June262011

Managing the Situation

EZ E - MLB

The manager of a Major League Baseball team—similar to one in a foreign league or a head coach in most other team sports—has a complex assignment. Sure, there are plenty of variables that are beyond a manager’s control, such as in-game adjustments that players make on their own, unusual injuries, family and friends affecting players off the field, the amount of time and money the franchise’s owner is willing to invest in the team, and fan behavior. Firstly, though, let’s look at what managers are expected to handle:

Assigning Roles - Coming out of Spring Training and throughout the regular season, a manager has a say in who the organization should promote to the Major League roster and which players from other teams might be a good fit. However, whether or not he gets the ideal pieces, the skipper has to attempt to solve the puzzle. There are many precedents that all managers obey under normal circumstances, including the 5-man starting rotation, reserving a roster spot for a back-up catcher, etc., but there is alwayssomething to second-guess. Is the batting order sensible? Are an individual’s specific tools being considered? Once a manager assigns roles, it is the players’ responsibility to execute. In reality, though, if ineffective players are receiving significant playing time, who do you think faces the bulk of the criticism?

Substitutions - Also, there’s pitch-by-pitch management. A manager has to stay alert and “micro-manage” by reading body language, dissecting every match-up and adjusting accordingly to give his team every possible advantage in the later innings. There are games during the season where the offense pulverizes the opposition, the starting pitcher is unhittable, all the players stay healthy and mild-mannered (to avoid ejection), and no substitutions are required, but a manager could probably count those games on one hand! The vast majority of contests require that he make a few moves and those actions can’t be without reasoning. When give several alternatives, a manager must sometimes choose between statistics and scouting reports, instinct and clichés. His mistakes are magnified in baseball because it uses permanent substitution, where a player may not re-enter a ballgame after being replaced (An article I wrote exploring a potential rule change). And yeah, whenever a move goes awry—and a few always do—the skipper gets criticized.

Discipline - Finally, the top managers bring intangibles to their teams. They are proactive in that they address the most minute conflicts before they escalate; they are consistent in dealings with individuals and issue the same punishments and rewards  in particular situations; and they lead by unifying the team under general philosophies. In baseball especially, a franchise has to have confidence in its manager because even the best teams suffer dozens of defeats and numerous injuries during the season. A trustworthy person at the helm keeps the organization at ease. That is most important; front offices panic without a calming influence in the dugout, and the manager is usually the first to go.

What we’ve seen in 2011 has been weird. Two managerial changes have been made in the past few weeks—one in Florida (Edwin Rodriguez out, Jack McKeon in) and the other in Washington (Jim Riggleman out, Davey Johnson in). There are differences: Rodriguez stepped away from a struggling team that had been surprisingly good in April and May, and Riggleman resigned from a red-hot club because of a contract dispute. The fiery chaos in both cities was doused with the hirings of McKeon and Johnson. After a few days, the moves are starting to make sense to me, too.

These skippers are former world champions (McKeon with the Marlins in 2003, Johnson with the Mets in 1986). “Trader Jack” has succeeded with a tiny payroll before, proving that he can get great production from limited talent by putting  players in their ideal roles. Recently, he moved slumping superstar Hanley Ramirez into the clean-up spot (he’d spent most of the season batting 3rd), and Ramirez has since gone 7-for-16 at the plate, raising his batting average by 18 points! By the way, this streak began a day after McKeon benched Ramirez for arriving to the ballpark late. At 80 years old, his mind is still working just fine. Meanwhile, Johnson is no spring chicken either! Now 68, he’s had plenty of experiences, but they’ve been unlike McKeon’s. Johnson led an immensely talented New York Mets team to victory 25 years ago. He knew exactly how to handle the club; he encouraged his players’ cockiness as early as Spring Training. As a result, the Mets won 108 games that year and clinched the NL East with more than three weeks to play. Who could’ve known to use that type of motivation? Davey Johnson. Coincidentally, the 2011 Washington Nationals are loaded with talent at the Major League level and in the farm system.

Beyond that, the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins entered this season with sky-high expectations, yet ownership in both cities retained their managers after the teams got off to very slow starts. Boston was 2-10 despite a payroll upwards of $162M! However,Terry Francona, the mastermind who guided the Sox to championships in 2004 and 2007 was never doubted, and now the team is back in contention. The Twins? Leading into June 9, they had the worst record in Major League Baseball. But Ron Gardenhire, a manager in the mold of McKeon, pushed his club to 94 wins in 2010 with a tight budget. He isn’t going anywhere.

The men in this occupation naturally receive too much blame when their teams lose and far too much praise when they win. Not all working environments allow for a long tenure, but regardless, you have to manage the situation.

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