Book Review: Evaluating Baseball's Managers
Book breaks new ground on ranking managers
Evaluating Baseball's Managers: A History and Analysis of Performance in the Major Leagues, 1876-2008
By Chris Jaffe
McFarland (www.mcfarlandpub.com), 2010
List Price: $39.95
Sports radio phone lines buzz from April through October with callers who know more about running the local big league club than the bozo in the dugout. This manager should pull his starter sooner, this one should bunt less, and this one doesn't know how to put a lineup together. Managers, collectively, are the most second-guessed men in the game.
What makes a good manager? It's a lot more than knowing when to bunt or double-switch. Chris Jaffe recognized this well before undertaking what became "Evaluating Baseball's Managers." Jaffe, who writes for the Hardball Times, grappled with how to quantify the softer, but essential, skills that fans don't see every night at the ballpark. Communication, self-awareness, the ability to prioritize—in short, many of the same skills that make a good boss in any workplace.
None of those factors can be plugged into a formula to rank managerial talent. But ignoring or overlooking intangible leadership qualities leaves an incomplete picture at best. This may explain why there are so many volumes published each year breaking down hitters and pitchers, but almost none on managers.
"There seemed to be a gap there," Jaffe said. "Most work on managers deals with the more obvious things, in-game, tactical stuff. But people interactions matter. Bill James wrote a great book ['The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers from 1870 to Today']. He said people skills matter more, but he couldn't figure out how to quantify it."
Jaffe struggled with that himself until he came upon a database presented at a SABR convention by Phil Birnbaum, who originally compiled the data to measure over- and underachievement by teams. Birnbaum, however, was trying to gauge luck, figuring discrepancies between his findings in five categories and a team's won-loss record would reflect good or bad fortune. Jaffe read more into that. If a certain manager repeatedly comes out on the good luck side of the equation (wins more games than the numbers say his teams should), he feels that reflects on his managerial ability. Conversely, a manager whose teams regularly lose more than they ought to probably can't pin that all on bad luck.
The categories tracked in the database are Individual Hitting, Individual Pitching, a modified Pythagorean formula, Team Offense, and Team Pitching. The first two categories rely on algorithms to measure a player's stats in a particular year against the surrounding seasons. For hitters, Runs Created are calculated and for pitchers, Component ERA. Those stats also factor into the Team Offense and Team Pitching results, by comparing how many runs a team should have scored or allowed, compared to what they actually did.
Jaffe also factors in managerial tendencies, breaking down each man's preferences for bunting, stealing, using his bullpen, etc. And for skippers who worked before 1965, he measures their affinity for "leveraging" starting pitchers by scheduling them to inordinately face top or bottom teams. This strategy disappeared more than 40 years ago when most teams adopted more rigid starting rotations.
The refreshing thing about Jaffe's approach is he acknowledges the limitations of ranking managers based solely on statistics. Earlier, purely statistical, breakdowns of team leaders have come to the conclusion that managers don't actually have much impact on a team's record. Jaffe rejects that. "I believe managers matter," he writes in the first chapter. "To convince me otherwise would take more than an equation, no matter how brilliant its math."
The book includes write-ups on nearly 100 of the game's most important managers, including all who captained 10 or more major league campaigns since 1876. While there is a healthy dose of numbers mixed into each overview, they are very readable, even entertaining. Chapters are broken down by era, and as Jaffe works from the "primordial" managers up to the present-day leaders, he lays out a history of the position, identifying numerous factors along the way that have influenced both the game and the way men lead.
Who came out on top? Not surprisingly, it's Joe McCarthy, a man who posted a .615 winning percentage and never had a losing season in nearly a quarter century at the helm. Of modern managers, Tony LaRussa came out far-and-away the leader. Some of that boils down to longevity, but Jaffe sees the Cardinals leader as a man who is always in control yet unafraid to try unorthodox strategies, such as batting his pitcher eighth. Perhaps it's no coincidence that both men burned with an intensity to win, and couldn't abide players who didn't exhibit the same drive.
"Evaluating Baseball's Managers" can be enjoyed whole or in smaller increments. It deserves a spot alongside James' book in the small "managers" section of your baseball library. One quirk to note: Due to delays in printing, the data in the book is current through the 2008 season, even though the book wasn't available until this January. That's of little consequence, given that most of the managers discussed haven't set foot in a dugout in decades.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.