As game evolves, so does manager role

Analytics are in, longevity is out as clubs take chances on young, forward-thinking skippers

January 1st, 2018

Buck Showalter was introduced at a banquet this winter as a "survivor of the East Coast purge" of 2017. Confused for a second, the Orioles skipper quickly ran through in his mind all the East Division clubs that had changed managers this offseason and realized the speaker was on to something.

"Philly, both New Yorks, Boston, Washington," Showalter said. "It's working its way down the coast."

The storm comes for all skippers at some point. The old adage that "coaches are hired to be fired" applies to every major professional and collegiate team sport, MLB included.

But the fact that this year's "purge" affected three of 10 postseason entrants and left 20 percent of the league with a new leader in the dugout -- Gabe Kapler with the Phillies, Aaron Boone with the Yankees, Mickey Callaway with the Mets, Alex Cora with the Red Sox, Dave Martinez with the Nationals and Ron Gardenhire with the Tigers -- speaks to the instability associated with the position.

Longevity the likes of which Mike Scioscia -- entering his 19th season with the Angels -- has enjoyed is exceedingly rare. Go back 20 years to Opening Day of the 1998 MLB season, and the average tenure of an MLB manager with his team at that time was 7.2 seasons, with a median tenure of six seasons. On Opening Day 2018, the average tenure (including new hires as zero years) will be 3.7 seasons (it will be 4.6 for the 24 returning from 2017), with a median of three seasons.

"That's the nature of what's happened really over the last 20 years in professional sports," said Bud Black, entering his second season as Rockies skipper and 10th overall as a manager. "There's a course of thinking that changing something will make it better, and sometimes it does. The trick is knowing when to make that change."

The managerial job itself has gotten trickier, and the evolution of the responsibilities likely plays a role in the impermanence of the position.

"There's more to pay attention to," said Terry Francona, entering his sixth season with the Indians and 18th overall. "And if you don't, shame on you, because there's more to look at now so you can make a decision not based on guessing."

Age of information

There exists, in our increasingly analytical age, a more objective means of judging manager performance game by game and year by year -- means that extend beyond raw results and records. Front offices have more impact on the dugout deliberations, because they are equipped with the data to influence lineup constructions, substitutions and in-game strategies.

Inexperience is no longer a liability for the modern Major League managerial candidate; intolerance to new ideas is.

"The game's changed," said Gardenhire, entering his first season with the Tigers and 14th overall, "You have to kind of get on board or get out."

Two guys absolutely on board with the modern mindset are Boone and Cora, which is how two managerial newbies got two of the most prestigious positions in the sport. Cora's single season as bench coach for the 2017 Astros is the only big league coaching experience between the two former players, but in a weird way, their respective experiences as broadcast analysts for ESPN -- a job that requires adaptation to modern-day data and attention to leaguewide storylines and concepts -- served as better preparation for the interview process than multiple seasons managing the El Paso Chihuahuas would have.

"You know how we talk about paying your dues?" Cora said. "Maybe we pay our dues through the media. People think that that's an easy job, it's just get behind that desk and put that tie on and just talk baseball. It doesn't work that way, man.

"The way I see it, that prepares us for this. It's kind of like scouting reports. You know more about teams when you're working on TV than as a coach. There were certain times this year that you get so locked in as a bench coach -- in our case on the AL West -- that all of a sudden you go to Chicago and it's a brand new team, a lot of young guys and you don't have a feel for those players."

Relationship building

Having a feel for your own players has never been more important for the Major League skipper. As teams have become more careful about managing rest, the dearth of true "every day" players requires managers to make accurate assessments of a player's condition on a given day. And the individuality of the modern player -- be it a social media presence or a personalized training program -- means there's more to stay on top of.

The game is generally skewing younger, with prospects advancing ever more quickly through the Minors and, therefore, an escalation in the learning curve taking place at the Major League level. This, too, adds to the challenge placed before the modern manager.

"The coaching staff, the front office, all of the various departments around a baseball organization are the soil, and our players are the plants and the trees that are going to grow in that soil," Kapler said. "So that soil has to be extremely nutrient dense."

With ample information available to all, the coaching lessons and suggestions that once were treated as gospel are now subject to greater scrutiny, even in-house.

"You have to realize that if you say something to a player, they're going to go look it up right away," said Callaway, the rookie skipper of the Mets. "They have instant access to information. So you better know what you're talking about, and you had better put a lot of forethought into that."

Managers have long been encouraged to put thought into how they present their comments about their players to the media, but the instant dissemination of those twice-a-day sessions with reporters has amplified the sensitivity of that duty, to the point that when general manager Brian Cashman provided a public job description for Yankees manager recently, the first words out of his mouth were "part-White House secretary."

"It still comes down to relationships," Boone said. "Relationships play a strong role. That's true today, as it was 20 years ago, as it was 50 years ago."

That might be true, but Boone himself is a reflection of how much the managerial hiring and firing process has changed from 20 or 50 years ago. The Yankees had been one of just three teams in history, per YES Network researcher James Smyth, to have consecutive skippers (Joe Torre, then Joe Girardi) last at least 10 years (the others were Walter Aston and Tommy Lasorda with the Dodgers and Tom Kelly and Gardenhire with the Twins). But they removed Girardi on the heels of a run to Game 7 of the American League Champsionship Series and replaced him with a first-timer who has spent his entire post-playing career in the broadcast booth.

The decreased value of direct managerial experience in the modern hiring process was itself an enabler of the instability we saw this offseason. The Yankees, Red Sox and Nationals were willing to take more chances with the job, even on the heels of objectively successful seasons. Their decisions magnified the volatility of a position in which change was already a constant.

"I think it kind of runs in cycles," Showalter said. "Some of these guys that have been hired this offseason, I expect them to be around for a long time. They're a really, really impressive group."

Could be. But in Showalter's line of work, the storms are always swirling.