Crash Bag, Vol. 107: WAR for Managers

@rarmstrong7777: “is there a manager equivalent to WAR? Could there be if there isn’t?”

There isn’t, and there probably can’t be. The manager’s job is done largely at the margins and behind the scenes, so it’s hard to tell if, for instance, Joe Maddon bringing snakes into the clubhouse has an effect on his team’s performance. Anyone who’s ever had a job knows how much better life is when you have a boss you like and respect, so I don’t doubt that there’s an intangible benefit to having a good manager. How much of a benefit is a harder question to answer. I’ve heard it said that three-time Cy Young winner and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer wouldn’t have stuck in the majors if not for the influence of Earl Weaver. So it’s possible that Earl Weaver was worth 68 WAR to the Orioles just because he mentored Palmer. Or that could be bullshit.

What we can measure is the impact of a manager’s on-field decisions: pitcher use, lineup construction, bunting and so on. I don’t know if anyone’s come up with the kind of unified field theory of managerial tactics it would take to construct WAR for managers, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had tried.

The truth is that I don’t think a manager’s tactics change a team’s fortunes, for better or worse, by more than a couple wins over the course of a season. I’d rather have a bad tactician who gets the best out of his players than a good tactician whom everyone hates. Put another way, I was having a conversation with another South Carolina fan about Chad Holbrook, the head coach of the USC baseball team, and his frustrating in-game strategy. Holbrook is a run-of-the-mill college tactician, which is to say he’s unwatchably bad about pitcher use, bunting and lineup construction. South Carolina lost in its regional in large part because Holbrook killed a rally by having Grayson Greiner, his best player, sacrifice bunt in the late innings of a game the Gamecocks were losing. I almost threw my TV across the street.

But Holbrook is a good recruiter and an outstanding developer of talent. Those two things are way more important than in-game strategy, because all college coaches suck at tactics, and even if they didn’t, a bad tactical manager will win most of the time if he has better players. On the one hand, it’s frustrating because he’s doing all the hard parts right but fucks up the easy stuff. But on the other hand, I’d rather him be good at the hard stuff and bad at the easy stuff than the other way around.

@SoMuchForPathos: “What is the alternate history crashbag like, in which [your ancestors] never came to America?”

Well, my progenitors come from the Black Forest region in southwestern Germany, a nice hilly corner of the country that gave the world both Black Forest ham and Black Forest cake, so I assume everyone there is fat because the food they produce is so good. Wikipedia tells me they make cuckoo clocks there, so I guess the Black Forest is kind of like Appalachia, except with better public transit and socialized medicine. I don’t know why my family ever left, now that I think about it.

Anyway, I guess the Crash Bag would be pretty much the same as it is now, except about SC Freiburg, the biggest Bundesliga team in the region, and you could replace all the gushing praise I heap on Jimmy Rollins now with gushing praise about Jogi Loew, whom I adore anyway. And it would be in German, which I don’t speak even a little.

@JeffBaumann: “what individual in the past 30 years has had the greatest influence on popular culture?”

I was going to say Michael Jordan, who was the first of the modern cross-platform celebrity athletes, and who became a huge worldwide tastemaker. You could say Jay-Z, or Stephen Speilberg, or any of a few dozen actual creators of popular culture, and you’d have an argument.

I’d go with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, widely known as the man who invented the internet. This is a simplification, of course, but that’s the answer. We’re living in a science fiction novel right now–we don’t have hoverboards or flying cars or a moon base because in the 1970s, we as a species redirected all the energy and creative capability we’d been spending on transportation technology and spent it on communication technology instead.

Ten years ago, I was a high school senior and I didn’t have a cell phone of any kind, and my family didn’t have cable TV or high-speed internet. I didn’t have Wi-Fi until after I graduated college. And I grew up in an upper-middle class town in New Jersey, not some trailer in Broken Bow, Oklahoma. If you go back to my high school today, I bet about one in ten rising seniors doesn’t have high-speed internet on his or her cellphone.

What’s changed over the past 30 years isn’t pop culture itself, but how we consume it. It’s probably been a solid three years since I’ve bought a physical copy of a movie or record album–everything is on my computer, and most of what’s on my computer is actually on the internet. My wife and I both have much younger siblings (one of whom, you might have guessed, asked this question), and it’s staggering how little they appreciate what life was like before everyone had a smartphone and Netflix. It’s amazing if you take even a second to step back and look at the big picture, and if you asked marginally older people than me, it only gets more amazing. I remember a conversation I had a few weeks ago with Jim Callis, who’s been covering the MLB draft and prospects for 20-plus years, and the things he told me about how things worked even 10 years ago blew my mind. I started writing about sports for publication in 2008, and the job I have now didn’t exist then. I could go on and on.

Anyway, even if Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent the internet on his own, the impact he had dwarfs Michael Jordan’s.

@MattTaylor26: “on a scale of “whatever” to “now I can die happy,” how wondrous would it be to get the Phanatic in the ESPN Body Issue?”

Closer to the first than the second, though it’d be hilarious. I’ll say this–I looked through the Body Issue slideshow when it came out, and while I’d rather have Serge Ibaka’s body than Prince Fielder‘s, Prince looked pretty good naked.

@MattTaylor26: “what other sporting (or quasi-sporting) event would you most like to hear Franzke and L.A. call?”

I don’t know that I’d really want this. I think L.A.’s cynicism might come off badly if he’s covering an event he doesn’t know as well as baseball. I’d rather have Ian Darke and Steve McManaman or Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir call a baseball game than have L.A. and Franzke (who I think have the same kind of watching-the-game-with-your-slightly-better-informed-friends vibe that the best broadcast teams do). Mostly I want to go on a bender with Steve McManaman or Lipinski/Weir.

Speaking of great broadcast teams, my favorite baseball announcing team right now is ESPN’s top college baseball team of Karl Ravech, Kyle Peterson and Jessica Mendoza. They’re magnificent. Relaxed, candid, knowledgeable, funny without overshadowing the action–I have no complaints whatsoever about their work. Anyway, when I was in Omaha for the College World Series, I ran into all three of them, individually, on three different days at the ballpark, and every time I wanted to stop, introduce myself and say what a big fan I was, but I froze like an amateur every time. It was horrible, and I think less of myself for not bringing myself to speak up.

@robcnagel: “do buyers collude to wait phillies out given Amaro’s poor track record of “sell” trades or is it 1st come, 1st serve?”

I think that’s going around your elbow to get to your ear a little. I don’t know what the plan is, but whatever moves Amaro plans to make, he’ll make when he thinks the time is right.

@JakePavorsky: “Is there a difference between being a front runner and not wanting to watch your team when they’re bad?”

I think so. I also think the worst kind of fan isn’t the front-runner, it’s the fan who gets into dick-swinging contests about the depth of fandom. Fandom means different things to different people. I saw a guy on TV once who’d been to every University of Washington football game since, like, 1982, and while he thinks that’s great, I think that’s crazy. I think I’m a pretty devoted Phillies fan, but even if I lived close to the stadium and had unlimited time and money and no responsibility to watch any other team, I’d probably only go to maybe 25 games a year and probably only watch another 80 or 90 on TV, even if the team was good. I love baseball–it’s my favorite thing to talk about and think about, but it’s not the only important thing in my life. I’d want to do other stuff periodically.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking a step back when the team you follow sucks, particularly when they suck in such an unwatchable fashion as the Phillies do, nor do I think there’s anything wrong with the johnny-come-lately fan. I think people get mad with bandwagon fans if 1) the bandwagoners just say they root for whichever team is good at the time. Your standard Yankees/Lakers/Cowboys/Duke basketball fan. Or 2) the bandwagon fan somehow misrepresents himself or herself. Though really, the second one is usually overstated. If you get mad because someone who self-identifies as a huge Phillies fan just got into baseball in 2007, you’re an asshole. A lot of passionate, thoughtful fans get dismissed as bandwagoners.

But really, if you’re just asking for my permission to not care as much about the Phillies for the next couple years, you’ve got it.

@mitchgoldich: “Can you construct the optimal World Cup lineup out of the Phillies roster?’

Probably not. These guys suck at baseball–what makes you think they’d be good at soccer?

@boomorbustGM: “if you were the GM what year would you expect to compete in?”

2075, because I think Ryan Howard‘s power will play up in the low gravity and thin atmosphere on the Mars colony.

@UhOhOrreo: “if I arbitrarily decided that this series with the Brewers is our World Series, is that a problem?”

No. In fact, considering how the Phillies have taken the first-place Brewers twice in a row–and in exciting style–I think that’s a fantastic idea. And if they beat the Brewers in the World Series, that means there’s no more Phillies baseball for four months, which would be most welcome right about now.

Mike (via email): “Look. I’m a reasonable person. I know that Kyle Kendrick isn’t the living, breathing, automatic one-game losing streak that I’ll often refer to him as after every poor outing. I’ll even go as far as saying that he’s not the worst option for a back-of-the-rotation MLB starter.

But what the hell is up with every first inning that he pitches turning into an absolute minefield?

Is there a justifiable way to have someone else work the first while a clubhouse attendant bashes the bejeezus out of Kendrick offerings in a far-off batting cage? I feel like Kendrick would be gold if he didn’t have to throw a meaningful pitch until the second inning.”

I don’t know. I’m kind of inclined to shake it off as random variance, but his career stats bear that pattern out: in the first inning, Kendrick has a 5.95 career ERA in 171 innings, a run higher than any other inning, a run and a half higher than his career average and more than two runs higher than his career ERA in the second and third innings.

I played Little League with a kid like this. He always got shelled in his first inning, but was lights out thereafter. If it was as easy as just having Kendrick warm up longer before a start, the Phillies probably would’ve figured it out by now, but who knows?

That’s all for the Crash Bag. See you next week.

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6 comments

  1. CM

    July 09, 2014 09:44 PM

    Revere’s speed would make for a good striker. And Cody Asche’s hops and dives at the hot corner scream keeper. I think that’s a good start.

    • Dan K.

      July 10, 2014 09:15 AM

      And Chase Utley can play anywhere because his competitive nature will not allow him to be bad. At anything.

  2. Carmine

    July 10, 2014 08:57 AM

    “I’d rather have a bad tactician who gets the best out of his players than a good tactician whom everyone hates.”
    Perfect description of Charlie Manuel and Gene Mauch.

    • Ryan

      July 10, 2014 11:14 AM

      And that only seems to work when the players have sufficient talent to get it done. Charlie was great when he had a power hitting elite offense. When things like well-executed pitching moves and small ball become necessary to win, it doesn’t hold up nearly as well. (Same can be said for Andy Reid; players loved him but when it was time to make strategic decisions, flipping a coin would have done as well as he did.)

      • agam22

        July 10, 2014 03:08 PM

        You have to be on a very particular part of the win curve for a managers tactical decisions to really matter. If you are depending on small ball and perfect pitching changes to win, the team probably isn’t good enough in the first place. Maybe for one season a manager can get a little lucky and have every decision work, but in general I don’t think this is really a repeatable skill

  3. SOB

    July 10, 2014 01:44 PM

    I appreciated your cogent and rational take on pop culture. I somehow managed to wake up one day with my sister and her pre-teen children living with me. It has been three years now, and they have matured into teenagers, which is terrible. I’m only 32, but I spent ten years out of high school either in the military, or doing my best Jack Kerouac impersonation. I don’t even own a tv. Sometimes I feel like a time traveler thrust forward into a strange world where everyone looks like I do, but they are speaking a foreign language and using alien technology. I ask my niece for permission to enter the star-gate every time I need to go into her room. “Come on in, nerd” is the code for entry.

    I try to explain to them how different everything used to be, and why that is the reason that I can sit on the porch with a mid level scotch and not be bored. I don’t think I will become one of those angry old men that just shakes fists at teenagers, but I am really fascinated by the generational gaps. I mean, technically, my niece and I are both millennials. It seems like there should be a new name for them. They use these generational terms to sell people things, and to blame eras of history on whole groups of people (I’m looking at you baby boomers. Thanks a lot. Goddamn Ronald Reagan.). I personally do not want to buy what they are being sold, and I get the feeling I don’t want to be lumped into the group that will most certainly be blamed for creating our robot overlords. I guess what I’m really trying to say is, I do think the generational divide will make it impossible to find a 25 year old mid-life crisis mistress later in life, and that makes me not want to try very hard to achieve anything. Why should I show up for work everyday if I’m going to have to bang a 50 year old woman? That’s only fun when you’re 23. Thus concludes my incoherent and irrational comment.

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