The role of the modern MLB manager in 2019

“My guys are fucking savages in that box” the Yankees skipper, Aaron Boone, could be heard screaming at the home plate umpire. Boone was ejected, but one look in the dugout told the story.

All of the players from the New York Yankees were applauding Boone’s outburst.

Welcome to the role of a Major League Baseball manager in 2019.

A manager’s job today isn’t about writing names down on a piece of paper, and knowing when to hit and run. Organizations have smart people that do nothing but figure out things like that all day long.

Through the years, the front office of a baseball team would spend the winter building the team, and putting it together. Once that was over, they would get ready for the draft in June.Then the trade deadline and then back to offseason team building.

One day, one of the front office nerds used his spreadsheet to help a player improve, and baseball was changed for ever.

The front office, in Major League Baseball circa 2019, has more say and more control with what happens on the field than any other time in baseball. They dictate the lineups. They instruct the manager on what reliever to use if they are winning. Or if the team is losing. Or if a certain batter is up with one out and a runner on first. They even tell the manager if he should call for a sacrifice bunt in certain situations, or if the team should steal more (or less) bases.

Mangers today
No, the manager doesn’t fill out the line up card everyday anymore. And yes, the manager is told which relievers to use in different situations. This doesn’t mean the manager is a puppet of the front office. It also doesn’t mean it’s an empty roll. Quite the opposite.

The job of a Major League Baseball manger has just changed. It hasn’t become less important. 

A manager’s job is more hands on. His job is about managing the men in the clubhouse. It’s about building those relationships with the players, so you know what makes each guy tick. That’s 25 different men, all with different backgrounds, life stories, many of whom are in comepletey different situations in life and in baseball as the guy sitting next to him. 25 men. Add another 10 to 15 guys that come and go throughout the season. In September, crunch time of a pennant race, he could have 40 different guys he has to manage every day. As his team is trying to make the playoffs. Some of those guys are just starting their pro careers. Others are in the last month of professional baseball, ever.

“Adapt or die”

A manager needs to know who’s going through a divorce, or has a new girlfriend, or a new baby (or possible who has all three). He needs to know when his veteran catcher is banged up and needs a couple of days off. He need to know who has been drinking more since his father passed away last month. He needs to know when his 20 year old rookie from Latin America is homesick. He also needs to know who to give a kick in the ass to, and when to do that. At the same time, the manager needs to know what player to pat on the back after a tough series.

In 2019, a Major League Baseball Manager might need to be part psychologist, part social worker, and part substance abuse counselor.

Bobby V knows a lot Of baseball

Being a manager is no longer about how much you know. It’s showing the players how much you care. I’m not sure how much Aaron Boone actually knows about baseball.

But his rant against the umpire showed everyone how much he cares about his guys. One look into that dugout, and you can tell the players respect and respond to that. 

Bobby Valentine knows every in and out of baseball. His first day in spring training, in his last job as a manager, for the Boston Red Sox, he ended up cursing out a veteran infielder, for doing something that veteran player has done his entire baseball life. 

The players in Boston hated Bobby V, and it didn’t matter at all how smart his is. 

A manager in today’s game needs to know what each individual’s goals are, and how to help those players achieve those goals.  The players have to trust that the manager is there helping them reach the player’s goals, and know that the manager isn’t just looking after his own self interest. 

Bobby Valentine was there to show everyone how smart he was. 

The role of a manager is a lot more complicated now, than just writing out a line up card, and calling for a bunt here and there.

Hear no evil, see no evil

There was a time in baseball where the manager never spoke to a player. Unless that player did something wrong of course.

Mets broadcaster Ron Darling tells the story of how one year, manager Davey Johnson only talked to Darling twice all season. Darling mentions how proud he was, at being able to accomplish this. 

Former New York Mets manager Terry Collins has often spoken about his greatest regret while the manager of the Anaheim Angles- a job he would eventually get fired from. TC said he didn’t think he ever needed to talk to his star players. They are stars after all. So he left Mo Vaughn alone, and never spoke to him. 

Collins learned that stars need the most attention. After he was fired from the Angels, it was a long wait before he got another shot. 

But TC learned his lesson. If you watched him before a game, as Mets manager, if you got there early enough, he would make his way around the field. Talking to each and every player for ten minutes. 15 minutes. What ever it took.

The Shift

I have been working on this article for most of the second half of the season. I really wanted to put some numbers onto things. Then, I was able to finished Russell Carleton’s book, “The Shift: the next Evolution in Baseball thinking”.

In chapter 6, titled “This isn’t the babysitters club” he talks about the in game decisions a manager could make. He showed that if a manager makes all the right decisions, and every decision pays off correctly, he could add 6-8 runs to his team.

This translates to about one win per season. For making every right decision all season long.

One win.

The baseball season is a grind

Next, Carleton talks about the “grind effect”. We hear about it all the time. Players talk about the long ‘grind’ of the season. And this is a real thing. Carleton shows that the ability for batters to make good decisions-like swinging at strikes; not swinging at balls- decreases as the season goes on.

Can a manager have an impact on this? 

Carleton has found that good managers do help minimize this ‘grind effect’. The best managers can help his batters make approximately 30 extra “good” decisions over the course of the season than a team with an average manager. 

During the 2013 to 2017 seasons that the author examined, Bruce Bochy was best at this. Brad Ausmus was worse. 

This is only based on the managers ability to keep his hitters from experiencing the the negative effects of “the Grind” on their plate discipline.

With those extra “good decisions”, it is Carleton’s claim, that the best managers in the league provide close to 7 runs in the course of a season, over the worst manager in the league. That’s almost one full win.

Don’t get too high or too low

We hear players speak about how they like a manager that is even, no matter what. A manager that doesn’t get too high or too low. Those type of reactionary, and overly emotional managers can add to that grind effect. They contribute to the wear of the season. This leads to players making poor choices at the plate, as the season grinds on.

We mentioned the grind effect on batters. Carleton also says there’s an effect on pitchers as well. The right manager can help his pitching staff induce more poor decisions from the opposing batters. 

If we combine the two- batters making slightly better decisions and pitchers inducing slightly worse decisions on their opponents- the best managers (according to Carleton) come out 10-15 runs ahead of the worst ones. That’s a win to a win and a half. 

That’s the production of a Todd Frazier or Amed Rosario type player.  If a manager can provide that, it brings a tremendous amount of value to his ballclub. 

Estimated “Grind runs” for pitchers and hitters, 2013-2017

Top managers:
Buck Showalter 7.38
Terry Francona 5.98
Ryne Sandberg 5.88
Terry Collins 5.52

Bottom managers
Walt Weiss -7.57
Mike Matheny -4.78
Joe Girardi -3.25

The Grind of NYC

Some things I found interesting:
Buck Showalter is over 14 runs higher than the lowest manager, Walt Weiss. That’s close to 2 wins right there. And it’s not from any special technique. Buck didn’t teach his players some certain way to swing the bat in September that Weiss doesn’t know about. He just kept his team mentally sharp, and able to make good decisions.

Another stand out are the two NYC managers, Terry Collins and Joe Girardi. There are plenty of reports that Girardi wears on his team, and here are numbers to back it up. His players perform worse, and they lose some of their mental ability, as the season grinds on.

Managing in the same NYC market, Collins actually boosts his team’s performance as the season gets deeper. There’s an approximately 8 runs difference between the two. Again, that’s basically one win.

If I had to choose between the two, I would want the manager that actually helps his players down the stretch. Not the manager that wears on the players, and contributes to the “Grind effect”.

Athlete centered coaching
If you have taken any coaching classes in the last 15-20 years, you will here the term “Athlete Centered coaching”. This basically means putting the athlete first. To get the most out of an athlete, their goals and abilities should be the focus. This is a complete change for the teams in the 1950s and 60s and beyond, where the team was driven and centered around the one coach or manager with a strong and dominant personality.

Classrooms are the same thing. There, student centered learning has taken the place of the teacher in front of the classroom, delivering a 40 minute lecture, and then assigning a list of things to memorize for homework.

Society has changed. Athletes, from little league to the pros, have changed. To be an effective leader, you must put these athletes first. By doing that, you can increase there performance, both in the short term, and over the course of a long and grinding season.

No. Managers don’t have complete control of the line up card anymore. Yes, the front office is more involved with on the field decisions more so than ever before. And this is all ok. None of this means the manager’s role is less important. It doesn’t mean his position is empty or a puppet. It just means his role is different. 

The game of professional baseball has changed. Roles have shifted. One of those roles is that of the manager.

And all of this is ok.