At roughly the 10-minute mark of Dan Szymborski’s most recent appearance on FanGraphs Audio, that same guest proposes — partly in response to Game Three of the World Series and partly as an installment in the chronicles of the absurd — a rule change that, if adopted, could have some implications for how teams think of a coaching staff. Specifically, he suggests that, in those games where a team has exhausted its full complement of hitters — such as the Red Sox did during their 18-inning marathon against the Dodgers — that a manager should be allowed to take the field for his club. Although he doesn’t say it, the same could presumably be true on the pitching side, as well.
The sight of a manager actively involved in a game wouldn’t be unprecedented, of course. While utilized rarely over the past half-century — and not in any real way since Pete Rose served in that capacity for the Reds from 1984 through 1986 — player-manager was a pretty common job title in the earliest days of the game.
Recent seasons have provided managerial surrogates, of course. During the final years of his career, Jason Giambi played the part of friendly uncle just as much as he did pinch-hitter. One could say the same for Julio Franco and Matt Stairs and Jim Thome. Chase Utley was referred to as “dad” by teammates for the bulk of the 2018 season. Bartolo Colon is older than a number of actual managers.
While some players have persevered into their early 40s, Rose’s performance reveals why there’s probably little demand for a player-manager proper in the current version of the game. By his third year on Cincinnati’s roster, the 45-year-old Rose was able neither to hit nor run nor field at a major-league level. Those are, one notes, basically all the ways in which a ballplayer can create wins for his team. Nor does this even account for all the ways the manager’s role has evolved in 30 years. With the volume of data made available by front offices, coaches of all sorts have had to develop skills that would be foreign to many of their predecessors.
None of this negates a certain romance evoked by the notion of the player-manager, however. In a time when the game is defined by specialization, one who can adequately play multiple roles is not only valuable but a kind of brilliant anachronism. Surely this is part of Shohei Ohtani’s appeal: he’s part of a tradition of two-way players, but the tradition is supposed to have ended. One could say much the same thing of the player-manager.
If a manager were allowed to serve as a substitute, though, who would be best at it? Szymborski notes regarding the Red Sox that, at 43, Cora isn’t too far removed from his final days in the majors. He was, if nothing else, a pretty capable fielder. Surely, he could have some value in an emergency.
To arrive at some kind of answer, I crafted some very haphazard projections. For each manager who played in the majors, I prorated WAR from their last three seasons to either 600 plate appearances (for position players), 450 plate appearances (for catchers), or 180 innings (for starting pitchers). (There are no managers who served primarily as relievers.) I then arrived at a prorated WAR “projection” weighting those three seasons by 3, 2, and 1, respectively, in reverse chronological order. If a player’s career ended in 2005, for example, this figure would serve as a rough forecast for 2006. We’ll call this the “projection year.”
With that figure having been calculated, I then added an aging penalty of 0.5 wins per season from the “projection year” up to 2019. The result, very hypothetically, is an estimate of the relevant manager’s current true talent.
There are a number of other caveats to make — like how I handled cases where a then-player recorded fewer than 20 plate appearances in one of his final campaigns or where his last three seasons weren’t consecutive — but to review them would represent an act of drudgery for everyone. Here, instead, are the results:
|Alex Cora||Red Sox||IF||-4.1|
|Rich Renteria||White Sox||IF||-12.0|
|Charlie Montoyo||Blue Jays||IF||-12.5|
While he never recorded more than three wins in any season, Brewers manager Craig Counsell also avoided the replacement-level threshold in every campaign but one as a player. Over his last three years in the majors (his age-38 to -40 seasons), he produced 3.0 WAR in 876 plate appearances, and that was just seven years ago. Between the relative strength of his final years and the recency of those last three seasons, he emerges as the top emergency player among managers. New Twins manager Rocco Baldelli comes in second by that measure, with Gabe Kapler close behind. In, say, a quarter-season’s worth of at-bats, all three would hypothetically remain within a win of replacement level.
Because they never reached the majors, Joe Maddon, Mike Shildt, and Brian Snitker receive no projection here. As a result, they probably count as the managers least qualified to serve as an emergency sub. (New Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo might belong to this group, as well: his projection is based on just five plate appearances in 1993. Still, they count!) Among managers who authored some sort of career, Ned Yost’s projection is worst, thanks largely to a -2.4 WAR campaign he produced in 1984.
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.