How Being an MLB Manager Is the Hardest Coaching Job in American Pro Sports
Ask a football, basketball or hockey fan how hard managing a baseball team appears to be, and they might do nothing but laugh.
It certainly doesn't look that hard on TV. Managers spend most of their time pacing around the dugout. Sometimes they chew sunflower seeds. Sometimes they make funny hand gestures and stuff happens. Sometimes they walk slowly to the mound and slowly back to the dugout. When they feel like having fun, sometimes they rant and rave at umpires, which, if nothing else, is great theater.
It appears easy, sure. But is it actually easy?
Of course not. It's just that appreciating the difficulty of managing involves reading between the lines and weighing the unique challenges managers face.
Dig deep enough, and you'll realize that managing is not only tough, but the toughest coaching job in American sports. Football coaches, basketball coaches, hockey coaches and whatever-else coaches have it easy compared to baseball managers.
Yup, I'm going there. My case is as follows.
Limited Strategic Influence
Strategy in the major American sports boils down to two essential goals. One is to score, and the other is to keep the other team from scoring.
Baseball managers don't have it any tougher than football, basketball or hockey coaches on one end of the spectrum. But on the other end, they couldn't have it any tougher.
Keeping the other team from scoring is where managers aren't at much of a disadvantage. Football coaches can put their best defensive players on the field and can call their best defensive plays to keep points off the scoreboard. Basketball coaches can also put their best defensive players on the court, and they can call for things like full-court presses or sudden switches from man-to-man to zone. Hockey coaches can use their third line to combat the other team's first line.
Managers can...well, they can do a whole bunch of things, really.
The easy part is picking out the right pitcher to start the game, but after that, managers can start acting like football coaches and arrange their defense however they see fit to increase the odds of getting outs. Managers have been telling their fielders to play back, play in and to play slightly to the left or slightly to the right for years.
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Run prevention is also a matter of manipulating pitching. Managers can tell their hurlers to pitch around guys they'd rather not have hurt them with one swing of the bat, and they can also call on their best relievers when the game is on the line.
For the lucky ones, that means calling in Mariano Rivera or Craig Kimbrel. Others use their bullpens as obsessively as Maddon uses his fielders. For example, ESPN's Buster Olney wrote that Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter spent more time on bullpen management in 2012 than he did on anything else.
It showed in two ways.
One: Orioles relievers logged more innings than all but three other clubs last year. Two: They had the fifth-best ERA in the league despite the heavy workload, and they helped the Orioles achieve an absurd 29-9 record in one-run games and an equally absurd 16-2 record in extra-inning games.
Not everyone does it like Maddon, and not everyone does it like Showalter. But however they do it, managers do have some control over keeping runs off the scoreboard, just like football, basketball and hockey coaches.
Where managers have significantly less control is run generation. They're in an entirely different, less friendly boat there compared to other coaches.
When the New England Patriots have the ball and they need a touchdown, Bill Belichick can put the ball in Tom Brady's hands and ask him for a miracle. When the Miami Heat need a bucket, Erik Spoelstra can dial up LeBron James' number. When the Tampa Bay Lightning need a goal, Guy Boucher just needs to make sure Steven Stamkos is on the ice.
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No, the best hitters are up when they're up, and they're not always up when their managers need them to be up. Occasionally, managers have to make do.
Worse, there aren't that many ways a manager can make do. They can call on pinch-hitters, but those guys are on the bench rather than starting for a reason. Managers can call for bunts, hit-and-runs and stolen bases when a guy gets on base, but strategies such as these pale in comparison to how other coaches are capable of manipulating scoring.
Seriously, what's a bunt compared to a perfectly executed deep-out pattern? What's a hit-and-run compared to a point guard drawing the defense and then finding the open man for three? What's a stolen base compared to a clutch one-timer?
The plays baseball managers can dial up to generate offense aren't just petty. They're treacherous too.
A sacrifice bunt can go wrong in many different ways. You occasionally see the bunter knock three bunts foul. You also see bunts popped up and caught, leaving the runner glued to first base. Bunts can also be too hard, resulting in an out at the base the bunting team was hoping to claim.
Even if a bunt is successful, that's still one less out to play with. It's like a football team getting a first down while also simultaneously moving back 10 yards.
As for hit-and-runs, they're great when they work, but a line drive right at an infielder is going to result in a backbreaking double play. Stolen bases can be game- and series-changers—see Dave Roberts' steal in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS—but there's no better way for a rally to die than with a caught stealing. If a runner gets thrown out trying to steal, the tying or go-ahead run is gone from the basepaths. It's now at home plate, and it will take a home run in order for it to come around.
So don't think baseball managers have it easy when it comes to strategy. When it comes to keeping the other team from scoring, they're holding just as many cards, and they have to be just as creative as other coaches. But when it comes to their own team scoring, managers don't have nearly as many cards to play as other coaches do. These are times when the baseball gods are holding all the cards.
Another thing about the baseball gods: They like a long season.
It's a Loooooooooooooooong Season
The late, great Earl Weaver said it best: "This ain't a football game, we do this every day."
He's right, you know. Or right enough, anyway.
Baseball's regular season lasts 162 games and is played over a course of six months. That means that the ideal position player will suit up 162 times in 180 days. It also means that a manager has to come up with 162 game plans that are all at least slightly different, and he typically has to do it with less than 24 hours in between games.
Football coaches, by comparison, get a whole week to prepare for games, and two whole weeks to prepare for games when their bye comes.
I won't argue that these weeks aren't put to good use, as football game plans are NASA-like in complexity. But if a manager got a whole week to prepare for a single game, he'd be able to prepare for how the tobacco spit was going to alter the infield density by the time the sixth inning rolled around.
Basketball and hockey coaches have it a little harder, as the NBA and NHL both play 82 games in five-ish months. But even still, that's half the amount of games managers have to worry about in a time span that's only a couple weeks shorter.
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Figuring out how to overcome injured players is surely not a unique challenge for managers, but dealing with slumps is a completely different ballgame in baseball than it is in other sports. They're going to happen, and the best a manager can do when they come is improvise.
If a pitcher is struggling, maybe he needs to skip a start. But that entails finding somebody to take his place, which gets harder as the season goes along given how easily starting pitching depth tends to get eaten away. Maybe a pitcher needs to be called up from the minors, in which case a manager will need to make sure he at least knows the signs.
If a hitter is struggling, maybe he needs a day off or needs to be moved in the batting order. Any manager who does that runs the risk of insulting the guy he's trying to help, and he also runs the risk of forcing other players out of their comfort zones.
It's not just comfort zones on the field that managers have to worry about. Throughout the course of a 162-game season, making sure everyone is comfortable in the clubhouse as well is perhaps a manager's biggest challenge.
Managing Personalities Is Just as Important as Managing Games
Football coaches have to deal with rosters containing over 50 players at any given time. But since there are only 16 games in 17 weeks and a limited number of road trips, they can afford to focus on their game plans rather than getting to know each and every player individually.
Basketball coaches, meanwhile, have it easy. They only have to deal with 13 players at any given time, and that's not that many personalities to keep in line for an 82-game season.
Hockey coaches have it rougher with rosters of 23 players to master, and getting 23 guys to keep it together over an 82-game season surely isn't that easy.
But they should try what baseball managers have to do, and that's keep 25 guys in line throughout a 162-game season.
Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say, and that can be a harsh reality in baseball. Put 25 guys together and make them hang out and work with each other 162 times in 180 days, and they're not going to be smiling 100 percent of the time.
All the same, it's a manager's job to make sure harmony trumps chaos. That entails making sure that the players can not only live with each other, but with the manager himself. Establishing a good rapport with players is of utmost importance for a manager.
Said 17-year major league veteran Miguel Cairo to Baseball Prospectus this past September:
You have to know how to manage personalities. That’s so important. You have to deal with so many people, that’s 25 personalities, 25 egos. You want to know those 25 players and how to get them to play for you and get them to give you everything they have every day. It’s about confidence and trust—and if they trust you, that’s half the battle right there.
Trust, eh? What say you, Andrew McCutchen?
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The big thing is someone you can trust, someone you know is going to have your back in any situation, someone who isn’t worried about winning, but you as a person before they worry about winning. Those are big keys for being a manager, just having the trust of your players. The winning part, you want to do that, but that’s the least of your worries. You go out and take care of your guys and earn their trust.
So trust is big, but what else?
Here's 13-year veteran Juan Pierre:
A good manager? To me, just communication. Communication. That’s it for me. The best managers I’ve had, they had an open-door policy. You could go in there and talk to them at any time, and you can voice your opinion. Whatever they tell you, whether it’s what you want to hear or not, it’s honest. I don’t need it sugarcoated, just honest. That’s the main thing—communication and honesty.
So for a manager to be a good manager, he has to master the personalities in his clubhouse, and communication and trust are key (insert marriage joke here).
That's a good end, but what about the means? Is there any sort of M.O. managers should follow to master personalities and establish communication and trust?
Not really. It's going to vary from clubhouse to clubhouse and from manager to manager.
For example, a manager can do it the John McGraw way: "Learn to know every man under you, get under his skin, know his faults. Then cater to him—with kindness or roughness as his case may demand."
A good modern-day example of a manager who operates as such would be Jim Leyland. He said during the ALDS against the Oakland A's that he doesn't mingle much in the Tigers clubhouse, but Lynn Henning of the Detroit News provided this testament to Leyland's player-management skills (via a recent article of mine since the Detroit News seems to have lost the story):
[Leyland] 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.
If all else fails, there's always the Casey Stengel method: "The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided."
Indeed, but that was more of an issue in Stengel's day than it is now. With no free agency in baseball until Marvin Miller came along, players tended to stick with the same clubs for years at a time. When there were grudges, those grudges could be annual burdens.
Managers face an entirely different challenge now. Instead of mastering continuing relationships with players, they're constantly having to forge relationships with all the new guys and making sure that they get along with the guys who have been in town for a while.
And the new guys, of course, come fast and furious in today's game. Players are always coming and going to and from the minor leagues. Free agency ensures that few players stay with the teams they came up with for very long, and trades are more a fact of life in baseball than they are in football and basketball (not so much hockey).
Lyle Spencer of MLB.com recently wrote that the constant turnover doesn't make life any easier for baseball managers. It's hard enough for managers to know the personalities in their clubhouse and to establish communication and trust to begin with. It's even harder when the cast of characters is changing drastically year after year. Continuity has no place in today's game, and that means being patient is just as important as having good people skills for today's managers.
And indeed, there's not much continuity in the manager's office either. There are 30 managers in MLB, and only 10 of them were placed at their current post before the year 2010. The other 20 are relative newbies.
That's the life of a manager for you. It's not easy for them to make a difference on the field, they have to deal with a grueling season, and they have to master a roster of 25 different personalities that's constantly changing.
On top of that, they have to worry—like a reliever with spotty fastball command—about a quick hook.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.
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