By the end of 2008, Jose Bautista had put -1.3 WAR in over 1500 plate appearances. He wasn’t good. In 2009, his first full year with the Blue Jays, he put up 1.8 war. Then in 2010 he managed 6.4 WAR despite negative base running and defensive value, and he followed that up with 8.1 WAR in 2011. Somehow he turned a corner. He changed from a player that was hurting his team to one that was suddenly helping his team. It was unexpected, and he wasn’t a great all-around player or perhaps even a great human being, but he was clearly an above average MLB player.
How would we know if a manager was in the middle of a Bautista-like transformation, suddenly and inexplicably going from bad to useful?
Step 1: It’s important to recognize that a successful manager will not get all of those decisions right.
- [Stabbed by digital pitchfork]
- - You’re defending the Mathenaging! We are the internet mob here to run you out of town?
Me: We? There’s just one of you.
- - Um, this is just a fanpost. The rest will be here shortly.
Me: While we’re waiting, do you mind hearing me out?
- - Fine. If I weren’t bored, I wouldn’t be here anyway.
Baseball players with a .400 OBP are considered highly successful even when they ‘mess up’ or get out over half the time. Managers make hundreds of little decisions every day.
Process vs. Results
Just like baseball players can run a high BABIP, there is a ‘managerial BABIP’ where a bad process can yield good results. Bad strategic managers (i.e. Ned Yost) can win a World Series, especially when they have a foolproof bullpen. But I’m not talking about a Bo Hart like run. What if managers can be legitimately good for a stretch of time (or at least legitimately improved)? They may regress as they age but something changes such that they are better than before.
Chess vs. Checkers
The classic complement / insult is to say one manager is playing chess, while the other is playing checkers. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the best chess player in the world managing your team? Of course, but did you know that the best chess players in the world can’t beat computers? Expecting computer perfect managing is unrealistic. Things go bad even with the perfect process. No manager in the world will employ the perfect process.
Settling for the Average
I’ve been guilty in the past of saying ‘Most managers in baseball would do the exact same thing.’ To which, VEB will correctly reply, ‘Just because most people will make the same mistake, doesn’t mean we can’t want something better.’ This is especially true when a replacement Triple A manager could do just as good or better. But if we get to the point where we’re hoping for the Mike Trout of managers to walk through the door, then we need to reevaluate.
Step 2: Matheny is Wong
- - [snicker, snicker]
Me: Wait a second, I meant…
- - What? That Matheny is Wrong? I agree with that too.
Me: Oh. Shut up.
Wong got picked off in the World Series. Matheny used Wacha in a crucial spot in a crucial playoff game when he obviously wasn’t ready. Fan bases, like ex-wives, will never let some people live down their mistakes. There’s a reason some couples that get divorced due to their own mistakes have successful second marriages and some don’t. Some are fundamentally flawed and repeat those mistakes, and some made some mistakes that just can’t be reconciled with their first partner but when they let go of the baggage do quite well when given a second chance.
Wong may never hit as much as we want, but he is certainly useful. I, for one, am glad he’s on the team. He is a joy to watch. Like Wong and Bautista, Matheny may never be the complete package, but he probably has some useful tools and one day he may put it all together.
Step 3: Improvement. Don’t tell me he hasn’t improved.
Me: I’m not looking up any of the facts in this section.
- - [puts down digital pitch fork and starts typing furiously]
Me: That’s why I come to VEB. They’ll tell me if I’m wrong.
- - Oh we will.
Let’s go over the most common criticisms of Matheny:
One of the easiest criticisms of Matheny was his inability to properly double switch. It feels like he’s been double switching more than ever and getting quite good at it. Those defensive switches at the end of games have saved our bacon more than once. This is like the old pitcher that learned a new pitch in spring training. It’s a minor revelation.
He’s certainly isn’t bunting with position players as much as he did when he first started. Asking Carson Kelly and Kolten Wong to bunt is, sadly, like asking our pitchers to bunt.
I don’t know how to prove or disprove this one, but he didn’t use Hicks last night, even though it seemed like a clear set-up man situation.
We know that these don’t matter, right? But Carpenter is in first (which is obviously the only place he can hit ) and Fowler is lower than he’s ever been. I loved our opening day lineup, and he’s been doing his best to get the best hitters towards the top, even though our ‘best’ hitter changes by the month.
Sticking with starters too long to get the win
He did a good job of pulling Flaherty last night. Early in the season, when it looked like we had some bullpen depth, he pulled starters in the 4th. Now, we don’t have enough relievers to cover 4.5 innings, so he’ll probably revert to his previous strategy.
It’s a fine line between trusting people to regress (positively or negatively) to the mean and recognizing when someone’s skills have deteriorated. He’s been willing to use young relievers (see Hicks) and young hitters (DeJong) in key spots. I don’t know that there’s a consistent pattern of trusting veterans or not developing young players.
General bullpen use
The key to making a manager look good is a good bullpen, and our bullpen has been terrible. There’s no getting around it. There’s nothing a manager can do when all of the options are terrible. But he identified Norris as a closer pretty quickly, despite the terrible spring, and he was willing to bring his closer in in the 8th when the set up man was terrible.
Speaking of terrible set up men, his use of Holland this year is the most indefensible. Did he bring him into key situations too soon? Yes. Did he keep bringing him into these questions long after it was obvious that he was a dumpster fire? Yes. All of baseball knew Holland wasn’t going to be great again, but probably few knew he would be this terrible. Alas, Matheny continues to make mistakes and is not perfect.
- - See, even you admitted that Matheny is an idiot! Kill the beast!
Me: [Running for the fire extinguisher to keep my house from burning down from the torches.]
Final Grade in the Re-evaluation of Matheny: F-
Every fan is smarter than their manager.