Tuesday, December 15, 2009
A Look at Giants Managers
I don't know the answers, but luckily Chris Jaffe of The Hardball Times has done some painstaking research into the realm of baseball managing, and has written a book detailing every manager in the history of the game who spent significant time at the helm of a team. The book hit stores today, and fortunately for me and the Stankeye readers, Jaffe himself was kind enough to send me a sort of sneak preview of the book, to share with you Giants fans.
For each manager, Jaffe has written a brief profile of their tendencies, their in-game strategies, their lineup constructions, their interaction with players, and the characteristics that their teams consistently displayed. I was given a chance to check out Jaffe's writeup of each Giants manager, from Cap Anson to Bruce Bochy, and give you Giants fans kind of a mini-preview. The excerpts include stuff on managers from the New York Giants, of course, but I figure most readers will be more interested in the managers of the San Francisco incarnation, so the bulk of my comments will focus on that. Here are some of the interesting tidbits I came across as I read through the material.
-The section on John McGraw is probably my favorite, and it goes into how McGraw was essentially an authoritarian who demanded that everybody play strictly by his rules. Think that would fly these days? He was a hardass who rarely had the benefit of having Hall of Fame players on his team, with really only Christy Matthewson and Mel Ott being bonafide all-time greats who played under his wing.
McGraw was apparently one of the great managers, if not the greatest, at developing young talent and giving unproven guys a chance. In other words, he's like the anti-Dusty Baker, and he would never be seen running a Brian Sabean-led organization. The laundry list of good players who developed under McGraw is astonishing, including more than one Hall of Famer (though most of those are in only because of the outright cronyism permeating the Veterans Committee in the '40's and '50's). Hint to Bruce Bochy: take some advice from this guy.
-Al Dark, who led the Giants to within one screaming line drive of a World Championship in 1962, and who led the A's to a title 12 years later, is portrayed as somewhat of a cipher who hadn't mastered race relations. Many of the hispanic players on the Giants despised him and Willie Mays wouldn't talk to him by the end of his tenure. To be fair, though, apparently many of the players ended up mending ways Dark in later years. In Jaffe's words, he probably gained as little respect as humanly possible for a guy who led two teams to pennants.
-Jaffe's study on Roger Craig reveals that Ozzie Smith might have Craig to thank for being a Hall of Famer. Seriously. In San Diego, Smith, despite his miserable hitting, was such a good fielder that Craig stuck with him to the bitter end when many managers wouldn't have. Craig loved defense up the middle, especially the ability of his infielders to turn a double play, and thus loved Ozzie, who may be the best defensive player ever. Smith, of course, eventually blossomed as a hitter and Craig may be the reason he got a chance as a regular at all.
Of course, we all remember Craig as the manager who helped pull the Giants out of the dark ages in the 1980's and led them to two playoff berths. According to Jaffe's research, he had quite an obsession with avoiding (and turning) double plays, and ordered more hit-and-runs than almost any manager. Having a staunch hatred of the hit-and-run play, I would probably have been driven nuts by this. Craig also coaxed career years out of many veteran pitchers (perhaps most notably our favorite announcer Mike Krukow), and must have been doing something to get his pitchers to stay in the strike zone. He's apparently the only (long-tenured) manager in history to never have any starter walk 80 batters in a season. (!)
-Ah Dusty Baker. Jaffe's argument for why Baker suddenly turned from a genius into a doofus upon leaving San Fran for Chicago is essentially due to context. Baker was in a situation in San Francisco that played to his strengths. It was a veteran-loaded team, a team that was offense-oriented, a team that had a star player who you would be crazy to screw with, and a team that had hardly any public disputes during Baker's tenure (the Kent-Bonds dugout scuffle notwithstanding).
In Chicago it was basically the exact opposite, and Baker couldn't hang. It was loaded with young players who deserved a chance, it was led by a young starting pitching staff, and it was a team made up of, according to Jaffe, a bunch of thin-skinned ninnies, as seemingly every clubhouse dispute spilled out into the media (including one ridiculous incident that resulted in a tiff with Cubs announcer Steve Stone). The Cubs situation just didn't play to Baker's strengths at all, and thus he's seen in Chicago as something akin to Mao Tse Tung.
-Regarding Felipe Alou, Jaffe asserts that the only reason Alou isn't considered a Hall of Fame manager is because of racism. You read that right. We all remember Alou as the ancient manager from 2003-2006 who often looked lost in the dugout and had an episode of epic crazy when he called Larry Kruger the "messenger of Satan" on KNBR, but it's easy to forget how highly-regarded he was when managing the Expos in the '90's. His team almost always outperformed their Pythagorean record (the 2003 Giants beat it by eight games), and he was well-liked wherever he went.
Jaffe's argument that racism cost him a plaque is based on (admittedly circumstantial) evidence taken from the fact that Alou didn't get a chance to start managing until he was in his late-50's, as baseball didn't make a push to integrate black managers until the 1990's, after Al Campanis's buffoonish remarks on Nightline. Since most managers are winding down their careers by that age, Alou probably lost a good 15-20 years of managerial service in the prime of his career, a timespan that could have cemented his standing as one of baseball's great managers.
-Two things about Bruce Bochy. One, he has a terrible--terrible--track record of developing young players, which should bring a shudder to any Giants fan hoping Buster Posey will blossom under his wing. Two, Jaffe calls him the greatest manager ever with a career losing record, which seems like a back-handed complement, but he really did get decent performances out of some Padre teams that had zero talent. He does neglect to mention how Bochy royally screwed up two games of the 1998 World Series.
I'm always a little skeptical of the many saber-books that are now becoming ever more plentiful on bookstands now, because a lot of them have a tendency to devolve into mind-numbing, uninteresting number crunching and aren't particularly well-written. A few of the BP books (not the annuals, mind you), I found nearly impossible to sit through, and some others, like J.C. Bradbury's Baseball Economist and Dayn Perry's book about winning teams, were about as insightful as reading coffee pot instructions.
However, from what Jaffe provided me here, this doesn't seem to be the case. There is a fair share of saber-talk, but it doesn't overwhelm the narrative, and if you aren't a big stat nerd, it appears you'll still get a lot out of it. The work going on at THT is some of the most interesting (and lucid) modern baseball analysis you'll see, and Jaffe's book appears to be a solid extension of that work. It's already on my Christmas list, and I'll be doubly excited if he found the time to include a writeup on Maury Wills' disastrous (and hilarious) stint as manager of the Mariners.
As far as Bochy was concerned, some of the things he did go get the Padres in the Series in '98 were pretty amazing. At least as I remember. But he really choked it away when it mattered...
Even as a non-Giants fan I was disappointed that they picked him to replace Alou.
Alou, in my mind, sort of acts as a microcosm for the perception of any manager: when the team is winning, he's awesome, when they're losing he gets torched on sports talk radio and becomes the scapegoat. in '03 and '04 Alou was still seen as a solid manager. By '06 everyone wanted him out, though he didn't have a whole lot to work with by that point.