TORONTO – On the morning of Feb. 18, the San Francisco Giants gathered in their Scottsdale Stadium clubhouse for Bruce Bochy’s annual address before the club’s first full-squad workout. Save for the small handful of players given a heads-up beforehand, few had reason to expect much other than the usual camp opening chatter, which helped make the long-time manager’s announcement that he planned to retire at season’s end all the more jarring.
“I’ll tell you what, it was emotional, like, wow,” recalls Derek Law, the Toronto Blue Jays reliever who at the time was with the Giants. “We went outside afterwards like, I can’t believe that just happened, that’s crazy. I don’t know how he does it, but he gets 110 per cent out of his players every day. You want to play hard for him every day. And what makes him so special is that if you go out there and put your ass on the line for him, he’s going to do the same for you.”
Bochy’s departure from the dugout – after 13 years with the Giants followed 12 years running the San Diego Padres – has since been followed by a remarkable managerial churn that’s coincided with the regular season’s end.
Ned Yost, after 10 years with the Kansas City Royals, joined Bochy in retiring. The Chicago Cubs chose not to renew Joe Maddon’s expiring contract. The Padres (Andy Green), Los Angeles Angels (Brad Ausmus), Pittsburgh Pirates (Clint Hurdle) and, most recently, the New York Mets (Mickey Callaway) all fired their managers. The Philadelphia Phillies may still part ways with Gabe Kapler.
If the current industry trends hold, the majority of openings will be filled with analytically driven first-time skippers more in tune with how front offices want their clubs run these days. Last off-season, the Toronto Blue Jays (Charlie Montoyo), Minnesota Twins (Rocco Baldelli), Texas Rangers (Chris Woodward), Cincinnati Reds (David Bell) and Baltimore Orioles (Brandon Hyde) all went that route.
The Angels took a partially different route last winter when they hired Ausmus, who had previously managed the Detroit Tigers. A year later, they may very well U-turn and bring in Maddon, a longtime member of Mike Scioscia’s coaching staff with the Angels before taking over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Their sudden shift and the potential change looming in Philadelphia underlines how the game’s deep dive into data-driven coaching can sacrifice the emotional quotient so exemplified by Bochy in San Francisco, or someone like free agent John Gibbons during his time with the Blue Jays, in favour of intelligence quotient.
Gibbons, free to seek out other positions now that his previous contract with the Blue Jays has expired, is interested in managing or coaching again. He has longstanding ties to the Mets along with the commanding presence, enduring a cache proper temperament needed in New York, but also connections to the Royals, where he served as Yost’s bench coach, and the Padres, where he managed at double-A San Antonio before rejoining the Blue Jays for the 2013 season.
An underachieving, win-now team like the Phillies would make sense for him, too, should they indeed make a change.
Like Bochy, his prime strength has been in the handling of players around him, ensuring an often-volatile group with the Blue Jays kept pushing in the same direction, at the same time keeping both vets and rookies alike in line.
In an era when data fluency too often carries the day, there is a benefit to such interpersonal fluency, which tends to be what players appreciate most.
“I just want him to fight for you,” Law replies when asked what he wants most in a manager. “You don’t want them to fight the front office, I’ll say that. It’s on the field. You want them to have faith in you. I know that even when I wasn’t at my best, Boch would still run me out there all the time. When I didn’t have my stuff, he’d say, ‘I’m still going to get you in there.’ Just having faith in your players that they’re going to get the job done.”
Another example: In the spring of 2014, Law was invited to camp as a non-roster player and over the course of the spring, began challenging for a job in the bullpen even though he hadn’t yet pitched above A-ball. As the competition played out, Bochy called the then 22-year-old into his office a few times “and he was like, ‘keep pushing, we love you here,’ just all positive,” says Law.
“It came down to the wire, they went with J.C. Gutierrez, the guy had more time and a little experience, and Boch said, ‘Hey, don’t get down, your stuff is great, we just wanted the experience,’” recalls Law. “I was like, ‘I understand. I’m just happy to be here.’ And he said, ‘You’re going to be up here soon, don’t worry about it.’ I was just a young guy, my first year in camp, and he’s saying those things to me and I’m looking up to him, like that’s Bruce Bochy. That was really nice of him to do that. He didn’t have to explain himself, but he did that. From a player’s perspective, that’s why guys love him.”
Gestures like that tend to go undetected in objective measures but show up in the margins of a clubhouse and its culture. That’s not enough to make a bad team good, but if the objective is to maximize every player on the roster, a strong EQ manager is a pretty good starting point, one that can then be augmented by data-driven processes to fully leverage talent.
A.J. Hinch with the Houston Astros, Dave Roberts with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Kevin Cash of the Tampa Bay Rays are prime examples of that. The short runways for Ausmus, Green and Callaway demonstrate how hard they are to find, and how the industry fills the current slate of openings will go a long way in determining where the manager’s role in the game is headed.