The template couldn’t be clearer.
Take a look at the managers leading teams that remain in the postseason, each hired in the last four years.
- Craig Counsell, 48, Milwaukee Brewers (2015-18)
- A.J. Hinch, 44, Houston Astros (2015-18)
- Dave Roberts, 46, LA Dodgers (2016-18)
- Alex Cora, 42, Boston Red Sox (2018)
They had a combined three years of big-league managing experience prior to their current gigs.
If you want, add Aaron Boone, 45, in his first year with the Yankees winning 100 games, and Kevin Cash, 40, in his fourth season with Tampa Bay, going 90-72 in the AL East. Neither had previous experience as a major league manager. They fit the pattern.
What else do these managers have in common beside a lack of experience and success?
They were former major league players. They are 40-something. Each is lauded for communication skills that facilitate instruction being transmitted from front office to players. They are wide open to new thinking about tactics for winning games, such as when to pull starting pitchers, how to use bullpens, how to score runs and how to construct lineups.
What you don’t see: long resumés, big personalities and set ways about how to win. No one in that group makes his lineup based on having played with Ralph Garr.
In 2017, Dusty Baker, Joe Girardi and John Farrell, all accomplished major league managers, were fired after leading their respective teams to 90+ wins and making the postseason. Combined, they have 40 years managing major league teams. Each is a baseball lifer who had issues following directions from the front office. They are used to the manager running the show.
But like so many other aspects of baseball, the primacy of the major league manager has changed in the blink of a paired t-test.
In the last five years, many major league front offices have become intimately involved in the day-to-day management of their teams. Analytics departments develop best practices through research. GMs and Presidents of Baseball Operations expect their managers and coaching staffs to implement those tactics fully, without hesitation.
“You don’t need a manager that the players like, you need a manager that the players understand why things are being done a certain way,” major leaguer-turned-analyst, Mark Teixeira said. “In today’s day and age, this is new-school baseball.”
“Old-school baseball, with the manager running the clubhouse and the GM never being in the clubhouse, that’s over,” Teixeira said. “When I first came up, GMs weren’t in the clubhouse, never. Now the GM and the front office runs the team and the manager needs to be the communicator with the team: This is why we’re running the team this way. We spend a lot of time and effort in sabermetrics, and when I tell you you’re not playing, I need to be able to explain to you and have a good enough relationship with you to say, ‘Hey, this is why you’re not playing or this is why I pulled you after five innings. It’s not personal, but this is what the numbers tell us.’ It is information-driven and that’s new-school baseball, and we’re all waking up to that fact.”
Successful managers — at least the ones listed above — follow the lead of the front office. They are comfortable with the stacks of data and analysis handed to them every day. They lead through communication. They bridge the tricky gap between front office plans and today’s players and coaches.
Yet, it’s easy to exaggerate the manager’s role in winning. Acquiring talented players matters more. That often means money. But payroll isn’t destiny. Salaries for the teams listed above range from highest (Red Sox) to lowest (Rays) and points in-between (Milwaukee, #22). When the Astros won the 2017 World Series, their payroll was below league average. In-game decision making is a small part of what makes a good manager. Skill in communicating to get the most out of their talented players is increasingly vital.
Here’s a related cautionary tale.
John Farrell is 56. He managed two years (2011-12) for the Toronto Blue Jays and five years (2013-17) with the Boston Red Sox. Farrell led the Red Sox to a World Series Championship his first year in Boston. After losing seasons in 2014 and 2015, the Red Sox won 93 games in 2016 and 2017 under Farrell, making the postseason each time.
In August 2015, Farrell was diagnosed with lymphoma, sat out the rest of the season receiving treatment and was back managing the club at the start of 2016. Farrell pitched in the big leagues from 1987-1996.
The reasons surrounding his firing in Boston are a bit of a mystery. Dave Dombrowski, who began as the Red Sox President of Baseball Operations during the 2015 season, said the reasons were unrelated to wins and losses and left it at that.
Others close to the situation used words and phrases like “underperformance,” “too much intensity,” “clubhouse turmoil,” “bad chemistry with younger players,” and more.
But John Farrell was also surely a victim of baseball changing right out from under him. Alex Speier, who has covered the Red Sox before, during and after Farrell’s tenure, believes Farrell might have been a great hire in 2012. His time with the Boston Red Sox began in a traditional, low-data, manager-calls-the-shots environment. But by 2017, expectations had changed, with a front office aggressively pushing data down the chain of command.
Farrell interviewed last fall with the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals for their vacant manager positions. Both clubs went with former players who had never managed before.
The current Reds manager search is already a vast improvement over five years ago when Walt Jocketty, hiring his first manager in nearly 20 years, talked only to a guy already in his office suite and patted himself on the back about how abbreviated the process was. Now another issue looms that threatens the success of even the best-executed manager search.
The Reds lack a common direction.
Without fail, today’s successful baseball clubs talk about how crucial it is for everyone in the organization to have the same vision and implement it. They preach one consistent message from front office to coaching staff to the players.
“The most important thing is you have to connect,” explained Red Sox Manager Alex Cora. “The baseball operations, the analytics department, the medical staff — if they don’t get together, what’s the point? How are we going to filter the information from these departments to the coaches and to the players? If you can’t accomplish that, then you’re in trouble.”
To succeed in such a tough business, with small increments of advantage, baseball organizations have to be single-minded. A distracted or inconsistent focus is fatal.
“My job is to tie it all together and make it work,” says A.J. Hinch, who managed the Houston Astros to last year’s World Series championship. “Obviously we all have a role in this but, again, what I’ve witnessed in this organization from behind the scenes is how much passion the front office has in what they believe in and what they’re doing. And we’re combining that to have one message, one synergy that goes from front office to the manager, the coaching staff, to the players.”
That brings us back to 100 Joe Nuxhall Way.
Divisions among Reds ownership, Walt Jocketty, Dick Williams, Nick Krall and the analytics department prevent full effectiveness of any plans. Even though no one talks about it publicly (of course) the split is evident in inconsistent and paralyzed decision-making. Further, the team doesn’t have a regular, coherent way to communicate insights to coaches and players. The focus of the analytics department seems to be on helping the front office with personnel decisions, not looking for in-game edges.
The Reds lack a single, disciplined vision for how to run the team. Ownership is in a different place from the front office on analytics. The meddling of ownership (and its enablers) is a big factor in incoherent messaging. How effective can the front office be in getting a player to improve his game when ownership is expressing its love for that player through leaks to sportswriters?
That’s bad for many reasons. But it certainly frustrates the manager search. If the foundation of the Modern Baseball Manager’s job is to communicate front office insights to coaches and players, the manager is doomed to fail when a consistent message doesn’t exist from the start.
This seems obvious.
To be sure, veteran guys like Terry Francona, Joe Maddon, Bob Melvin and Bud Black still manage winning franchises. Inexperienced, fortysomething communication specialists aren’t the only way to win.
But there’s no denying that’s the direction baseball is headed.
It’s where the four teams still playing this weekend already are.