For just the fourth time since 1980, the St. Louis Cardinals are in the business of hiring a manager. For the first time since 1980, they won’t be replacing a future Hall of Famer unless something completely bananas happens with Mike Matheny over the next few decades. It’s been a week since Matheny was relieved of his duties. By the time you read this, Mike Shildt will have been the skipper for two games (and I’ll be in Vermont at a beer festival, which is why I can’t tell you what happened in Shildt’s second game). In last Sunday’s presser addressing the firing of Matheny, Mueller, and Mabry, the Cardinals were rightly adamant that Shildt would have the job from now until the end of the season. Eventually, the DeWitt/Mozeliak/Girsch triumvirate will have to choose the long-term manager. Let’s take a look at what’s important, some overall trends, and a quick list of early candidates.
What does a team want in a manager?
For fans, the one area we know the most about a manager’s job is their tactical skill. The caveat is that we don’t have all of the information the team has- we may not know if a player has approached the manager with some physical issue, we don’t know what type of data the team has given the manager, and we don’t know if there’s anything else going on beyond the obvious. That said, we can gauge a manager’s effectiveness with his in-game moves.
This was almost certainly Mike Matheny’s biggest shortcoming, illustrated by years of awkward double switches, hot hand lineup construction, poor bullpen management, and excessive stolen base attempts at inappropriate times. The good news is that whoever they hire will be a step up in this realm.
I’ve paired tactics with analytics since the two are very closely related. If the front office supplies shift data, I would hope the manager finds a way to use it. If there are better ways to extract value- even marginal value- out of a team through things like lineup construction, bunting less, intentionally walking less, fewer stolen base attempts, quicker hooks for starting pitchers, and optimal bullpen usage through appropriate leveraging of the best arms, a manager should be capable of learning and applying that knowledge.
In the big picture, tactics are important, but they make much less of an impact than we think. From 2012 to 2017 using WPA, the team with the most value extracted in non-pitcher bunts earned 1.06 wins and the worst lost 1.29 wins. The entire range from best to worst is just under 2.5 wins, and the vast majority of teams don’t fall in those extremes. FiveThirtyEight looked at bullpen management a few years ago and found the range to be about one win per season in that realm. I talked about stolen base runs last month. In a typical year, the gap between the best and worst team is 5 to 6 runs- half a win. It’s fairly outdated, but Beyond the Box Score estimated proper shifting (in 2014) to be worth about 10-15 runs a year, about one win.
All of these things add up, but we’re talking about something in the 5 to 7 win range as the difference between the very best and very worst managers, with most managers (not Mike Matheny) falling in the middle range where their value is average.
As outsiders, all we can see is a manager’s tactical skill. We can’t see how he interacts with his players. And yet, it’s probably the most important part of the job in ways we never consider. For instance:
- Managers have to tell players what their role will be in the spring, and very explicitly tell them when/if it changes throughout the season. They also have to explain why it’s happening in a way that the player understands.
- They have to have an open line of communication with the front office. If the quants have info, the manager should at least be willing to listen to that info and determine if there’s a way to incorporate it.
- They have to find a way to get the players on board with using advanced data.
- Managers have to let players know how they can get better, what the organization expects from them, and how they can contribute in ways that help both the club and the player’s long-term earnings (or prestige or job security or whatever it is that motivates the player).
- Ideally, a manager will answer questions from the media. In a perfect world, they’re willing to explain why they make the in-game choices they make, and why players are or are not playing. And as we’ve seen recently, you don’t want a manager inadvertently saying things that lead to controversy or paints the organization in a bad light.
There are many more ways communication impacts a manager’s role beyond our scope of knowledge. More than anything, being honest and straightforward with all parties involved leads to the best results. It’s especially true of players, who mostly just want to know how they’re going to be used and how they can best prepare for it. And on the outside, we rarely have any idea whether or not that actually happens.
Factors Unique to the Cardinals
The Cardinals value consistency as much or more than any other organization in baseball. It’s true to a fault, ergo Mike Matheny’s tenure extending beyond its true expiration date. Usually, it’s a great thing, of course. And you had to love this quote from Bill DeWitt, Jr. in Sunday’s presser:
Continuity in and of itself isn’t a goal. You want a successful team, to be in the playoffs. You put a team together and take your chances. What you value is consistent winning. Continuity has value in that regard, not when its not working.
Whoever the Cardinals hire, they’re going to want someone who appreciates franchise history. I don’t mean the World Series banners or the Hall of Famers, but rather the organizational knowledge that has led to those banners and Cooperstown plaques. They’ll want someone who respects and can work with the Cardinal Way. Don’t hate me for using it- every franchise has a “way”, going back to at least the Royals and Orioles in the 70s, and the Dodgers even further back than that. The difference is that the Cardinals have had multi-decade employees throughout those years to maintain and refine their manuals and hand them off to the next generation, with Red Schoendienst and George Kissell serving as the most obvious examples. Mike Shildt and Jose Oquendo are a few of the current keepers.
Whoever the Cardinals hire doesn’t have to be a product of that system, but they are going to have to work within that framework while they manage the Cardinals. And that framework is stronger in St. Louis than it is in most places.
Managerial Hiring Trends
If we had performed this exercise before Matheny was hired, we might have pointed out the MLB trend of hiring popular grit-tastic former players with zero managerial experience. Brad Ausmus, Robin Ventura, Bo Porter, and Matheny were all examples. Other than Aaron Boone, that trend has died.
I’ve collected data for all managerial hires made since the end of the 2016 season, including Jim Riggleman this season. He’s interim for now, but it’s only a matter of time before the Reds name him the full-time manager. There are eleven hires in that timeframe. Here’s how their backgrounds break out:
The three who had never managed are Mickey Callaway, Dave Martinez, and Aaron Boone. Martinez was Joe Maddon’s bench coach dating all the way back to Tampa as well as Chicago (and was possibly responsible for a bunch of the Mickey Mouse shit that Maddon is known for, but I digress). It would be inaccurate to say that Martinez was inexperienced. Similarly, Callaway was the pitching coach for six years in Cleveland and had one of the more prominent coaching roles on some great teams. Boone is the only one hired with no experience of any kind as a manager. Of course, his family is baseball royalty and he was raised by an MLB manager (Bob Boone). Even in the realm of managers with no experience, he’s an outlier.
Callaway is joined by Bud Black as the only former pitching coaches to hired as managers since 2016. It has always been rare for pitching coaches to get these jobs and the last two hiring cycles are no exception.
The bench coaches hired as managers offer variety. It includes guys with less experience like Martinez and Alex Cora, mid-range experience like Torey Lovullo and Rick Renteria, and grizzled vets Jim Riggleman and Ron Gardenhire. Technically, Gardenhire was the bench coach in Arizona after he had been fired as Minnesota’s skipper, but still- he was a bench coach. More and more, bench coach is seen as a stepping stone to a managerial job. That’s a trend.
And finally, I had to use some subjective judgment on the communicator vs. analytics bars. Mostly, I used comments made at the press conferences where they were hired, or their reputations. Kapler and Martinez were hired in some part because of their perceived analytical acumen. Boone, Riggleman, Gardenhire, and Cora were praised for their communication skills. Snitker didn’t fit the communication category, but he fit there better than analytics. He’s more of an organizational soldier with strong ties to their most successful era. Black, Lovullo, Renteria, and Callaway have all professed- in some way or another- a desire to both communicate well while being open to analytics. Even Snitker, not included in the “both” designation, has lauded the gains made thanks to info from the Braves’ quants. Cora was hired for his communication skills but came to Boston via Houston, one of the most analytically-forward teams in the game.
I’m sure all managers would tell you they want to be both a communicator and open to new, advanced information. They aren’t mutually exclusive traits. But some have a plan in place and execute it while others- many of whom have fallen by the wayside- merely talk the talk about advanced data. There appears to be a trend. More and more teams are insisting on a skipper who will work with the front office to properly deploy quantitative data.
I can’t offer you much info you don’t already know. I only have one true connection in the world of sports. It’s my co-worker, a skateboarding bulldog who likes butt scratches (seriously, he works in my office and it’s pretty amazing). He doesn’t have any info, so we have to rely on the obvious candidates.
If you’ve read everything I’ve written in this article, you can probably deduce why Mike Shildt is a great candidate in his own right. He checks virtually every box mentioned here. He’s lauded both for his communication skills and his openness to analytics. His first game on Sunday was a great preview of proper process handling in-game decisions. He was also a bench coach, has front office experience (sort of- he was a scout for the Cardinals), and has previously managed in the minor leagues.
I can’t speak to Stubby Clapp’s skills as a communicator or forward-thinking views on analytics, but his teams in Memphis have been monsters and he certainly knows the organization. He also has loads of managing experience. Still internally, there’s Jose Oquendo, although he seems like a long shot, a man resigned to his role as the heir to Red Schoendienst and George Kissell as an organizational teacher.
Derrick Goold raised some eyebrows the night of Matheny’s firing by pointing out that Joe Girardi will be considered. This makes sense on some level, although many of Girardi’s issues in New York were the same items that cost Matheny his job. If the Reds don’t make Jim Riggleman the full-time manager, he would merit a look. He’s experienced and has some familiarity with the organization. Mark McGwire carries the one-two punch of Cardinal familiarity and bench coach experience, and he has a solid reputation as an up and coming coach. However, he may prefer to stay close to his southern California home.
The last name I’d like to mention is one Derrick Goold briefly addressed in this week’s chat and in Wednesday morning’s article- Joe Espada, Houston’s bench coach. He’s a very interesting candidate. Much like Shildt, he has held nearly every baseball job imaginable- third base coach for the Yankees and Marlins, special assistant to the GM for the Yankees (2014), minor league infield coordinator with the Marlins, and minor league hitting coach with the Marlins. In a spring training interview with The Athletic, the writer praised him as a communicator, and Espada himself referenced being open-minded and progressive. He cited his front office experience as giving him an understanding of tactics and helping him explain the benefits to his players. I have no clue how strong his candidacy is, but he’s clearly a qualified dark horse.
As new candidates emerge and the franchise gets closer to hiring a full-time replacement, we’ll have continued updates.