Managers: Very Small Rocks!

>You learn a lot of crazy things when you take “Saber 101: Intro to Sabermetrics.” You find out that pitchers have little to no control over balls put into play. You are taught that bunting is generally evil, and that RBI, pitcher win-loss records, ERA, and batting average are all flawed statistics, some of them irreparably so. You learn that not making outs is the most important thing a player can do offensively, because outs are like lives in Super Mario – make 27, and you get a game over. You learn that a team’s winning percentage can be estimated using their runs scored and allowed, and that the home ballpark of a player can have an enormous influence on his numbers. You learn that a lot of baseball seems to come down to just plain dumb luck.

And you also learn that a lot of things a baseball manager is responsible for don’t really matter all that much – for example, the batting order. The difference between the WORST possible batting order (think pitcher hitting first and David Wright hitting ninth) and the BEST possible batting order comes out to just a few wins a year . . . just a few wins a year, and that’s the difference between the absolute WORST and the BEST possible batting orders. And no one actually uses the worst possible batting order – so they don’t make all that much of a difference. The other in-game decisions a manager makes, like intentional walks, bunts, and rate of attempting stolen bases, have a similarly small influence on the outcome of a season.

This leads to a counter-intuitive – and untrue – idea that managers have little effect on their baseball teams, basically serving as nothing more than scapegoats when things go poorly and heroes when things go well. They’re just supposed to sit back and let it all play out – just don’t let it all go to hell, but also don’t tinker too much like Joe Girardi sometimes will. Managers can seem as unimportant as the drummer in Spinal Tap.

Though in some ways, that’s sort of true. Everyone remembers in 2008 when General Jerry was leading the troops into a stay in first place in the NL East. The Mets replaced their manager, and things turned around – Jerry Manuel was a cerebral genius, because he wore glasses and read books and the Mets won. It’s the manager! He’s so smart! But then 2009 happened, and the Mets often played sloppy baseball and decided to telecommute for the final two months when they lost interest. Jerry Manuel became someone who just said odd, odd things as the Mets flopped about. Now his seat is uncomfortably warm with the Mets playing poorly to open 2010. It’s the manager! He’s so dumb!

But, if you so recall, the Jerry Manuel that managed the Mets in 2008 is the same man who manages them now. So I guess the question becomes: what is the real effect of Jerry Manuel as manager the Mets? Is he a good manager, or a poor one? Or does it even matter?

To be honest, I have no idea. Separating the accomplishments of the manager from those of the team is almost impossible. Maybe you can learn it in Sabermetrics 413, but I haven’t gotten to that level yet. The Mets reversal in 2008 coincided with the firing of Willie Randolph, but also with the emergence of Mike Pelfrey, and Carlos Delgado awakening from an 18-month nap. What caused what? Would it still have happened under Willie Randolph?

Same kind of what-if chicken-and-egg scenario: the Mets played pathetically for the final two months of the 2009 season under Maneul, but also often had Daniel Murphy and Jeff Francoeur hitting 3-4 in the batting order. Is it Jerry, or the injuries? Both? Neither? Sabermetrics 101 tells me that there’s no real definitive way of measuring Manuel’s effects – but that’s not the same as saying they don’t exist. So what are they?

Again, I have no idea. I really don’t. It’s playing a guessing game of Monday-morning-psychologist, trying to peer into the locker room from the upper deck. I have no idea if the players are mailing it in because of Manuel, or if they’re playing their hearts out for him. I can’t know what goes on in their heads – are the Mets not getting clutch hits because of Manuel, or because they’re just not very good? Or both? Neither?

I can’t know any of those things, and I’m not sure if I see the point in guessing. Maybe they all dog it for Manuel, maybe they don’t. Or it’s just dumb luck. I don’t want to guess. There is a human element that goes into managing, and I’m not there to evaluate it.

Still, there are some things I do know.

For example, I can know what players Jerry Manuel decides to start and play. That’s a real, quantifiable thing a baseball manager does that you can point to – what players he plays. The Rockies turned it around under a new manager last season, and the quantifiable part of that was simply Jim Tracy playing his best players. Who’s playing, and who isn’t – that’s something a manager can be judged on. The batting order doesn’t really matter, but who’s actually in that batting order, well, that’s a much bigger deal. Albert Pujols hitting third or fourth is less important than whether Albert Pujols is in the lineup or on the bench.

So, in the first home stand, Jerry Manuel let Gary Matthews Jr. and Mike Jacobs start 4 games apiece, and Angel Pagan and anyone other than Mike Jacobs Fernando Tatis start 2 games each.

On one hand, I get it. Gary Matthews Jr. still looks like a serviceable center fielder, sort of like how a bidet looks like a weird toilet. He can still come in well on shallow balls, he’s a veteran, he hit 19 home runs and 44 doubles four years ago. He made a twisting catch that one time. The Angels thought highly enough of Matthews to give him a sizable contract two years ago to play center field for them. And Mike Jacobs hit 32 home runs and sort of looks like a decent approximation of a slugging first baseman, if you squint a lot and your glasses are smudged. He can hit the ball really, really far, if he can just take hold of one. So I understand the reasoning. They both have resembled productive hitters in the past. Going with your veterans seems to be the logic – I can understand why Manuel does this.*

*Trying to figure out Jerry Manuel’s reasoning behind saying and doing things reminds me of this “witch logic” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in that his conclusions always sort of resemble something based in logic, only it doesn’t make any sense.

On the other hand, Gary Matthews is not particularly skilled at going back on balls anymore – and those balls he’s not running down over his head are turning into doubles and triples, while the ones he can still run down in front of him are just singles. He’s not the defensive player he once was, and is probably better suited for a corner spot at this point in his career. Plus, Matthews has a .685 OPS over the past two seasons, mostly hitting singles, and he had most of his good years in Texas – and, as you can learn in Saber 101, the ballpark can make some hitters look better than they really are. The Angel decided they’d rather he play elsewhere for the next two seasons while they continue to foot the bill.

Translation: He’s not really good at anything – he doesn’t even have a platoon split to make him useful for platooning.

And then Mike Jacobs has a career out-making percentage of .688, and is rated as a poor defensive first baseman in any system. He really only has one swing, and sometimes the ball is pitched there and he hits into a cloud, but most of the time it’s not and he strikes out. The Kansas City Royals didn’t feel it was worth their money to go to arbitration with Jacobs this winter, so they just released him.

Translation: He was released. By the Roya
ls. This is like being asked to not play in your family’s barbecue wiffleball game anymore because you are bad.

Still, Jerry Manuel has decided that these are the players he wants to start over Angel Pagan and Fernando Tatis.

If you want to look at those other options: Angel Pagan has a career OPS of .772 and is rated as an above-average outfielder by fielding statistics – but he does make the occasional boneheaded mistake, so there’s that against him. Fernando Tatis is rated as an average defensive first baseman and has a career out-making percentage 30 points lower than Jacobs – but Tatis grounded into some unclutch double plays last year, so there’s that against him.

So, on one hand, it’s the veteran all-star center fielder against the air-headed one, and the first baseman who hit 32 home runs in 2008 against the one who grounded into 13 double plays last season. That’s one way of looking at it. The Jerry way. The surreal British humor way.

But on the other hand, Fernando Tatis and Angel Pagan are much better overall at playing baseball than Mike Jacobs and Gary Matthews Jr. They’re certainly not perfect players. But they’re better both defensively and offensively – they’re just plain better. If the Mets want to put the best team on the field, Pagan and Tatis should be starting every day.

I’m not sure I see the point of knocking Jerry Manuel for the Mets being “unprepared” on Sunday – it could be Manuel’s fault, it could be the player’s fault. It could be my fault for all I know. I didn’t go to Sunday’s game. Maybe it was that one extra empty seat that caused Gary Matthews Jr. to get depressed and go 0-4. But I don’t know either way why it happened, and I’m not going to say it was Jerry Manuel because I don’t know. Maybe King Leonidas would have failed to get a response out of that team.

That’s the mystery of a baseball manager’s role – it’s impossible to fully separate the manger’s from the work of his (or, someday, her) players. Is Michael Scott a bad manager? It looks like he should be, but the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton Branch remains in business – you know, even though that’s a fictional example. How much credit and blame belongs with the manager is hard to say.

However, I also know that one of the Jerry Manuel’s quantifiable jobs is to put a starting nine on the field that has the best chance of winning. I’m not so sure Gary Matthews Jr. and Mike Jacobs are part of that best possible team, and that is a real, fact-based knock against Jerry Manuel and his managerial abilities. He’s not putting his best lineup on the field – that’s probably not a good way to win baseball games.

Of course, it’s just six games, so maybe Manuel is still trying guys out. And the Mets have outscored their opponents by five runs, which means, as I learned in Sabermetrics 101, they should be 4-2. And Jeff Walkcouer leads the National League in OPS+. So, you know, ya gotta believe.

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