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Which major-league managers were the best players?

May 2, 2014, 9:15 PM EDT

You probably know that Pete Rose was the last player-manager in baseball some 30 years ago. He was doing the whole player-manager thing mostly so he could get the final at-bats he needed to catch Ty Cobb on the all-time hits list. In other words, he was more a ceremonial player than an active one. He offers the image most people have of the player-manager.

Before him, Don Kessinger was a player-manager for the White Sox in 1979. He, like Rose, was at the end of his career and wasn’t really a big part of the team. Joe Torre was player-manager for the Mets in ’77, but he was done as a player and only appeared in 26 games. Frank Robinson was a player manager for the Cleveland Indians in 1975-76, but his great career was already over (though he did prove useful in limited at-bats his first year).

Point is, that when we think of “player-managers,” we think about old guys who were once good players but were now at the end. But there’s a much deeper history. In the early years of baseball, the best players on teams were more or less EXPECTED to also be the team’s manager. In those early years it seems like almost all the great players — Cap Anson, Albert Spalding, Harry Wright, Jim O’Rourke, Charlie Comiskey, King Kelly on and on — were player-managers. Heck, Connie Mack and John McGraw started out as player-managers.

As time went on, it became somewhat less prevalent, but even into the 1930s many of the best players — Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins, Rogers Hornsby, Bill Terry, Frankie Frisch, Tris Speaker, Pie Traynor — all were player managers for at least a time. Lou Boudreau with Cleveland in the 1940s was probably the last of the breed.

I’m not sure why exactly it stopped. I suspect the feeling was that the managerial job had become so complicated, with so many ancillary responsibilities, that a full-time player simply wouldn’t have time to deal with it all.  That makes sense, though I have little doubt that Derek Jeter could have managed the Yankees the last few years if he had wanted; Dustin PedroiaDavid Ortiz or Chase Utley could probably manage now.

But perhaps even more interesting than the extinction of the great player-manager was the virtual elimination of the great player EVER managing, even after they retired. There is just one Hall of Fame baseball player managing in the Majors right now, Ryne Sandberg, and he had to leave his beloved Cubs just to get the job.

There have been many theories about the decline in great players as managers. One that makes the most sense is that the huge salary increases set players up for life, so players don’t have to go into baseball management after they retire. There’s probably something to that.

But there’s something else too — I’ve long thought Ted Williams was a turning point on great players becoming managers. Williams managed the Washington Senators for four years after his great career. He led them to a winning record his first year and was hailed as something of a genius; he won various Manager of the Year Awards. And then, the team went into free-fall, and they had three dreadful seasons, the last a 100-loss season. Williams never managed again.

When Williams left, story after story came out saying that Williams had failed NOT because he could be a miserable son of a gun who had no patience for anybody but, instead, because he was too good a player to ever be effective as a manager. This line of thinking went: He couldn’t relate to lesser beings. He couldn’t accept failure. He couldn’t abide those who did not have his superhuman talent or work ethic.

It so happened that at the time when Williams left, the best managers in the game had been fringy or non-existent major league players:

– Earl Weaver, a 5-foot-7 rage monster who never played in the majors.

– Sparky Anderson, a 5-foot-9 man with premature white hair who played just one year in the majors.

– Dick Williams, a longtime utility player who bounced around with five different teams.

– Walter Alston, who famously got one at-bat in the big leagues (he struck out).

I think that combination — Williams’ failure, Weaver’s success — set up a template for managers. I think that general managers and owners started LOOKING for mediocre players to manage because mediocre players could identify better with others and were driven because of the lack of success of their own career. It’s only my theory, but there are some numbers that bear it out. Since Williams left, few Hall of Fame players — Robinson, Eddie Mathews in the early 1970s, Larry Doby and Tony Perez very briefly and Sandberg now — have managed a big league team.

There have been some very good players who managed — Frank Howard, Maury Wills, Joe Torre, Pete Rose of course — but they have long been outnumbered by men who never played even a game in the big leagues.

And good players who expressed some interest in managing were often ignored. Just one example: Frank White is something of a legend in Kansas City. He grew up in Kansas City, actually helped build Kauffman Stadium, then he made it to the Royals, won eight Gold Gloves, put up a career remarkably similar to Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. He desperately wanted to be Royals manager, so much so, he managed in the minors for years. The Royals would not hire him.

In any case, as I rank the 30 managers as players I’m struck that some of the more recent hires — Sandberg, Matt Williams, Robin Ventura, Kirk Gibson, Don Mattingly — were outstanding players. I do wonder if maybe we will begin to shift back.

* * *

A few numbers and unconnected thoughts about players as managers.

1: Hall of Famer (Sandberg)

3: Number of managers who were MVPs (Sandberg, Mattingly, Gibson).

3: Number of managers who were pitchers.

5: Number of managers who never played in the majors.

6: Number of managers who were middle infielders.

12: Number of managers who were catchers.

Best division for managers as players: National League West, and it isn’t close. The N.L. West features two legitimate baseball stars (Don Mattingly with LA and Kirk Gibson in Arizona) two very useful players (San Diego’s Buddy Black, Colorado’s Walt Weiss) and one sort of fringy major leaguer (San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy). No other division comes close when it comes to players as managers.

Worst division for managers as players: American League East and, again, it isn’t close. Two of the managers (Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon and Baltimore’s Buck Showalter) didn’t play in the Majors at all. The best playing manager was probably Boston’s John Farrell, who went 36-46 with a 4.56 ERA.

* * *

I tried to divide up the managers into six categories. Some don’t fit precisely but they are close enough for our purposes. It’s staggering how many managers these days are catchers who couldn’t hit.

The six categories:

Category 1: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

Category 2: Middle infielders who couldn’t hit.

Category 3: Crafty pitchers.

Category 4: Former MVPs

Category 5: Power-hitting third basemen

Category 6: Pinch-hitter types.

 

1. Ryne Sandberg (Phillies)

Category: Former MVPs.

He’s the obvious choice at No. 1 — no one is especially close. As mentioned above, Hall of Famers almost never become managers. But Sandberg was so driven to become a manager that, even after the Cubs repeatedly turned him down, he just kept working at it. Sandberg was a fantastic baseball player. He won eight Gold Gloves, hit 282 homers and stole 344 bases. Very few players in baseball history combined Sandberg’s power, speed and defense.

 

2. Robin Ventura (White Sox)

Category: Power-hitting third basemen.

Well, Chicago could have had the two best playing managers — whatever that’s worth. People tend to forget how good a player Robin Ventura was — he got on base, hit with power, played a wonderful third base. He was a very real MVP candidate in 1999 when he hit .301/.379/.529 with 34 homers, 120 RBIs and won one of his six Gold Gloves. He was not quite Hall of Fame worthy, but he was better than some third basemen in the Hall of Fame.

 

3. Don Mattingly (Dodgers)

Category: Former MVPs.

Donnie Baseball was all ballplayer, all the time. He won the 1985 MVP Award, and for a four-year stretch, he was good for a .325 average, 30 homers, 40 or 50 doubles and 120 or so RBIs. He declined quickly and then retired young. I am among many who remain convinced that if not for back problems, Mattingly would be in the Hall of Fame.

 

4. Matt Williams (Nationals)

Category: Power-hitting third basemen.

I can’t say I’m too impressed with Williams’ early showing as a manager. He seems infused with a whole lot of gritty, old-time nonsense while his team plays historically bad defense. But Williams was an excellent player who hit 378 career home runs and was on pace to challenge Roger Maris’ record of 61 homers in the strike-shortened 1994 season. He was a similar player to Ventura but is behind on the list because Ventura got on base quite a bit more.

 

5. Kirk Gibson (Diamondbacks)

Category: Former MVPs.

Talk about being infused with gritty, old-time nonsense — Gibson is at the forefront of the movement. He does love that grit. Well, he played with a lot of grit, so it makes some sense. Sparky Anderson compared a young Kirk Gibson to Mickey Mantle, which was thoroughly unfair and framed Gibson’s career in an unfair way. He wasn’t Mickey Mantle, but he hit 25 home runs four times, stole 25 bases six times, won the 1988 MVP Award and hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history. That’s not bad.

 

6. Mike Scioscia (Angels)

Category: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

The category choice is a bit unfair to Scioscia — he hit a little bit. He was a two-time All-Star and just a very solid player for some excellent Dodgers teams. He was good defensively and his best offensive trait was that he would take a walk. He was probably best known for how he blocked the plate — even during his playing days announcers would talk about how nobody blocked the plate like Scioscia. Of course that skill no longer matters as much.

 

7. Bud Black (Padres)

Category: Crafty pitchers.

The quintessential crafty lefty, Bud Black won 121 games in the big leagues though he never struck out more than 140 batters in a season. You know Black is managing his EIGHTH season? It doesn’t seem possible that he’s been there that long. I suppose with another losing season, things might not go on much longer.

 

8. Brad Ausmus (Tigers)

Category: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

One of those players that everyone knew would become a manager sooner or later. He was just smart that way. Ausmus made one All-Star team, won three Gold Gloves. He was limited offensively but he did have 25 doubles three times and he had some speed when he was young hitting as many as six triples and stealing 16 bases one season.

 

9. Walt Weiss (Rockies)

Category: Middle infielders who couldn’t hit.

He was the 1988 Rookie of the Year, but what was notable about that was how impossibly weak that 1988 rookie class turned out to be. Weiss hit .251 and slugged .321, but he played superb shortstop and that was enough not only for him to win the award but to run away with it. The best player in that American League rookie class was a 19-year-old Gary Sheffield, but he only got 89 plate appearances. Weiss had a solid career as a light-hitting, good defensive shortstop — one strong aspect of his game was his ability to draw a walk, which led to an above-average .351 career on-base percentage.

 

10. Joe Girardi (Yankees)

Category: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

There’s a pretty big gap between the Top 9 and the rest of the managers. Girardi was a one-time All-Star who played for three Yankees World Series champs in the 1990s. He doesn’t quite fit into the “Catchers who couldn’t hit” — he was a solid player who didn’t do anything spectacularly well but did everything pretty well. He was a pretty good defensive catcher. He threw out a pretty good percentage of base stealers. He hit .267. He played everyday. In all he played on four teams over 15 seasons.

 

11. Mike Matheny (Cardinals)

Category: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

What would be the prototypical manager in 2014? He would be a catcher (check). He would be accomplished defensively (check, Matheny won four Gold Gloves). He would be a major liability as a hitter (check, Matheny hit .239 without walks or power). Matheny did hit 13 home runs in his next-to-last season, but his offense was such a drawback that he actually compiled minus-0.3 career wins above replacement. I put him above numerous players with a better WAR because I think his defense is probably undervalued in the statistic.

 

12. John Farrell (Red Sox).

Category: Crafty pitchers.

He was a pretty big prospect when he came up with Cleveland, and he was good when he was called up in late 1987. He went 14-10 his first full year and pitched better (though with a lesser record) in 1989. Then, he blew out his elbow, missed two full seasons and was never again an effective pitcher.

 

13. Mike Redmond (Marlins).

Category: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

Actually, there’s a little twist on a common theme: Redmond could hit — just not with power. It was his defense that was a bit suspect, which is why he never quite became a regular. Redmond played for 13 years but never once got 300 plate appearances in a season. He was, instead, the ultimate back-up catcher, so-so on defense, could get you some hits on offense. Hit .300 or better six different seasons.

 

14. Clint Hurdle (Pirates)

Category: Pinch-hitter type.

He doesn’t really fit into any category; Hurdle was a former catcher but hitting was never his issue. He’s really the only member of the “Phenoms who didn’t pan out “ category. Hurdle once made the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “This Year’s Phenom.” Then, after some struggles, he had a fine 1980 season — he hit .294 with 31 doubles and 10 homers in 130 games. He had more struggles after that, though. In all, Hurdle was a reformed catcher who couldn’t stay healthy and couldn’t live down those Sports Illustrated expectations.

 

15. Ron Roenicke (Brewers)

Category: Pinch-hitter type.

He hit .238 in his eight-year career as an outfielder, but he did walk quite a bit. In all he played for six different teams; he was one of those have-bat-will-travel players.

 

16. Bob Melvin (A’s)

Category: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

He got more than 2,000 plate appearances in the big leagues because of his defensive capabilities as a catcher and because he would knock one out every now and again. His .268 lifetime on-base percentage tells you his flaws as a hitter, but he did bang 11 homers one season. Pitchers — both on his own team an opposing teams — liked throwing to him .

 

17. Bruce Bochy (Giants)

Category: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

Bochy is a junior version of Melvin — not as many at-bats but (1) Was solid enough defensively and a comfortable enough target to be a backup for three teams; (2) He would occasionally homer; (3) Other than that he really couldn’t hit.

 

18. Terry Francona (Indians)

Category: Pinch-hitter type.

For some crazy reason, back in the 1980s I always used to get Francona confused with Casey Candaele. Did anyone else do that? They are really almost nothing at all alike but I guess they were both Expos in the 1980s (though not at the same time). Francona hit .274 in more than 1,800 plate appearances. But it was about as empty a .274 as possible. He didn’t walk, he didn’t hit for any power, he couldn’t run and he was generally a first baseman or left fielder.

 

19. Ron Washington (Rangers)

Category: Middle infielders who couldn’t hit.

One of 14 players who made it to the majors through the Kansas City Royals’ old Baseball Academy … I keep thinking that idea will resurface in America at some point. It works quite well in the Dominican Republic and other countries. … Washington was a light-hitting middle infielder without much speed who did not stick in the big leagues until he was 29. He was more or less an every day player with Minnesota in 1982 and a utility player for the next seven or so seasons.

 

20. Ron Gardenhire (Twins)

Category: Middle infielders who couldn’t hit.

He, like Washington, was essentially a full-time shortstop in 1982 and a replacement-level utility player for the rest of his career.

I often wonder about managers like Washington and Gardenhire — when they become managers do they LOVE players like themselves (gamers, play the game right) or LOATHE players like themselves (limited talent, can’t hit). Or both? I’ve been a longtime supporter of Gardy — always thought he got a lot of deficient Twins teams when he took them to the postseason six times. But, yeah, it has gone bad the last three years and I will admit he always did like players of his own ilk a bit too much.

 

21. Lloyd McClendon (Mariners)

Category: Pinch-hitter type.

He was a .244 lifetime hitter but he kept getting jobs as a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter. He did flash occasional pop — he hit 12 homers in 1989 for the Cubs. He also hit eight pinch-hit home runs.

 

22. Rick Renteria (Cubs)

Category: Middle infielders who couldn’t hit.

Renteria was a minor-league lifer who somehow emerged at 31 and got 290 plate appearances with the expansion Florida Marlins.

 

23. John Gibbons (Blue Jays)

Category: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

Mets fans were excited about Gibbons in 1986 — he was called up at the end of that glorious Mets season, and in a few games, he crushed the ball. He had a 4-for-4 game with a homer and two doubles against Philadelphia. He hit .474 in eight games. Unfortunately, he never played another game in the majors because, well, (1) the Mets had Gary Carter and (2) Despite that 4-for-4, Gibbons really couldn’t hit. He was a lifetime .253 hitter in the minors.

 

24. Bo Porter (Astros)

Category: Outfielders who couldn’t hit.

I’m not exactly sure what the Astros see in him as a manager — his whining about Jed Lowrie bunting against the shift when up 7-0 in the first inning was the very definition of petty, especially for a team 20 percent of the way to their fourth straight 100-loss season.  As a player, Porter made himself into a good minor-league hitter after being drafted in the 40th round. He hit 27 homers for Iowa one year. But it didn’t translate to the big leagues; he played snippets of three seasons and hit .214 with two career major league homers.

 

25. Ned Yost (Royals)
Category: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

In Kansas City, whenever something goes kind of haywire people will say the team was “Yosted.” Among the managers, Yost was pretty clearly the worst player who actually reached the big leagues. He hit .212 with a rather astonishing .237 lifetime on-base percentage in 640 career plate appearances. The numbers suggest his defense wasn’t all that great either, and so he has the lowest WAR of any manager — minus-3.7. But he did have six years in the big leagues, so he tops our remaining five managers.

 

26. Terry Collins

Category: Middle infielders who couldn’t hit.

Collins made it up to Class AAA in the Dodgers organization — in fact he played in games in SIX DIFFERENT SEASONS in Class AAA. You would think the Dodgers could have given him one September call-up. He was a .255 lifetime hitter in the minors with absolutely no power though he did walk some.

 

27. Bryan Price

Category: Crafty pitchers.

Price actually wasn’t crafty his early years in the minors — he threw hard and was exceedingly wild. In 1985, he struck out 146 in 144 innings but also walked 91, hit seven more and gave up 16 homers. He did pitch briefly in Class AAA but he could never quite harness that talent — he went 31-19 in five turbulent minor league seasons.

 

28. Buck Showalter

Category: Pinch-hitter type.

Showalter hit .294 with a good on-base percentage in the minors but he had shockingly little power for a first baseman/outfielder type. He slugged just .365 in the minors — lower than his on-base percentage. He did get 32 games in Class AAA.

 

29. Fredi Gonzalez (Braves)

Category: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

He’s sort of the ultimate version of that popular “Catchers who couldn’t hit” category. Fredi hit .199 in the minor leagues. He only played 44 games in Class AA.

 

30. Joe Maddon (Rays)

Category: Catchers who couldn’t hit.

Maddon might have known more or less from the start that he wasn’t going to make it to the big leagues as a player. He played four years of Class A ball and was out. He was, however, a manager in Idaho Falls at 27. Funny, he’s pretty clearly the worst player … but I think he’s also the best manager. So maybe there’s something to that.

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