Evaluating Evaluating Baseball's Managers

It says something about the current state of managerial analysis that Chris Jaffe's work on Evaluating Baseball's Managers began with a presentation about how "lucky" and "unlucky" certain things were. This is how he describes his discovery of the Birnbaum Database, one of the primary analytical tools in his book: 

The idea for this book first popped in my head when I saw Phil Birnbaum give a presentation at the annual SABR convention in 2006. He created a database to determine how much teams under/overachieved in a given season. He termed the disparity luck. However, while luck is certainly one factor that explains why a team would do better or worse than one might expect, it's not the only reason. For example, looking at the results it was amazing how "lucky" teams managed by Earl Weaver always were, or how "unlucky" Don Baylor's squads were.

Jaffe found that one man's luck—relative performance of hitters and pitchers, expected wins and losses, and expected runs scored and allowed—correlated more closely to managerial career length than one would expect if sample sizes and true talent were at issue.

The final result of his end-run around the typical manager analysis stumbling blocks is this book, the first major work on the topic since the regrettably out-of-print Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, which we looked at briefly in August. It's a big deal anywhere; it's an even bigger deal here in St. Louis, home of one of the most managerially influenced teams in baseball.

Jaffe's work builds on James's in both its statistical analysis managerial tendencies and its relative lack of focus on the subject; like James, Jaffe is primarily concerned with the manager as a "leader of men", not the guy in charge of maximizing grit/AB. Unlike James, Jaffe, writing about managers in particular instead of managing in general, has attempted to fuse the two to create a unified theory of managing. I'm not sure it's perfect, but as a first effort it's extremely important. 

For readers more familiar with James's work than what usually comes out of McFarland, the style and manner of writing might be a little disappointing; even colorful careers like Charlie Comiskey are rendered more or less flatly in the excerpt. A representative paragraph from the La Russa section: 

To examine the issue further, first one needs to tackle the issue of LaRussa's influence before assigning credit or blame. When the record is examined, the 1988-90 A's bullpen appears to have been a way-station between how relievers were used and how they have since been handled. Relief aces were already throwing fewer innings as managers like Cox reduced innings per appearance. For instance, whereas four closers threw over 100 innings in 1985 and five more did so in 1986, none tossed that many in 1987 - only three broke 90 innings. Still, the A's amplified this trend. Nothing breeds imitation like success and Oakland's glory run provided the most successful bullpen in baseball history.

But the book succeeds in spite of its intermittent dryness because the subject matter itself is so fascinating. It's liberating to see someone use a grounding in statistical work to draw conclusions we've thought about for some time. Things that were once intuitively ascribed to managers can be, one by one, drawn back into the conversation. 

La Russa has long been thought of as a manager who gets "the most" out of his players; finally we know that "the most" has, by one of Jaffe's measures, been worth an additional 455 runs for individual pitchers and 240 runs for individual hitters. The long tradition of pulling surprise aces out of the recycling bin, from Dave Stewart to Chris Carpenter? Corroborated. The equally long tradition of top pitching prospects being left in the recycling bin, from Todd Van Poppel to Anthony Reyes? Duly noted. 

Jaffe is a concise and thorough writer; in less than 3000 words he covers La Russa's impact on bullpen utilization, his relatively forward-thinking views on lineup construction—of all the managers in Jaffe's tendencies database, the man who comes up with a new noun for what he wants in the two hole every season was second best at putting good hitters where good hitters belong—and La Russa's infamous, relentless control over the us-vs.-them team narrative, with space left over to document the virtues and vices of his patchwork pitching staffs. Other managers are given similarly definitive treatments, from Whitey Herzog's extreme control over the composition of his high-speed, high-OBP teams to Red Schoendienst's liberal application of the green light for Lou Brock. 

Evaluating Baseball's Managers is not a self-evidently fun read; it's not filled, at least from what I've read of it, with sparkling anecdotes or major bombshells. If such a distinction existed in baseball research as it does in, say, literary criticism, this would be nearer an academic work than a popular one. But it's the first satisfying answer I've yet seen to one of the most frustrating questions left in our understanding of baseball, and that's excitement enough. 

(If that's not endorsement enough, we'll be running an excerpt of the Tony La Russa section at some point in the next few weeks. It will be worth your while.)

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