There are two ways to be happy as a fan of a particular sports team: When your squad does good stuff and when your rivals just absolutely shit the bed.
For that reason, it’s been a good week in Cardinals Nation, with Mike Shildt being nominated for Manger of the Year while the Cubs and Royals hire David Ross and Mike Matheny, respectively.
Shildt led the Cardinals back to the NLCS in his first full year as manager, whereas David Ross is a Television Dance Competitor with no managerial experience and Mike Matheny is, well... we know what that whole thing looks like.
So clearly, the Cardinals have a good manager while the Cubs and Royals have bad managers, right? The answer is: There’s no way to really know. But the model for what makes a good manager is transforming, and Mike Shildt is very much at the forefront of that trend, whereas Ross and Matheny look like throwbacks to an era I don’t think will be coming back.
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, when you’re dealing with what makes a good manager, you’ve got known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Whereas anyone savvy enough to read the Fangraphs Glossary can get a pretty clear read on a player’s value on the field, evaluating managers (and even more so, coaches) is still pretty murky.
There are the things we can measure, like lineup construction and in-game moves. But while we can dissect and evaluate those, most research suggests their long-term impact on winning is fairly minimal. Anecdotally, we saw this as Matheny’s Cardinals teams made four-straight playoff appearances despite his well-documented tactical ineptitude.
Then there’s the squishy stuff: Managing people and expectations and communication. We the fans never get a real look at this, and even our glimpses are 2nd or 3rd hand. Frankly, I always assumed that Matheny must have been good at this stuff, as he was so clearly bad at the visible, tactical stuff. And yet after he was fired, the behind-the-scenes stories that spilled out painted a pretty bleak picture of the clubhouse environment as well.
Some people still see a manager as that on-field general who needs to give rousing speeches and rally his players to maximize their value. Apparently, The Greatest Leader in the World, Theo Epstein, is one of those people. According to multiple sources, David Ross secured the Cubs job in large part by delivering a pretend speech to rally players at spring training.
On the other hand, Willie McGee said before Game 5 of the NLDS that true professionals don’t need that kind of thing. “If you have to be motivated at this point you don’t have the right players,” McGee said. “That’s just being real.”
The bigger demand for a modern manager is this: Today’s skipper is just one piece in a sophisticated, data-driven organization aimed at maximizing player performance and value. This is a seismic shift in the role of the manager, and I think we’re only just beginning to see how this will change the look of the man holding the lineup card.
For our entire lives, the template of the manager has basically been a chaw-chewing ex-player who spouts the same truisms we’ve all heard since Little League and occasionally entertains the crowd by berating a professional umpire. Whereas in pro football and basketball, the trend has long been toward head coaches who never played at a high level, baseball has held tight to this ex-player archetype, despite so few of the skills required of a manager being related to where or how they played.
Two of the three candidates for this year’s NL Manager of the Year award never played in the majors. Brian Snitker played three seasons in the low-minors for the Braves, then spend nearly 40 years in various roles within the organization. Mike Shildt never played professional baseball, but logged around 15 years in various scouting, organizational and coaching roles before ascending to big league manager.
This is the trend among successful big league managers, and I think you’re only going to see it continue and accelerate. New Padres Manager Jayce Tingler played four years in the minors, but earned himself that job based on his resume as minor league coordinator and various other organizational roles for the Texas Rangers. Orioles Manager Brandon Hyde logged barely a full-season of plate appearances in his minor league career, but like Tingler and Shildt, his long career on the coaching side includes a stint as a “minor league coordinator.”
Why do so many new managers have these bureaucratic-sounding organizational jobs on their resume? Because that’s the Brave New World, my friends. The character of a team is not determined primarily by the manager, but by the front office. It’s the Ivy League Wonks upstairs who craft the “organizational philosophy,” based on data, and it’s the jobs of everyone within the organization to deliver that philosophy to the players so they can execute it on the field.
Aesthetically, it’s a very different thing - and I get that some people don’t like it. I’m not always sure I like it. I grew up with managers like Whitey Herzog and Lou Pinella who looked like they had come to life right off the cartoon on a pouch of Big League Chew. But more than anything, I want my baseball team to win. And I don’t want my archetypal ex-player manager, armed only with a handful of old chestnuts, going up against an army of analysts and an organization perfectly structured to deliver maximum efficiency.
This is a divide, with Mike Shildt clearly on one side of it while Ross and Matheny stand on the other. Expect plenty of hackneyed stories about Ross and Matheny being “old school,” relying not so much on data and science but spitting in your glove and doing what your Little League coach told you. Expect them to say these things during in-game interviews, while they bring in a lefty who doesn’t hit righties well to face a righty who eats left-handers for dinner.
And at the end of the season, the Cubs could very well be winners no matter what Ross does because they have good players. And the Royals will not be winners, because their players are trash.
The impact of a manger is likely very small and almost impossible to measure. But whatever value there is to be extracted from the manager, the Cardinals are very much on the cutting edge, whereas the Cubs and Royals are stuck in the past.