Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cooking the books: 'Evaluating Baseball's Managers'

Evaluating Baseball’s Managers: A History and Analysis of Performance in the Major Leagues, 1876–2008
Chris Jaffe
333 pg., McFarland Publishing, $39.95 (due out winter 2010)

Thanks to Chris Jaffe, you might never look at the men in the dugout the same way.

Most baseball fans today focus their venom on general manager and front office. The manager position is practically an anachronism, an ex-player who puts a uniform and tries not to get in the way of what's been put in place. How managers shape a ballclub sometimes gets downplayed.

That is why, based on two chapters he furnished, it seems like Jaffe's Evaluating Baseball's Managers is destined to become a big part of any baseball library. You might need a bit of the seamhead sickness to get into it, but Jaffe, who writes for The Hardball Times, has made some big strides.

Jaffe explains how changes in the sport have changed the job. It's much more professional now: Only two current MLB GMs actually played major-league ball and one of them is Billy Beane of Moneyball fame. His second big idea is rebutting the belief a skipper has the same impact in all areas of a ball club ("Place a man in a situation that fits his strengths, and he will look like a savant. Put that same individual on a team that highlights his weaknesses and people will call him a dullard.").

Jaffe's conclusions about the great Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou and late-1980s Jays skipper Jimy Williams may be eye-opening for Canadian ball fans. There's some stuff about Cito Gaston, too. Since this is a Canadian sports blog, that is a good place to focus.

Jaffe sent me excerpts on the four Blue Jays managers who were active for at least a decade (Gaston, Williams, Bobby Cox and Jim Fregosi) and a section on managers from the 1998-to date era. The book, which is intended as a reference guide, has capsules on 89 managers who lasted at least 10 seasons.

The 1998-to date section was like an unexpected gift, just for the appreciation it provided of Alou. Not to give away too much, but Jaffe shows how MLB's racial issues kept Alou from having a longer managerial run. Major League Baseball is self-congratulatory about having more African-American and Latino managers than in the past, but qualified candidates often don't get a chance until well into middle age. I never thought about this, but when Alou took over the Expos, he was at an age (57) when some Hall of Fame managers were already out of the game.

Most people know about all the young players Alou had, such as Vladimir Guerrero and Pedro Martínez. Few probably know Alou's reliance on pitch counts kept Martínez happy and healthy and on the path toward the Baseball Hall of Fame. They might not also realize Alou set a great example for other managers. It is worth noting that in the much-praised article Seattle baseball writer Larry Stone wrote about new Mariners DH Milton Bradley, present-day manager Ken Macha, told Stone "he got advice on handling Bradley from a good friend, Felipe Alou." It is no surprise to hear that.

SBN's Houston Astros blog, The Crawfish Boxes notes, "What Jaffe does ... is highlight why (managers) were good or why they weren't successful. He does an excellent job of it, providing stats to back it up in each manager's capsule, but also backing it up with solid analysis. Bullpen usage, hitting for power, walks, and more are shown as trends for each manager as Jaffe does a good job of describing what kind of team each guy oversaw. It's exactly what history buffs would want and provides the kind of source material that analysts will be using for years."

The section on Cito Gaston was fairly familiar ground, so it had fewer surprises. It turns out Gaston's rep as the "ultimate minimalist," is spot-on. Jaffe uses stolen base success rates to show Gaston is not totally out of it during games.

As a 30-something Jays fan, Jaffe's method really hit home with the section on Jimy Williams, who managed Toronto from 1986-89. The next time you're talking to a serious baseball nut, ask her/him what manager in recent history got the most from the bullpen. One response might be, "Probably Tony La Russa" (perhaps sarcastically) or, "Well, I know it wouldn't be (insert someone who ran his favourite team)."

Jaffe finds that Williams put all of the so-called genius managers to shame when it came to using the bullpen. He never managed in a World Series, so this was largely lost on people. It also didn't help that the teams he ran each played in hitter-friendly ballparks that obscured the excellent work of their relievers. As Over The Monster noted in its review,, "Williams handled the pitching staff like no other manager has in big league history. Williams' tendencies to yank pitchers early kept his starters healthy, meaning down the line they were that much better. Williams didn't try to stretch his starters; he knew what they were capable of and didn't push them. As a result, his Red Sox teams in the second half always seemed to do better than in the first half."

It was a similar story with the Jays. According to, during Williams' three full seasons with the Jays, they were a .528 team before the all-star break and played .584 ball in the second half.

Williams, though, was fated to get fired before a team hit it big. The Blue Jays let him go in 1989 and won the World Series three seasons later. The Red Sox canned him in 2001 and, wait for it, won the World Series three seasons later. During that season, 2004, Williams was fired by the Astros, who made it to the Series the following season.

He certainly had a role in that, of course. Still, Jaffe findings are a bit of a requiem and, for readers, put their personal baseball history in a new light.

Jimy Williams had his brilliant points, who knew. It's a reminder of how people, not just the media, get an idea about someone and massage the facts selectively. Williams seemed like a crusty baseball lifer. (One of his habits in the dugout when he managed the Jays was putting his hand down the front of his pants, almost like Al Bundy.) Those guys tend to be viewed as replaceable.

Good sportswriting should increase understanding or stimulate thought. Evaluating Baseball's Managers hits it out of the park on each count.

(Over The Monster also noted Jaffe's writing didn't suffer even when he was discussing the game from decades ago:
"I didn't know actually how much information Chris would be able to get for most of the older managers. But to my surprise, every writeup was quite detailed. If the writeups were any indication of the rest of the book, it seems to be quite extensive."
Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for pre-order; the Stone link is via Jonah Keri.)

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