Does It Matter If a Manager Was a Major Leaguer?

Of the 30 managers in the major leagues today, eight of them never made the major leagues as players (Manny Acta, Terry Collins, Fredi Gonzalez, Jim Leyland, Joe Maddon, Jack McKeon, Mike Quade, and Buck Showalter). That’s a far higher percentage than was the case a decade ago, in 2000, when it was just three of 30 (McKeon, Showalter, and John Boles), or in 1990, when it was five of 26 (Leyland, McKeon, Nick Leyva, John McNamara, and Tom Trebelhorn). Of all of the things that have been affected by the sabermetric revolution — and by the very existence of the book Moneyball — our understanding of managers and the role they play has been shaken but not particularly enhanced. Still, the tide appears to be slowly changing toward greater acceptance of managers who never played in the majors.

When I wrote about Jim Riggleman three weeks ago, some readers disputed my characterization of him as “a mediocre manager” based on his losing record and the fact that most of his teams finished near the bottom of the division. Wins and team place are the two traditional stats used to describe managers, but as many readers pointed out, much like pitcher wins, they aren’t particularly reliable indicators of a manager’s true talent or effect. In the comment thread I supplemented the analysis with stats from Chris Jaffe’s 2010 book Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, in which Jaffe developed a complicated method of trying to evaluate a manager’s effect on his team by measuring how the team and players did in proximate years without him. Jaffe’s metrics upheld the earlier characterization that Riggleman was mediocre. But it’s hard to know exactly how to quantify what a manager does — even as we instinctively understand that what a manager does is important. (Incidentally, Riggleman never played in the majors either.)

Memorably, in Moneyball, Michael Lewis details how Billy Beane viewed a manager as little more than a technocrat, a button-pusher who was on the field to implement specific policies that the front office had outlined, such as not using intentional walks or bunts. When Art Howe chafed against this notion, Beane hired Ken Macha, whom he viewed as more pliant, for the 2004 season. Theo Epstein’s front office in Boston apparently had something of the same idea that year when they hired Terry Francona to replace Grady Little, though Francona’s closeness to Curt Schilling was another point in his favor. But neither Macha nor Francona was expected to push back against a front office that wanted to direct the team’s usage of in-game tactics. (Howe, Macha, and Francona all played in the majors; Little topped out at Double-A.)

However, the view of a manager as an automatic relay doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. The traditional reason that most managers were former major league players — and that nearly all had either played or at least coached in the majors — is the assumption that a manager would not be able to earn his players’ respect if he had no experience in their shoes. A recent exception seemed to prove the rule, when Trey Hillman lost his job in Kansas City. Hillman had never been employed in a major league clubhouse in any capacity, and Joe Posnanski reported that he seemed impossibly tin-eared to the demands of the job and the personalities of the players. All the unwritten rules of the culture of the majors, which I’ve written about before, were essentially foreign to him. So he lost his job after a little over two seasons.

Nearly the same thing happened to Vern Rapp, a career minor league player and coach who was hired by the Cardinals in 1977 but who was canned after a little over a year because he utterly lost his players, most famously ordering Ted Simmons to cut his hair and “Mad Hungarian” Al Hrabosky to cut his mustache. The experiences of Rapp and Hillman led Rany Jazayerli to conclude:

I think it should be a hard-and-fast rule in baseball: NEVER hire a manager who hasn’t spent time IN SOME CAPACITY with a major league baseball team. I don’t care if he’s managed, played, coached, served as a trainer, batboy, whatever. The culture of a major league clubhouse is unique, and no amount of managing in the minors or in Japan can substitute for it.

That wasn’t the case at the dawn of time, of course. Several managers managed to have success at the end of the 19th century despite having never played in the major leagues, most notably Frank Selee, who won five pennants in the 1890s with the Boston Beaneaters and assembled the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance combination on the Chicago Cubs, and who never played professionally. But he began managing Boston in 1890, when he was just 30 years old, before most of major league culture as we know it today had had a chance to develop. It would probably be impossible for Selee to duplicate his success today.

It seems fairly clear that a manager should should not be hired without having first either played or coached in the majors. But it isn’t clear that it particularly matters which. The greatest manager of all time, Joe McCarthy, never made it out of Double-A. Earl Weaver never made it past four games in Triple-A. (Walter Alston’s major league career comprised a single pinch-hitting appearance in which he struck out, but for my purposes he’s a major leaguer.) They are the exceptions in the historical record. Of the 157 managers who have won at least 400 games in the majors — a measure of both success and longevity — all but 16 played in the majors.

Most of those 16 are listed above. The complete list is: Collins, Leyland, Maddon, McCarthy, McKeon, McNamara, Riggleman, Showalter, Trebelhorn, Weaver, Danny Ozark, Dave Bristol, and four managers from the pre-modern era: Selee, Al Buckenberger, James Mutrie, and Gus Schmelz. Buckenberger, Mutrie, Schmelz, and Selee did most of their managing before 1900, which means that with the exception of Weaver and McCarthy, nearly all of the successful managers with no major league experience are actually active right now: Leyland, Maddon, McKeon, Showalter, and, until recently, Riggleman, not to mention Acta, Gonzalez, Quade, and Collins.

While most men who have ever been named field manager have played at the major league level, including 22 of the 30 active managers as well as 141 of the 157 managers who have won 400 games, the balance is shifting. It seems that having major league playing experience is no longer viewed as quite as essential to the job, even if it is viewed as preferable. And even if we haven’t developed many publicly available statistics on managerial effectiveness, that seems like a positive shift. Hillman aside, many of the teams that have hired a manager with no major league experience have seen the gamble pay off, and at least three of them — Acta, Gonzalez, and Leyland — are in playoff contention this year.

You won’t see someone with no major league experience whatsoever — a Wall Street analyst, an MIT-trained engineer, a woman who played college ball — hired as field manager any time soon, though qualified candidates with those backgrounds may still be considered for GM roles, like Andrew Friedman and Kim Ng. But baseball clubs have been opening their minds on all fronts in the past decade. The managerial hiring process is just one more example. Baseball’s mind is opening. That’s a good thing.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.

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12 years ago

am i wrong in thinking that Kevin Millar + a computer providing optimal strategies would make the ideal manager?

12 years ago
Reply to  Josh

The Kevin Millar app, now available on iTunes.

juan pierre's mustache
12 years ago
Reply to  Josh