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Do managers matter?

Nov 11, 2010, 5:36 PM EDT

San Francisco Giants v Atlanta Braves, Game 3 Getty Images

There has been a lot of heated talk about whether Wally Backman will be the bestest choice for Mets manager ever or whether he’ll sink the entire Mets franchise.  I mean, I imagine it’s possible some people have taken the middle ground on this, but this is the Internet, so that’s practically impossible.

Enter J.C. Bradbury, who used all of that fancy book-learnin’ he picked up while becoming an economics professor to study the impact of major league managers. He has a new paper on it.  Here’s a link to the whole thing.  Here’s the abstract:

Sports teams frequently fire and hire managers when they experience losing. However, determining managerial responsibility for player performance is difficult to measure. This study examines how major-league baseball players perform under different managers and estimates that managers have little effect on performance. The study further investigates whether or not replacing managers serves as a signal to fans that the team is improving, which boosts attendance. The results indicate that new managers were associated with increased attendance in the 2000s; however, such effects were not present in the 1980s and 1990s.

Upshot: Wally Backman could put some extra butts in the seats at Citi Field. As for winning, however, Backman — if chosen — will do so if he’s given good players who stay healthy. He won’t if he’s given a bad or injury-riddled team.

And when it happens, either the Disciples of Wally or the foul mouthed Backman Bashers will claim that their view of the matter was vindicated.

  1. matt99stevens - Nov 11, 2010 at 5:57 PM

    Craig, I think you’re reading the report wrong when you write: “Upshot: Wally Backman could put some extra butts in the seats at Citi Field. As for winning, however, Backman — if chosen — will do so if he’s given good players who stay healthy. He won’t if he’s given a bad or injury-riddled team.”

    Any change in manager, regardless of who it is, has a very marginal impact on fan attendance. If they put Jean-Luc Piccard in the dugout, they would have an uptick in attendance. Backman wouldn’t alone have that impact.

    • chrisny3 - Nov 11, 2010 at 6:50 PM

      Actually, that’s exactly what the author of the report said. He said a change in managers in the last decade tended to increase attendance by 1000 per game.

    • scatterbrian - Nov 11, 2010 at 7:25 PM

      I’d go to Mets games if Picard was their manager, and I live in LA.

  2. tomemos - Nov 11, 2010 at 6:20 PM

    “when they experience losing”? I guess “when they lose” didn’t sound academicky enough.

  3. chrisny3 - Nov 11, 2010 at 7:27 PM

    It’s really impossible to adequately assess the impact of managers on winning except by casual observation. No one knows for sure how much any increase in performance after a switch is due to simply changing the environment and ridding the club of a negative manager whom the players have stopped listening to OR to some personality/leadership trait of the new manager.

    Having said that, I personally believe managers do matter. And if I’m not mistaken, many in the sabermetric community believe a manager can make a difference of roughly 5 wins. I think the potential is for more, but that would depend on the particular manager and team. I can see where certain managers would be likely to have positive influences on certain types of teams, but not on others.

    As for the Mets current managerial search, I estimate Sandy Alderson has already spent at least roughly 40 hours on it. This includes internal meetings, doing his own personal research/reading on the candidates, traveling to interviews in some cases, and then conducting the actual interviews. And this is just the first stage! When it is all said and done, he may have spent close to 80 hours on the search. What does that tell you about Alderson’s view on whether managers matter or not? Does anyone really think he would waste close to a week of actual work picking a manager if he felt they had no impact? He’s a smart man who is finishing up a teaching stint in sports marketing at UC-Berkeley. I don’t think he would spend so much time and effort putting on a dog and pony show just to appease fans and score brownie points. No, he evidently feels managers can make a big difference. And I agree with him.

    • Reflex - Nov 11, 2010 at 8:06 PM

      Um, actually it is quite possible to assess the impact of managers on winning. That is exactly what this study did. Managers change quite frequently and have for the entire history of baseball. There is a very large sample size to draw upon for such a study.

      And supporting your position with some numbers you pulled out of a hat for how much time you think Alderson spent on this issue is…well…funny really.

      • chrisny3 - Nov 11, 2010 at 9:06 PM

        I skimmed through the study, and what they did was try to assess the impact of managers on Individual performance, not on winning. And a team’s winning and individual performance is not always the same thing. They don’t always correlate exactly.

        So tell me, if you think it’s possible to assess this in a study, how would you design such a study?

        And, LOL, I didn’t just pull numbers out of a hat for Alderson and the time he’s spent on his managerial search. He spent 3 hours interviewing Backman. Backman is one of at least 9 interviews for the first round. Do the math. That’s 27 hours right there (maybe even more). Then there were the internal meetings where he and the Wilpons first went through a list of 40 potential candidates to whittle it down to about 10. That’s probably another 3-4 hours. Then you think he goes into these meetings cold? Without knowing much about who he is to interview? Hell no. He probably reads up on each a little or gets briefed by someone else or makes calls to query those who have worked with the candidates.. So maybe add an hour of prep work for each interview. That’s 9 additional hours there.
        Then he’s flying to the DR just to interview Hurdle this weekend. So actually you can add an additional 8-9 hours to the process in travel time. Ok, so for just the first round, that’s 27 + 4 + 9 + 9. That’s 49 hours for just the first round, Now add in the second round with more interviews and more internal meetings and I can easily see where he will have spent up to 80 hours of his time to pick one manager. If managers didn’t matter, he wouldn’t do that.

    • tomemos - Nov 11, 2010 at 8:49 PM

      I love the idea that “casual observation” is the only way to assess the impact of managing. Once you start to look at it seriously, it’s no longer casual and thus becomes inaccurate, I guess?

      • chrisny3 - Nov 11, 2010 at 9:09 PM

        And how can you look at it and assess the impact of a manager on “winning” while isolating other factors like change in rosters and differences in schedule and a dozen other factors that go into winning?

        It’s inaccurate no matter how you do it — by casual observation or by trying to design and implement a formal study. Some things are just impossible to measure.

  4. Reflex - Nov 11, 2010 at 10:06 PM

    I have not read the study. I don’t really feel the need, after all it corrolates several previous studies, some of which have been reported here. I would feel the need if it refuted what we, and many GM’s, already know. But your criticisms seem a bit misguided, honestly. I can think of many reasons off the top of my head to measure it by individual performance rather than team performance. For instance, that eliminates the strength of schedule arguments, or the front office making good/bad trades. It eliminates injuries as a factor. In fact, it eliminates most of the other issues you raise as relevant. While individual performance does not always match exactly to team success, it certainly is the largest single factor by a long shot. And pretty much the only factor to measure a manager’s impact on. After all, one can be a very good manager but be stuck managing the Orioles in the AL East and thus never have a winning record despite making all the right moves, all the right motivational speeches, and all the right cracking of the whip.

    And once again, you keep saying you know how much time Sandy spent based on the time for one interview. How do you know how much time other interviews took? How do you know how much time Sandy spent personally, vs handing some basic research tasks off to subordinates? At most companies I’ve ever worked for, there are several levels for interviewing and getting a job, most tasks are handled by HR, lower level managers and supervisors, and the thumbs up/thumbs down comes after all of those hurdles have been passed. For all we know, the only time Sandy has spent on this is the time he has actually spent in the interviews, the rest he is simply trusting his subordinates to think about and give him a reccomendation on.

    Seriously, we have no idea how much of his time or attention the ‘manager search’ is taking. Given the types of guys he’s hired before, its pretty obvious he does not think much of the managers impact on the game.

    • chrisny3 - Nov 12, 2010 at 12:19 AM

      Sorry but if you didn’t at least skim over the study, then how can you know how closely it correlates with previous studies, especially when you were mistaken that it centered on “winning” and managers, which it did not? Not only that, but if you have knowledge of other studies which prove your point, then what exactly are they and post a link. At least name one.

      And how the heck do you know what many GM’s know, lol? Fact is, you don’t. As for studying simply performance, sure it eliminates those other factors. Only problem then is you’re not studying winning. Not only that, but the author of this study uses OPS. AFAIK, winning correlates most closely with runs scored (for and against) and even then it is not a perfect correlation. Which is where the popular theory comes in that managers can make a difference of about 5 wins. So if runs is not a perfect correlation with winning, then OPS is probably even less so.

      “After all, one can be a very good manager but be stuck managing the Orioles in the AL East and thus never have a winning record despite making all the right moves, all the right motivational speeches, and all the right cracking of the whip.”

      Yes, but what does that have to do with my contention that using player performance as measured by OPS is not the same thing as measuring a manager’s impact on winning?

      And, NO, I did not say I categorically know how much time Alderson has spent on the managerial search so far. Read my very first statement on it. I used the word “estimate.” Do I need to break out the dictionary for you? I based my estimates on actual news reports. FACTS.

      How do I know how much time the other interviews took? I don’t know for sure. But you really think he’s going to spend 3 hours with someone many say is not a serious candidate at all, and then give the other candidates much less time? How do you know he didn’t spend MORE time with some of the others?

      And of course he must have used assistants for some of the research. But then he has to read the research, or be briefed by those assistants. You think he absorbs the info through osmosis and telepathy? Also, Alderson didn’t hire his primary assistants (Riccardi and DePodesta) and have them on board until well into the managerial search. So it’s likely he did some of the actual research himself. And how do you know he didn’t do ALL of it himself?

      “the rest he is simply trusting his subordinates to think about and give him a reccomendation on.”

      They’re not even in the recommendation phase yet. They’ve just done initial first round research and interviews. The recommendations come with phase 2.

      And maybe you have “no idea” how much time the search is taking for Alderson, but you’re speaking only for yourself. Sounds like you haven’t even been following news reports on it as I’ve been. Using these reports, and the assumption that Alderson is as thorough and hands-on as he is known to be and appears to be, then it is unfathomable to think this process is not consuming an inordinate amount of his time. There’s no way someone as professional and thorough as Alderson is interviews 9 candidates and doesn’t do it with the utmost attention to detail & respect for each candidate. To call them in – have them fly to NY or California or wherever – and then give them only a short one-hour interview would be somewhat disrespectful.

      Another fallacy of yours is assuming Alderson’s past managerial picks mean he thinks managers have no impact on the game. He shot that theory down in his first press conference as Mets GM. Almost right out of the chute.

  5. happyjack62 - Nov 12, 2010 at 7:15 AM

    Why are people who say managers don’t matter so dead set against Wally Backman? Is it because if he wins, then managers do matter? Do they think that all the other candidates believe that managers don’t matter? Is Wally Backman the only candidate that thinks he can make a difference? Do you really want a manager who thinks he could just as well phone it in?

    Has anyone ever hired a candidate who told you I want this job, but quite frankly I doubt if my presence here will make any difference at all. After all your product sucks, it costs too much, it can’t be fixed but what the heck, I’ll show up every day..

    So assuming that every candidate is doing their best to impress the GM with the same basic story, I’m the guy who can turn out a better product on the field, get more production, please the fan base, then why only the angst about Wally? I mean it’s like caring who the bat boy is, or even the clubhouse guy, right?

    • Craig Calcaterra - Nov 12, 2010 at 7:53 AM

      My view of it is that while managers can’t really help too much on the top end, they can certainly do harm. They can pursue one-run strategies such as too much bunting and stuff that brings the team down. They can sew dissension in the clubhouse or, at the very least, not know how to resolve existing dissension. They can fail to optimize the resources that the front office gives them by not platooning guys who should be platooned, writing in veterans in the lineup when a young prospect needs to play and that sort of thing.

      • happyjack62 - Nov 12, 2010 at 8:10 AM

        I hope all the other candidates lead with “My view of it is that while managers can’t really help too much on the top end, they can certainly do harm” That should seal the deal for Wally, he simply tries to win and does.

      • Craig Calcaterra - Nov 12, 2010 at 8:14 AM

        That’s ridiculous. Name me one manager who would ever say that he’s not trying to win. They all say they’re trying to win. Yet, somehow, there are still bad and unsuccessful managers out there.

        I’d much prefer a manager who is aware of his limitations and aware that he cannot make a team win simply by force of will. The only guy I can even think of who came close to accomplishing that is Billy Martin. And he wore out his welcome everywhere he went due to being a near-psychopath, by burning out pitchers’ arms and by alienating the players on his team that he needed to help him win over the long term.

  6. Jonny 5 - Nov 12, 2010 at 8:52 AM

    That was pretty witty of you. Asking a stupid question with the answer to that question staring everyone in the face.

    Do managers matter? Why hello there Bobby Cox, fancy seeing you here on this post.
    I actually have to disagree that managers don’t really help on the top end. Some have the ability to get the MOST out of their players on a regular basis. And the ability to push the buttons with the desired results at a more productive rate than others doesn’t hurt either. This is “the top end” of the managers game imo. I would say managing a baseball team is most closely akin to playing poker for a manager. Some do more with a decent hand than others on a constant basis too. What I’m saying is just like Kenny Rogers says, you have to know when to hold ‘em, Know when to bunt ‘em, Know when to walk a guy, and know when to run… Yeah, it was something like that right??? Anyway, it seems it takes just the right guy to push all the right buttons without handicapping your team too much, because just like the players they lead, you just can’t be perfect in baseball. Great is being right a third of the time I’m trying to say and a great player will only perform the task of hitting for you a third of the time compounding the look of “failed decision by manager” when it’s an offensive decision.

  7. Jonny 5 - Nov 12, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    I’d like to see advanced metrics on managers. Decision made = sucess rate %. Sure it can only measure obvious moves like a pinch hit, Int walks, new pitcher, Managerial moves are tougher to measure since that’s based on guessing that one guy will get to a hypothetical ball, hypothetically faster and or smarter than the guy pulled. Hypothetically. Or a batter will hypothetically hit better against this pitcher or that one. But I think these things could be tracked to give a good idea of managerial success rates. I think you’d see differences too. I think you’d see some managers with better players actually have worse rates than others with similar quality players on a constant basis.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Nov 12, 2010 at 9:08 AM

      My friend Chris Jaffe wrote a book recently that is easily the most comprehensive take on managers ever, and covers a lot of that stuff. It’s called “Evaluating Baseball Managers.” I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not a stats guy, it breaks down managers, talks about their habits, reputation, and delivers good anecdotes too. It can be read in bite-sized chunks, manager-by-manager. I probably pick it up three times a week to check a fact or whatever. A must buy.

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