The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 4, 2013

Thoma column: Wave of novice managers picked to be dugout puppets


The Mankato Free Press

---- — Among the various managerial openings this offseason, three stood out: the jobs in Cincinnati, Detroit and Washington.

Those are three teams ready to win NOW, no building required.

The long-time conventional wisdom would have the new hires be familiar faces — veteran managers who’ve been there and done that.

Instead, all three selected novices — not just men who haven’t managed in the majors, but who have barely managed in the minors.

The Reds hired Bryan Price, a career pitching coach with zero managerial experience on any level.

The Nationals hired Matt Williams, a star third baseman in the 1990s, whose managerial experience is five weeks as an interim in Double A.

The Tigers this weekend hired Brad Ausmus, 18 years a major league catcher, whose managerial background is having skippered Team Israel in the qualifying rounds of the World Baseball Classic.

These three join Kirk Gibson (Arizona Diamondbacks), Mike Matheny (St. Louis Cardinals), Robin Ventura (Chicago White Sox) and Walt Weiss (Colorado Rockies) as major league managers hired with minimal experience. Like Price, none of those four had ever managed on any level before getting the major league job.

What in the name of Connie Mack is going on?

My theory: This is another step in the long-term erosion of managerial power and authority.

In Mack’s heyday, managers were in charge of everything. Managers made the trades for established players, decided which minor leaguers to acquire, established the lineups and called the shots.

It was too much for most men. Certain aspects of the job were delegated out. General managers first took over the job of finding new talent, then of trading for veterans. And now they’re starting to dictate even in-game moves.

There are no managers today as distinctive in their in-game strategies as their counterparts in the 1970s and ‘80s. Nobody steals as often as Whitey Herzog or Chuck Tanner. Nobody bunts as often as Gene Mauch. Nobody platoons as much as Gil Hodges or Earl Weaver. Nobody leans as heavily on their top starters as Tommy Lasorda or Billy Martin.

The peaks and valleys of in-game moves have been smoothed out by the friction of the information explosion. Managers call for fewer bunts and hit-and-runs, and are more selective about base stealing, because the statheads have established that those moves were overdone and counterproductive — and because the general managers have backed the figures with their authority. Starting pitchers are used more gingerly because the front offices, having invested heavily in those arms, fear injury.

The new wave of managers were selected not for their acumen in baseball chess, but for their ability to handle personalities. They are there to carry out the wishes of their bosses upstairs. They lack experience in calling for the bunt, but they know their bosses think that’s a low-percentage play anyway.

And they do have years of major league experience as players (Price, a long-time coach, is the exception) to lend them credibility with their charges. The one essential for a manager is the respect of the players.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.