Fire Hawk Harrelson

The other day I was watching the Chicago broadcast of a game between the White Sox and the Athletics. Early in the game, Hawk Harrelson and Steve Stone (the Sox’ venerable announcing crew) were talking about A’s manager Bob Melvin, last year’s Manager of the Year. Predictably, this conversation led to a rant by Harrelson about how statistics and sabremetrics.

According to Hawk, we can’t possibly quantify the contribution a manager makes to his team because he gets them in the mindset to play every single day. Those analyses that demonstrate that a good strategic manager might be able to boost a team’s wins total by 6-8? Bull, says Hawk. Without a good manager, the team will not be in a good mindset, and won’t play well. Ever. So by this logic, we’d expect a team with a bad manager to lose 162 game a year, right?

What can a manager contribute to a team? Can he make a team more talented? Well, no. Do players play at a level below their talent because they have a bad manager, and are therefore not mentally ready to win? Not by any evidence I’ve ever seen. The biggest contributions a manager can make is to use available information about his own team and his opponents to craft a strategy that maximizes run production and minimizes runs allowed. (As a refresher for Hawk: the winning team in any given game is the one who scores more runs, not the one who has a better mindset.) The manager should know the platoon splits of his hitters and pitchers so that he can leverage them with well-timed pinch hitters and pitching changes. (Your LOOGY might have spectacular numbers against your opponent’s clean-up hitter, but that doesn’t mean you want to use him in the 2nd inning.) The manager should know the tipping point where the risk of a caught stealing outweighs the reward of a stolen base. The manager should never bunt in the first inning. (Unless you’re Dusty Baker and think that the ideal No. 2 hitter is a scrappy shortstop with a sub-.300 OBP.)

What the manager cannot do is change the talent level of his players. Players don’t become better because the manager is a good guy, or a “player’s manager.” Sure, your coaching staff can tweak a swing or a wind-up. But players don’t play better because they like the manager. These are professional athletes who are masters of their craft. They take pride in their performance, and they are handsomely rewarded for it. Why would a player play worse for a manager he doesn’t like? This would be cutting-off-the-nose to the tune of several millions in lost potential income. And it simply doesn’t happen. 

So let’s stop pretending that baseball is about “TWTW.” It’s stupid, it’s backwards, and it’s insulting to a fan base that deserves much better.

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