September 11, 2012
What the Insiders Say Makes a Good Manager
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C. Trent Rosecrans is an all-glove, singles-hitting first baseman with 20 speed. That’s why he’s at a keyboard instead of actually playing baseball. Luckily, a complete lack of talent is more marketable in the internet world than it is in professional baseball, so he’s found a way to make some semblance of a living. Currently, it’s the CBSSports.com Eye On Baseball blog that’s paying the bills. Rosecrans was previously the Reds beat writer for the Cincinnati Post and still resides in the Queen City, waiting for Jason Parks to come sample the town’s finest chili with him. While Twitter feels so 2009, he still occasionally tweets @ctrent, but you’re just as likely to find some other silliness there as you are baseball. You can also follow him (as well as Dayn Perry and Matt Snyder) actually discussing baseball @EyeOnBaseball.
We’re just a couple of months from everyone’s favorite time of year: complaining-about-awards season. Once the World Series is over, there’s a dearth of opportunities to call others stupid and feel superior—until the awards roll around. The MVP will have his detractors, and we’ll find out just how dumb the voters are when he’s announced. The Cy Young will either prove the mainstreaming of advanced statistics or show that the voters still don’t get it. And Rookie of the Year? Well, there’s a third-place vote somewhere out there that’s going to get someone upset.
But then there’s Manager of the Year, the least prestigious of the three major awards handed out by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Last year I voted for the National League version of the award, and while I’ve voted for the MVP and Cy Young awards in the past, those seemed easier to define, and my choices were easier to defend.
In the end, I used the age-old formula for Manager of the Year voting: actual wins minus preseason expected wins. For the NL last year, that meant Kirk Gibson, the eventual winner. Because voting is due before the postseason begins, that seemed like the logical choice, and Gibson ended up winning. I’m sure he did do a great job, if only because I didn’t expect much from the Diamondbacks and he led his team to the playoffs. But doesn’t that criterion say more about me and what I didn’t know than the job Gibson did?
I wasn’t the only one who saw things that way: Gibson received 28 of the 32 first-place votes in the National League. Joe Maddon got 26 of the 28 first-place votes in the American League, in part because the Rays weren’t expected to make the playoffs and did. Were they the two best managers? I guess so, but I don’t know, and I’m not sure I can know.
I remember a time early in my career as a beat writer when I second-guessed a decision by a manager. I asked about it, got a perfunctory, “I did what I thought was best” quote, and went on to write about the absurdity of that explanation. The next day, the manager asked me to stay afterward, and off the record, he gave me a more in-depth explanation of why he made his decision. I’m not sure I can write more than that and not break his confidence, but let’s just say that when I knew the whole story, I saw his point.
That was an early lesson to me that you never know—and will never know—the entire story, but there are plenty of reasons why major-league managers do things that armchair managers think are “wrong” or “stupid.” In the end, there are always a multitude of factors involved in most decisions, and they have an impact on a player and a team long after the one game in question is over. Since then, I’ve had a theory that 85 to 90 percent of a manager’s job consists of things we don’t see.
Because I don’t know exactly what makes a good manager, I decided to ask some of those who know much better than I. Over the last week or so, I went to Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati and asked several people in different roles about what makes a good manager. Here’s a sampling of what those in the game had to say.
The general manager
Reds GM Walt Jocketty has had just four managers in his 18 years as a general manager. He was forced by ownership to fire Joe Torre in his first season in St. Louis, replacing him with Mike Jorgensen for the second half of the season. He then hired Tony La Russa in St. Louis before the 1995 season and inherited Dusty Baker when he took over the Reds in 2008.
- I think a good manager, most everyone knows how to run a game and so forth, but a good manager is one who is prepared and spends a lot of time in preparation with his coaches and getting prepared for each game and series. He has great communication with his players and is able to communicate not only positively but also sit on them if he has to, if there’s a problem. The guy also has to be able to deal with the media, the front office, the ownership, there’s a lot of variables that are involved with being a good manager. It’s not just wins and losses, because a lot of it depends on the players you have. If you have good players, it’s usually a lot easier to manage. I think most guys’ strategy is similar, how they handle a pitching staff, how they handle a bullpen are important factors. Construction of a lineup and how they use their roster over the course of a season is also important. Most people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. I’ve had conversations with Dusty about this, and I’ve had conversations with Tony about this, but there are so many situations over the course of a season and the course of a game that they have to do something that’s unorthodox or different and people right away question it. You think they don’t understand? There was something that was obviously involved that made them do it in an unconventional fashion. Most people don’t know that, understand that, or care to.
- It’s extremely important for a manager and general manager to have a good relationship. You don’t have to be best friends, but you have to have communication and respect for each other and a good working relationship, because it’s so vitally important to the success of the team and the organization. You talk about all those things we talked about—how they handle certain situations—but what it comes down to is how you interact with that person.
Despite managing nearly 3,000 games and winning three Manager of the Year awards, Dusty Baker is one of the most controversial and oft-criticized managers in the game. While fans blast Baker, more often than not, former players praise him for his abilities as a leader.
- Your job is to get the best out of your talent and personnel that you have. You’re only as good as your personnel, but if you can get the best out of your personnel and keep them together and keep them playing on a daily basis. You’ve got to keep the right buttons and all this, but the right buttons only appear right if the players come through. It’s how you mesh your team together, how you hopefully have everybody pulling in the same direction with no envy, no jealousy, no selfishness. If you’re going to be a selfish player, you better be a hell of a player. You can accept that if they have such tremendous production. And how you handle the race, this is a long race we’re in, and sometimes you have to bite the bullet for them. Sometimes you have to tell the truth about them. It’s a rewarding job, but it’s a tough job.
- The bulk part of the job (the media, the fans) aren’t supposed to see. You don’t see the disciplinarian part, you don’t hear about it. The bulk of the job is when you have constant meetings with different guys. The bulk of the job now is to continue to teach guys because they get here so early. You’re teaching on a daily basis. Most of the time you have to assume they don’t know, but you can’t treat them like kids, you have to treat them like men. A lot of times you find out what they don’t know after a mistake. A lot of my job depends on the job my coaches do. Everyone has a department, and my job is to let them allow them to do their job and not micromanage them, but to be in charge of everything.
The bench coach
Pete Mackanin interviewed for both the Cubs’ and Red Sox’ managerial jobs last winter. The former infielder has twice served as an interim manager, in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. For the last four seasons, he’s served as Charlie Manuel’s bench coach.
- There’s so many different aspects to it. Manager, to me, he’s the leader of the team and he sets the tone. He makes sure the players are prepared to play and makes the on-field decisions. The beauty of baseball is that it’s so easily second-guessed. There’s so many ways to go in a game situation—whether you bunt, you hit and run or you let him swing or move the runners 3-1, 3-2, handling the bullpen, who to bring in to hit, when, all those. There’s so many ways you can go, but someone has to make the decision. That’s the job, making those decisions.
- I think [in-game strategy] is more than (10-15 percent), I think a lot of people discount that. Certainly, if you have a lot of good players, they make it easier and the players make that decision for you. It’s certainly more than 10 percent. You can get away with going any way you want if you have the right talent. The other 50 percent is handling the personalities and trying to put players in the best position to succeed. The more players that succeed, the better the team’s going to be. Also handling personalities, especially with the amount of money that’s being made, it becomes very difficult.
The 25-year-old Andrew McCutchen had a good season in 2011 and was rewarded with a contract extension through 2017. He has responded with a season that has put him in the discussion for the National League MVP award.
- The big thing is someone you can trust, someone you know is going to have your back in any situation, someone who isn’t worried about winning, but you as a person before they worry about winning. Those are big keys for being a manager, just having the trust of your players. The winning part, you want to do that, but that’s the least of your worries. You go out and take care of your guys and earn their trust.
- Judging for Manager of the Year, it’s just going to be the winning percentage, who had a good season and finished at the top. That’s going to be the deciding factor. It’s a lot different from a player’s perspective. We don’t look at winning percentage. If you have a winning record or a losing record, if you win 100 games or lose 100 games, it doesn’t mean that one manager was so much better than another manager, the team was much better. It’s not [the manager] that wins the game, they’re here to manage the game. It’s up to us to win it.
In his 13th year in the big leagues, Juan Pierre has played for a total of eight different managers: Buddy Bell, Clint Hurdle, Jeff Torborg, Jack McKeon, Baker, Torre, Ozzie Guillen, and Manuel.
- A good manager? To me, just communication. Communication. That’s it for me. The best managers I’ve had, they had an open-door policy. You could go in there and talk to them at any time, and you can voice your opinion. Whatever they tell you, whether it’s what you want to hear or not, it’s honest. I don’t need it sugarcoated, just honest. That’s the main thing—communication and honesty.
- Managers that were the best, Dusty was one of the best. Ozzie Guillen was another that was really good with (communication). All of them had good and bad things as far as it goes. Charlie is a great manager as far as you can always talk to him. He always has your back. Everyone has good qualities. The two I most enjoyed playing for were Dusty and Ozzie. They get the most criticism because they take it all. They’ll never throw you under the bus in the papers. They’ll have your back and then talk to you individually. (Guillen) has a rhyme and reason for everything he does—a lot of the time it doesn’t make sense (to the player), but he has a reason for what he does. A lot of stuff he does is to take it off the player. I know in Chicago, the media ran to him every day, and they’d be in front of him an hour, and the players could just go about their business and don’t have to talk to them.
The future manager
A 17-year veteran, Miguel Cairo has mostly been a backup player throughout his career. With all that time on the bench, he’s had a chance to observe many managers and how they go about their jobs. The 38-year-old said he will be a manager when his playing career ends.
- You have to know how to manage personalities. That’s so important. You have to deal with so many people, that’s 25 personalities, 25 egos. You want to know those 25 players and how to get them to play for you and get them to give you everything they have every day. It’s about confidence and trust—and if they trust you, that’s half the battle right there. The 25 guys, something I learned and I hope when I retire from baseball and I coach or manage or whatever I do, I hope I remember how hard it is to play the game. You can’t forget about that. You have to let them know, as a manager, that you know how hard it is to play. Managing personalities is the biggest thing.
- I’d take a lot of stuff from different managers. I got a chance to play for three managers that could go to the Hall of Fame. I can’t tell you exactly what I’d take from them, because I don’t want to give out too much, but I have a pretty good idea why all three have been successful in their careers. I like to watch, I like to listen. One thing they have in common is the ability to have 25 players believe in you. ... You have to trust what you have. You want the 25 players to play for you. That’s very important. The star of the team is as important as the 25th guy. There’s 25 players, and you have to use them through 162 games, and you don’t know when that 25th guy is going to help you in a game to get you to the playoffs or gain a game in the wild card. You have to make sure you keep all 25 guys involved all season.
Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan has been asked many times if he’d like to manage after his career is over. He always answers that he hopes to play a lot longer and let his post-playing career take care of itself. But there are reasons that the 32-year-old is asked that question: he’s smart, he handles a pitching staff well, and he’s respected by his teammates.
- It’s impossible for anyone to know what’s going on inside a team if they’re not around that team. Obviously, players speak of a manager one way or another, and you can get a feel of how they feel about managers across the board. I’ve played for Dusty for a lot of years, and he’s been awesome. Before that, I wasn’t here long enough to be entrenched in the team, but Dusty embodies those qualities (respect, trust). He’s definitely a players’ manager, we know he has our back. That’s a great trait. If he has something to say, it’s going to be private and respectful.
- There’s a lot more to it. He’s getting his players to believe in an idea and a way of doing things that everyone’s on board with. He’s creating an attitude, and he’s trying to congeal personalities, really. Every team has different styles and personalities and bring them all together. That’s another thing Dusty’s great at, he’s a chameleon. He’s been a lot of different places and done a lot of different things, so he can relate to everyone. That’s a huge thing, to be able to relate to every player on a different level.
Joel Hanrahan debuted as a starter under Manny Acta in Washington in 2007, but moved to the bullpen the next season, picking up nine saves. He had five more in 2009 before being traded to the Pirates and assuming the closer role full time in 2011. He has made the All-Star team in each of the last two seasons.
- I’d say it’s a manager that incorporates all his guys on a couple-of-day basis, guys that get their bench players in every couple of games to get them some at-bats, a guy who knows how to work a bullpen. That’s got to be one of the hardest things, how to run a bullpen not only for that game, but for the next game and down the line.
- (Fans and media) don’t see anything, to be honest with you. I think everybody has something they can tell you, the fans see, they read the papers and stuff. But to be honest, 98 percent (of a manager’s job) is stuff they don’t see.
- A player can make a manager look good or bad. They make the decisions, but we go out there and play the game. That’s the hard part, because sometimes they take the blame for the way we play. When it comes down to it, it comes down to executing in the game. Everyone’s in the big leagues for a reason, and they should be able to execute.
What does it all mean? It means the players believe there are things more important than a pitching change, a lineup, or any other routine in-game decision—and if the players do believe that, it’s important that a manager can instill that kind of belief. I’m not voting for Manager of the Year this year, and I’m actually happy that I won’t be—as difficult as it is to determine the most deserving candidates in the other categories, at least there are statistics that can help me make that call. There are ways to analyze results and evaluate managers from the outside, but I’m not so sure that there are definite conclusions to be drawn about which manager has done the best job.