What began as a series of quiet, scattered rumours has grown into a loud drum beat: John Gibbons might be on his way out as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.
As you might expect, reactions to this potential move vary wildly. On one side, you have the #gibbythebest crowd, Gibbons fans who appreciate his amiable demeanor and also the fact that he is most definitely not John Farrell.
Beyond those initial feelings, broader questions emerge. Is John Gibbons a good manager? If he isn’t, who is? And in an era in which we can seemingly quantify everything, do we even know what makes a good manager? Is there any reliable way to measure it?
The most obvious way to gauge the value of a manager would seem to be wins. We speak in reverent tones about legends like Connie Mack and John McGraw because they presided over a mind-boggling number of wins as the skippers of their respective teams — nearly 6,500 between the two of them.
The obvious problem is that Mack and McGraw, like all other managers, required talent to put up all those Ws. We’ve come around on the idea that wins are a lousy way to evaluate pitchers for Cy Young awards, because pitchers can’t win without ample support from the hitters around him. Then again, pitchers can at least vie for wins by limiting their opponents. In a manager’s case, you’re depending on the greatness of your hitters and your pitchers to lead the way to victory. “COUNT THE RINGSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!” is another flawed argument, for similar reasons.
A more sophisticated argument revolves around what statistical analysis pioneer Bill James called the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball. The theorem tallies a team’s runs scored and runs allowed, then generates an expected winning percentage based on those numbers. James’s thesis was that evaluating teams that way was a better indicator of a team’s strength than raw win-loss records, because teams can sometimes get lucky (or unlucky) in close games, thus skewing their place in the standings.
Taking this thought a little further, if a team could somehow find a way to outperform its expected winning percentage year after year, that could indicate some noteworthy leadership by that squad’s manager. One manager who earned a reputation for pushing his team to overachieve is Angels head man Mike Scioscia. The Halos’ run last decade included not only a World Series title, but also repeated instances of winning more games than their runs scored and runs allowed totals would suggest.
That includes a 2008 season in which the Angels outperformed their expected winning percentage by a wider margin than all but two teams in MLB history.
This is a more sophisticated way of evaluating the impact of a manager. But here too, it’s tough to separate a manager’s contributions from a passel of other factors. For one, a team’s effectiveness in clustering hits together on offense and scattering them while pitching has been found to be pretty much completely random. Thus, “cluster luck” can skew a team’s record significantly, even after accounting for runs scored and runs allowed totals. It might also be possible to win more close games than expected (and thus override James’ theorem) by building a loaded bullpen that can help a team eke out nail-biter wins. In that case, you’d credit the team’s general manager for assembling that elite relief corps, more than you would the manager for picking up the bullpen phone four or five times a night.
The standard bearer for evaluating baseball managers in an analytical light is Chris Jaffe’s excellent (and appropriately named) book, Evaluating Baseball’s Managers. Though the book’s study only runs through 2008, its approach remains valuable and insightful. In addition to using statistical standbys like Pythagorean theorem, Jaffe delves deeper, looking at more granular indicators such as how well veteran hitters performed under certain managers, and how receptive managers were to trusting younger players over more experienced, but less talented teammates.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy found a way to check off both of those seemingly contradictory boxes; if you add that analysis to the COUNT THE RINGS!!!!!!!!! Theorem, you can make a case for Bochy as one of the greatest managers of all time.
As James and any other analyst worth his salt will tell you, proper analysis includes conceding that we will never know everything, and that not everything is quantifiable. Apply that tenet to managers, and it might be that scrutinizing runs totals and clusters and 50,000 other kinds of numbers is the wrong way to tackle the problem. Every manager in the game not only has a bench coach to help guide in-game decisions. He also has a team of interns and runners, ready to drop reams of spray charts, heat maps, and other detailed reports into the manager’s hands, so that just about every possible in-game question has an easy-to-find answer.
So maybe the best way to gauge a manager’s worth is simply through his ability to motivate players over the grind of a 162-game season (and beyond). To keep them from despairing during a deep slump in May, to keep them from charging at each others’ throats during the dog days of August, and to keep them loose and fresh under the bright postseason lights in October. That kind of evaluation is inherently subjective, and thus really, really hard to assert with a high level of confidence.
As Sportsnet’s Jeff Blair recently reported, if the Jays do fire Gibbons, they’ll be seeking a replacement who’s both analytically savvy and fluent in Spanish. It’s hard to see how either of those traits could be anything but positive for a managerial candidate.
Beyond that, we just can’t know for certain. For all the tens of thousands of hours that have gone into quantifying defensive shifts, pitch framing, pitch tunnelling, pitcher workloads, ballpark effects, and countless other facets of the game, we still don’t know exactly how much good — or harm — the guy in the dugout does every night.
Given how much fun it can be argue over a manager’s worth, maybe having that one element of baseball remain a mystery isn’t such a bad thing after all.