Do Managers Matter?
Happy Friday, fellow Viewers!
I wrote in August about the concept of team “chemistry,” and whether that nebulous concept had in bearing on baseball team performance. In this post, I’m going to look at a separate but related issue that’s a hot topic of late: the manager’s effect on the W/L record.
A few studies have examined the effect of the manager on team performance, and the results have been mixed. An analysis by Smart and Wolfe (2003) found that managers accounted for a little more than 1% of the variance in team wins, although their operationalization of “leadership” may have been too narrow. For a really thorough look at the managerial effect, check out Chris Jaffe’s (The Hardball Times) book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers: A History and Analysis of Performance in the Major Leagues, 1876-2008. It’s worth a read, but essentially Jaffe’s analysis breaks-down to this: managers are very hard to evaluate on an isolated basis. Managers cannot be separated from their team environments, and it’s that interaction between person and environment that matters most. Context is key. In Jaffe’s words: “Managers are first and foremost managers of men. Managing the game is only a secondary job function.” He believes that a manager, alone, accounts for maybe a couple of wins a year, although the effect of a manager could be more than that in a given situation – again, it’s all about environment.
Here’s an interesting bit from an SI.com article from Cliff Corcoran. “It’s interesting to note, however, that Cliff’s 2006 study did make one relatively firm conclusion regarding the impact of certain in-game decisions. ‘Only six times in thirty-three years has any manager used sacrifice attempts, stolen base attempts, and intentional walks to increase his team’s win expectation over an entire season. Even the best managers cost their team more than a game per season by employing these tactics. At worst they can cost a team three games per season.’ Over multiple seasons, no manager employed those tactics for a positive effect.” This seems to support the idea that the manager’s most important job is managing the players: the manager’s in-game strategy (the subject of rabid ire by fans on blogs) seems to have little impact on team record. As Cliff notes (pun not intended): “That supports the belief that the best baseball manager is one with a strong roster who is smart enough to let his players play and stay out of the way.” In football, a coach like Chip Kelly is directly involved with every one of his teams offense plays, since he calls each play in real time in reaction to the game context. Even in basketball, Phil Jackson could yell “Scottie” and position players and call plays and defenses during the game. If you’re a baseball manager, when your guy is in the box or on the mound, you’re a spectator just like the rest of us.
I think that’s the key thing to remember: successful managers tend to be those that have good players, and managers with poor records tend to have weak rosters. Let’s be honest – if we could pencil-in the ’27 Yankees starting lineup every night, most of us could probably at least manage them to the playoffs. On the other hand, not even Joe McCarthy (who is, according to Jaffe, the undisputed best manager of all time) could have managed the 2013 Cubs to a winning record. I’m not saying that dropping Sveum was the wrong move – I’m just saying that we can’t blame him for the Cubs poor record this year. It was a bad roster.
I was in an annoying “conversation” earlier in the season with some folks on Twitter who insisted that we could have been a playoff team this season if only Ryno was the manager. Yes, I know, that’s absurd. The reason given was “I’ve never seen the Peoria Chiefs play better than when he was manager.” Um…yeah…I’m just going to leave that out there with no further comment.
So, what should the Cubs be looking for in the next manager? Well, as Bill James said, “the only indispensable quality for a manager to have is the respect of the players.” Since managers tend to have more of an effect by allotting playing time properly, motivating players, creating a positive work environment, and generally staying out of the way, the Cubs should (and I trust will) look for a manager that manages “men” first – and whose philosophy of player development aligns with that of the front office. As we’ve seen, the in-game strategies of any given manager don’t seem to matter that much over the long haul.
So, to address the question, do managers matter? Well, it’s hard to say – it’s a complex issue, and it’s very difficult to tease out exactly what factors are due to one manager vs. another. If the players respect him and feel comfortable playing for him, he’s probably going to be as good as anyone else. In baseball, the general manager is greater than the manager, so I’m going to be much more interested in who’s actually on the field for the Cubs going forward.