Does an MLB Team's Drive, Performance Collapse Under a Lame-Duck Manager?

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Does an MLB Team's Drive, Performance Collapse Under a Lame-Duck Manager?
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Dusty Baker was a lame-duck manager in 2012, and his Reds did OK.

No manager in Major League Baseball ever wants to start a season as a lame duck. Conventional baseball wisdom says they're pretty much doomed from the start.

The worst fears are always the same. It's hard for a manager to do his job when he's worried about his contract. Just as concerning, it's hard for players to treat a lame-duck manager as an authority when they know he may not be around next year. 

But lame-duck status isn't the death sentence it's made out to be. Games are won by talented players more than they are by talented managers, and even a lame-duck manager can win games with the best of 'em if he has the right amount of talent and the right kind of mindset.

Having the right kind of mindset is a notion that New York Mets manager Terry Collins, who will be a lame duck in 2013, has taken to heart. He has Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker and Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland to thank for that, as Collins told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post that he got excellent advice from both skippers.

From Baker: "You can’t be afraid of the unknown."

And from Leyland: “The first day of spring training [in 2012,] Jim said, ‘This is not going to be an issue, I am not going to talk about it, and we’re going to talk about it at the end of the year. ... End of story.' That’s the way to do it."

Combine the two, and the right kind of mindset for a lame-duck manager to have translates to: Don't make it an issue and don't dwell on it. After that, it's just a matter of keeping your house in order and letting the talent do the rest.

Naturally, Leyland and Baker provided perfect examples of how it's done in 2012.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Leyland isn't trying to be anyone's buddy.
Leyland has his own way of keeping his house in order. He's a hands-off manager, saying during the American League Division Series in October that he doesn't mingle in the clubhouse all that often. His preference is to let his players determine the mood of "their house," and that means allowing them to be themselves.

This is a risky approach for a lame-duck manager to take. Players who get the sense that a manager is withdrawn from the clubhouse will surely be tempted to withdraw in their own way. A lame-duck manager and his players don't necessarily have to live happily under one roof, but there needs to at least be some sort of bridge between the two worlds.

Leyland was able to make his hands-off approach work in 2012 precisely because he was able to maintain such a bridge. He made his presence felt, but only when he had to. In the words of Lynn Henning of the Detroit News:

Jim Leyland runs the best clubhouse I've seen in 40 years of covering baseball in Detroit. He adjusts to the individual as you would adjust to your kids, all of whom are tuned to a different frequency. He does this without caving in or cajoling. He simply reads his player. He knows when they need a personal greeting, a quip, a meeting in his office, or something harsher.

Baker, by comparison, is more of a hands-on manager, and part of his approach involves forging meaningful bonds with players. ESPN's Jerry Crasnick wrote in July that Baker has formed a bond with Homer Bailey by swapping books with the right-hander, and he greeted Todd Frazier when he arrived in the big leagues with a photocopy of a signed letter he had once gotten from Frank Sinatra.

Having supporters in the clubhouse is one thing, but it was just as important for Baker in 2012 that he had his defenders too. Seemingly everyone and their uncle was questioning Baker's managerial decisions on a daily basis, but he had his guys convinced that he knew what he was doing.

Said Reds first baseman Joey Votto, via MLB.com:

I think he catches a lot of flak for the wrong things. I'm not going to be specific, but it's unfair. There are too many things that are complicated behind the scenes. A lot of people want things to be cookie-cutter and fall in line. He's very good at reading people and reading situations and playing things by ear. The safe play is not always the play he makes. But with his experience and read of people, I think he's ahead of the curve of what most fans and critics know about managing.

If your star player has your back and other players know you as a fellow bookworm and a Frank Sinatra fan, you can run a tight major league clubhouse even if you happen to be a lame-duck manager. And when you have a tight clubhouse with as much talent as the Reds had, the manager's contract status matters even less.

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports
Baker's starters were just fine in 2012, thank you very much.
Baker had a tremendous pitching staff whose 3.34 ERA ended up tied for second in the major leagues with the Washington Nationals. Despite his reputation as a murderer of starting pitchers, Baker had little trouble keeping his starters healthy in 2012, as the club's primary starters started all but one of the team's 162 games.

Leyland, who is a big believer in the notion that talent is the only thing that matters, also had a tremendous pitching staff at his disposal in 2012. The Tigers finished 10th in the league in ERA, and their starters led a charge to the postseason with a 2.48 ERA in the season's final month (see FanGraphs).

It also didn't hurt that Leyland had Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. They combined for 74 home runs for the season and 17 in September and early October. Cabrera, of course, won the AL MVP thanks largely to his late-season heroics.

With solid clubhouse cultures and plenty of talent, Baker's Reds and Leyland's Tigers had the key ingredients they needed to lead their teams to the postseason. But it wasn't necessarily easy for either of them, as the Reds had to overcome Votto's knee surgery in the second half of the season and the Tigers needed a late-season surge to overcome the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central.

That both the Reds and the Tigers were able to hold it together reflects well on Baker and Leyland. Their teams played with energy when they needed to, and their talented players came through when they were needed. Their clubs were not afflicted by the symptoms that are supposed to afflict teams run by lame-duck managers. Baker and Leyland just didn't let it happen.

If there's an anti-2012 Leyland and an anti-2012 Baker, it's Terry Francona in 2011. He was a lame-duck manager that year, and his Boston Red Sox went from being baseball's best team to baseball's worst team in the blink of an eye.

Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com wrote this past September that Boston's decision not to extend Francona's contract beyond 2011 played a part in their demise:

If the Sox had signed him to an extension and told him to clean up the clubhouse — certain players had irritated the front office with their growing sense of entitlement even before the September collapse — then Francona could have exerted greater authority.

That's one theory, but there was more feeding into Boston's collapse in 2011 than just Francona's contract status.

As Bob Hohler brought to light in his infamous article about the Red Sox's collapse in the Boston Globe, Francona was going through personal problems in 2011 that caused him to be distracted during the season.

Francona's personal problems could have had just as much of an impact on his disconnection from his players as his lame-duck status, if not more so. It didn't help that the Red Sox had a bad mix of players on their roster, a reality that continued to plague the team in 2012.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
An extra year on Terry Francona's contract in 2011 may not have kept Boston's collapse from happening.
It must also be remembered that Francona had little trouble motivating his troops to play for five of the season's six months. After starting out the year with a six-game losing streak, the Red Sox were baseball's best team straight through the end of August. Evidently, his players weren't affected by his lame-duck status during that span. 

At best, Boston's collapse was nothing more than a cruel joke played by the baseball gods; a fluke. At worst, it was just as much the result of Francona's shaky focus as it was his lame-duck status.

Most lame-duck managers would love to claim excuses such as these. But when a team shrivels under a lame-duck manager, the explanations are generally going to be a lot simpler—and they're going to have more to do with other forces at work more powerful than the manager's contract status.

Take Brad Mills, for example. He was a lame-duck manager in 2012 and was eventually fired after compiling a 39-82 record in 121 games. But it's not as if he badly underachieved with a good roster, as his Houston Astros had less legit major league talent than any other team in the majors.

The losses were going to come for the Astros one way or another, and an ever-increasing number of losses will never not wear on a team's morale. There's nothing any manager can do about that.

Like Mills in 2012, Clint Hurdle never really had a chance to succeed in his lame-duck season with the Colorado Rockies in 2009. He was fired after an 18-28 start, but the beginning of the end for him in Colorado really started in 2008.

The Rockies had gone 74-88 under Hurdle in 2008, compiling a 4.77 team ERA and finishing seventh in the league in total strikeouts. They were thus a flawed team to begin with. Hurdle's lame-duck status in 2009 didn't necessarily make the Rockies a more flawed team.

You can look back as long as you like, but it's hard to find a team that was undone solely by its manager's lame-duck status. This is because lame-duck managers are always going to be in the same boat as every other manager under the sun. There's only so much managers of any kind can do.

Bad teams are going to play poorly, and good teams are going to play well. A manager with a long-term contract is going to be able to do no better with a poor team than a lame-duck manager. On the flip side, a lame-duck manager can do just as well with a good team as a manager with a long-term contract can, as long as he keeps his wits about him.

It's like Sparky Anderson once said: "Baseball is a simple game. If you have good players and if you keep them in the right frame of mind then the manager is a success." (h/t baseball-almanac.com)

He did not say, "Except for lame-duck managers, of course." Such a caveat was not, is not and probably never will be necessary.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of FanGraphs.

 

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