2011 MLB Playoffs: Power Ranking the Managers
Baseball managers are like television producers: No matter how good of a job they do, the credit will always be deflected towards the people working under them. This is because, contrary to other sports, baseball isn't predicated on devising a game-in, game-out strategy for each specific opponent.
When you play 162 games, each one must be approached in context. Bruce Bochy isn't going to pull Tim Lincecum if he gives up three first inning runs on May 23rd. But if Lincecum does the same on September 15th, with the Giants one game back of the D-Backs in the NL West, Bochy will undoubtedly pinch-hit for him once San Fran gets a few men on base.
This illustrates the alarming disparity between regular season and playoff managing. In the regular season, the manager must manage his personalities. Over the course of a seven and a half month grind beginning with the start of spring training in mid-February, baseball teams spend twice as much time together as football, basketball or hockey teams.
Put 25 eclectic millionaires in the same room and you better have an authoritative figure to keep them focused on collective, as opposed to individual goals. Once a team reaches the postseason, the ultimate team goal is close enough to leave a realistic scent, forcing all individual agendas to the back burner. At this point, the manager has successfully instilled a winning, team-oriented culture.
But any shmohawk could win a bunch of regular season games with a talented roster. It's the postseason that separates the Joe Torres from the Bobby Cox's of the world. This is because in the playoffs, strategy is everything.
And the manager elevates from caretaker to game changer. If the opposing catcher has a glass arm, even your round-waisted first baseman and athletically challenged pitcher should try to steal second if they get on base. If you have three aces and a serviceable fourth starter, do you go with the three man rotation and bring the fourth guy out of the bullpen if one of the aces flames out early? Or do you let the fourth guy start Game 4 and give all the starters an extra day of rest?
These are the types of questions a manager has to answer countless times per game during a playoff run. In July, pushing the wrong button will lose you a game in the standings. In October, it could cost you your season. Some leaders thrive in this scenario. Others run home to their mommies.
The 2011 postseason features five managers with multiple October appearances. The other three are just getting their feet wet. Let's see how they stack up against each other.
8. Ron Roenicke
In just one season as a manager, Roenicke has gotten the most out of a talented Brewers nucleus that always seemed to fall short of expectations before he arrived. His stabilization of a formerly erratic starting staff and bullpen suggests Roenicke may just have the strategic moxie to succeed in October.
But the playoffs are a trial and error exorcise you can't truly have control over until you've navigated through a series or two.
Since the Brewers have been running away with the division since the beginning of July, it was also impossible for the former Angels bench coach to simulate a playoff atmosphere down the stretch.
7. Kirk Gibson
The Bill Buckner of happy endings, Gibson's vibrant career is still ignorantly remembered solely for an injury-riddled play in the World Series.
Now he returns to the postseason for the first time since hitting the most dramatic pinch-hit homer in history during the 1988 World Series.
While it's impossible to judge Gibson as a playoff manager, his D-Backs did have to upend the defending champion Giants in a race that mattered until the middle of September. For that reason, he was closer to sniffing an October atmosphere than Roenicke.
6. Joe Maddon
A classic clubhouse morale manager, Maddon's goofy, matchup-oriented lineups and defensive alignments either work like a charm in October or blow up in his face.
But last year, they dropped the ball in three home losses to the Rangers in the division series. It'll be interesting to see how Maddon and the Rays fare as an underdog in the opening round for the first time in three postseason tries.
Like Roenicke and Gibson, the job Maddon did in the regular season was second to none, but his unique managing style remains a playoff wild card (no pun intended). So it's impossible to rank him ahead of any of the other managers on this list.
5. Ron Washington
Absolutely no one expected Texas to get to the World Series in 2010.
While Cliff Lee and the best offense in baseball certainly had a lot to with it, it was Washington's steady hand that guided the team through multiple adverse tipping points.
Texas nearly blew a 2-0 series lead against favored Tampa Bay in the division series before coming back to win Game 5 at Tropicana Field against David Price. They did blow a 5-1 eighth inning lead in Game 1 of the ALCS against the heavily favored Yankees. Instead of dwelling on a missed opportunity to throw the first punch, the Rangers came storming back to win the next three games in decisive fashion (closest difference was five runs), before closing out the series in six.
It was a strong postseason debut for the once-maligned former coke user. And the win over the Rays last year puts him ahead of Maddon. But it's a minute sample size compared to the titans that rank ahead of him.
4. Tony La Russa
La Russa's postseason track record is littered with steroid-powered teams that fell short of expectations.
With stars like Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, his early 2000's Cardinals team featured an all-star lineup that would be difficult to put together in MLB Slugfest. Yet, in spite of winning six Central division titles in seven years between 2000 and 2006, the Cards won just one World Series in a year (2006). They didn't even deserve to make the playoffs (83 wins). In 2004 and 2005, they ran away with the best regular season record only to fall short against far less talented wild card opponents in the World Series (2004 against the Red Sox) and NLCS (2005 against the Astros).
It's hard to knock a guy who's one of only two managers in history to win titles in both leagues, but the upsets speak for themselves. The most clever manager in history is just a little too cute for his own good when the leaves turn brown.
3. Jim Leyland
If it weren't for a pair of opportunistic World Series runs in his last two playoff appearances, with the 1997 Marlins and 2006 Tigers, Leyland's postseason career would be defined by failure. He suffered a trio of heartbreaking NLCS losses from 1990 to 1992 with a talented Pirates team featuring a young Barry Bonds.
But those losses were as much a result of the opponent having a superior pitching staff as Leyland's strategic pratfalls.
If the true mark of a dynamic playoff manager is winning when you're not supposed to, Leyland more than made up for his Pittsburgh heartbreak with the Marlins and Tigers. In '97, the Marlins, in their first playoff appearance in franchise history, upended the best pitching staff ever assembled (Atlanta) in the NLCS and the best lineup (Cleveland) since the Big Red Machine in the World Series.
In '06, the Tigers, in their first playoff appearance since the 1980's, lost just one game to the Yankees and A's, two teams with a combined 15 playoff appearances since 1995 at the time, en route to the AL Pennant.
Leyland's fiery, emotional demeanor is perfect for getting a rise out of a playoff underdog. That's exactly what the Tigers will be against almost any opponent they face.
2. Charlie Manuel
Most pundits view Manuel as another classic clubhouse morale manager who falls short as a strategist.
But "Cholly" proved his mettle with one of the better managerial jobs in recent memory during the 2009 playoffs. The Phils fell two wins shy of a second straight championship in spite of having just one reliable pitcher (Cliff Lee) on the entire staff—bullpen and starting rotation.
The bullpen was such a mess that Manuel would often use three or four relievers just to nail down the final six outs of a game. He mixed and matched so effectively that somehow, a Phillies bullpen that blew 26 saves during the regular season blew just one in 15 postseason games that year.
No manager has accomplished more in the last five years, but 2011 will already be Manuel's sixth postseason appearance in the dugout, good enough for fifth on the all-time list. If the Phillies fall short of expectations like they did in 2010, there will start to be murmurs about a Bobby Cox caveat (winning only one championship with a perennial title contender) tainting Manuel's otherwise sterling resume.
1. Joe Girardi
The most under-appreciated manager in baseball is a victim of the impossibly high expectations that come with his Bronx territory.
Yet coming into this season, the Yankees were unanimously viewed from a national perspective as a distant second banana to the Red Sox in the AL East pecking order. The Bombers still won the division by six games, the first time they've won anything as an underdog since the 1996 World Series against Atlanta. That's a credit to Girardi in itself.
But his postseason track record is more than capable of standing on its own. In 2009, New York won the World Series after finishing with the best record in baseball during the regular season. That's happened exactly five times in the last 30 years. Last year, they were two wins shy of another World Series appearance with one dependable starting pitcher (CC Sabathia).
Girardi is often criticized for his outside-the-box October decisions. But his three man rotation in 2009 was a prime catalyst in the Yanks six game World Series victory over the Phillies. Wouldn't you like your chances of going up 3-1 with CC Sabathia up against Fat Joe Blanton in Game 4?
Since he replaced a legend in Joe Torre, Yankees fans will always have trouble viewing Girardi as anything more than a modern day Ralph Houk (the manager who replaced Casey Stengal in 1961). But hey, the perception comes with the territory. Girardi knew that when he took the job. All he can do to disprove that notion is win. I'd like my chances if I were a Yankees fan.