Sheehan: Managing Expectations

Image credit: In the 1970s and '80s, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner fired six managers in the midst of winning seasons, including Billy Martin twice.

Growing up as a Yankees fan in New York in the 1980s, managerial firings were as much a part of my childhood summers as sunburn and stickball, Mr. G and Mr. Softee. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner—the original one, the Boss, not the cleaned-up version on the monument out in center field—rarely went through a summer without changing the team’s skipper, whether things were going well or not. The Miller Brewing Company would eventually memorialize these practices in a commercial where Steinbrenner fires manager Billy Martin. That’s how much a part of the game Steinbrenner’s antics were.

So it’s interesting, in the wake of Mike Matheny’s firing by the Cardinals on July 14, to see just how rare that kind of move has become. The Cardinals were 47-46 when they dismissed Matheny, making him just the fourth manager this century to be fired in-season with his team at or above .500, and the first since 2008. That was the year the Brewers tired of Ned Yost’s tactical missteps and dumped him with two weeks left and the team tied for the National League wild card at 83-67. Milwaukee closed 7-5 under Dale Sveum to lock up the fourth playoff spot.

The other two occasions both involved Jimy Williams. In 2001, the Red Sox were 65-53 and fading when general manager Dan Duquette pulled the rug out from under his manager. Joe Kerrigan replaced Williams and guided Boston to a 17-26 finish. Three years later, the Astros tired of Williams at the all-star break, with the team at 44-44. They swapped him for Phil Garner, and watched the team close 48-26 and eventually come up one win short of the NL pennant.

To provide some context, from 1975 to 1988, Steinbrenner alone fired a manager with a winning record six times. Playing with the goalposts a bit, this happened six times just from 1983 to 1992, and just four times in the 25 years since then.

It’s interesting to look at organizational trends when it comes to firing managers midseason. Some teams simply don’t do this. The Twins haven’t fired a manager during a season since 1986. The Giants haven’t since 1985. The Pirates have done it once since 1973. The Rays have done it once in their 21-year history. The Yankees, and this is a hoot, haven’t done it since 1990.

On the flip side, some teams get caught in a loop. The Indians did it four times in nine years in the 1980s, and the Mariners did it four times in six years around the same time. The Mets did it four times from 1990 to 1996. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that none of those teams were successful.

In general, the managerial position is far more stable than it once was. In the 1980s, you could count on five or so teams dumping their manager during the season. In 1988, eight teams—nearly a third of the league!—fired their manager, including three American League East clubs. That trend continued into the early 1990s, with five in 1990 and seven in 1991, but dropped sharply after the 1994 strike. This decade has seen just 18 in-season changes in almost nine years, and a number of those are token firings with a week or less to go in the season. 

This trend is a prism through which you can see the many changes baseball has undergone in 30 years. Organizations are now far more professionalized, less likely to make a change for the sake of change. Fewer owners are impetuous, and no owners are particularly reliant on the fortunes of their baseball team to put dinner on the table. Steinbrenner was the last of a breed that is largely gone now, the imperial franchise owner whose business was baseball.

In many organizations, managers are part of a larger team that makes decisions. Even the managers we think of as the best in the game, like the Indians’ Terry Francona or the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, are largely the faces of entire groups of people assembling the data and coming together to build rosters and create strategies for the team on the field. Firing them when the team is having at least a modicum of success would be counterproductive. Note that St. Louis was one of the places where this structure wasn’t in place; Matheny was the heir to the Tony La Russa tradition, the manager as king of the dugout. Matheny’s lack of skill at managing a game and a roster isn’t what got him fired—he “lost the clubhouse”—but the Cardinals’ change, to bench coach Mike Shildt, gives them a chance to move to a more modern approach. 

Whether Matheny or Shildt, however, managers are now hired for a different set of skills than they once were. They’re expected to be an extension of these more professional organizations, and their job is less about what they do from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. than ever before. They are caretakers of the people in their charge, hired for their skill at managing personalities, at ingratiating themselves with the press, at defusing controversies before they start. Billy Martin once fought Reggie Jackson in the dugout; Lee Elia’s post-game strafing of Cubs fans still gets airtime; Hal McRae waved a vodka bottle on camera during a post-game tirade. Modern managers are hired for their ability to avoid these signature moments. Teams don’t want geniuses, they want the man in the gray flannel pajamas.

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