see- what happens in the clubhouse, how they interact with players, how they handle conflict, how they work with the general manager, and so on.

I don’t work in baseball- I work a white collar job, at a bank. I’ve worked for good managers and bad managers in my different lines of work, and can attest to how a bad manager can affect how I perform. When you have someone who’s invested in your success, who communicates your role, and works with you on what you should be doing, it makes for a much better environment, and one I can thrive in. It’s one thing I enjoy about my current employer: The atmosphere is so, so much better than anywhere else I’ve worked.

I’ve also found more success when I’m in the right environment. It doesn’t mean I need to be friends with my coworkers, but if I can trust them, if I can work with them, if they’ll help me and let me help them, that also impacts how I work. That’s not rocket science.

Should this be so at the highest level of baseball? After all, these are highly paid professional athletes, who probably shouldn’t need to be coddled, right? In theory, yes. But athletes are people too, and have different needs and wants. A baseball manager is responsible for overseeing the morale of those twenty five men, for making them a team. Though baseball is a more individualized sport than most; more depends on the skill of individuals than a unit.

The problem is that we as fans only have what we can see to evaluate managers on: The results of the games, how they implement their strategies, how they interact with the media. We don’t see the rest of it, and we can’t measure it’s impact on how the players play. That’s part of why people like Oakland GM Billy Beane initially dismissed the impact of the manager: there’s almost no way to measure it, outside of lineup construction and bullpen management. And sometimes that’s as simple as “play the better guy”.

More progressive thinking has softened this stance. We can acknowledge that there are parts of the manager’s job that we can’t measure or prove. We can optically infer that maybe he handles player X well, or the media, or that he makes strategically sound decisions, but the ultimate deciding factor is the results. It’s easier to replace a manager than 25 players, after all.

So let’s look at the results, which is the primary measurement. For the sake of argument, let’s play the arbitrary endpoint game. Here are four managers:

Manager A: 894-1003. Managed three different teams over 14 years. One division title, two second place finishes.

Manager B: 285-363 – Managed for four years with one team, never finishing higher than third in his division.

Manager C: 851-863 – Managed one team for ten years. Three division titles, though he had three fifth place finishes in his last four years with the team.

Manager D: 305-305 – Managed one team for five seasons. Finished as high as second, with two last place finishes.

So out of those four choices, none of them seem that great at first blush. So when teams interview those guys, they go deeper. They look beyond the results. What is their process? Will they fit into what we’re building? Are they “good people”? Are they smart?

Manager A is Joe Torre, prior to being hired by the 1996 Yankees. A headscratching move at the time because of an unremarkable managing/playing career, he went on to lead the Yankees to 6 AL pennants, and 4 World Series titles. Now retired, he is widely respected as an excellent manager.

Manager B is Terry Francona, prior to managing the 2004 Red Sox. He had a reputation as a player’s manager, that he was weak tactically, and the perception was that he’d been hired because of his relationship with player Curt Schilling. He won 2 World Series titles with the Red Sox, and his being hired by the Indians last offseason was universally praised.

Manager C is Jim Leyland, before he joined the 1997 Marlins. He was always perceived as a “good baseball man”, and benefitted from Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla (two outstanding individual players who had the reputation of being awful teammates) with his ten years with the Pirates. He has now won 6 league championships between the American and National League, and 2 World Series titles. He retired this offseason, and like the two managers before him, has an excellent reputation as a manager.

Manager D is, obviously (if you’ve played the arbitrary endpoint game before), John Gibbons, before coming to lead the 2013 Blue Jays.

Think about the narrative on the first three managers before they had their success. Based on the results, they weren’t good at their jobs. But they ended up winning championships. Was it them? Or the players?

We keep coming back to this because it’s important: the answer isn’t binary. My argument for Gibbons is strengthened by the idea that there’s a lot about the manager’s job we can’t understand and measure, and that the results are a poor indication of the job he’s doing. But that can also weaken it, depending on what we want to believe about the job he’s doing. While it’s dangerous to scapegoat him for everything that went wrong with the 2013 Blue Jays season, we shouldn’t position him as a good manager solely on the things we saw him do right, or based on a nebulous idea that he might be good at things we can’t see.

So Gibbons will likely get another season, from a thoughtful front office who knows much more about his job than I ever will. I support this, but cautiously, because as a fan, there’s a lot I can’t possibly know. He seems smart, and I like how he thinks strategically, but that and five bucks will get me a coffee. Another season like the last will likely put him back on the unemployment line, and continue the neverending debate about just how much a manager really does.

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One thought on “Intangible evidence

  1. sporkless

    Enjoyed this, Dave. I believe we think alike when it comes to managers.

    Because I’m a nitpicky sort, I’ll quibble somewhat about one bit regarding Joe Torre. Before he managed the Yankees, yes, he had a solid if unspectacular managing career – but he was a really good player, in his day.

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