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A Review of Chris Jaffe’s “Evaluating Baseball’s Managers: A History and Analysis of Performance in the Major Leagues, 1876-2008”

December 23, 2009

You know, we have a lot of measurements to quantify different aspects of baseball.  We’ve got a multitude of formulae designed to estimate individual player performance, be it hitting, pitching or fielding—things that we see on the field that we find to be relevant to our understanding of the way the game works.  One aspect of the game that has been left largely untouched, at least on the surface, is the impact and the tendencies of the men writing the lineup cards day in and day out.  Managerial evaluation has been left largely untouched relative to the rest of the game.  I personally have not seen much work done on the subject aside from Mitchel Lichtman’s chapter in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2009, in which he measured managerial skills based on the team’s component statistics for the 2008 season.  His article looked at managerial “value,” so to speak—since there is so much variability within a single season, there’s no means with which we can identify trends and actual managerial talent.

Bill James wrote about managers in The Bill James Guide to Evaluating Managers: From 1870 to Today.  I don’t have a copy of the book, so I’m unaware as to how thorough he is in his investigations.  In any case, the book was published twelve years ago—so the information provided in it, while undoubtedly invaluable, is certainly outdated.

A few weeks ago, Chris Jaffe—a writer from The Hardball Times—asked if I would take a look at a part of his new book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008, and give a review on it.  Since the book hasn’t been published yet, there are limitations of what I’m allowed to read.  Chris was generous enough to let me read his analysis of Giants managers, past to present.

From what I’ve read, Jaffe’s book reads something like a history textbook.  While that might come across as a negative to some, I like the way that it’s set up.  The layout of each section is extremely accessible to all, it’s very well organized, and Jaffe’s coverage of managers is an ideal blend of statistics and history.  You don’t need to be a numbers cruncher to understand or to enjoy the relevance of the statistics Jaffe provides in the book.  He provides a thorough depiction of each manager—not only giving a description of their character, but the reputations that they gained throughout the course of their career.  And he does a fantastic job at providing statistical evidence to back his claims.

There were a few sections that really jumped out at me—the very first being Jaffe’s section on John McGraw and the others being the more contemporary managers of the Giants—Baker, Alou and the present manager, Bruce Bochy.  That being said, I’ll comment on those sections.

John McGraw: As “lame” as it may sound, I was actually entranced by Jaffe’s depiction of the legendary manager that is John McGraw.  I knew little about him aside from his reputation as a “great” manager, but I really had no idea about his strengths—and reading about him makes me wish that the Giants had a manager like him in this day and age.  I was shocked to learn that this early 1900’s version of Bobby Knight (according to Jaffe) was not only an advocate of breaking in younger players, but that he had the greatest walk, hit by pitch and hit differentials of any Major League manager in history.  He advocated patience and selectiveness far before on-base percentage was recognized as highly relevant to the run scoring process, and apparently he’s still ahead of the current general manager of the Giants one hundred years later.  Some would say that it’s a testament to McGraw’s baseball acumen; others would say that it’s an indication that Brian Sabean is simply incompetent when it comes to evaluating hitters.  I’d say it’s both.

Dusty Baker: It was interesting to read Jaffe’s description on Dusty Baker because I have something of a personal tie to him.  I don’t remember the Craig era because I was simply too young to remember it, and Dusty managed the Giants from ’93-’02.  I attended a few of Baker’s baseball academies when I was younger and had the opportunity to meet him multiple times—and I must say, he’s one of the more pleasant men that I’ve ever met.  Jaffe is absolutely correct when he says that Baker is a manager with exceptional people skills.  There was one quote from Jaffe in the Baker section that I’ve held on to, since I found it to be an extremely important thing to remember when looking at managers:

In reality, managers are better at some parts of the job than at others.  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.

And this highlighted quote describes Baker in a nutshell.  He was built for San Francisco, which was a strong offensive team at the time—and being a former hitting coach, Baker thrived.  Chicago, on the other hand, was a different story—their best players were pitchers, and Baker just doesn’t have the same feel for pitchers as he does with hitters.  Jaffe also points out Baker’s distaste for walks, and that his presence in Chicago led to the worst walk differentials in Cubs history—and the year after he left, Cubs hitters drew over 100 more walks than the year before.  That’s some crazy stuff.

Felipe Alou: Jaffe asserts that Alou would be Cooperstown-bound as a manager if it weren’t for racism—his managerial career began at a much later age (57) than average, and this was a trend for minority managers.  Alou ranks fourth overall for managerial wins past the age of 57, and two of the managers ranked higher (Mack and Torre) worked with extremely talented teams—Alou, on the other hand, had no such luxury.  Jaffe also mentions Alou’s tendency to lean on his bullpens, but he doesn’t go into detail about it.  I seem to recall Alou’s managing of his bullpens to be headache inducing, but it’s quite possible that there wasn’t a noticeable difference between Alou and the average manager and I’m suffering from observer bias.

Bruce Bochy: According to Jaffe, the Birnbaum Database lists Bochy as being “the greatest manager in history with a losing record.”  Since the manuscript in my possession is limited to the Giants, I don’t know how this is being measured—so naturally, I’m a tad bit skeptical.  Jaffe notes that Bochy works well with young pitchers but poorly with well-regarded position player prospects, and this is the feeling I’ve gotten from Bochy as well.  I’m particularly worried about his handling of Buster Posey, but I’m hoping that Posey’s superior talents will end Bochy’s “curse.”  When the only position player you’ve developed in a dozen years is Khalil Greene, that means either one of two things: the first being that San Diego’s farm system lacked good position player prospects in Bochy’s tenure.  The second, of course, is that Bochy simply cannot develop position players well.  I’m hoping that it’s the former and not the latter, but it still worries me.  This little tidbit made me feel a bit better about Bochy:

(…) Bochy possessed a corps of solid but generally unimpressive hitters, journeymen starting pitchers, toxic middle relievers, and a superlative closer.  Yet that bunch played .494 ball for him from 1995-2006.  Somehow, 75-win talent transformed into 80-win results (…) Bochy produced those results because he had an impressively effective track record coaxing unexpectedly strong performances from veteran hitters.

Hopefully Bochy can “work his magic” on guys like Edgar Renteria, who the Giants desperately need to have a solid season.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been that interested in learning about managers—that is, until I read Jaffe’s manuscript.  I’m not sure when the book will be hitting stores, but I know that I’ll be purchasing a copy (which can be done here).  If you’re interested in reading in-depth analysis of a relatively uncharted territory in baseball, this is the book for you.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 16, 2014 11:10 AM

    Hitters are hitters, and they think that what they did was best, and thus the team is molded into their same likeness. So just like how Dusty teams took less walks, Ted Williams’ teams hit a lot more like him, taking walks, avoiding more strikeouts, had a much better batting line than the season before, at least with his first try at managing. However, pitching bored him and his teams never prospered. That is some crazy stuff!

    Hopefully you can see now that Bochy is fine with good hitting prospects, it was just that he didn’t get much in talent from the farm system, much like Dusty through the years with the Giants.

    Does it make sense that veteran hitters did better under Bochy while rookie hitters withered under him? Hitting skills are hitting skills, whether young or old, and if he can help veteran hitters do better, he can do the same with young players, identifying what they are good at or not and helping them to get better. But there is only so much you can do when you get sow’s ears (Lewis, Ellison, Linden, Frandsen) instead of prime rib (Posey, Sandoval, Belt, Crawford, and hopefully Panik, Susac, Duffy, Perez). And if you followed Belt’s career closely, you’ll recall all the times when he got better, he would admit to taking on one of Meulens many recommendations, culminating with his grip change mid-2013, leading to his great second half.

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