The late, great Sparky Anderson once uttered a quote that pretty well sums up the role of managers in baseball.
"Baseball is a simple game," he said, via Baseball-Almanac.com. "If you have good players and if you keep them in the right frame of mind then the manager is a success."
In other words, good players make a good manager. It's a lot harder for a good manager to make good players, if not impossible altogether. Talent wins ballgames, not old guys in uniforms with Yoda-like wisdom.
Managers don't have much control over how a ballgame will turn out, much less what's going to happen after every pitch is thrown. Unlike football and basketball coaches, managers can't manipulate every little thing.
All of this is true...but only to a certain extent.
Managers can't manipulate every little thing, but they do manipulate the things they have the power to manipulate. They use their players like chess pieces: a pinch-hitter here, a defensive substitute there, this reliever, that reliever and, nowadays, which defensive shift best fits the situation.
These are things that every manager has to do on a daily basis. The question—and this is not a new question—is whether or not there are any managers who do the little things better than their contemporaries.
Or, to put it more specifically, how much of a difference can a good manager possibly make?
Evaluating all 30 of today's managers individually would take forever and would make for a frustrating comparison exercise, so we'll keep this simple and pit individual managers together and compare how they do things. This should at least give us a notion of what kind of difference a manager can make if he plays his cards right.
We'll start with two managers who ply their trade in the Big Apple.
Joe Girardi vs. Terry Collins
The New York Yankees and New York Mets couldn't have less in common. The Yankees are a team with a huge payroll that's loaded with talent and quality arms, and the Mets are a group of scrappy players who have somehow found a way to win more games than they've lost. They're a classic case of a team that's greater than the sum of its parts.
Joe Girardi's Yankees are 49-32 and in first place in the AL East. Terry Collins' Mets are 45-38 and in second place in the NL East. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Yankees are right where they should be and that the Mets are overachieving.
Not so much.
There's a stat called "Pythagorean winning percentage" that says that both the Yankees and the Mets are overachieving this season. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Pythagorean winning percentage measures how many wins and losses a given team should have based on its runs scored and runs allowed.
So where are the extra wins coming from?
One thing that's for sure in Girardi's case is that he's not creating a ton of runs by going to his bench. Per ESPN.com, Yankees pinch-hitters have contributed just six RBI this season. Only five teams in baseball have gotten fewer RBI from pinch-hitters.
This comes as no real surprise. The pinch-hitter is not as important in the American League as it is in the National League, and Girardi doesn't have a lot of holes in his lineup on a nightly basis. It's in his interest not to tinker with his starting lineup once it's been posted.
Collins, on the other hand, has used his bench to generate a significant amount of runs. Mets pinch-hitters have driven in 23 runs this season, second-most in the majors behind the Milwaukee Brewers.
Where Collins is at a big disadvantage next to Girardi is what he has to work with as far as his bullpen is concerned. The Mets' 5.07 bullpen ERA is the worst in the majors, and they've already blown 13 saves and racked up 17 losses on the season. Only the Brewers and Rockies have blown more saves, and only the Brewers have more bullpen losses.
It's not all Frank Francisco's doing. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the Mets have gotten three blown saves from Francisco, three from Bobby Parnell, three from Jon Rauch, two from Ramon Ramirez and one each from Manny Acosta and Tim Byrdak.
Byrdak, however, has found himself in 15 save situations. Parnell has found himself in 19 save situations. Rauch has found himself in 12 save situations. They've been shaky, but it's easy to overlook the fact that they've answered the call for Collins more often than not.
What's commendable about the Mets bullpen and the way Collins uses it is how well they've finished what the team's starting pitchers have started. The Mets lead all of baseball with 55 quality starts, and Baseball Prospectus claims the Mets have blown exactly one of those quality starts.
The Mets do indeed have a bad bullpen, but they wouldn't be where they are if they weren't able to finish off good work from the team's starting pitchers. That's a testament to the game plan Collins has in mind for his bullpen on a given night. Add that to the good work he's gotten from his pinch-hitters, and you get the portrait of a manager who is doing a lot with little.
Girardi is not as lucky when it comes to his team's starting pitching. Yankees starters were hot in June, but for the season they've posted just 41 quality starts, 20th-most in baseball.
Because of this, Girardi has been forced to improvise more than your average manager. It reflects well on him that the Yankees have only blown seven saves all season. Baseball-Reference.com tells us that five of those came from David Robertson, Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano, the team's three best relievers.
The rest of the Yankees bullpen has blown only two saves out of a total of 35 save chances. That's an excellent percentage.
Girardi has more talent to work with in his bullpen than Collins does, but don't take that as an excuse to say his job is easy. He's done a very good job playing the cards he has at his disposal. And indeed, he has less talent than usual with Rivera out of the equation.
In all, we're talking about two different managers in Girardi and Collins who are two different kinds of "good." Collins is good at doing what he can with everything he has at his disposal, and Girardi is good at knowing which cards to play and when to play them without trying to do too much at the same time.
The one thing that's harder to compare using these two managers is how much of a difference defensive shifts can make. For that, we have to go to two other managers.
Joe Maddon vs. Robin Ventura
Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has a reputation of being one of the smartest men in baseball, and it's well-deserved. He manages to squeeze a lot of wins out of generally undermanned ballclubs, and he does that by making good use of a very deep bag of tricks.
Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura is a little different. He's a players' manager and a good communicator like Maddon, but he doesn't take the same kind of hands-on approach that Maddon does.
This is especially evident in the two managers' use of infield shifts. Though the exact numbers are hard to come by (I would love a heads up as to which site tracks shift numbers, percentages, etc.), John Dewan of BillJamesOnline.com published a piece in the middle of May that showed that the Rays were shifting more than any team in baseball by a wide margin.
Per Dewan, the Rays had shifted 171 times by May 16. They had played 38 games by then, meaning they were shifting 4.5 times per game. That sounds about right to me.
The White Sox, on the other hand, had zero shifts at that point. None.
Conventional defensive numbers suggest that there's no reason for Ventura to shift his defense. Per ESPN.com, the White Sox rank first in all of baseball in fielding percentage, and they've made fewer errors than any team in baseball. They've only allowed 14 unearned runs all season.
The Rays, meanwhile, have made 67 errors this season, second-most in baseball. Their fielding percentage is .979, also second-worst in baseball. All those shifts don't seem to be doing them much good.
Think again. The Rays have allowed 40 unearned runs this season, but they've balanced things out by only allowing 303 earned runs, 16 fewer than the White Sox have allowed.
Much of the credit for that is owed to Tampa Bay's pitching staff, which is deeper than Chicago's. But the infield shifts have made a difference, and that difference shows up in the advanced defensive stats.
According to FanGraphs, the Rays rank second in baseball with a DRS (defensive runs saved) of +40. That's a figure that more or less counterbalances the amount of unearned runs they've allowed, as it shows that the Rays have managed to save a lot of runs when they've been able to avoid booting the ball.
The White Sox have a DRS of -1. They're not quite as good defensively as their fielding percentage would lead you to believe.
If that doesn't convince you that infield shifts make a difference, perhaps another set of numbers will: batting average on ground balls.
Per Baseball-Reference.com, Rays opponents are hitting .230 when they hit the ball on the ground. For the White Sox, Baseball-Reference.com tells us that opponents are hitting .239 when they hit the ball on the ground.
That's a big disparity. Too big to be a coincidence.
There are more factors in this discussion than just infield shifts, but the reality is too hard to ignore. Baseball's most shift-happy team is saving more runs than 28 other ballclubs. Baseball's least shift-happy team isn't saving any runs.
It's worth noting that the Rays have won one more game than their Pythagorean record says they should have. The White Sox, on the other hand, have won two fewer games than their Pythagorean record says they should have.
Buck Showalter vs. Mike Matheny
By now, you may be thinking that there could actually be some sort of exact science when it comes to managing.
Don't think that. Managers can manipulate, mix, match and tinker as much as they want, but there's one thing they'll never be able to control.
That, of course, would be luck.
To illustrate the point, we'll take a look at one manager who the numbers say is lucky, and one who the numbers say is unlucky.
In this case, our lucky test subject is Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter, and our unlucky test subject is St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.
We're labeling them as "lucky" and "unlucky" because of where their teams rank in terms of Pythagorean winning percentage. Per Baseball Prospectus, Showalter's Orioles are supposed to have a winning percentage of .461 when they have an actual winning percentage of .537. Matheny's Cardinals are supposed to have a winning percentage of .590 when they have an actual winning percentage of .530.
In other words, the Orioles are overachieving and the Cardinals are underachieving. No doubt some of you are nodding your heads and saying, "That makes sense."
The Cardinals should be better than they are for a variety of reasons. They rank third in baseball in runs scored, and seventh in quality starts with 49. They're therefore getting the two things that tend to define superior teams: good offense and good starting pitching.
To boot, Baseball Prospectus also tells us that the Cardinals have only blown two quality starts all season. Just like Collins and the Mets, things have gone according to plan for Matheny and the Cardinals when the team's starting pitchers perform well.
Matheny hasn't chosen his pinch-hitters as wisely as Collins, though. Per ESPN.com, Cardinals pinch-hitters are hitting just .172 this season, a figure that ranks 23rd in MLB. Of the 21 hits they've managed, only six have gone for extra-bases.
Those numbers don't help, and neither do some of the numbers posted by St. Louis' bullpen. Cardinals relievers have blown 13 saves and racked up 14 losses, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Five of those blown saves and three of those losses have come courtesy of Marc Rzepczynski.
Matheny should clearly stop using him, right?
The stats say yes, but reality tells us he doesn't have much of a choice. Rzepczynski is basically the only left-handed reliever Matheny has had to go to this season. It's not his fault Rzepczynski has stunk. And besides, Rzepczynski does have 11 holds this season, second on the team to Mitchell Boggs.
As far as defense is concerned, the Cardinals rank in the top 10 in MLB with a fielding percentage of .985. But just like the White Sox, they're a team that is being slow to adopt the wonders of infield shifting (see the Dewan article). The fact that they have a -6 DRS, according to FanGraphs, suggests that they should.
Matheny has gotten that memo. Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com notes that Matheny has defended the use of infield shifts recently. He's come around to them in recent weeks.
Unfortunately for him, his infield shifts were exposed in a recent game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and his recent use of shifts hasn't curbed the amount of ground balls finding their way through the infield. Cardinals opponents are hitting .240 when they hit the ball on the ground.
Keep all of this in mind as we shift over to Buck Showalter and the Orioles.
The Orioles are not a prolific run-scoring team, nor are they a team with great starting pitching. They rank 16th in baseball in runs scored, and 26th in quality starts. They should be a worse team than the Cardinals based on those numbers alone, and the other numbers we're about to discuss further support that notion.
Just like St. Louis pinch-hitters, Baltimore pinch-hitters haven't been very productive. They've posted a .179 batting average and driven in zero runs.
That latter number, however, is where these two teams differ. Cardinals pinch-hitters haven't been prolific, but they've at least managed to generate 17 RBI. They've obviously gotten a lot more chances to drive in these runs than Baltimore pinch-hitters have, but the extra runs generated by St. Louis' bench are a key reason why the Cardinals should be better than the Orioles (in theory).
One big difference between the two teams is that Showalter has a much better bullpen to play with. His relievers have a 2.76 ERA, best in the AL and second-best behind the Pirates among all MLB teams.
However, his relievers have blown 11 saves this season, just two fewer than St. Louis. The key difference between the two pens is that Baltimore's pen has only produced six losses, eight fewer than St. Louis. And where two of Matheny's relievers have as many as 10 holds, only one of Showalter's relievers has as many as 10 holds. That would be Pedro Strop, and he also leads the team with four blown saves.
Baltimore's pen is better than St. Louis' pen, but these numbers indicate that it shouldn't be that much better.
The other key difference between these two teams is that Showalter has been shifting Baltimore's infield defense all season long. Despite that, they have a -22 DRS, according to FanGraphs. Hitters are hitting .237 against them when they put the ball on the ground. That's better than St. Louis' number in that situation, but it's a small enough difference to be chalked up to coincidence.
In addition, the Orioles lead the league in errors. They therefore qualify as a worse defensive team than St. Louis by both traditional and sabermetric standards.
Even if we can take it for granted that Baltimore's bullpen truly is that much better than St. Louis' bullpen, the other stats we've discussed all suggest that St. Louis is a better hitting team, a better pitching team, and a better fielding team.
Yet we're talking about two teams that have the exact same amount of wins.
The big difference between the two of them has to be luck.
The Grand Conclusion
There are many things that managers are responsible for that I left out of this discussion. They're also responsible for pinch-runners. They do outfield shifts as well as infield shifts. They create different lineups that have varying degrees of success. And there's the human element that they have to deal with as well.
And that, for the record, is the biggest and most important part of their profession. Players aren't walking sets of numbers. They're human beings.
The human element is something that can never be evaluated with numbers. The same goes for luck, which is either a manager's best friend or his worst enemy.
With or without good luck, managers are forced to make dozens (hundreds?) of decisions during a given game, and the rising usage of infield shifts around baseball goes to show that there are always going to be new ways for managers to make even more decisions. Managers aren't like football coaches, but they're becoming more and more like football coaches as baseball gets more and more complicated.
What we've seen in this discussion is that a good manager can make a difference. Collins has gotten the Mets to win more games than they have any right winning, Girardi has done a fine job of hiding the short-handedness of his bullpen and the mediocrity of his starting pitching staff, Maddon's defensive shifts have helped out a dreadful defense and so on.
If Ventura, Matheny, and Showalter come off as being dimwitted amateurs, don't be alarmed. They're not. Showalter is a hell of a manager, and both Ventura and Matheny are doing quite well for rookie managers.
As for where all of these guys rank among the "best" managers in baseball...shoot, who's to say? We have WAR to determine who the best players in baseball are, but we don't have a WAR for managers.
We certainly need something like that, though.
There are virtually no stats to judge managers by, but there should be. A simple points system would do. Managers could get one point for a defensive shift that works, two points for a pinch-hit that drives in a go-ahead run, one point for a reliever who gets a key strikeout, one point for a pinch-runner who steals a base.
And so on and so on. Points could also be subtracted for decisions that don't pan out. Think of it as a game score system for managers.
I'm not a mathematician or a programmer, so I can't make this happen. But somebody should.
Determining which managers are actually making a difference shouldn't have to be so difficult in this day and age.
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