Let’s Categorize Some Managers

Carlos Mendoza
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In case you were on sabbatical on Monday and missed the news, it’s manager hirin’ season. As much as player evaluation is an inexact science, identifying good potential managers is even more so. Even previous success as a manager is no guarantee. Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy both won titles almost immediately after being hired to their last jobs, but consider how badly things went for Joe Girardi in Philadelphia or Joe Maddon in Anaheim.

So much of this job is either intangible or inscrutable to outsiders; more than that, there are several different ways to become qualified for it. Monday’s new hires — Craig Counsell of the Cubs, Stephen Vogt of the Guardians, and Carlos Mendoza of the Mets — represent three different paths to managerial candidacy. That got me thinking about managers less as individuals than as classes of individuals.

Across all of sports, it’s hard to think of a league that values a head coach more than SEC football. A college football coach is the program’s primary in-game tactician, strategist, motivator, recruiter, fundraiser, father, son, and holy spirit. A good coach can conjure a champion from the very living earth. Knowing this, the boosters and administrators who run these programs have also developed very little patience for a head coach who doesn’t hit his marks. I believe the saying goes something like: “It just means more.”

Alabama’s Nick Saban is generally held up as the man who most embodies the head coaching ideal, but you can’t exactly hire Nick Saban, can you? No, but you can do the next-best thing: hire someone who learned at his feet. Between the current SEC schools (plus Texas and Oklahoma, who’ll join the conference next year), there are 15 head coaching jobs not currently held by Saban himself. There are former Saban assistants in five of those gigs. Three SEC head coaches worked for legendary Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. Two other SEC head coaches — Kentucky’s Mark Stoops (Bob’s younger brother) and South Carolina’s Shane Beamer — didn’t work for Saban or Stoops directly, but both are second-generation members of both the Saban and Stoops coaching tree.

Let’s apply the same principle here. If you can’t hire the best guy, hire the best guy’s right-hand man:

Saban Assistants
Experience at Hire
Manager MLB Managerial MLB Coaching Other Tree
Bud Black SDP (2007-15) LAA (2000-06) Two years minor leagues Scioscia
Derek Shelton None Four teams, 15 years Eight years minor leagues Maddon
Dave Martinez None TBR (2008-14), CHC (2015-17) None Maddon
Brandon Hyde None FLA (2010-11), CHC (2014-18) Five years minor leagues Maddon
Alex Cora None HOU (2017) Five years LBPRC Hinch

These categories are obviously inexact; I came up with five and considered putting Torey Lovullo in four of them. But in the late 2010s, MLB teams loved hiring Maddon assistants. So far, they’ve turned out pretty well: Martinez won a World Series, Hyde is coming off a 100-win season with the Orioles and headed in the right direction, and Shelton… well, it’s the Pirates, there’s only so much he can do.

There was a time when Maddon himself was the top guy’s top assistant. You might not be old enough to remember when the Angels won 90 games every year and Mike Scioscia was considered one of the best managers in the league. That shine certainly helped both Maddon and Black get their foot in the door. Consider that Scioscia was viewed as a Tommy Lasorda protégé when he was first hired, and all of a sudden we’re talking about Dave Roberts and Mark Kotsay (both of whom were on Black’s last Padres staff in 2015) as being part of the Walter Alston coaching tree.

Hiring off the hot coaching tree is no guarantee of success (trust me, my favorite college football team was once coached by Will Muschamp). But it at least guarantees that the candidate has major league coaching experience and was in proximity to someone who knew what they were doing. That gets you a long way.

Experience at Hire
Manager MLB Managerial MLB Coaching Other
Brian Snitker None ATL (11 years, various stints) ~100 years minor leagues
Carlos Mendoza None NYY (2018-23) Nine years minor leagues
Rob Thomson None NYY (2008-17), PHI (2018-22) 20 years minor leagues and front office
Oliver Marmol None STL (2017-21) Six years minor leagues
Pedro Grifol None KCR (2013-22) 12 years minor leagues and front office
Matt Quatraro None CLE (2014-17), TBR (2018-22) 10 years minor leagues
John Schneider None TOR (2019-22) 11 years minor leagues

The next class of manager is the lifer. These are guys whose playing careers ended in minor league anonymity, resulting in a long career of teaching rookie ball kids how to turn a double play. From there, they climbed the ladder one rung at a time, ultimately reaching a major league coaching staff and building their coaching and managerial skills at the top level. That path takes longer for some guys than others; Marmol was 35 when he got the call to manage, and Thomson and Snitker were both around 60. But in order for a lifer to become a manager, he has to demonstrate some ability to lead, teach, and work with people.

Lifers tend not to be splashy hires. In fact, three of these guys — Snitker, Thomson, and Schneider — only got into their positions as interim managers at first, then held onto the job after an impressive initial showing. But it’s the least vibes-based and most merit-based class of managerial candidate.

”Future Managers”
Experience at Hire
Manager MLB Managerial MLB Coaching Other
David Bell None CHC (2013), STL (2014-17) Four years minor leagues
Dave Roberts None SDP (2011-15) One year front office
Skip Schumaker None SDP (2018-21), STL (2022) None
Bob Melvin Four teams, 20 years MIL (1999), DET (2000), ARI (2001-02) Five years minors and FO
Stephen Vogt None SEA (2023) None
Mark Kotsay None SDP (2015), OAK (2016-2021) One year front office
Kevin Cash None CLE (2013-14) One year front office
Bruce Bochy Two teams, 25 years SDP (1993-94) Four years minor leagues

Are you a major league veteran? Did you play an up-the-middle defensive position and have a career wRC+ under 100? Did you get along with your teammates and have a friendly relationship with the media? Inquire within for the fast track to being a major league manager. (Playing experience at a college in Florida or California a plus but not required.)

If I had to guess, this stereotypical Future Manager thing started back in the days of player-managers, when the best player who could string a sentence together often as not ended up writing the lineup card. After John McGraw, Leo Durocher, Frankie Frisch, and a few others, the archetype shifted to fit any sufficiently opinionated infielder.

To be fair, the stereotype got us Sparky Anderson, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and a bunch of other Hall of Famers. Bochy, too, is bound for Cooperstown, and I like a number of the managers on this section of the list quite a bit. But there’s some survivorship bias here. Guys like Cash and Roberts get groomed for a managerial role, do it well, and stick around for a while. Not everyone is so lucky, or competent.

There was a mild objection to Vogt getting picked to manage the Guardians after just one year of major league coaching experience. I don’t think anyone has a problem with him specifically; rather, it’s about what type of player gets groomed for that role, and how implicit bias sometimes moves inexperienced white candidates to the front of the line.

That’s not always the case. I stuck Cora into the A.J. Hinch coaching tree, but he spent one year as a bench coach to cross off one last line on his application before being handed a big league managerial position. It’s also worth remembering that Mendoza, a highly experienced Venezuelan candidate, got his first managerial shot the same day Vogt did.

But when an active player gets pegged as a future manager, it’s fair to ask why. Sometimes an inexperienced candidate is actually ready for the job; other times, he just looks the part. But at least these Future Managers have some relevant experience before being handed the lineup card for the first time.

Turnip Truck
Experience at Hire
Manager MLB Managerial MLB Coaching Other
Aaron Boone None None None

It was not always so. Back at the turn of the century, when Buck Martinez and Larry Dierker descended from the broadcast booth, managing a major league club was a different job than it is now. A broadcaster has credibility and name recognition with the fan base (and with the owner) as well as top-notch communications skills.

Now, managers need more than that. They need the emotional intelligence to get the best out of 26 different players who respond to praise or criticism in 26 different ways. They need the tactical and empirical foundations to make the right in-game decision, even as pitching changes are more common than ever and minute mistakes can result in the end of the season. And they need the stomach to do it all, even as criticism comes from more directions than ever before.

Back in the 2000s and 2010s, the perceived center of power in a baseball club shifted from the dugout to the front office. And many so-called “new-age” GMs made the rash (I’d argue arrogant, in retrospect) decision to hire inexperienced managers who would be less set in their ways and follow the front office’s instructions. It’s instructive that we’ve seen a shift away from that model.

Front Office Whisperers
Experience at Hire
Manager MLB Managerial MLB Coaching Other
Torey Lovullo None TOR (2011-12), BOS (2013-16) 11 years minor leagues
Craig Counsell MIL (2015-2023) None Three years front office
A. J. Hinch ARI (2009-10) HOU (2015-19) None 10 years front office
Rocco Baldelli None TBR (2015-2017) Four years front office
Scott Servais None None 12 years front office

What teams have learned in the past few years is that a field manager is not merely a functionary, but an essential node in an integrated chain of command. These managers are all MLB veterans, which gives them credibility in a clubhouse, but for the most part they trained not as minor league or assistant coaches but as special assistants or in some other role in a front office.

Sometimes, a manager has a specific personal affinity with his head of baseball ops. Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen worked with Lovullo in Cleveland and Boston for the better part of 15 years. When he finally got his chance to run a team, one of the first decisions he made was to put Lovullo in the Diamondbacks dugout. Jerry Dipoto played with Servais, hired him as assistant GM when he was running the Angels, and then made him manager when he moved to Seattle.

Regardless, these managers are more integrated into the front office, and (ideally) are able to translate all that egghead business from GM-speak into ballplayer language. Is that the way to go? Again, it depends on the man and the situation. Servais, Lovullo, and Baldelli have had their ups and downs. Hinch’s immense success in Houston is now clouded by the various scandals that tainted the front office that hired him, and his tenures in Arizona and (so far) Detroit have been unremarkable. On the other hand, the bidding war that Counsell kicked off speaks to how he’s viewed around the game.

Wins and losses are the only thing that matter, but a manager’s input is but one of many factors in the team’s final record. Few baseball operations decisions that are as highly scrutinized as managerial hiring have such an opaque relationship with the team’s fate. Any type of manager can lead a team to a championship. It’s more important that the GM has a clear, defensible understanding of who they’re hiring and why.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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6 months ago

Good stuff. It would be really interesting to see a breakdown of how guys in the different categories fare as managers, to see if certain categories tends to portend more or less success. A more longitudinal study that included recent former managers for a larger sample size would be even cooler.

6 months ago
Reply to  jb1205

I feel like there’d be too much noise in that kind of of study though, because at the end of the day a manager’s success is tied to his roster

6 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

That’s absolutely fair. There are probably things one could play around with, though.

  • Delta between expected and actual performance
  • Length of tenure
  • Correction for catastrophic in-season injuries
  • Some sort of market-equalization factor

I dunno.

6 months ago
Reply to  jb1205

Need Dan to come up with a MiPS.

6 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

And even given two teams of identical roster strength, the noise from baseball’s inherent random variation (everything from sequencing to bad hops to injuries) drowns out almost anything you can measure quantitatively about managers.

6 months ago

100%. A 100 win true talent team will win 97 or 102 games just by randomness

6 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Friend, a 100 win true talent team can win 92 or 108 games by randomness, its much wider than we give it credit for.

6 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Or 82 like the 100 win Padres did in 2023.

6 months ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

It’s well past time you people stop thinking of the Padres as some elite organization. They’re not underperforming when it happens year in and year out, that’s just who they are.

6 months ago

That feels like something we’ve been told by people who sound smart, rather than something that is actually true. No quantitative measurement is going to be free of noise, but taking numbers and reducing the noise connected to them is something folks in these parts have been trying to do forever.