Evaluating Baseball's Managers

added 12/16/2009 by Bob Hulsey

Ultimately, every manager is judged by two things - winning percentage and championships won. For most of us, that's the simplest way to measure any manager's success.

But, for some like Chris Jaffe of the Hardball Times, that's not enough. For SABR-rattlers and other number crunchers, Jaffe has written Evaluating Baseball's Managers, a look at 89 managers who have skippered in the majors for 10 or more seasons. His book is due out in January from McFarland Publishing.

Jaffe compares managers past and present by using all sorts of statistics I couldn't begin to explain even if I wanted to. He'll tell you which ones managed small ball and which ones waited for the long ball. He'll measure which managers bunted more or stole more. He'll judge which ones lived by their starting pitching and which ones won through their bullpens.

Five former Astros managers make the list: Leo Durocher (1972-1973), Bill Virdon (1975-1982), Art Howe (1989-1993), Jimy Williams (2002-2004) and Phil Garner (2004-2007).

The colorful Durocher was making his last stop in Houston during a managerial career that spanned five decades. Jaffe says Durocher won largely with top offenses (including the "Orange Crush" of the Astros) and rarely used his bench. He notably played Cubs catcher Randy Hundley in 160 games one season.

No analysis of Leo the Lip would be complete without discussing his personality, which was well-documented by the media. Jaffe tosses out some anecdotes to show that Durocher didn't always live up to his brash, sometimes obnoxious words.

Virdon was, in some ways, the anti-Durocher. A quiet and taciturn man, Virdon's calling card was starting pitching seasoned with small-ball strategies. Certainly, that was true in his Houston days with pitchers like J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan and Joe Niekro piling up the innings for him.

Jaffe contends that Virdon had little regard for the bullpen and rarely had more than one reliever that he trusted. However, the Astros' squads who reached the postseason (1980-1981) had dependable arms like Joe Sambito, Dave Smith and Frank LaCorte to take over once the starters had run out of steam.

Howe, who played under Virdon, was very similar to him. More upbeat than his mentor, Howe was more willing to use young players. In fact, teams like the Astros were fortunate to have a manager like Howe around who had a knack for developing young talent. Both Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell rose to stardom during Howe's tenure, changing positions under Art's watchful eye.

Williams managed often through his bullpen, giving an early hook to his starters and leaning heavily on the relief corps. That was certainly true in 2003 when the Astros had starters like Jeriome Robertson and Ron Villone but featured the trio of Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner to shorten any game that was close.

Jaffe notes that Williams' teams were slow starters and fast finishers. That wasn't the case in 2003 when they blew a late lead and lost the division title to the Cubs. Yet, it was certainly evident in 2004 when a deep and talented squad did so poorly in the first half that Williams was canned at the All-Star break.

Garner took that team and led it through a fantastic finish, emerging with the Wild Card on the season's final day and winning a postseason series for the first time in franchise history before taking St. Louis to a seventh game in the NLCS. The following year, Garner topped that by leading a squad left for dead in June and taking it to the World Series.

For most of his managerial career, though, Garner had to skipper undermanned squads and "Scrap Iron" learned to manufacture runs to get improvement, according to Jaffe. Unfortunately for Garner, he wasn't a manager who could maintain momentum. His teams showed immediate improvement wherever he went but they backslid a year or two afterwards.

I took the opportunity to quiz Jaffe on Houston's new manager, Brad Mills. After the expected caveats about trying to predict a manager who has no big league track record, Jaffe offered this opinion.

"Mills is a little old to be a rookie manager, but not incredibly so. He's a guy who has been good enough to last in the game for decades in a variety of capacities as coach or minor league manager, but never good enough to make anyone think he should be a MLB manager until now. That makes me a bit skeptical of him. Seems like someone who might be getting hired over his depth."

If Mills lasts ten years, Jaffe will likely have much more to say about him.

To learn more about this upcoming book, visit Evaluating Baseball's Managers.com.

To learn more about Astros managers through the years, visit our All-Time Managers Page.